Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Club: The Buddha and The Yogi: Paradigms of Restraint and Renunciation by Mu Soeng

I was looking forward to Mu Soeng’s chapter, and for the most part, was not disappointed! In fact, personally, along with Chip Hartranft’s, Goldfield and Taylor’s and Powers’ chapters, this one by Mu Soeng is one of my favorites.

His opening paragraph makes his the first to really address the “commodification” of Yoga and Mindfulness found in this book (Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind). And ironically, there’s been a lot of words shared in the blogosphere around the argument as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing! For some reason, those with the most vested interest in the popularity of Yoga (in particular) seem to take offense with anyone speaking up and saying – as Mu Soeng puts it – “something seems to be missing; something fundamental to the raison d’etre of both traditions.” I don’t see anything controversial about such an assertion, and yet, there seems to be many who take offense at such an observation.

I am delighted that more and more people are becoming aware of the liberating power of mindfulness. Yet, without articulating it, many remain unaware of the ‘ultimate’ liberating nature of mindfulness in regard to our culture’s consumerist worldview. Even at the time of the Buddha, he said that mindfulness goes against the grain in it’s vision of “individuals and society grounded in restraint and renunciation, in simplicity, in doing away with the clutter of possessions, and so on.”

When Lululemon tights go for $100.00 and more, I think it safe to say we may have lost sight of the deeper truths Yoga and Mindfulness offer. The three major sources of suffering, according to the Yoga Tradition (including Buddhism) are greed (craving), hatred (aversion) and delusion (ignore-ance). The Yogic way of life is one that seeks to counter-balance these three ‘poisons,’ through the “yoking” involved in meditation (as well as pranayama and asana practice).

Where things get a bit hairy is when the Yoga Tradition creates a cosmological and ontological “samsara” that one seeks to liberate oneself from. This makes not being ‘reborn’ into the best thing you can do with this life. IF one takes this in a purely metaphorical, psychological way, as does the modernist Buddhadasa Bhikhu, then I have no problem with this. But when we reify this understanding into a cosmological worldview, then this life tends to be devalued. In fact, this devaluation is addressed by Mu Soeng as a "positive hermeneutic." This is something, as a naturalist, I wish to avoid.

When we remember that “samsara” is not a place but a process; “the process of craving and clinging; of greed, hatred, and delusion,” as Mu Soeng writes, then we can utilize this humanistic, psychological understanding. In fact, other scholars have also pointed out that to think in terms of “entering nirvana” is also inappropriate as nirvana is also not a place but it too is a process! As ugly as it may sound to our ears in English, the Pali can best be translated – according to these scholars – as “nirvanizing.”

I really appreciate Mu Soeng’s speculation regarding the two competing ‘value systems’ with that which adopted Shiva (the god of asceticism) and that which adopted Vishnu (the householder’s god). Certainly, I don’t think it can be argued otherwise than that the Buddha clearly preferred the way of the renunciant over that of the ‘dusty house-holder.’ However, to his credit, he did teach householders, and recognized many as becoming fully awakened arahants.

As Mu Soeng points out, we “moderns” wish to have our cake and eat it too. I think that to at least some degree, this is what lies behind the huge popularity of so-called “tantric” based forms of hatha-yoga. “Everything is divine” goes the party line, so why hold back from enjoying all life has to offer. Why indeed? But is enjoyment really what one seeks? And if so, is it the enjoyment of a string of ephemeral experiences, possessions and relationships?

Bikram poses with his 50 Rolls Royces, and the obscenity of this seems to escape all too many students and practitioners of yoga! One may say, it’s fine if one is not attached to the cars. But I would argue that there is more than one’s level of ‘attachment’ that is at issue here.

Now, Mu Soeng’s conclusion is where I part company with him! He seems to feel that the only alternative to living a mainstream, consumerist life is “to align oneself with the worldviews of these traditions if one is to go beyond the habits of consuming desires…”

If he means we need to align ourselves with the ideas of going against the stream of our craving and grasping, our aversion and delusion, than I’ve no argument there. But that is – to my mind – a far cry from aligning with the worldview that life, in particular the householder life, is something to escape from!

As I think I have done in my Zen Naturalism blog, one can and perhaps ‘should,’ contextualize one’s contemporary spiritual views and intentions based upon modern, even secular, humanist, naturalist worldviews. We needed take on tradition supernatural, dualistic, transcendentalist worldviews to avoid commodification of the teachings and practices. As I tell my students, while I am old enough to have protested the Vietnam War, hung out at C.B.G.B.s and make ‘punk’ movies, there is nothing as counter-cultural and radical as attempting to live mindfully and simply.


