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.


  1. I love it when Victoria quotes Suzuki Roshi in saying that practice is transmitted “warm hand to warm hand”. I like the embodiedness of this, that ones wisdom and understanding acquired through practise is enacted, transmitted rather than conveyed through verbal language. For me I also read this warmth to be, ‘aliveness’, that this living intelligence is in all of us.

    I’m interested when Victoria says,’ Mind is not the brain; mind permeates the whole.’ I agree that mind is not in the head, but what does she mean by whole? whole body? Universe? What can we actually know here?

    I feel that Victoria’s language assumes a lot and in it’s flourish somehow obscures the immediacy, simplicity of what she is saying. In speaking of the practise of asana she says:

    ‘….we directly experience…….Time itself flashing in Eternity’, do we?

    I’m not sure what Victoria means….As I contemplate this and look for possible meaning, what reveals itself to me is something ordinary, immediate, the present moment, timeless, eternal i.e. without beginning or end, just here!

    ‘Yoga and Zen are both universal too….make body and mind still and one-pointed; and see a transcendent whole.’

    I think I understand what Victoria means here, that both Yoga and Zen offer ways in which to work with the universal experience of being human. The emphasis on stillness I find a bit of a red herring, are we ever still, our bodies and minds are continuously pulsing, humming, vibrating and being stimulated by our environments whether internal or external. I feel that this emphasis on stillness can be deeply distracting for people beginning either Yoga/meditation as it sets up a goal, a false horizon. Stillness is often used as another way of saying calm, peaceful, these can be a byproduct of practise but are not a goal and are not in isolation from the inevitable fluctuations of body/mind. Attachment to stillness can be the very thing that creates suffering. We have to be careful how we language things here. Surely the orientation of both of these approaches is to cultivate equanimity, the ability to receive the mutable nature of experience with poise, grace and flexibility of response. The very opposite of being still. I am cautious about reifying meditative stillness, what is it for you, for me?

  2. ......My experience is that being here, being embodied is pretty extraordinary, that that in itself is worthy of exploration. That the emphasis on transcendence here can be another way of rejecting our humanity. This human experience is in itself pretty miraculous. Ok, I get the idea of transcending the self with a small ‘s’, and I also get that what I can know of the big Self is right here right now!

    I agree that speaking of a Yoga practise in terms of being helpful for removing ‘obstacles’, positions Yoga as a useful addition to the ‘real’ practise of sitting in meditation rather than a path of awakening in it’s own right. Victoria says that the:

    ‘Buddhist refuges model how to dedicate Yoga practise to a wider view’, i.e. work, sitting e.t.c.

    Micheal Stone in The Inner Tradition of Yoga says that, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra begins with:

    “Atha yoganusanam” - “ in the present moment is the teaching of yoga”.

    It seems to me that this is a pretty wide view of practise, the present moment, anytime, anywhere...

    Yoga is not a set of bodily postures or even meditation, it is a way of life, possible in each of our moments, being present with whatever it is that we are doing. Our work on the mat allows us to cultivate transferrable skills, flexibility of body/mind that can be seamlessly practised from dog pose, to rolling our mats, to a chat with a loved one after class or to a cup of tea ( if I remember :0).

    I agree with Victoria that language can be limited and culturally biased. That’s why it is so important to cultivate and refine the language that we are using to explore these practices, here and now.

    What does it mean when Victoria says that the truth of Zen and Yoga are complete?

    How can they be complete when they are mutating here and now in our very explorations and discussions? When Patanjali was writing in the third century b.c. and here we are now practising Yoga in the 21st century, when Zen practices are being taught in secular environments, hospitals , businesses, schools…..far from still, mutable, impermanent,changing………

    Thanks for your sharings and for listening......

  3. I just want to comment on the question "why study both zen and yoga?"... and her comment about "direct experience". She mentions that Zen teachers remind students to rely on "direct experience". This seems very similar to Patanjali's I.7 sutra "pratyaksa" or direct perception. In the next question she mentions that there are two 'striking' examples where Patanjali was aware of Buddhist ideas (nirodha and duhkha)". I would be curious as to more examples, such as direct perception, or is direct perception different from direct experience? or is it close enough? This alone is an example to me why this blog is going to be a huge benefit to deeper understanding of these teachings.

  4. Rosie, I think you make some really pertinent points regarding some of the assumptions implicit in Victoria's language.

    As for "mind permeates the whole," given the context I took her to mean the "whole body," but of course I could be wrong! If she does mean "whole body," I am in complete agreement.

    I also appreciate your comments on the notion of "stillness." Interestingly, this is a big part of the program I just finished teaching at Kripalu that I call "Body of Peace." I point out that nowhere in the universe is there anything that is not moving! Stillness is a relative term between fidgeting and rigidity. Through the cultivation of alignment and relaxation, and the invitation to open to resiliency, we can experience the stillness at the center of all movement and the moving energy within the stillness. I think this resonates with the vibratory teaching of Tantra.

    Sally, I have been taught that Yoga (with the capital Y) is most certainly about 'direct experience,' so here we may have another 'red herring!' In context here, Victoria seems to be speaking of the hatha-yoga practitioner (in a commercial studio context) who has "lost the thread of direct experience in asana" rendering it useless. She suggests exposure to a sangha could benefit such people.

    However, there are zazen meditators who 'lose the thread of direct experience' and there are hatha-yoga communities that are the equivalent of the Buddhist sangha (for instance, Yogaville and the Integral Yoga Community).

    Patanjali is also, most certainly pointing to 'direct experience.' It's the whole point of his practice model! From my perspective, the Zen emphasis on 'direct experience' permeates all authentic Yoga. I cannot imagine a Theravadin monk not encouraging his student to work diligently toward her own direct experience. I remember one such monk saying, "The Buddha's practice brought him to enlightenment; now you must practice to bring about your enlightenment."

    The idea of duhkha and nirodha, I think, are not original with the Buddha. The yogis he studied with; the Upanishadic sages and sramanas all spoke of duhkha. AND, the purpose of Yoga practice has always been 'moksha' or liberation, which is pretty much a synonym for nirodha.

    While the Buddha enumerated them as the Four Noble Truths, a close reading of the Yoga-Sutra shows you that Patanjali taught the existence of duhkha, the causes of duhkha, the possibility of the cessation of duhkha and a path out of duhkha. They even ultimately agreed on the causes: avidya or ignorance! They both offered an 8-limb model of practice.

    Some other specific Buddhist teachings that we find in Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra are:

    The Four Brahma-Viharas
    The Five Powers
    The understanding of Right Effort
    Counter-balancing negative thought with positive thought
    Dharma-Megha Samadhi

    I am sure over time we will discuss these and other key points of similarity as well as difference.

    poep sa

  5. Hi Frank

    Wow, the 'Body of Peace'. A confluence here! I love that title.

    Sounds like a beautiful exploration you've been undertaking there.
    I'd love to know more about it. I did go to Kripalu's website to see if I could check out a description but nothing there. How could I learn more about the practices and orientation of your workshop?

    En JOY ing this very much :o)

  6. Hi Rosie,

    Well, the work comes from a deep exploration of the three sutras related to asana in the Yoga-Sutra, complemented by a few famous passages from Dogen's Gengo-Koan.

    Looking at alignment/orientation, relaxation/letting-go, and resiliency/equanimity and working with the Seven Factors of Awakening, it's all about cultivating the peace not contingent upon circumstances.

    If you'd like, I'd be happy to email you the handouts from the workshop which may give you a better idea of the practices and themes.