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.


  1. I found her reference to "Small self and big Self" helpful and interesting. "Small self and big Self then act as one, with the fragrence of eternity." As a beginner I'm grabbing at all the nuggets and turning them over and over to see how they fit into the picture of Practice that is forming for me. Also "Starting to sit is like stopping midstream. Struggling to settle, one first feels the current's force and direction." But "at the same time, beneath the eyebrows, the beginner first meets that which is completely settled"....leaves me a bit confused. I haven't met anything beneath my brow that is completely settled!

    When she writes about the transmission of Buddhism to the west and how it has been colored by its culture..."Business names such as Zen Hairdressers..." And she says to understand "how odd this is, substitute Christianity,".. I do see this as extremely odd but not unusual. Christianity is used often in business promotion. It is common to see the fish symbol in the yellow pages in a business ad. I think it really comes down to what sells. If a business believes it will attract more customers by using references to Zen or will use it. I don't know if this is a uniquely American trait or not. And I do agree that Zen and Christianity are impoverished by this cheap marketing.
    I found quite a bit of "meat" to chew on in this essay. And as a beginner am learning a lot from reading it a second time.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Susan!

    Of course, Victoria opens a whole can of worms using the 'self/Self' image, as this is perhaps the biggest distinction between the Classical Yoga of Patanjali and the Buddha's Yoga. I'll be responding to this specifically in my next post, but for now, I'll just say that whereas Classical Yoga (and Vedanta) often distinguish between the empirical self ( for example, Frank Jude as father, Yoga teacher, Zen teacher etc) and the transcendent core of one's being, Self (with a big S). The Buddha, however, rejected the idea that there was a Self, transcendent, or immanent, though of course he did accept the existence of the empirical self!

    As for "meeting that which is completely settled" I'm not sure why she said that either. I know many 'beginners' who take quite some time to find anything 'settled,' though I suspect it's because they're looking for it in the 'wrong' places!

    Finally, I understand your point about the fish symbol and the use of Christian symbology to attract business, but I think you miss her point about the use of the word "zen" as reduced to some kind of mental skill (or I would add, some kind of aesthetic) as in "The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance." I really don' think you're likely to see "The Christianity of Motorcycle Maintenance" anytime soon!

    The idea here is that whereas in the contemporary popular mind, Zen has been reduced to some kind of skill or aesthetic, Christianity is still understood as a complex set of beliefs and practices. Zen has become a 'style' in a way that Christianity has not.

    I agree, just about all these essays warrant repeated reading -- one reason I'm taking it slow here in our "virtual" book club!

    poep sa

  3. I like the author's comment that Zen practice and its realization are one in the same. I also like Frank Jude's comment on work practice. I suppose any action performed with awareness is a meditation or "mind training", which is how asana and zazen can be united. If body is mind, or mind permeates body, and body is not separate from anything else, then one could say that mind permeates everything? Then what is there to be trained?

    Frank Jude, I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on small/big self, I have heard the terms in Soto talks and never quite understood. Up to this point I have interpreted big self to mean the universe/god/cosmic consciousness. I didn't understand the story about her teacher Mel adjusting the cloth, did you?

    Susan, it was nice to see you at the Sangha tonight! My "beneath my brow" is never settled either!

  4. Matt, I too am looking forward to hearing Frank's comments on small and big self...I also read it as big Self as being part of the Universe. So much to learn!
    I also would like to hear more about work practice. My first intro to Buddhism and reading about work practice was in a book "Awakening The Buddha Within" by Lama Surya Das. I have read that book off and on for the last 2 years. It was my first exposure to Buddhist beliefs and one of the most useful ideas I took from the reading was the idea of washing dishes mindfully (or doing anything mindfully). Laundry has taken on an almost formal ceremony for me that I really enjoy. That is actually what I thought about when I read Victoria's statement "From the outside, Buddhism looks ceremonial. It can be experienced as a formal tradition without inner meaning. But the meaning is there".

    Matt - I so enjoyed Sangha. I was nervous/shy about going but felt very comfortable there.

    And I want to say that I needed this venue. I have until now lived in a very isolated/insulated way in studying yoga and buddhism. And it's difficult to walk alone with it all the time.
    Thanks to you all.

  5. Susan,

    I am absolutely delighted to hear that you overcame your hesitance and attended sangha last night! It is my hope that the sangha will be the nurturing and supportive 'haven' for your continued practice.

    Matt, what do you think was different that 90th time? Do you think the cloth had already been 'arranged' properly? What would that be? Or perhaps Mel was the one who adjusted to the placement of the cloth?

    Sometimes my teacher, Samu Sunim, would adjust and readjust things and I couldn't really see any difference. Without getting finicky, I think he was teaching more about the quality of my awareness about the situation than anything in particular about the situation itself.