  1. Hi Frank,
    I liked this essay a lot also...but it disturbs me a bit. It did leave me with a bit of the feeling that he is saying I need to give away all my worldy possessions and sit under a tree. The list of dhutanga practices are daunting. I always have thought that if I could do anything over I would not have gotten married the first time around and I would have worn a robe and gone out begging and really lived without any worldy possessions. That is the only thing I would do different in my life.
    But now I am a happy householder with beautiful children and a home to protect and look after.
    But to have lived in both worlds would have been something else...but who knows...and no point of second guessing that now.
    If we get back around to the point of all of this....the freedom from suffering...I must affirm that having my home and my children and this life that I live to foster and protect that does not in and of itself create suffering.
    So if Mu Soeng is advocating leaving the householders life...I must disagree! But I think his REAL goal is to point to the commercialization of yoga in our world. Most people I meet in my everyday life respond to the mention of yoga with things like "So is your butt getting any firmer?"
    So , yes, yoga is being sold to Americans in all sorts of way - including sex appeal.
    I'm certainly not wise enough to know if that is a bad thing in and of itself. It does make me giggle a little.
    Will this commodification cause yoga to become a passing fancy? Who knows? And is there really any other way to introduce ideas to the masses in our culture?

  2. Susan,

    I agree with you that Mu Soeng is most concerned with what is lost when Yoga is commodified. But we should also acknowledge that the path of the renunciant was (at the time of the Buddha, in particular) just about the only option for anyone seeking freedom. The Buddha DID hold out the possibility to householders -- and the Bhagavad Gita made the householder path central. This is perhaps why it became the most popular Yoga text.

    Here are two excerpts from a paper I wrote several years ago about just this issue:

    "Here is Manhae again, refuting the conventional path of renunciation as essentially life-denying, in his poem, “The Master’s Sermon:”
    I heard the Master’s sermon:

    'Don’t be bound to the chains of love and suffer.
    Cut the ties and your mind will find joy.'

    That Master is quite the fool.
    To be bound with ties of love is painful, but to cut them
    Is more painful than death.
    In the tight bind of love’s ties lies its unbinding.
    Thus great liberation lies in bondage.
    My love, I feared that the ties that bind me to you might be weak
    So I’ve doubled the strands of my love.

    "Now that dharma practice is primarily a householder phenomena, rather than monastic based, with the requirements of maintaining a family and relationships necessitating the same dedication, passion and vision that any spiritual journey entails, the demands of desire must be placed front and center.

    In light of this new situation, the notion of “detachment” or “non-attachment” seems more problematic than in the past, given the need most of us feel for intimacy. The Buddha left his wife and just born infant, after all. Is this really the model we are trying to live up to in our own relationships? Poet Judyth Collin, in “The Layman’s Lament” offers a challenge:
    Shame on you Shakyamuni for setting
    the precedent
    of leaving home.
    Did you think it was not there –
    in your wife’s lovely face
    or your baby’s laughter?
    Did you think you had to go elsewhere
    to find it?
    Tsk, tsk.
    I am here to show you
    dear sir
    that you needn’t step
    even one sixteenth of an inch away – stay
    here – elbows dripping with soapy water
    stay here – spit up all over your chest
    stay here – steam rising in lazy curls from
    cream of wheat
    Poor Shakyamuni – sitting under that Bo tree
    miles away from home
    Venus shone all the while.

    It was, according to Zen legend, the sight of the Morning Star that brought Shakyamuni to his awakening. The obvious point Collin’s is making is that the star, representing ‘suchness,’ or ‘reality’ is already there, and that there is no need to renounce daily life and go off to some other more ‘spiritual’ life in order to realize it.

  3. Really Nice. Thank you.
    I might be reading him wrong...but it seems like Mu Soeng is downplaying the idea of mindfulness a bit and stressing more the ideal of renunciation. I think maybe there must be a "middle Path" and I love the analogy you have given in the past with the river and how the current in the middle is running smoothly.

    I did like reading the list of dhutanga practices and wondering how possible it would be to incorporate atleast the spirit of the list into our lives. Simplicity could come about in so many forms and would be different for each household. Maybe it's a comforting thought...but one could become "attached" to this list and forget WHY one is doing any of it. Like Judyth Collin is pointing shouldn't have to leave home to be free.
    Mu Soeng's essay is certainly thought provoking and has encouraged me to do a sort of "inventory" of material possessions and why I have what I have - what purpose does each item serve - (and some of them just because they are pretty) and what might cause me grief to lose.
    One thing my family has tried to do in the last couple of years (I think the recession spurred this and it has been a positive thing caused by such hard financial times) is to examine each purchase before making it - Why are we buying this? Do we really need this? Or do we just simply want it - and is that want justified? Sort of a "mindful" consumerism :-)
    I realize Mu Soeng was writing about the commodification of yoga but I don't see how that can be seperated from the commodification of everything in our culture. So if we are to stop and examine the possible negative impacts of said commodification - then I think we have to look at the overall commercial quality of our daily lives.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this chapter and found it much food for thought.

