Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book Club: Zen or Yoga? by Victoria Austin (Part Three)

Taking up where I left off in the last post, Austin answers the question, “What is an ongoing student’s experience like in Zen? And in Yoga?” I think she captures the truth of such students’ experiences – especially in the context of contemporary practice where hatha practices of asana and to a lesser extent, pranayama are just about all that is practiced!

Her response to the following question could have benefited from more depth, I think. First, as phrased, the question “Is there a problem particular to an ongoing student of both Zen and Yoga” reifies the very distinction Victoria argues against in her opening introduction! Zen is a form of Yoga! However, if it is phrased, “Is there a problem particular to an ongoing student of both Zen and Hatha-Yoga (or Zen and Classical-Yoga)” then I do agree that such a student can become confused, but such confusion would arise more from the language and ‘metaphysical’ differences between the two.

For instance, let me offer an example from my own experience. In the mid-90s, I was invited to begin offering Mindfulness Yoga sessions during Ango at Zen Mountain Monastery, as well as weekend retreats there twice a year as part of their ‘body practice’ training. I was told at the time that they had tried bringing in a hatha-yoga teacher several years earlier, but the students became confused and sometimes put-off by the teacher’s use of terms such as “True Self” and “devotion to the divine,” which are terms that can cause cognitive dissonance with students learning about the Buddha’s teachings on “not-Self” and “emptiness.” As someone who has practiced and trained in Zen, they felt that my instruction was in harmony with the Zen Dharma teachings offered and in fact were a helpful adjunct to their other practices.

So as for Victoria’s suggestion that students take up one discipline as a main practice and any other disciplines as support for at least five years, I would say I agree if we’re talking about textual study of philosophies. As shown by the experience at Zen Mountain, a Zen student would be confused by the Yoga-Sutra if she studied it before having cultivated a deep understanding of Zen. I think Victoria would agree that if one were to take up serious Zen study and practice, asana and pranayama could be a wonderful support right from the start. Once grounded in experiential understanding, studying the Yoga-Sutra would not be confusing and could indeed shed light on one’s Zen practice. I believe similar things could be said of the serious Yoga student.

Again, from my experience teaching long-term, seriously devoted students of Integral Yoga at Yogaville, the Buddhist teachings and approach to meditation initially cause many of them confusion, and even doubt, before they find that the teachings can support and deepen their own awareness of the Classical Yoga and Vedanta they are steeped in. In fact, for many of them, many forms of Buddhist meditation do not fall into their understanding of what meditation is!

As to the question of how to integrate the two practices, I think the choice falls into either the ‘complementary’ approach or the fully integrated approach. For years, I practiced a ‘complementary’ approach, treating asana practice as a way of preparing my bodymind for sitting. With such an approach, obviously all I was doing was taking the physical practice from hatha-yoga and adding it to my practice of zazen. Zen was the ‘core’ practice and study.

Now, I fully integrate many teachings from Patanjali that I believe support my Zen pratice. Concepts such as abhyasa and vairagya, to mention just two, for instance, while not absent from Zen teaching, are not as fully explicated as in the Classical Yoga tradition. In my teaching, I quote from both Patanjali and the Buddha fairly freely.

In Victoria’s response to this question, I was a bit taken aback when she seems to equate “Self (the Yoga term) or Mind (the Zen term)” as I think this confusing and inaccurate.

Again, the question about structuring a practice that includes asana and seated meditation falls into the reductionist model of equating Yoga with the physical practices of hatha-yoga. As far as that goes, I think it’s good to experiment and see for oneself. I personally find that sitting meditation after asana practice (and perhaps some pranayama) tends to be deeper and stiller. But I know others who prefer to meditate before practicing hatha-yogasana.

As to ‘confusing’ the two practices, for me, whether I am practicing asana or walking or sitting meditation, there is no real differnce, so there’s nothing to ‘confuse.’ Of course, I do not wear my Zen robes while practicing hatha-yogasana, and would not wear my Yoga pants and tee-shirt to offer a Zen Dharma Talk.

