Thursday, September 30, 2010


Hello Dear Ones,

I was delighted with the comments so many of you shared around the September Daily Practice of the Morning and Evening gathas. I hope you will consider continuing to practice with them, as over time they grow deeper in their import and transformative power.

For this month, I'd like to pick up as a practice something that many (most?) of us tend to do fairly absent-mindedly: drinking our morning coffee/tea/juice/water or whatever it is we drink in the morning.

There is a gatha for this as well, though you needn't memorize or use it in order to practice it's purpose and intent of helping us be awake and mindful of the act of drinking. I hasten to add that if your mornings are too time-constrained to take the time to drink mindfully, then please adapt the practice to another time. Whether it's at lunch, during your 'coffee break,' or in the evening, let at least one cup of your favorite beverage be a 'ceremony of daily life.'

Here's the gatha (substitute your beverage of choice for coffee, which happens to be mine!):

This cup of coffee in my two hands --
Mindfulness is held uprightly!
Mind and body dwell
In the very here and now.

Again, whether at home or at the cafe, taking some time to appreciate your drink (and your drinking) will  over time cultivate greater appreciation for other small moments of your day. I especially enjoy taking my morning cup of coffee in my two hands and feeling the warmth of the cup, the roundness of the mug.

Once you've taken your cup or glass in your two hands, either recite the gatha to yourself, while really looking at your drink, OR just take three mindful breaths. Use your senses, look, feel, smell. Then, feel the weight and texture of the cup as you bring it to your lips, the liquid flowing out of the cup, onto your tongue, and really experience its taste(s). Let yourself feel the impulse to swallow and experience the swallowing. Can you trace the warmth down your throat into your belly?

You don't have to drag this practice out. Even five or ten minutes drinking in this way will be of great benefit. AND, I hope I needn't have to add that it's best to "just drink," meaning avoid reading while drinking, chatting or listening to the news. Just drink. Or, as I like to say: "Wake up and smell the coffee!"

Please feel free to share any and all comments about your experience of this simple practice.

AND, finally, if you have any suggestions for these monthly Daily Practices, please feel free to forward them to me. Perhaps some month we'll be practicing one that YOU have suggested!

poep sa frank jude

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Club: "Body and Mind Dropped Away" Roshi O'Hara

The opening paragraphs of Roshi O’Hara’s essay articulates the primary place so many meditators get stuck: thinking meditation is merely about the mind! Joko Beck once described zazen as “exquisitely physical,” and Dogen’s emphasis on posture in the Fukanzazengi, the root manual of Soto Zen meditation makes this clear!

Roshi speaks about feeling/thinking of her mind as some kind of balloon floating over the body. Years ago, I used to think that most of the students coming to my classes lived from the neck up. Nowadays, I think it’s more accurate to say that most of us living today live from our eyebrows up!

The phrase, “body and mind dropped away” can be confusing to those new to “Zen speak.” I remember when I first heard the phrase, I interpreted it to be a reference to some trance-out state of numbness with no sensation of the body and no mental activity. This is why I am grateful that Roshi provides a clear example of what she means by “body and mind dropped away” at the bottom of page 32 into the top of page 33: “The dropping away of all concept of body and mind is like a distorting lens falling away and what is left is a realization that I am the snow, the ice, the earth and sky, while I have not stopped being myself.” I offer a similar example of this in my book, Mindfulness Yoga, where I describe the “dropping away of body and mind” in a hatha-class, where I was the sound of the teacher’s instructions, the music she was playing, the audible ujjayi breath of us students, etc. This experience is most certainly not the blocking or suppression of body and mind.

We all use words, concepts, and there is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with words and concepts. Our error is in forgetting that we are using them, and so they begin to ‘use’ us. Contemplate any weather related sentence: “It’s raining today,” “It’s really windy,” “It looks like it’ll be a sunny day,” etc. What exactly is the “It” that we are talking about? Is there really a subject separate from the rain, the wind, the sunshine? This is no different from the situation of using words such as “I,” “Me,” and “mine.” All serious practice comes down to “What is this ‘you?’”

