Saturday, November 13, 2010

Joining With Naturalness Part Three

Picking up with the section entitled “Buddhist Yoga Exercise,” reminding ourselves, as the authors do in their first paragraph, that there are many varied “Buddhist Yogas” and thus many different ‘exercises,’ let’s explore what Goldfield and Taylor have to say regarding the practices taught by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso.

They make the important point, I believe common to all Buddhist Yogas, that movement practices are essential for developing the ‘practice mind’ in and throughout our daily activities. While walking meditation is a common practice (especially in the Theravada tradition) for instance, in Zen ‘work practice’ is strongly emphasized. In fact, it was during my Zen training that I learned to hang sheet-rock, as well as use several different power tools!

Goldfield and Taylor remind us of the three qualities of mind guiding the intention behind practice and specify that while exercise has many physical benefits for the body, our mental attitude must be one of ‘renunciation,’ in that we renounce clinging to body as ‘truly existent.’ I might prefer to phrase it as “renounce clinging to body as self.” This is an important piece often ignored in contemporary yoga (asana) practice. In fact, I find that some approaches to practice actually encourage and strengthen identification with the body as self, which will ultimately prove futile, as the body ages and becomes less able to perform the more challenging asanas. This is not, however, merely a contemporary issue, as texts as old as the hatha-yoga tradition (roughly 1,000 years old) already warn that the practice of asana, outside the context of raja-yoga (here meaning meditation) become ‘obstacles to liberation!’

Remembering the second quality, I encourage students to re-affirm their bodhicitta by reminding themselves that they practice for the benefit of all beings. And finally, that our practice is to cultivate the realization of the true nature of ‘things as it is,’ as Suzuki Roshi would often say.

In the following section, “The Key Points of Yogic Exercise,” the authors say that the most profound way to apply the mind during activity is to focus on the true empty nature of phenomena. Their description of maintaining the ‘nondual awareness, the union of luminosity-emptiness’ recalls the practice I teach of “Big Sky Mind.” 

They suggest focusing attention at the point four fingers width below the navel, which in Zen is the hara. Sometimes I too ask my students to focus here, especially during vinyasa practice, as in going from plank to upward-facing dog to downward-facing dog moving from this point. They all express a distinct difference in the energy and fluidity of movement.

Most of the rest of this section speaks of the body as impermanent, in the fact of its constant changing nature. In “Body of Peace,” I emphasize that in fact, nowhere in the universe is there absolute stillness. There is constant vibration, what Tantra calls spandha. What we call ‘stillness’ in meditation is actually a kind of calm-activity, vibrant, yet easeful, vigorous yet at rest.

I especially like the following phrase: “Experience is much softer than when we are clinging to ourselves, objects, and ideas with heavy conceptuality.” This is the “body of peace,” which is boundless and all-pervasive, not limited to the outline of the ‘skin-bag.’

The section entitled “How To Use Sickness To Enhance The Practice Of Buddhist Yoga” is another aspect of Buddhist Yoga that is both often mis-understood and/or ignored. The second of the Five Remembrances is “I am of the nature to have ill-health; there is no way to avoid having ill-health.” Frequently, when I offer this teaching, it brings up a lot of resistance among many students. They think it is ‘negative thinking’ and would rather ignore such realities. They may even be working under the delusion – encouraged by some ‘new age’ thought – that if they are ill they ‘brought it on themselves’ and that if their practice were ‘good’ they could avoid all illness!

What the authors here remind us of is that illness can be worked with skillfully to attain deeper realization of our true nature. And indeed, isn’t it true that when things go well for us, it is kind of easy to let practice slip away? Then the shit hits the fan and we rush back to the mat or the meditation cushion! Many people come to my “Body of Peace” retreat with the notion that a body of peace never feels pain. One of the first things I tell them is that in fact, a body of peace is beyond pleasure and pain; that in going beyond circumstances, there is a peace that can contain pain, that is undisturbed, as Patanjali puts it, “by the pairs of opposites.”

