Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Club: Joining With Naturalness by Goldfield and Taylor (Part Two)

The ‘heart’ of this chapter is the section entitled “Foundations of Buddhist Yoga.” Goldfield and Taylor say that, at least for their school or lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, these foundations are: renunciation, bodhicitta, and the view of the true nature of reality.

I have found it quite true that the term renunciation can bring up a lot of misunderstanding, confusion and resistance among many practitioners of contemporary yoga. I usually describe it as the letting go or renouncing of our habitual, conditioned ways of finding solace, and instead taking refuge in awakening. Ultimately, I think Goldfield and Taylor are pretty much saying the same thing.

There is one aspect of their teaching that I think can be problematic, but I’d love to hear from others of you as perhaps I am just sensitive to the term, but when I hear (usually it’s from Tibetan Buddhists) talk about phenomena as not ‘truly existing,’ I think the term has too many connotations that can mislead students.

For instance, there are forms of Yoga (and at least one school of Buddhist philosophy) that does assert that all perceivable phenomena are merely illusory – that they in fact simply do not exist; that all things are mental creations. Patanjali refutes this form of idealism, as does the Buddha, from most accounts we have.

And in western philosophy, the distinction is often made between ‘being’ and ‘existence’ with ‘being’ understood as ‘ultimate, true reality, eternal and unchanging’ and existence as the impermanent, ever-changing flux of phenomena.

I attempt to side-track any confusion by speaking of things 'not existing as we think they do,' rather than ‘not truly existing.’ For instance, I might say that a rainbow is a ‘real’ rainbow. What it isn’t, however, is a solid, colored bridge from one part of the horizon to another. It appears solid and self-existent, but it arises upon myriad conditions. But it isn’t an ‘illusion’ or ‘delusion’ in the sense that there is no real phenomana.

I don’t think we have to deny that our body exists. What we have to see clearly is that the body is not-Self. It has no independent, autonomous, persistent nature. So we renounce our mis-perception and clinging.

So, we end up with the same understanding Goldfield and Taylor write about, and perhaps it doesn’t matter what terms we use. Maybe it’s just my ‘hang-up!’

The second foundation, bodhicitta, is an important concept for all Mahayana Buddhist traditions. In my book, I share this concept as one of four practices associated with the second limb of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha: 'right intention' (sometimes also called ‘right thinking’). Simply put, it is the thought and intention to practice and awaken for the sake of all beings. It can be a really strong energy that can keep you practicing when personal tendencies of resistance arise. On the mat, when practicing challenging postures, I sometimes encourage students to think of others in discomfort and practice tonglen, breathing in the discomfort while contemplating all the beings in the world who are feeling similar discomfort, and breathing out relief for all beings.

Compassion is the second of the Four Immeasurables (also called the Four Brahma-Viharas) and the idea is to cultivate the intention to really do something about the suffering in the world. 'The Dedication of Merit' is another practice that all practitioners can take up, at least as a bell of mindfulness that our practice cannot be seen as self-centric. If we are happier, we want others to be happy. If we are happy, our actions do indeed create conditions for others to be happy.

The following is the version of the 'Dedication of Merit' I use to end all my classes and practice sessions:

Whatever merit we may have generated through our practice together,
We now dedicate and offer all of it
To all sentient beings throughout the world, equally.
May our thoughts, our words, and our deeds
Bring benefit to the world.

The third foundation of Buddhist Yoga Goldfield and Taylor share is the ‘view of the profound true nature of reality – nondual awareness.’ Now, as I already wrote about in my post on Victoria Austin not all forms of Buddhist Yoga adhere to a non-dual perspective, so I won’t go into that here again.

However, their teachings on the two stages: “The Selflessness of Body and Mind” and “The Emptiness of Body and Mind” are well written and clear. Of course, while we have this discussion often in sangha, many practitioners still find the Buddha’s teaching on ‘not-Self’ and ‘emptiness’ challenging.  I would like to know if any of you reading along have any particular questions about this topic, rather than just ranting on and on about it here.