The Korean Seon (Zen) Master, Chinul, would often exhort his students to ‘trace the radiance back.’ Illuminate the self to become clear about the nature of this ‘self.’ When you go beyond the labels you use to identify ‘yourself,’ (man or woman, teacher, poet, carpenter, liberal, conservative, white, black, yellow, Buddhist, Christian, atheist etc. etc.) what is left?

At the bottom of page 36, Roshi speaks of jijuyu samadhi, the samadhi of union. Many practitioners seek such a state, and don’t realize that striving for it can keep it from arising. But then, as she writes, “there is often an odd and surprisingly pleasant, joyful, and energetic feeling that arises. It is likely that in several tiny time spaces between effort and distraction there were moments of dropping away. The effort and distraction were never necessary, only the willingness to practice as it is.” These “drops of emptiness,” as Thich Nhat Hanh calls them, are indeed blissful moments of clarity, energy and joy. Over time, “we” find ourselves ‘dropping into’ such a natural state with greater ease and frequency.

Not to seem a killjoy, but the danger here is in becoming attached to this state of bliss; this state where body and mind drop into pure play. There are spiritual traditions that more or less drop us here and leave it at that. Roshi speaks for the Zen tradition in saying that this is not yet full freedom. As Chinul said, “It is not enough to be awakened; we must live an awakening life.” From here, we must step out and manifest the Body of Peace in all ten directions and nine times. The image Zen presents is the yogi who comes down from the mountain peak and enters fully into the market place. And goodness knows, the market place needs those who, having dropped body and mind, have seen through the delusion of separateness, and understand that we are all in this together! There is no way that your practice can be for yourself alone. Thinking that possible is itself based upon thinking you are encapsulated in the fathom-long skin bag.

So, thank you for your practice.

Poep Sa Frank Jude

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September Daily Practice: Wisdom Practice (FINAL WEEK)

Dear Ones,

Today begins the last week of September, and so the last week of this particular Daily Practice of reciting and contemplating the Morning/Awakening Gatha and the Gatha on Impermanence. Of course, I hope many of you choose to continue this practice even after the month ends, but with October 1st, I'll be sending out a new Daily Practice I hope you'll join me in practicing next month.

SO, if you've been working with the gathas this month, this final week is a great time to share with our 'virtual sangha' any insights you may have had around this practice. Any questions, resistances, or a-ha moments?

I will share here that since the birth of our baby daughter on Saturday, the 18th, this practice has indeed taken on another nuance. I have another daughter who will be turning 36 next month, and with the arrival of her sister, the truth of impermanence, anicca, the 'constant' of change is more in my face than ever! AND, through this intimate engagement with impermanence, I find re-newed commitment to be as fully present to each moment as possible. Each little spit-up (including the projectile one right to my face as I was enrapt in gazing at Giovanna Maitri's round little face), each diaper change, each moment of contented cuddling. I refuse to fall asleep to this life and take any of it for granted. And this, thanks to Dharma practice.

Frank Jude

Saturday, September 18, 2010

"Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Conclusion)

The final part of Chip’s essay begins with the section entitled “Bhavana: To develop and ‘make much of.’” In fact, it is helpful and important to remember that the word most used by the Buddha for the mental cultivation of meditation was indeed bhavana. As Georg Feurstein points out in his ‘ten fundamental principles’ of the Yoga Tradition, the practice is yoga is all about process. I think even those traditions that emphasize “sudden awakening” do so with an implicit awareness that such sudden awakening occurs after some time of practicing. In Zen, the Korean master Chinul, as well as others, speak of ‘sudden awakening; gradual cultivation.’ This refers to the fact that after the sudden awakening into our true nature, there is a gradual cultivation of that insight, or as Chinul said: “It is not enough to be enlightened; one must live an enlightened life.”

