Friday, March 30, 2018

Eating Salt

A long time ago, a fool was invited to a neighbor's house to share a meal. Once the food was served, the fool was displeased because he found the food bland. His neighbor noticed this and immediately sought to remedy the situation by offering the fool some salt. After the fool sprinkled some salt on his food and took a bite, he said to himself, 'The salt has really made the food quite tasty. If such a small amount of salt has had such an effect, just imagine what a lot of salt will do!'

To his neighbor's astonishment, the fool pushed his meal to the side and began to eat the salt by itself. Of course, it wasn't long at all before the foolish man had burned his mouth, and instead of being delighted he groaned in pain.
---from "A Flock of Fools," a translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt of "The One Hundred Parable Sutra"

The "morale" of this story given in the book by Tanahashi and Levitt is simply "A person who misconstrues the Way of Understanding* is just like this fool. He hears that by eating and drinking less, the Way may be gained, and so he fasts for seven or even fifteen days. He ends up starving himself in vain and realizes nothing of the Way. Consider carefully and you'll find it is so."

That may be so, but I think there are so many other lessons we can take from this parable. First, we've all heard that sometimes 'less is more' and that it's possible to have 'too much of a good thing.' In fact, we have heard this so many times it's become a cliche and yet we find ourselves often falling into the trap of believing that if a little is good, much more will be better! Hell, it's pretty much the basis of capitalist greed.

Speaking with a friend about this parable yesterday, she remarked on how it can also be seen as what can happen when we cling to some object and fail to see dependent origination: the food alone was bland. When salt was added to the food, the food became tasty. The tastiness arose dependently upon the small amount of salt added to the food, but the fool fixates on the salt and fails to see this. And this failure of understanding is also related to our failure to discern actual causes and conditions that lead to specific experiences, and thus causes us to focus on the wrong things.

*The capitalization of terms such as Way and Understanding is in the original. I shy away from such capitalization as it tends to idealize and reify such terms. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Yoking The Mind IS Yoga....

This mind is like a fish out of water that thrashes and throws itself about, its thoughts following each of its cravings. Such a mind is unsteady, attracted here, there, and everywhere. How good to contain it and know the happiness of freedom.

Yet, how unruly still; how subtle the delusion of the haphazard thoughts. To calm them is the true way of happiness.

Putting a bridle on the wandering mind, single-mindedly the practitioner restrains her thoughts. She contains their darting waywardness and finds peace.

With the fetishization and hyper-valuation of asana (the postural practice of yoga) in the contemporary “yoga community” it seems many, if not most, practitioners haven’t been told that the original meaning of yoga; the original practice of yoga was meditation, often described as a bridling or yoking of the mind. In fact, the word yoke is a cognate of the Sanskrit yoga, both tracing back to the Proto-Indo-European word yeug meaning “join.”

Now there have been many yoga practitioners who have taken this teaching about yoking the mind to go as far as saying that the best outcome would be to stop all thinking. In fact, many have translated the second aphorism of The Yoga-Sutra in just this way: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.” Even many buddhist yogis see deep states of non-conitive samadhi as some kind of end-goal and this has led to a pernicious anti-intellectualism in much popular, contemporary Buddhism and yoga.

However, intellectual rigor, study, and debate were always part of the various yoga traditions and it may be helpful to remember that “right thinking” is, after-all, the second of the eight limbs of the noble eightfold path of yoga practice taught by the Buddha.

We can take this teaching from the Dhammapada as pointing out that most of the thoughts that arise throughout our day are indeed of a scattered, wasteful, conditioned pattern of a mostly not very useful nature. Through meditation, in particular satipatthana or mindfulness-meditation, we can become more intimately familiar with our thinking so that we can contain the wasteful thinking in order to create a more stable and calm mind with which thinking can become more directed, skillful and creative.

It’s not too farfetched to say that the world is in the shape it is because very few ever get a chance to actually stop and investigate the nature of the mind. And so, people are mastered by their thoughts instead of them mastering their thoughts. The first important step in containing the mind is to first take an honest look at the mind that is unrestrained and untrained. When we take the time to do this, we can begin to see how much of the thinking that goes on causes us – and those around us – so much suffering. Training the mind, we can begin to create the peace in the world we say we seek.

