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!


  1. In reflecting on the next sections of Victoria's writing I find myself aware of my subjectivity in reading, 'my' perspective. For me the emergence of both Hatha Yoga and Buddha Yoga happened simultaneously. I have never felt the need to 'keep them distinct'. They interweave and co-create my unfolding reality beautifully. This applies equally to my teaching where understanding gleaned from both emerges in my orientation to and language in teaching. I recognise that Yoga and Buddhism have different texts, authors, histories yet in my experience they spring from the same 'ultimate' source and this is primarily what I am feeling/experiencing..

    Perhaps for others the need to keep things distinct is important. I don't know, the section on how to structure practice creates a very distinct separation that I don't experience. I practise asana and meditate, this is just practise, neither supports the other and both supports the other.

    Victoria says, ' Faithfulness is my open question, an area to study during home practice, and before I open my mouth to teach.' With respect, faithfulness to what? to the forms, or to the underlying source from which both emerge? - That which imbues any form and is beyond the forms.

    On reflecting on Victoria’s response to this question, ‘May I validly enrich my teaching of one discipline with concepts from another?’ I find myself reflecting on the the Buddha’s courage, he didn’t cling to the established forms in fear of losing the teachings. He went and explored, went to the edge, sat under the tree and studied his own experience. This is an important message to me. That whatever I can learn from any discipline is a finger pointing the moon, the moon of my own experiencing. A path is most useful yet when it becomes religion I fear that it can disconnect us from Akaliko - what is apparent here and now’ - and Ehipassiko - what we can put to the test and see for ourselves. The Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist he was a Buddha - an awakened one and isn’t this what any of this practise is ultimatly about? Not attachment to the form of the forms.

    I agree with Victoria, that any decision about how to practise should be ‘ a process of self-study rather than an event.’ I have found it most useful and feel deeply grateful to have had traditions, mentors and books to help me orientate and navigate what can be the difficult terrain of life practice. Yet ultimatly these are, to use the story of Hansel and Gretal, pieces of bread leading me home to the realisation of my inherent Buddha nature.

  2. Rosie,

    As ever, you offer some wonderful observations. Perhaps Victoria's seeming emphasis on form reflects her coming from two traditions, Japanese Zen and Iyengar Yoga, that are strongly centered around the importance of form?

    But in any event, as I write in my comment, I make no set distinction: it's all Yoga; it's all Dharma for me. And lately, my most nurturing practice as been holding and rocking my daughter and changing her diapers!

    In the Satipatthana-Sutta, it's clear that the Buddha did not isolate practice to what goes on on the cushion! He talks about cultivating mindfulness even, after all, while defecating and urinating!

    I like your closing analogy to Hansel and Gretel!

  3. Yes, frank I understand that the two traditions are within form and yet all rivers run to the sea, and there seems to be little acknowledgement of this in the writing.

    Lovely! baby rocking mindfully. Wow what a connection that must be!

  4. I'll cop to it here; mindful baby rocking is the BEST!

    I agree with your opening comment; what I meant was that perhaps Victoria cannot acknowledge what your speaking about because (for whatever reasons) of all traditions of Yoga or Zen, she has found herself in the ines that are most 'form-centric.' The traditions I came to are much less doctrinaire about form.

  5. Coming into this book discussion with little knowledge of either Zen or Yoga...the terminology gets a big confusing. Reading Rosie's comments help ground me. I too appreciated your reference to Hansel and Gretal. And I like "The Buddha was not a Buddhist. He was a Buddha". I was reading another book while waiting at the dentist today that basically said the same thing. And so I really got a kick out of hearing Rosie say it in her comments here.
    This book "Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind" is a timely book for me to read. Because until recently I certainly viewed yoga and buddhism as distint body / mind disciplines. I had been reading for the last year a book about Buddhism "Awakening the Buddha Within". It is a book I have grown to love and even turned to it for guidance (had no idea there was a community here). But whenever the book would address meditation - I would tune that out...I would think "no way could I way could I sit still that long...and no way would it do my any good!" And then this summer I decided to "do something for myself" and decided to give a yoga class a try. I assummed it would be much like other exercise classes I had taken off and on. I got online and googled Tucson Yoga....and of course I quickly stumbled upon the 4 week class "Mindfulness Yoga". It never occurred to me that it had anything to do with meditation. Of course Yoga must be about the body!! lol! So I bought my yoga mat and went to that first Saturday class. Was I ever surprised when we sat pretty much the whole time! I almost laughed outloud at myself a couple of times.
    Frank's open and easy way of teaching has given my way of thinking a complete 360.
    Frank, you keep mindfully rocking that new baby girl...I have started mindfully reading to my son at night. And he loves it as much as I do!

  6. Susan,

    It was a delight having you in class, and hopefully showing up for sangha! Please continue to share your thoughts and any questions as well as insights that you have while plowing through the book and daily practices!

    See you in class!

    frank jude

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