What I will say here is something in regard to the passage on page 75, where they write: “whatever  phenomenon appears to our senses or thoughts, it does not truly exist as what it appears to be… and its true nature is beyond duality, beyond concept and expression.” Take the example of a candle flame. We see it as a single phenomenon. Yes it is changing, but behind the idea that ‘the flame is changing’ is this implicit understanding that there is a ‘thing’ that exists called ‘the flame’ and something of its nature persists while changing shape in the currents of the wind.

Yet, from one moment to the next, what actually persists? And can we not see that without the candle wax, oxygen and the wick, there would be no flame? The flame arises upon these conditions, thus it is empty of an independent, autonomous self-nature. So, is the flame of this moment the same as, different than, both the same and different, or neither the same nor different than the flame of two minutes ago? Can you see this is the point Goldfield and Taylor are making in the above passage. For the truth is we cannot really say any of these possibilities are accurate and yet there is a candle flame! Words are concepts, and the true reality of what is cannot be captured in concept.

This is not to say we should jettison all concepts and that conceptual thinking is ‘bad.’ It is to say that we would do well to remember this truth about the nature of reality and concepts, so that we can use conceptual thinking without getting ensnared and led away from reality by concepts. What I’ve just said about a candle flame is not dis-similar to what we can say about ourselves. Take a photo of you from five years ago. Are you the same as that person? Different? Both same and different? Neither the same nor different? Where would you look to find any ‘self’ that has persisted unchanged, independently of conditions?

When we see this reality – and not merely intellectually – the clinging quality of attachment dissolves. 


  1. Dear Frank, what is your personal motive to investigate into the nature of reality ?

    With Love, Krishna Borgers (I'm on facebook again)

  2. Hey Krishna!

    It's lovely to 'see' you here! It's been a long time!

    You ask an important question; I often talk to students about the motivation behind the intentions we bring to practice....

    I think it's clear from the passages from this chapter, that the primary motivation for gaining clarity about the nature of reality is to transcend duhkha.

    One understanding of duhkha is 'unbalanced' or 'uncentered,' as it literally means "wrong space" and referred to a wheel that was not aligned properly with it's axle. Yoga tells us that we 'suffer' because we are mis-aligned with reality. We see permanence where there is impermanence, we see pleasure where there is pain, we see self where there is not-self.

    So, when we investigate reality, and learn to see it clearly, we can align ourselves with it, and our life will be free from duhkha. As I often say, "You can fight reality, but it always wins in the end!"

  3. I'll have to go back and re-read Victoria's writings on non-dual awareness and yours and compare them to what is written in this essay....I do find that just about as confusing as the ideas of "emptiness" and "not self". Your flame analogy is right on for me. I think I'll print that out to keep with me when I'm reading so when that confusion resurfaces, it can be disipated. It'll be sort of a "guiding light"! lol
    And in the same way terms such as not "truly exisiting" are confusing. The rainbow analogy works well. Once I was actually at the end of the rainbow. It was in Box Canyon. It was an amazing experience. I could actually see the light/colors all around. And best of all it was during a family picnic. So yes, the rainbow did truly exist but there was no physical or literal pot of gold. What did exist at that end of the rainbow was my healthy wonderful family sharing an afternoon together.

  4. Susan,

    okay, let's just take this one step further regarding the rainbow:

    yes, it was a 'true rainbow,' a 'real' experience for you. What emptiness means (and what the writers mean by saying it doesn't 'truly exist') is the following:

    for you to experience and see the rainbow, there had to be moisture droplets in the air; there had to be the sun; AND there had to be YOU standing in the right relationship to the moisture and sun!

    SO, the 'rainbow' arises based upon these (at least) 3 conditions. Remove any one of them, and the rainbow ceases to exist! Therefore, it lacks 'self-nature' meaning it does not exist 'from it's own side' independently of causes and conditions.

    One last remark: if your eyes, brain and optic system were conditioned differently, you would not see the rainbow! Bats do not see rainbows, for instance. SO, we must never under-estimate the importance of our body (and it's particular conditions) in order for 'things' to be 'real.' Your body itself is a condition/cause of the world! How's that for some mind-bending in the morning!