In the sections “Right Effort” and “Gathering Energy,” Chip argues against what is perhaps the most common process in meditation when he suggests that “most yogis benefit from feeling a larger field of awareness and observing” rather then beginning with a “more specified field right from the start.” Frankly, that has not been my experience. Most of my students have a hard time with non-specific awareness and seem to benefit most from first developing what the Japanese tradition calls joriki – a kind of physic energy that allows for the sustaining of awareness which enables them to observe ever-changing field of mind-body experience without getting caught or swept away in them.

However, I do think the points he makes in the section “Within and Without” are valuable to contemplate. For example, I have had many students who found “listening meditation” more accessible than breath awareness or even mindfulness of sensation. Further, Chip argues that the idea that the Buddha meant “in somebody else” when instructing the yogi to be mindful of the body…within, without, or both is “improbable.” I personally do not make much of this, but I also agree – as Chip also notes – that the commentarial tradition that says “external” does refer to others is indeed of great value! Just think of how often you sense the emotion and energetic state of those who you are close to. Such sensitivity is a boon for the cultivation of right action.

In the section entitled “No ‘There’ There,” Chip draws the parallel between the vision of dharma-megha-samadhi mentioned by Patanjali towards the end of the Yoga-Sutra, and the vision of the dhammas arising and passing away. It is this understanding that all phenomena are not ‘things’ at all, but momentary conditions of energy in constant flux that leads to what the Buddha called the liberation of ‘letting go.’ As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we should not think of this as a letting go of reality, but rather letting go of our wrong perceptions and misconceived notions about reality! Letting go means relinquishing all that keeps us (falsely) separated from reality as it is. All boundaries between ‘us’ and the ultimate reality, between us and others is seen as not real. However, for Patanjali, having reified awareness as a Purusha, offers a letting go of one reality (that of the material universe) to abide in another reality (pure spirit or pure awareness). I think this philosophical difference is one that should not be white-washed nor ignored.

Finally, Chip points out how Patanjali would most likely not recognize much (if any!) of what goes on in the typical contemporary hatha-yoga class as yoga! The deep states of concentration he spends most of his time on in the Yoga-Sutra, are by definition impossible to attain while in Downward Facing Dog! So Chip asks if we’re really doing Yoga while on the mat and he says “yes.” I say, “maybe” or at best “it’s possible.” As he points out, if one takes the appropriate mental stance to one’s experience while on the mat (that is to say, if one is practicing and cultivation mindfulness) in such a way that our mind-body conditioning is revealed so that we grow in insight and equanimity, and more toward the stillness of sitting, then one is ‘doing Yoga.’ As I often point out to my students, while practicing “Tree” for instance, if you are cultivating stability and ease mentally, even if continuously falling ‘out of the pose,’ they you are ‘doing Yoga,’ but if you are struggling, and getting caught in irritation or frustration, they you’re just standing on one leg! And apparently not even doing a good job of it!  :-)

frank jude

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Part 3)

Considering that my wife and I are expecting a baby any day now, I thought I’d post as much as I can now, knowing some days may pass after labor begins before I can get back to this. But there’s no rush in “keeping up” as anyone is free to comment on any post, including the earliest ones at any time.

Today, we enter into the second half of Chip’s essay, beginning with the section entitled “The Yoga of the Buddha.”

The Yoga of the Buddha

Chip makes a strong assertion in his very first sentence, saying that “A careful exploration of the Buddha’s Yoga, both through practice and analysis, finds it virtually indistinguishable from the praxis elucidated by the Yoga Sutra. Is this so? From my own reading, study and practice, I offer a qualified agreement. I have long found much support for my practice in the model offered in the Yoga Sutra, and in many ways the meditational practice found there can be called a from of Samkhyan vipassana.