As you can see from my response to the question of ‘integration,’ I totally disagree with Victoria that one ‘risks losing what makes each lineage a teaching’ if one uses concepts from both traditions. Does either tradition need the other as if either were ‘incomplete?’ No, of course not. But I do find that integrating concepts from both make for an even more comprehensive, coherent practice.

In fact, the response to her next question seems to fly in the face of her own response here as when she says that by obeying her Zen teacher and stopping attending Yoga classes she ‘unintentionally ignored yogic self-study.’ This whole notion of svadhyaya is of course not absent from Zen; after all, Dogen explains zazen as ‘the study of the self.’ But I do think that articulating it as clearly and forcefully as the Classical Yoga tradition does is indeed a support to one’s over-all inclusive Yoga practice of Zen!

The next question I think is yet another variation of others already responded to, so I will skip adding to that and finish with my response to the last question:

“Which philosophy best describes reality?”

Well, isn’t that the $60,000 question?! And another important question is “Can we know for sure?” Victoria jumps right into the breech by pointing out the dualism that is fundamental to Patanjali’s Classical Yoga. Prakriti is the ‘essence’ of nature she speaks of, thought to be ontologically real. It is the ‘first maker’ of all the manifest universe including your body and mind! Whereas Purusha is the “Self” which is simply and only the ‘witness.’ It is stressed by Patanjali that Purusha is completely uninvolved in the workings of Prakriti.

The Buddha’s core teaching of anatta says that there is no transcendent, independent, autonomous, ‘essence’ behind, above, within, or without the ever-changing flux of experience. He did not deny that there is a ‘self,’ but this is a phenomenological and empirical self that is always changing because it is completely part of the causal flow of conditions.

Now, Victoria may be accurate in saying that “Buddhism is not usually thought of as dualistic,” but this is an incorrect perception! Her statement that “Ultimate reality and relative reality are not considered to be separate” is taken to be absolute nonsense, for instance, by the Theravada Buddhist tradition. I think it may come as a shock to many Mahayana/Zen and Vajrayana Buddhists to read the following essay by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Dhamma and Non-Duality 

I will only quote a few pertinent passages here:

The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective….
The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha's discourses….
At the peak of the pairs of opposites stands the duality of the conditioned and the Unconditioned: samsara as the round of repeated birth and death wherein all is impermanent, subject to change, and liable to suffering, and Nibbana as the state of final deliverance, the unborn, ageless, and deathless. Although Nibbana, even in the early texts, is definitely cast as an ultimate reality and not merely as an ethical or psychological state, there is not the least insinuation that this reality is metaphysically indistinguishable at some profound level from its manifest opposite, samsara. To the contrary, the Buddha's repeated lesson is that samsara is the realm of suffering governed by greed, hatred, and delusion, wherein we have shed tears greater than the waters of the ocean, while Nibbana is irreversible release from samsara, to be attained by demolishing greed, hatred, and delusion, and by relinquishing all conditioned existence.
Thus the Theravada makes the antithesis of samsara and Nibbana the starting point of the entire quest for deliverance. Even more, it treats this antithesis as determinative of the final goal, which is precisely the transcendence of samsara and the attainment of liberation in Nibbana. Where Theravada differs significantly from the Mahayana schools, which also start with the duality of samsara and Nirvana, is in its refusal to regard this polarity as a mere preparatory lesson tailored for those with blunt faculties, to be eventually superseded by some higher realization of non-duality. From the standpoint of the Pali Suttas, even for the Buddha and the arahants suffering and its cessation, samsara and Nibbana, remain distinct.”
Wow! There couldn’t be a stronger refutation of Victoria’s assertion that “Ultimate reality and relative reality are not considered to be separate.” Pali Buddhism has much in common with Patanjali’s dualism, especially if you replace Prakriti with samsara and Purusha with nirvana. Now of course, if one understands Purusha as the “True Self,” then the Buddha would part company with Patanjali over this, as he sees even nirvana empty of Self.
She offers that from her experience, these differences are merely “apparent conflicts” that arise “when we attempt to describe experiences beyond words.” That may be so, but the Buddha spoke many words about his experience and understanding, and refuted those who taught Samkhya. He most likely would have refuted the later Mahayana non-dual teachings in a way similar to how Patanjali criticizes some Mahayana teachings in his Yoga-Sutra.
So, does this all matter. I don’t know. I know people who are compassionate, wise-acting, full of joy and peace who practice and believe all sorts of things! I know such practitioners in the Theravada as well as the Mahayana and Vajrayana, not to mention practitioners of Vedanta and Tantra! (Here I am sticking to traditions within the larger Yoga Tradition; obviously there are such folk who are Humanists, Christians, Muslims, Jewish etc.)
Victoria is perhaps wiser than I am, as I notice she really avoids responding directly to the straight-forward question. From my side, I believe the Buddhist teaching on anatta and co-origination make sense and seem to describe reality more accurately – from what we apparently know through empirical science – than the other philosophies. 
This ends my comments on this thought-provoking essay on Zen and Yoga. I look forward to hearing from you as to your thoughts!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Club: Zen or Yoga? by Victoria Austin (Part Two)