No Gaps

I have a tee-shirt from Zen Mountain Monastery that features an enso and brush calligraphy saying, “No Gaps.” That’s how we are expected to practice: with no gaps, seamlessly throughout the varied activities of daily life. My teacher, Samu Sunim would often exhort us that “there is no way of the Buddha outside everyday life.” Thinking that practice is one thing, and our life is another is one of the most pernicious beliefs a practitioner can fall victim to.

In this penultimate section, the authors are telling us that our training is to be engaged, to act without attachment, with compassion and the energy of bodhicitta. There is ultimately nothing separate from the naturalness we seek to join with. Thus, ultimately, we come to see that therefore there is nothing that truly needs to be ‘joined.’ We have never really been separate!

As they conclude, at first all this takes effort. Our conditioning keeps pulling back into delusion. But, over time we experience glimmers of emptiness and the relaxed ease of naturalness and as practice and life become not-two, life – including pain, illness, aging and death – becomes more joyous, spacious, natural.

I enjoyed this chapter quite a bit, and hope to hear from you, dear readers, what you have received from this reading. 


  1. This chapter was a pleasure to read, so clearly presented and articulated. I loved the quotes from Tibetan Buddhist masters, so poetic and pertinent.

    I love it when talking about renunciation they say:

    ‘Since Buddhism focuses on working with oneself from the inside out, rather than the outside in, its teachings do not command us to do anything. Rather, we are invited to investigate things for ourselves.’

    This was exactly my point regarding attachment to form in the last chapter.

    With regard to life being like a dream and the encouragement to cultivate non-clinging, this is wisdom, everything changes and dies, nothing is permanent. Yet being human we will still feel the suffering of clinging and need to also honour that process as a natural part of life. I recall the story of a Buddhist master, to the astonishment of his students, crying in grief at the loss of a dear friend. He explained to them,’ Death is the greatest illusion of all.’ Tender, human....

    I find the writers use of the work ‘fixation’ to describe our tendencies to narrow around a concept of self very helpful. It brings to mind a watery metaphor of phenomena, thoughts, emotions, sensations and the people, events and situations that they are related to passing like waves, and that when we fixate we freeze certain parts of our experience. It also reminds me of Charlotte Joko Becks ‘whirlpools’ that when a whirlpool, i.e. a human, suddenly conceives itself as distinct from the ocean of which it is a part, it becomes a source of stagnancy and pollutes it’s neighbouring whirlpools.

    I like their encouragement in movement based practice to join the bodies natural flow of movement. As best I can this is how I practice. They say:

    ‘Experience is much softer than when we are not clinging to ourselves, objects, and ideas with a heavy conceptuality.’

    The ‘dog pose’ comes to mind. Do we practice frozen into a model of physical alignment or are we fluid, exploratory - a movement emerging from the inside? I like the ‘soft’ experience myself :0)

    The section on integrating practice was interesting though rather than contemplating that I am not truly existent I prefer to be totally present and sensitive to the experience of living, for me this is joining with naturalness.

    Will Johnson said something lovely about integrating practice, that meditation and the integration of daily mindfulness are like one step forwards and no steps backwards

    I love the Chogyam Trunpa quote:

    'The universe is constantly trying to reach us to say or teach something.'

    We need to be awake, receptive and listening to hear it!

  2. After reading this chapter I felt a shift toward love, lightness, and deeper sense of life. I felt a closer understanding of 'empty' and really resonate to a practice that is not just for me and it's not just on the mat. Renuciation, compassion, and nondual awareness simplify what is important. It seems to me that compassion is the big difference between Patanjali's yoga and Zen Budist practice. Compassion opens to unity consiousness, not just a hope that I will experience samadhi, but that in learning and praticing I am helping others - means so much more. I really appreaciate "How to use Sickness", instead of looking at sickness as a weakness. As he says, "We do not need to try to make it go away". I look foward, as I know I will have the opportunity, to apply this practice. One thing that has come up a lot lately is that I learn more I find that there is a huge difference or separation between my perpective and my friends and family. I see so much suffering and understand that it is from our conditioning thinking. If I read "Sickness is our friend" to some of the yoga classes that I teach, I don't know how well that would go over. Where to begin when you see this thinking without totally isolating yourself. As I ask the question, I know in time I will learn.