  6. I have finally caught up reading the chapters, and comments. I was glad to see you use the word "muddie" in response to Shosan's use of the word "sytle" in refering to Hatha, Bhakti, Raja.... I've always considered these as branches or as you mentioned paths of yoga. There are more than those 3 mentioned (mantra, jnana, karma, tantra, kundalini) per my training as the "wheel of yoga". Styles of yoga in America are often referred to as the various styles of hatha yoga (Power, Gentle, Vinyasa, ... even Iyengar is a style). Knowing that the author's background is Iyengar colored my reading. I spent many years as a student in Iyengar and found it very grounding although there was very little, if any guidence to notice the thinking. I can see as you mentioned, how each alignment instruction (a lot of those) is a practice in concentration (dharana). This would explain why it was so good for my vata nature... needing to anchor my attention.

  7. Hey Sally!

    Thanks for commenting. I was just today wondering if we'd be hearing from you anytime soon. I welcome and appreciate your contributions to our discussion.

    Your comment motivates me to offer the terminology that I utilize in my teaching:

    Yoga: the 'ocean' of psycho-physical teachings and practices or disciplines that arose in ancient India.

    Yogic-Cultures: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. These are all more than simply 'religions,' but full cultures imbued with Yogic influences. SO, it is possible to speak of "Hindu Yoga," "Buddhist Yoga," and "Jaina Yoga."

    Branches of Yoga: These are the various approaches found among the three cultures. They include Bhakti-Yoga, Jnana-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, Raja-Yoga and Hatha-Yoga.

    Styles of Yoga: I too use this term primarily to refer to the various styles of Hatha-Yoga such as Anusara, Iyengar, Kripalu, Ashtanga, Moksha, Bikram, Integral, and Mindfulness Yoga.

    Patanjala-Yoga, as elucidated in the Yoga-Sutra, is best referred to as Classical Yoga, and as such, is one of the six main Indian schools of philosophy that see themselves as embedded in the Vedas. Thus, these six schools are also called Hindu schools of philosophy. Both Buddhist-Yoga and Jaina-Yoga are two Indian schools that rejected the Vedas as 'revealed wisdom.'

  8. Hey Frank, I've been reading the book, just havn't had a chance to check out the blog. (too busy watching Buffy). Also read ahead to your chapter and included in last Sunday's class theme. Thanks for the terminology. So Buddhist-Yoga and Jaina-Yoga reject the Vedas as 'revealed wisdom', but Patanjali (or is it Patanjala) Yoga as classical yoga is embbedded in the Vedas? hmm.. interesting. I will keep this in mind when reading the sutras and futher discussions.

  9. For deeper clarity, rather than saying "embedded," more accurately, I should say that Classical Yoga, Samkhya, Vedanta, Nyaya, Mimamsa, and Vaisheshika are the six 'orthodox' and thus "Hindu" philosophies or 'darshanas.' They are Hindu and thus 'orthodox' because they do accept the "Vedic revelation."

    Buddhist and Jaina philosophy are understood as 'heterodox' because the reject the Vedas as 'revealed' knowledge.

    For instance, the caste system, as one example, is validated by teachings in the Vedas, and thus thought to be not a man-made cultural system, but truly the 'divine' and 'natural' order of the universe! The Buddha and Mahavira rejected the caste system. The Buddha pointed out that if caste were part of the natural order, then all peoples would have the caste system, but he was aware that the Greeks, for instance, did not, thus the Buddha argued caste was a social, cultural construct and NOT part of the natural order.

  10. this chapter so far is one of my favorites, i find it answers questions i have had/still have so well, and for me ties things together and unties things and lays them out for me in such a way that i can understand 'it' all so much better...not sure what the 'it' is at times...but as i read this i got i read all these questions that other people write, and as i read what you write frank i get even more confused/overcome(not in a bad way and not in having an epiphany way) with how many layers there are to things...

    i think that this chapter is very valuable to our times, where i hear and see so many people (friends/media) flippantly and casually saying things like "you are being so zen about it" or "I'm so zen" "i'm having a zen moment right now" without even understanding the zen tradition (which i don't claim to understand) and without even sitting for a second, and the zen wine shop/zen tea/zen soup etc getting people to buy their product because it is so "zen"

    thanks frank for further clarifying all of the traditions/philosophies and for taking the time to sort this all out some more.

    forgive me if you have discussed this further but what is your take on the Hindus claiming yoga as theirs?
    i am sure i will read more about this in your writings later.
    with love and thanks

  11. Sara,

    Just noticed your query at the end of your comment!

    I actually touch on this subject in my comment to Shannon in this previous post:

    Hope this answers your question!

    poep sa

  12. Greetings, book club! Thanks for reading and commenting on the Zen or Yoga article. I enjoyed your feedback.

    "Under the eyebrows" is a traditional way to say "yourself."

    Maybe someday we will all share the same terminology about schools/ branches/ styles/ cultures/ limbs. But that day hasn't arrived yet. That said, having read your terms "culture" "branch" "style" I like them. Maybe we can start an underground movement among yoga teachers to use these terms.

    Best wishes, deep appreciation,