Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Brahma-Vihara, Emptiness and Ethics by Christopher Key Chapple (Part Three)

In this third section of his essay, Chapple examines the similarities between the Buddhist and Classical Yoga traditions – and points out how these ethical principles are shared with the Jain tradition as well. He argues that the intent of ethical practice is constant across these three yogic cultures: release from suffering. I think this is an important, and often over-looked point. The ethical teachings and practice across the board of all yogic traditions is not about simply being a “good” person; it’s not about following some external code. Rather, all yogic ethical teaching has moksha, freedom as its purpose. In this sense, yogic ethics are ‘transcendental’ and purpose driven; in a sense ‘teleological’ or ‘soteriological.’

An interesting point of distinction between Buddhist Yoga and Classical Yoga and Jainism is the emphasis in Buddhism on “non-intoxication” rather than “nonpossession” or, as I prefer, “non-grasping.” Of course one  can “stretch” the implications of “non-intoxication” to include “non-grasping:” in intoxication, we grasp after another way of perceiving, experiencing and being. However, the purpose of including “non-intoxication” as an ethical principle both high-lights the emphasis on maintaining clarity of mind that is paramount in the Buddhist tradition, as well as the understanding that the other ethical principles are more likely to be broken while in an intoxicated state, so by maintaining sobriety, we are more likely to successfully practice non-harm, non-stealing, sexual responsibility and truthfulness. A final point that is necessary to understand is that we should not fall into the trap of thinking of intoxication as being only about drugs. We can easily – all too easily! – intoxicate ourselves with television, gossip, Facebook, novels, exercise, yoga-practice, and even meditation! As Thich Nhat Hanh says, if we meditate to avoid our suffering, then we are using it like a drug.

I am less interested in Chapple’s attempt to parallel the six paramitas with the niyama. Overall, it seems like a bit of a forced stretch, though I can understand how some might find it interesting.

One of our correspondents commented on her wish for more practical applications of the concepts Chapple writes about in this chapter. The next section of Chapple’s essay is entitled “Practice,” and I will save comment about it till tomorrow.


  1. Hey Frank!

    Your closing paragraph was a bit of a carrot for me and I couldn't resist reading the practice section of this chapter :0)

    To be honest, though I valued and was touched by the personal nature of what was shared, it didn't really cause any inner ripples for me. I wonder if this part might have had more resonance had it been woven into the relevant earlier sections of the chapter?

    I must confess that though this chapter has not enlivened me, combined with this blog, it has got me pondering the part that ethics, asana and sitting meditation play in my life. I am particularly taken by this word 'purification' and though the word seems a little problematic to me in the sense that it implies that we are somehow impure i get a sense of what it is about. I think I prefer the word 'refining' or 'clearing'.

    I love Eric Shiffmans metaphor of ones body/mind as an instrument and regularly employ this in listening to myself and learning what needs attending to, how the strings of this instrument need tightening or loosing. Ethics, asana and meditation are tuning tools, if you like.

    I was listening to some Christian music this morning, Alan Havanis, and the song that resonates with me so is taken from a prayer. I heard the words 'the pure of heart will inherit the kingdom of heaven', this song has made me cry many a time, I am touched, I believe, by a felt sense of that essential goodness that resides within us all.

  2. Hey Rosie!

    It's been a looooong day, so I'm going to put off commenting on the final sections of the essay tonight, but I DID want to respond to somethings you say above.

    First, I too have had some 'issues' with the concept of "purification." One thing that has helped is learning that the Buddha referred to "mental hindrances" as "visitors" as the mind itself is innately luminous. I know that when I am on long silent retreats, before the stilling I experience lots of 'stuff' that seems to 'bubble' up to the surface from the depths of who knows where! Memories of things long-forgotten, often none-too-pleasant seem to arise, and with the stillness and non-reactivity of sitting, like bubbles rising to the surface, these thoughts, memories etc. just "pop" and I begin to feel lighter, clearer -- 'cleaner.' I have had to admit it feels like a 'purification!'

    That said, in the Zen tradition, we often talk about "pure practice" which means not adding anything to the experience. If joy arises, "pure joy" is experiencing it without adding any grasping, or commentary. If pain arises, "pure pain" is experienced without adding aversion.