In terms of ethics, in terms of meditational approach, and in terms of many aspects of practice, the Yoga of Patanjali and the Yoga of the Buddha are indeed indistinguishable. However, one big difference in the meditational approach is that in the Buddha’s Yoga, “Samyag Samadhi” (variously translated as “Right Concentration” or “Right Meditation”) is defined as entering into the first, the second, the third and the fourth jhanas, similar to the first four samadhis elucidated in the Yoga Sutra. It was from the fourth jhana that the Buddha is said to have discovered (uncovered?) the truth of “things as they are” and thus led to realization or awakening.

For Patanjali, it most certainly seems that the process of concentrated interiorization of consciousness leading beyond the eighth samadhi and into a vision of reality he refers to as the dharma-megha-samadhi from whence liberation occurs. The import of this is that very few of us will ever likely become virtuosi of meditation, moving into such deep levels of samadhi. And the good news from the Buddha is that we don’t need to!

An important parallel between Patanjali and the Buddha, as Chip makes clear, is that for both of them, the primary means by which humans come to freedom is through “seeing,” (vidya). In this sense, both are soteriological forms of practice based upon “knowing” rather than theological forms of salvation through faith or belief. This, I believe is clear, despite those theistic yogis who interpret Ishvara as some kind of God. And what needs to be seen, is that awareness, free or empty of any characteristics is already and always free, as already mentioned in my previous post.

I really like Chip’s approach to the all-important concepts of vidya/avidya, and abhyasa and vairagya. These last two are the twin poles of yogic practice. As I point out to my students, the most basic meditation instructions point to the necessity of these two principles: “Bring your attention to the breath. Notice when the mind wanders, and bring it back to the breath.” All of this is primarily the practice of abhyasa. And vairagya is the mental stance we need to take to the wandering itself. Letting go of all reactivity (the irritation, frustration, aversion, grasping and clinging) to the mental activity, we practice this ‘non-reactive’ stance, over and over.

The Intention To Awaken

Elsewhere in this blog, we’ve discussed the importance of intention, and of grounding ourselves in the intention to awaken. The Daily Practice for this month of September, in fact, is an example of this in the morning recitation of the “Awakening Gatha:”

Awakening this morning,
A brand new day is before me.
I (vow/intent/aspire) to live each moment fully,
And to look upon all beings
With eyes of compassion.

As Chip says, the Buddha is exhorting us to keep at the forefront of our consciousness the clear intention to awaken. It is helpful to keep in mind that the word we generally translate as “mindfulness,” sati (smriti in Sanskrit) is related to the word for memory!

The Current of Prana

In this section, Chip reminds us that for the yogi/ni, the energetics of the body is of utmost importance, and it is through the breath that we gain entry into the energetic body. It may seem to some a bit pedantic to seem to belabor the point about what is meant by “the body,” but believe it or not, this has been a long-term debate within the Buddhist Yoga tradition, and has profound relevance to those of us who wish to practice hatha-yoga as an integrated practice of Yoga; which is to say, a comprehensive practice bringing the meditational stance and mind to the practice of the movements and postures of hatha-yoga.

I fully agree with Chip, who echoes completely the argument made by one of my root teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, that the “whole body” mentioned by the Buddha is indeed the whole body and not the “body of the breath,” because one has had to pay attention to the whole body of the breath in the earlier practices in order to see if the breath was long or short! After all, how would you know if the breath were long or short without paying attention to the whole breath!?

With the inclusion of the whole physical body, we who practice hatha-yoga can see how the body and the breath inter-are; how the breath conditions the body and the body conditions the breath. I write about this in great detail in my contribution to the book, so I won’t belabor the point here.

Tomorrow, if labor hasn’t already begun by then, I will conclude our examination of Chapter One and look forward to continuing with the contribution of Roshi O’Hara.

In metta
frank jude

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Club: "Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Continued)

Today’s post is perhaps the most challenging for me as I need to address a subject I confess I am not as clear upon as I would like to be. Michael Stone and Chip Hartranft are both better educated than I am, as well as much more subtle thinkers than I, so when we come to a point of disagreement, I want to tread carefully as I am not sure I understand their position well enough to summarize it, and therefore I’m a bit anxious about misrepresenting their perspective. I will invite both of them to comment, of course.