All we need is to begin. Sit down comfortably in a suitable space where you won't be interrupted and just rest your attention on your breath. Soon enough, the mind will wander. Gently, free of adding any agitation or self-criticism, bring your attention back to your breath. And do this every time you mind wanders. Seeing how much the mind wanders is the first insight. Later, you can begin an inquiry into what kinds of things your mind wanders to. And all the while, each time you gently guide your attention back to the breath, you are cultivating the yoking skill of concentration.

Why not try it now?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

By Way of the Mind

"The world is apprehended by way of the mind
The world is acted upon by way of the mind
And all good things and bad
Exist in the world by way of the mind.
---Samyutta Nikaya

It would be easy to interpret this verse from the Samyutta Nikaya as philosophically idealistic as several schools of buddhism have done, and go as far as saying that the world is simply a projection of the mind. However, it seems that the buddha, like Patanjali, thought there there was indeed a world that exists independently of the mind. However, it also seems that this verse can be seen to be asserting -- somewhat phenomenologically -- that all we can know of the world comes via our sensorium: the perceptions we experience via our senses.

The world is apprehended by way of the mind. 

One meaning of this word, "apprehended" is to "catch, capture" or "seize" while the secondary meaning is to "appreciate, recognize, discern, perceive, realize, grasp, understand" and "comprehend." I would argue that while the secondary meaning is most appropriate to this reading, in that we come to recognize, perceive and understand the world via the mind, it is also true that we may "seize" upon our perceptions -- often to our detriment. But it is clear: it is through the way of the mind that we come to perceive and understand the world.

The world is acted upon by way of the mind.

If you stop and take a moment while reading this, to look around at your surroundings, you'll see that everything, from the computer you are reading this through (not to mention the internet itself) to the table you are sitting at and the chair you are sitting on originated in the mind of someone who had a vision or inspiration and then made an effort to make it visible and physical. This is simply another way of pointing out that action follows the mind -- whether with conscious volition or unconscious conditioned reactivity, all action is preceded by mental formations.

And all good things and bad
Exist in the world by way of the mind.

And with this sentence there can easily be a more idealistic interpretation to the extent that to an often very great degree it is the mind itself that projects "good" and "bad" upon the world. For instance, two people step out onto their porch on a rainy day. For the farmer who had been praying for rain, it is a good day! For the parent who had promised their child a picnic, it's a bad day. Perception is all that determines the "good" and "bad" of it.

BUT, it would be a form of spiritual sickness to take this to the extreme we see often voiced by so-called 'non-dual' practitioners who assert "it's all good" or that "good" and "bad" are always a mental projection. This is getting caught in the 'absolute' while denying the 'relative.' In this world of multiplicity, there is good and bad. 

However, when we look at much of the cancers that eat away at our society such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classist exploitation, and bigotry of all kinds, along with the headlong rush into climate catastrophe, we are foolish to ignore that these are "bad" in that they cause much societal and individual suffering. But it is also true, in the spirit of this sentence and verse, that such systemic ills do indeed arise by way of the mind. By way of greed, hatred and ignorance.

For instance, at the time of the buddha (and for many fundamentalist Hindus today) the caste system is accepted as being simply part of the "natural order" of the cosmos. The buddha saw the suffering of such a system and rejected its validity and justification by pointing out that not all cultures had such a system, and therefore the caste system is a cultural creation (a creation that arose via the mind).

Mindfulness meditation offers us the all-too-rare opportunity to see the nature of mind; it's functions and abilities. Mindfulness meditation practiced to its fullness can be a form of metacognition leading to greater clarity regarding the nature of the mind. We can, through practice, change our relation to the mind and use the mind towards the betterment of all life.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The "Dim-Witted Monk" and Yoga Practice

One day, a bright and intelligent student of the Buddha asked if he could bring his younger brother into the sangha. Delighted, the Buddha said, “Of course!”

The younger brother, however, although kind and gentle, was a bit slow and “dim-witted.” He just could not understand any of his studies and asked to go home so that he wouldn’t waste the buddha’s time or let down his brother.

“There’s no need for you to give up” said the Buddha. “You needn’t abandon your working toward liberation just because you seem to yourself to be slow-witted. You can drop all the philosophy you’ve been given to study and simply repeat this mantra that I give you.” So the Buddha gave the younger brother a mantra and sent him off with encouragement to practice.

But soon the monk was back, this time feeling even more humiliated. “My beloved teacher, I can not remember the mantra you gave me and so I cannot practice as instructed.”