Taking up where I left last post, Austin responds to the following question, “How did Yoga become a word for a physical tradition?” by quoting B.K.S. Iyengar. However, the quote speaks of “merging the individual soul … with the Universal Soul” and while this may be one way of speaking of Vedanta, it makes absolutely no sense in Patanjali’s model, which elsewhere Austin says Iyengar teaches. This is one of the more tenacious misunderstandings rife in the western hatha-yoga community!

In fact, I don’t think Austin ever really answers the question. A more straight-forward response would acknowledge the historical and cultural conditions that led to the emphasis on physical practice when Yoga was brought to the west over the last century or so. Ironically, Vivekananda, often seen as the first Indian yogi to introduce Yoga to the west spoke at the Chicago Congress of Religion at the end of the 19th century, but never mentioned the word “yoga,” and shied away from asana practice because he thought Americans would find it ‘strange!’

In the following question, as to whether Yoga and Zen, as both ways of uniting body and mind aren’t after all the same path, Ausin offers a really good response. Undeniably, both offer practices designed to unite body and mind, and both speak about suffering, its causes, and how to ameliorate it, but they offer dramatically distinct rationales. So, they offer distinct paths, while being ‘universal’ to some degree.

Sadly, I think Austin falls far short in her response to the following question, “Why would someone study both Zen and Yoga.” After her clear and concise introduction, in her response to this question, she falls back into equating Yoga with the physical practice of asana and Zen with meditation!!!! I find this frustrating. The second half of her response does indeed call this a “false duality,” but the whole first half speaks in terms of Yoga providing a way to ‘search out obstacles of body and mind that otherwise may block the Zen practitioner from taking real refuge” because they may have “great difficulty sitting.” And Zen, she says, with its “teachings of sitting, precepts, and work can be a revelation for the Yoga practitioner who has lost contact with any of the eight limbs of Yoga” by providing “a wider view.”

What Austin is describing here is the way things are when we speak of the situation in the majority of Hatha-Yoga studios, where it is all physical and little or no teachings of the ethics and meditation. BUT, it would have been clearer had she spoken of Hatha-Yoga and Zen, rather than Yoga and Zen.

I think her response to the last question I’ll take up here, “How is Buddhism yogic?” is excellent. I am delighted that she even says something I often mention in my History and Philosophy lectures: the Buddha’s teachings are the “first sustained expression and development of yogic ideas.” So many contemporary yoga practitioners, because of their limited understanding of Yoga as the physical practice of asana, are confused and surprised when I make similar comments. Yogic ideas permeated the Upanishads (some of which appeared before the Buddha) and the epic poems (including the Mahabharata and it’s Bhagavad Gita), but nowhere before the Buddha do we find such a coherent path laid out. And we don’t really see it again until Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra.

I hope to file my final posting on this chapter of Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind by the end of this week, but meanwhile, I look forward to your comments.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Club: Zen or Yoga? by Victoria Austin

As this is another fairly long essay, and one I believe to be important for our discussion, I am going to post two or three responses. Today, I’m offering my initial response to Victoria Ausin’s opening and the first few questions she addresses. I look forward to hearing from those of you reading along!