    Unlike Frank and Susan I didn't get the sense that Mu Soeng was advocating that we all become monastics or Yogis, rather that he was ‘excavating’ the original orientations of both Buddhist practice and Yoga.

    Unless I missed something? I didn't feel pressured to become a renunciate though I did feel stimulated to explore my own orientation to life as practice. I teach both mindfulness based stress reduction courses and Yoga classes commercially. It is a challenge, in a positive sense of the word, to marry my love of teaching, my need for a sustainable income and my current and evolving understanding of the ethics of dharma practice.

    I do feel that as both forms emerge into mainstream society that where I am, along with many others, is at the cutting edge and with this comes responsibility. It is important, I believe for practitioners to teach with commitment to the dharma(in the widest sense of the word), authenticity and integrity, that our practice emerge from an theoretical and experiential understanding and exploration of ethics; a phenomenological understanding. And that from this we develop skillful means in our teaching and practice.

    While it is important to understand and respect the origins of these practices I also feel that in order to sustain the vitality, literally, the life of what these practices have to offer, it is important not to concretize them into belief systems or rules, into right ways and wrong ways, householder or renunciate. By its very experiential nature, the dharma is emergent, current, imminent, with this in mind it cannot be constrained by form. From what I understand the Buddha himself instructed us not to believe anything but to test what he said in the light of our own experience and that experience is current, emergent, conditioned.
    There were particular life conditions in the time of the Buddha, Patanjali and there are particular life conditions in our time. We can only respond from where we are…literally, and though I have considered the monastic life I find the life of a householder to be rich in opportunity to live in the dharma. Perhaps this way of life is of greater relevance for most people of the 21st century, and perhaps this is the widening of the dharma, hoorah!

    I trust the ‘flow’ of the dharma, I trust that these very discussions are part of it’s unfolding within the collective consciousness of humanity. Many householders experienced enlightenment in the time of the Buddha and I am sure continue to do so, and what does this mean anyway, enlightenment??????

    Greg Kramer in his inter-relational dharma practice speaks of ‘trust emergence’, we only have to perceive the current flow of the dharma into the mainstream, and trust it, to see that this is the direction that things are going in. How we apprehend and respond to this is what will make the difference and this goes back to the respons-ability of practioners and skillful means.

    I am grateful that I, a 21st century woman, in London have access to all these wonderous manifestations of the dharma, even virtually :0) I welcome these changes. Where would I have been had I been born a woman in England at the time of the Buddha or even a woman in India?????? and even now many women have an inferior status within Buddhist religious practice. I welcome change……

    I appreciate Mu Seong’s chapter. I feel that it is important that we reflect on these questions.

  5. Hi Rosie!!

    I may have given the wrong impression. I don't believe Mu Soeng is advocating we become monastics! In fact, I think I was trying to say he was doing exactly what you say: "that he was ‘excavating’ the original orientations of both Buddhist practice and Yoga."

    My pont to Susan was just this. We have to remember that at the time of the Buddha, the ONLY option available for anyone wanting to study/practice yoga WAS to become a renunciant. There was no tradition of practice for the householder. Thus, the Hindu 'stages' of life, where after one has a family and career, one leaves home to become a forest-dweller. It wasn't until the teachings of the Buddha AND the Bhagavad-Gita that we see a path outlined for the householder.

    That said, there are plenty of passages where the Buddha is said to have spoken about the difficulties of the householder life and there is no argument that he strongly advocated the renunciant life. And as for Patanjali, he was teaching to those who had already become renunciants.

    What I think is most important about Mu Soeng's piece is his reminding us of how Yoga/Dharma is about the life of 'restraint.' I actually think this is all-too-often forgotten or ignored by the contemporary yoga community (such as it is).

    My concluding 'critique,' is in response to his statement that "there's a need to align oneself with the worldviews of these traditions if one is to go beyond the habits of consuming desires and to use these traditions as consumer items."

    I DO agree to the extent that these worldviews espouse a culture of restraint that is radically at odds with contemporary culture. BUT, I don't think we need to take on the worldviews themselves. In fact, as I make clear in my post, I actively reject their worldviews as too world/life denying in its transcendentalist perspective.

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