The Buddha kindly and patiently repeated it for him, but twice more the monk came back having forgotten it each time. So the Buddha gave him a simplified variation but when this too slipped completely out of his mind, the young monk could hardly dare to visit the Buddha again.

“There’s an even shorter version,” the Buddha said, smiling. “It’s only two syllables. See if you can keep this in your mind.”

But… he could not. Alone in his hut, the young monk broke down and wept. His older brother found him in this state and was furious, feeling that his own reputation would now be sullied because of the failure of his brother. He told the young monk to leave the sangha and return home, and so the boy left and sadly made his way along the path to the village.

As he made his way through a grove of trees, he met the Buddha practicing walking meditation. The Buddha smiled and took his hand. Together they walked to a nearby temple where two old monks were sweeping the floor. The Buddha said to them, “This young monk will live here with you. Continue sweeping, and as your brooms move back and forth, say the two-syllable mantra that I will give you now. Keep at this till I return.”

The young monk sat down and listened to the movement of the brooms to and fro over the stone floor. He heard the whispered rhythm of the mantra as it was repeated over and over again. This went on for quite a few weeks, and before the Buddha returned, the young monk had found complete liberation, and so had the two old monks.

--- Majjhima Nikaya

There are a few reasons I am fond of this story from the Pali Canon. The first is that it shows both the patience of the Buddha and his compassion and willingness to work at finding something accessible for this ‘dim-witted’ student to practice. I think there is a fairly sizable demographic of yogis whose animosity to what they see as the watering-down of yoga to make it accessible is a form of purist elitism that fails to look at the motivation of those who are creating new twists and formats.

Now, I too find myself wincing when I find posts about things like “Yoga With Goats,” which I am sure some reading this probably find lovely and fun. And what do I know, maybe even liberating! And, while "Nude Yoga" doesn't sound like my bag, I've talked to people who teach and practice it and see a true and dedicated motivation in alignment with yogic values of transcendence.  After all, self-transcendence or liberation is the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of yoga practice. (Putting aside for the moment the fact that liberation itself has been variously and often mutually exclusively conceptualized across yogic history, lineages, and philosophies).

But still, the point I’m wanting to make is that I find inspiration in the fact that the Buddha was willing to take so much time, without any hint of losing patience with this student until he found a practice that worked for this individual – and apparently the other two elderly monks!

And that’s the second point: I’ve read recently some articles that wish to nail down what yoga is and even what asana is to a very narrow and ultimately sectarian definition, claiming that any postures that are not seated meditation postures should not be called asana! Balderdash! Hatha-yogasana are asanas. They are not preliminary postures preceding ‘real’ asana.

Or… more specifically, they needn’t be seen as such. A ‘stable, easeful’ mind makes anything we do yoga. Note, I am not saying that “Yoga is whatever we say it is.” I am saying that what we do can become a yoga practice. This is most emphasized, perhaps, in the zen buddhist yoga traditions where gardening, cooking, eating, shitting and sitting are all integrated as practice. But such a view has it’s roots in the Pali Canon’s Satipatthana-sutta where the Buddha gives the instruction to practice sati while doing any and all of our ‘mundane’ daily experiences:

“Again, yogis, when going forward and returning he acts clearly knowing; when looking ahead and looking back he acts clearly knowing; when flexing and extending his limbs he acts clearly knowing; when bending down and standing up he acts clearly knowing; when wearing his robes and carrying his outer robe and bowl he acts clearly knowing; when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting he acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating he acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent he acts clearly knowing.”

When Yoga Journal asked me seven years ago what my practice consisted of, I included the then new practice of changing diapers as my daughter had just been born, and I was not being flippant. My zen training prepared me for seeing the possibility of breaking through to liberating insight through any non-harming activity. A gatha written by Thich Nhat Hanh for using the toilet, alluding to the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra states:

Defiled or immaculate,
Increasing or decreasing –
These concepts exist only in our minds.
The reality of interbeing is unsurpassed.

Yoga started out as conceptualized as the yoking of the unruly mind. It was so for the shramanas whose teachings were ultimately written down in the Upanishads. It was so for the writer of The Bhagavad-Gita. It was so for the Buddha and it was so for Patanjali. Like the “dim-witted” monk in the story, if we yoke our mind to the sweeping of our home’s floors, we are practicing yoga. And we may find ourselves, as my teacher, Samu Sunim would say, ‘immediately, intimately, spontaneously, and obviously’ awake!

prajnaparamita svaha!