Interestingly enough, the opening of this essay from Victoria Austin sounds similar to something Stephen Cope wrote about several years ago about being on a plane and entering into a similar conversation with someone who asked how he reconciled practicing Yoga and Vipassana. I never seem to have these kind of conversations on planes!

When I read Victoria’s statement: “My seatmate’s very natural questions reflect a common view: that Yoga is practice for the body and Zen, practice for the mind” I was delighted! This is a succinct summary of the common misperception practitioners have in general about Yoga and Buddhism. I was further delighted to see her add: “I see the assumption of a mind-body split, Zen versus Yoga, as a feature of the English language, rather than as any actual separation between the territory of Buddhism and that of Yoga.”

Those of you familiar with my own work know that I think it ludicrous to speak of “Yoga and Buddhism” as two different things. Buddhism is a form of Yoga. However, it is legitimate to speak of “Classical Yoga and Buddhism” or “Classical Yoga and Zen” as two different philosophies of Yoga!

Austin makes a point that I am gladdened to see when she speaks of others’ attempts to “integrate these disciplines” that perpetuates or reinforces this assumption that Yoga is about physical practice (the body) and Buddhism is about meditation (which is thought to be about the mind) and singles out Cyndi Lee’s Yoga Body, Buddha Mind as one example. She also mentions Zen Mind, Yoga Body, a work I am not presently familiar with. While I have gone on record as someone with really respects and enjoys Cyndi’s work, I am not as sure as Austin that “… experiencing the books and workshops would resolve the split” that a mere reading of the titles alone would reify. Ironically, I have a student participating in my Body of Peace program here at Kripalu who has recently taken training with Cyndi, and she said that the split is reinforced by the clear “division of labor” with Cyndi teaching asana and her husband, David Nichtern teaching meditation!

While I agree that “Buddhism” has become a religion, it is not inherently so! The concept of “religion” is one alien to the time of the Buddha. He taught a yogic path of liberation, like many other yogis of his time. And Yoga, while not a religion, is religious in its concerns: the freedom for suffering through awakening from delusion or ignorance of our true nature.

After Austin’s “Introduction,” including a brief biographical overview of her own practice path, she presents several questions she has been asked over the decades about her practice of Zen and Yoga, along with her responses.

The Questions

Her first question provides a simple, bare response of what beginners might expect when taking up the practice of Zen and/or Yoga.

Her second question responds to what the promise of Zen and Yoga practice is. I like that she basically shows that while the Buddha outlined the Four Noble Truths, Patanjali pretty much works from the same base: ignorance is the primary cause of suffering; and each offers an eight-fold path to the elimination of suffering.

Her response to the third question, “How much of Zen is mind training?” I think could have been a bit more succinct, but she eventually gets around to saying that seeing Zen as simply “mind training” is an impoverished view. Primarily, I would add, this impoverished view is based upon the assumption that mind can be fully separated from body, and engaged action in the world. A huge part of my Zen training was work practice, which over the years included weed-pulling, painting, hanging sheet rock, dusting, cooking and assorted other activities. Can this be called “mind training?” Can it not be called “mind training?!”

I would also add that along with “family practice, diversity, and mass media,” important other contributions America (and the west) have brought to Zen is psychological sophistication and understanding, recovery programs, political activism, feminism and ecological activism.

The fourth question is the parallel to the third: “How much of Yoga is body training?” I think Victoria muddies the issue here by bringing in the eight limbs as having been transmitted in diverse traditions and styles, and then referring to Bhakti, Hatha, and Raja. The famous eight limbs of Patanjali are not the only models of Yoga. There are paths with less and paths with more limbs. Bhakti Yoga is itself made up of many individual traditions, many of which never speak of the eight limbs.

Indeed, some scholars assert that the eight limbs found in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra are a later interpolation, and that the original Yoga taught by Patanjali is the three-limbed Kriya-Yoga! Iyengar Yoga does indeed offer an integration of the Hatha-Yoga tradition (which famously downplays the yamas and niyamas as evidenced in the Hatha-Yoga Pradipika, its earliest foundational text) and Raja-Yoga as embodied in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. Each alignment instruction given in an Iyengar class is seen to be a dharana, or a point of concentration. Austin’s profound example of B.K.S. Iyengar’s exhortation “to learn to take the muscles evenly inward” is further evidence of the fallacy of thinking we can separate the body and the mind.