    As for the body/instrument, one of my favorite teaching stories of the Buddha is his instruction to Sona, a monk who had been a musician. Do you know it? The jist is: "not too tight; not too loose!"

    Finally, do you mean Alan Hovhaness? I LOVE his work! Do you know his "City of Light Symphony?" His string quartets are also lovely....

  3. Hey Frank

    Is Sona the guy with the hairy feet? If so I am familiar with the story having been told it recently.

    Yes, I did mean Alan Hovhaness and the strings particularly. I love the cello and violin, they pull at my heart strings! I'm not so familiar with the 'CIty of Light Symphony' will check it out on youtube. I also love Arvo Part ( hope I've spelt that right :0)

    I can relate to your retreat experience, particularly of feeling clearer, sometimes this happens in daily life too, preoccupations and turbulence give way to a sense of clarity, of greater ease. The questions is, was I stained/impure before??? or was it an organic process emerging, a filtration process? Is a mould, rust or stagnant pool impure? Just exploring and wondering if 'purification' is perhaps a 19th century translation of the Sanskrit/Pali words???

  4. Hello Frank!
    Help me here with this idea of the end of suffering being the goal. I have turned that around over and over and can't seem to grasp what that would mean. The human condition is so completely tied up with suffering and the idea of suffering. Bearing suffering well is a virtue in our culture. Heroic. Jesus Christ suffered by choice (of course he overcame it and rose from the dead...)and we are taught to emmulate him. The Greek heroes suffered through many trials and tribulations. In my own life all the suffering is for the most part by choice meaning my daily suffering is caused by my decisions. I choose to "bite off more than I can chew" constantly. I can't imagine a being free from suffering. Can you? So it struck me this morning on the cushion reciting "May I be happy. May I be peaceful. May I be safe. May I be free from suffering." What am I saying? I look around and I think that really I don't suffer from much. Relatively, my sufferings are really nothing. But the conditions still exist for great suffering. I am not grieving the loss of loved one. I have my health. I have a home. I have a job. But any of these things could change instantly and I would suffer. But I suppose that sort of suffering is temporary. It is certainly to be expected and to bear it well is the most that I can hope for. So is the freedom from suffering on some other level? Is it an attainable goal? Is it the "holy grail"? Only Perceval was "good" enough to see the holy grail. Is it a life filled with good deeds that allows us to achieve the goal? And then I can't help but think about the goal I was raised with - to die and go to heaven (not apart of what I believe as an adult). I have a neice that when she was about 3 or 4...after a long sermon blurted out "When we die and go to heaven, do we have to sing and pray all the time? Can we atleast have Tuesdays off?" I always think about that (and laugh) when I try to imagine freedom from suffering. In my family's view it is dying and going to heaven. And I'm not sure that I would feel "free from suffering" in the heaven they've created unless I had atleast 3 days off! So again - back to "What would freedom of suffering be like"?

  5. Hello Frank, I have been studying the yamas/niyamas for some time and enjoyed the comparison to Buddism in this chapter. In my teacher training, these were introduced to help with stress management. Chronic stress, which is prevalent in our society is suffering.

    I appreciated your comments on how we as a society intoxicate ourselves with many things including yoga. It doesn't have to be just drugs and alcohol.

  6. I am finding that my practice is making me more sensitive to, maybe actually increasing, my suffering. While surprising, this makes sense to me in two ways: 1) perhaps liberation from suffering is simply getting used to it (experience is relative), and 2) if I am to gradually refine/purify my actions karmically, then I must become ever more closely in tune with the results of my actions. In these ways I can reduce my suffering and not be as bothered by it, but probably never completely end it. Perhaps giving up trying to end it is liberation in itself.

  7. Matt, one of the Upanishads says that a yogi grows as sensitive as an eyeball!

    Interestingly enough, I just read this passage from a panel including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Siegel and Susan Bauer-Wu from the January Shambhala Sun:

    Mindfulness practice can uncover dark and difficult thoughts, which people can find quite shocking. Is that beneficial in the middle of a health crisis?

    Siegel: Much of what is in the mind is not within consciousness, yet these non-conscious processes have an impact on our health. Bringing these thoughts, such as fear, hostility, sadness etc. to awareness is part of basic health.