Discrimination and Freedom

Chip begins this section accurately describing Patanjali’s position that consciousness (citta) as part of mind and therefore of Prakriti, does not "know." Consciousness is a display known in the space or emptiness of awareness (Purusha). The discriminating insight (viveka) is recognition of the difference between consciousness and awareness, and is something that must be seen directly. Of course, this direct seeing can only occur once the agitation of mental and physical reactivity has been calmed down, hence the importance of yogic (meditational yoking) practice.

For Patanjali, freedom from the misidentification of awareness with consciousness is only possible once the distinction is clearly seen. Awareness (Purusha) is other than Nature (Prakriti). It is, as Chip translated, “of a different order than unfolding nature.”

Throughout the ages, it is this understanding of Patanjali’s that Purusha and Prakriti are of two different orders, shared with the Samkhya school of philosophy, that has been acknowledged by scholars and yoga practitioners to be of a dualist nature. While most of the Yoga tradition adheres to a non-dual (or perhaps more accurately monist) philosophical orientation, dualism is not unknown. There is even a dualistic form of Vedanta, though the non-dual form is by far more known and influential – especially upon the contemporary practice of Yoga.

For Patanjali, this direct vision sees that suffering is in fact simply an artifact of consciousness (and thus Prakriti). Awareness, Unconditioned Knowing is, and always has been, untouched by suffering! Awareness is impersonal and timeless, beyond conditions, therefore beyond suffering. As Chip points out, the yogi doesn’t really become free from anything. Awareness was always free. The whole drama of bondage and liberation is played out in the mind (Prakriti) while Purusha had been the disinterested witness all the while!

Phenomenologically, it does indeed feel like there’s a distinct difference between awareness and consciousness. Imagine yourself thinking, “I am so confused!” How do you know you are confused? Is the awareness of your confusion confused? Of course not! It clearly knows confusion is present. Awareness has no sense of “I” in it either. It is a “pure subjectivity” with no “self” in it. Thus it can never be “known” as a object of knowledge. Awareness itself simply “is.”

But, when we take this experience as an ontology, like I believe Patanjali intended, then this duality is understood to be ‘real.’ In fact, this is also the understanding of Theravada Buddhism.  Remember I said in the ocean of the Yoga Tradition, we’d find some schools of Buddhism that had more in common with schools of Hindu Yoga than with other schools of Buddhism? This is one of those cases!

The distinction between Purusha and Prakriti in Patanjali’s Yoga is similar to the radical distinction between samsara and nibanna (nirvana) of the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Yet, Chip and Michael argue that those who make the case for Patanjali’s dualism are missing the point. I am not clear as to how they come to deny the dualism of Patanjali. In conversation with Chip, I said that unless Patanjali were to declare “Purusha is Prakriti; Prakriti is Purusha” echoing the non-dual emptiness teachings of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, we cannot escape Patanjali’s embedded dualism. He did admit that such a formulation would be alien to Patanjali.

This philosophical point, I believe is worthwhile investigating because even if one wants to argue that these are just words, metaphors, such metaphors have significant impact on the way we view the world. For Patanjali, it makes no real sense to speak of jiva-mukta, embodied enlightenment or embodied liberation. For Patanjali, full liberation is a dis-embodied, fully transcendent state of being! The state of kaivalya arises when the gunas, of no more relevance to awareness, become resolved into the unmanifest Prakriti. For Patanjali, (and the Theravadins) nature, this world, only has significance or value to the extent it serves us to transcend it! At the conclusion of this section, Chip seems to imply that Patanjali endorses the jivan-mukti position of embodied freedom, but I remain unconvinced. Of course, this  doesn’t mean we cannot re-interpret the text to give support to this idea, but let us acknowledge that that is what we are doing.