Friday, October 15, 2010

OCTOBER DAILY PRACTICE: Mindful Consumption at 15 Days

Just a brief note to encourage us all who have chosen to attend to this practice to re-commit if necessary, and to share if any thoughts, insights or questions have arisen while working with this practice.

Interestingly, this morning while waiting for my connecting flight out of the Denver airport, I had a latte from Caribou. Upon their cup was a slogan: "Life is short. Be awake for it." This reminded me of the gatha we would shout out as part of morning prostration practice during seminary training:

Great is the matter of birth and death!
Impermanence surrounds us!
Be awake each moment!
Do not waste your life!

Each line was shouted out by the practice leader after each 25 prostrations, and then after the 100th, we'd do 8 more. It all comes down to this, in some way or another, doesn't it? Since the birth of our daughter, Monica and I have been all the more conscious of not wanting to let anything slip by; of really wanting to be present to and for our daughter. Sati, the Pali word translated as "mindfulness" has to do with remembering. This afternoon, as I sat with my eyes closed on the plane to Dulles Airport, I saw vividly our little girl's face in my mind's eye. I recollected how our days are filled with apparently 'mundane' things, repetitive things, like diaper-changing, and one of my favorites: napping with Giovanna asleep on my chest. We've napped on the couch, on the bed, and even on the floor of the warehouse while Momma did some aerial silk exercises! By being present, I could remember each time!

That cup of coffee today in the Denver airport was quite tasty, but more importantly, the slogan served as a wonderful 'bell of mindfulness.' Maezumi Roshi would often encourage his students to "Appreciate your life!" Being present -- even for the 'poopy diapers,' and the interrupted sleep -- has definitely cultivated a deeper sense of appreciation for this life.

May you enjoy your next beverage of choice, but most importantly, may you appreciate your life!

poep sa

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Club: "The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata" by Daniel Odier

I am a fan of Daniel Odier’s book Desire, as well as his work with the tantric text the Spanda-karika, but I found his chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind a bit weak, and I honestly have little to say about it! Frankly, I was a bit turned off by what seems to me a bit of the all too typical Zen sectarianism that I find distasteful and less than accurate.

While it is true that the Japanese Zen tradition tends toward a more choreographed ritualistic practice (even in their koan practice which has been formalized into a fairly strict curriculum not found in any of the other Zen cultural traditions), my limited exposure to Chinese Ch’an tells me that such formalism is not completely absent there either!

There is a rhetoric of immediacy or spontaneity that permeates throughout the Zen traditions, along with a kind of iconoclastic propaganda that has led to many mis-perceptions in those outside the tradition. Odier refers to both the Zen master who used the wooden statue for a fire, and to the old Zen exhortation to “Kill the Buddha!” I heard the Chinese Ch’an Master, Sheng-yen, once speak about the western Buddhist scholar who, upon seeing a Zen Master prostrate before a Buddha statue, proclaim, “I spit upon the Buddha.” The Zen Master simply responded, “You spit, I bow.”

In any event, I think it would have been helpful if Odier had defined – and perhaps offered more instruction in – what he calls “Spatial Breathing.” To my mind, what Odier is writing about is the necessity of relaxing the body in order to free the mind. There is no Buddhist tradition that suggests one sit with rigidity; in fact, the Japanese Zen Masters I know refer to such rigid sitting as “Stone-Buddha Syndrome.”

In Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, we are told that asana, the seated posture for meditation must be stable and easeful, and that it is done with the relaxation of effort. Then a state of integration or coalescence arises which leads to the over-coming of oppression by the pairs of opposites such as hot and cold; pleasure and pain etc.

Going beyond attachment to concepts and notions about the Path, we enter the limitless space of awareness. What Odier seems to be speaking about, ultimately, we saw already as the subject of Roshi O’Hara’s piece on “dropping the body and mind.”

I would love to hear from any of you reading along with me as to what you make of this chapter. Perhaps some of you got something more from it than I, but overall, I find this the weakest essay of the three we’ve read so far.