But again, the real sticking point for me is this teaching that there is a “pure awareness” that stands apart from the constructs of birth, identity, thought and experience. Even in the Buddhist tradition there has been on-going debate about the existence of some kind of “pure awareness.” For dualists, this is not a problem, as they assert that there really are two ontologically real ‘substances.’ To my mind, some ‘middle-way’ perspective that sees the two as interdependently arising seems both to make sense and to resolve the issue of dualism and/or non-dualism.

The question may arise as to what’s the big deal? For me, I want a spirituality, a spiritual practice that values the body, the world, this life rather then seeing it all as simply something to be emancipated from! For me, the liberation is in the transformative relationship to the body, the world and to life that comes from seeing directly the not-Self nature of all of it.

The Indian Buddhist yogis, for instance, used this “not-Self” doctrine as a way to devalue the conventional, relative world. Later Buddhist yogis of the Hua-yen school essentially discussed the doctrine of emptiness similarly to the Indian masters with the main difference being one of emphasis. That difference is that the Hua-yen masters chose to emphasize the point that emptiness is interdependence. AND, simultaneously, they emphasized that interdependence is emptiness. So, even for the Chinese, emptiness functioned as a way to critique the conventional mode of perception and experience, thus devaluing it. However, at the same time that the perception of emptiness abolished the clinging and grasping after independently existent selves or substances, there also emerged from this metanoia (a turning in the mind) a very positive appreciation for the way in which things relate to each other in identity and interdependence. The Hua-yen masters interpreted emptiness in a positive manner without concretizing emptiness as did some other Mahayana schools, but neither did they fall into the greater error of even greater attachment to the world, nor did they abandon the basic Buddhist understanding of conventional experience as delusive and painful. So, by “positive,” I do not mean to infer that they see emptiness as some positive force or entity. What I do mean, is that in its emphasis on interdependent being (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘interbeing’), Hua-yen was able to retain a positive, even joyous, creative appreciation of the absolute value of each aspect of this being.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Club: "Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft (Continued)

In today’s post, I’d like to take up where I left off in the previous post in discussion of Chip Hartranft’s contribution to Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. In section five Chip introduces Yoga’s Eightfold Path, Ashtanga.

He begins by saying that despite differences of philosophical description and emphasis, the yoga paths of Patanjali and the Buddha are “virtually indistinguishable.” In fact, I have heard some scholars say that Patanjali offers a form of “samkhya-vipassana,” and while I think this is actually quite accurate, there are other scholars, such as the esteemed Georg Feurstein, who though giving Chip’s translation and commentary on The Yoga-Sutra a very strong positive review, also asserted that Chip goes too far in drawing the parallels. Here, Chip even implies that Patanjali was inspired by the Buddha “to adopt the well-known structure of the Buddha’s eightfold path.” I think there is no argument that one eightfold path influences the other; however, there is some evidence that may lead one to assert that the ‘real’ yoga originally taught by Patanjali is the kriya-yoga he describes and that the yoga he is most known for, ashtanga, or the eight-limbs model, is actually a later editorial insertion!

An interesting observation, in any case, is that in the Buddha’s eightfold path, the first two limbs are related to wisdom, the middle three to ethics and the last three to meditation, which in Patanjali’s eightfold schema, the path begins with the first two limbs of ethics, then goes into progressively deeper interiorization of consciousness. Here again, many (Buddhists) have asserted that all the following limbs are devoted to meditation, and that Patanjali’s path lacks the wisdom component. I disagree with that assessment, but it does seems that wisdom for Patanjali must come from the deepest levels of concentration/absorbtion (samadhi) while that is not seen as necessarily so for the Buddhist tradition. One last remark about the two paths here that I’d like to make is that when the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is presented as the Three Trainings, then the first limbs are ethics, the middle three are related to meditation and the final two are related to wisdom. This ordering seems more in line with Patanjali’s ashtanga-yoga.

In the next two sections, Chip briefly notes the yamas, as “disciplines” that address the yogis relationship to the world and the niyamas as “disciplines” relating more to the yogi’s internal personal sphere. While this is something often stated, and makes for a handy, efficient summarization, the situation can easily lead to overstatement. For instance, the first yama, non-harm (or as Chip has it, non-violence) does indeed relate to how a yogi should act in the world with the intention of causing no (or as little as possible) harm to others. But many teachers have also pointed out the importance of non-harming oneself through one’s thoughts and actions.

In his section on asana, Chip makes the important point that if we take Patanjali’s instruction here to heart, then rather than being merely a progressive ‘step-ladder’ the eight limbs are holistic and even holographic in that any one limb carried to its deepest depths can – in Chip’s words, “mature to the point of transformation.” In fact, after years of practice, several years ago I began teaching a retreat/workshop entitled Body of Peace that is based simply on the three aphorisms related to asana (as well as a single paragraph from Dogen’s Genjo-Koan.) Another point Chip emphasizes is though one can indeed seek to create stability and ease in hatha-yoga-asana practice, it cannot be denied that the most subtle levels of relaxation Patanjali is speaking about cannot arise outside of more stable postures such as sitting – and, as the Buddha might add, lying down.

I totally agree with Chip’s take that the pranayama of Patanjali is not to be confused with the more active pranayama of hatha-yoga, but instead relates to the subtle changes that naturally arise when one “yokes” one’s attention to the breath and the energy currents riding the breath. I am sure many of you who practice meditation have found times when the breath has grown very slow, with long gaps between the breath, and perhaps even periods of time where the breath seems to have stopped completely, effortlessly. 

Extending into pratyahara, Chip describes this as attention becoming so unifed that the power of externals to distract is “neutralized.” What I find interesting about pratyahara is that while many speak of this as akin to a tortoise withdrawing it’s limbs, and to a complete blocking out of any awareness of “externals,” I find the Zen teaching on keeping the sense doors open, so that awareness of externals remains, but, without distraction a kind of more subtle and deeper practice of pratyahara. In fact, the kind of samadhi where all awareness of externals is absent is often derided in the Zen tradition.

Chip concludes his overview of Patanjali’s ashtanga-yoga by simply stating that the final three limbs form a continuum where all “names, concepts, psychosomatic structures, and volitions come to subside, after which only a phenomenon’s bare arising and passing away remain.” Hence, from one-pointedness (dharana) to one-flow-ness (dhyana) to total absorption (samadhi).

The birds have vanished into the sky,
And now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
Until only the mountain remains.

--- Li Po

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Club: "Awakening To Prana" by Chip Hartranft

Chapter One: “Awakening To Prana” by Chip Hartranft

Today I'm posting some observations on the first four sections of the opening chapter of Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind. I do hope that those of you also reading along share any thoughts you may have in response to Chip's writing or my post...

Chip begins his essay noting the common assumption that Yoga is primarily concerned with the body and meditation with the mind. This is, of course, because in the public’s mind (and here I include many practitioners as well!) Yoga has been reduced to the physical practices of asana and perhaps pranayama.

All forms of contemporary Yoga practice that emphasize the postural practices are forms of hatha-yoga, a form of yoga that only goes back about 1,000 years or so. This includes the most popular forms such as Anusara, Iyangar, Power Vinyasa, Ashtanga-Vinyasa etc. They are ALL hatha-yoga, despite the fact that nowadays the term seems to have been relegated to any form or approach to asana practice that is not Trade-marked!

Chip distinguishes hatha-yoga from raja-yoga, the meditative path of yoga practice emphasizing mental unification leading to wisdom and liberation as espoused by Patanjali in The Yoga-Sutra. Of course, the term raja-yoga predates Patanjali, and is one of the major approaches to yoga detailed in The Bhagavad-Gita from at least 700 years previous to Patanjali.

Chip points out that the “ineffable” sense of contentment and clarity we experience in physical practice may awaken in us the possibility of something far greater and deeper, which may lead us to explore the deeper traditions of meditation. Many teachers and proponents of contemporary yoga indeed say that it doesn’t matter if people come to practice to develop a tight ass or six-pack abs; that from doing the physical practice, they are drawn to the deeper practices.

While I too do not care what initially motivates someone to take up the practice of  hatha-yoga-asana, I do not think there is anything inherent in the physical practice that will de facto lead to deeper exploration. I have found this so for many people, but equally not so for many others! I think it’s a combination of karma if you will, and the subtle guidance of a teacher that may lead a student to investigate the deeper teachings.

The Tree Of Yoga

It’s telling how deeply entrenched the notion of Yoga and meditation being different is that even Chip begins this section by distinguishing “the traditions of Yoga and meditation!”  This even after he has made the point that meditation as in raja-yoga predates the physical yoga tradition of hatha!

The rest of this section offers a clear, concise history of the Yoga Tradition as it arose from within the counter-cultural shramana movement. While it is common to find those who seek to find the roots of Yoga in the Vedas and the practice of the Brahmanical priests, and while I do think a thin thread may be found there, I think it over-stretches it to actually seek Yoga’s roots there.

The shramanas internalized the external fire sacrifice of the Brahman priests, and rejected much of the cultural system, including the caste system: highly regarded shramana teachers came from the warrior, merchant and servant castes as well as from among the more radical brahmans. It’s also important to remember that the Buddha was a participant in this shramana movement, and that Buddhism can be seen as the most ‘successful’ (in terms of numbers, longevity and influence) of these shramana groups.

An important point in this section is Chip’s assertion that the Yoga-Sutra is best seen as a kind of road map for praxis, oriented to epistemology rather than some metaphysical postulation of an ontology. I think this is true, and yet we mustn’t forget or ignore that in time a school of philosophy did indeed form around these teachings that did in fact have a big influence on the trajectory of the Yoga tradition after Patanjali.

Chip ends this section by pointing out the deep Buddhist influence on the Yoga-Sutra, evidenced by both parallel and common teachings (such as the Four Brahma-Viharas and the Five Powers, among other teachings) as well as in it’s criticism of certain other Buddhist teachings such as what it took as the idealism of the Yogacara school.

The Meditative Yoga of the Yoga-Sutra

Chip takes the opening sutras (Y.S. II; 2 – 4) as evidencing the commonality between Patanjali’s and the Buddha’s Yoga teaching.  The experience of stilling the movement and activity of the mind reveals a “timeless, subjectless, unconditioned awareness” that knows nature in all its varying manifestations. He asserts that though the mind imagines and expresses this awareness as having both a divine, universal aspect (Ishvara) and an individual one (Purusha) knowing is actually not an entity or point of view, lying beyond the mind and it’s spatial and temporal fixations.

Chip says that this has “riled” those scholars and religionists who attempt to equate Purusha with atman – “soul,” “Self,” “Witness,” “Seer” etc. common to other systems as well as those who insist on seeing Ishvara as the divine cause of the universe. A clear reading of the text, without presumptions shows us that Ishvara is merely an ideal Purusha who has never made the “mistake” of mis-identifying itself with Nature (Prakriti and the limited mind). This “knowing” is immanent in the cosmos, empty of all personal, material, of devotional association. This knowing is said to be “seen directly” (vidya) as opposed to imagined in the mind upon awakening.

I think Chip makes a coherent argument for this understanding. I can also imagine the Buddha saying to Patanjali, "If it lacks the personal, why call it a person!?" That is to say, by using the masculine noun purusha, it would be hard to imagine the notion that it is an entity not arising in those who came after! Chips description of his understanding of purusha does indeed sound similar to the Buddha's description of nirvana. However, the Buddha refused to take that extra step that Patanjali took, and which leads many to think of purusha as Self, Soul etc.

He succinctly summarizes his view here by emphasizing that what is key for a suffering being to realize is that this witnessing that knows IS NOT one’s perceptions, sensations, or thoughts. Every aspect of the experienced universe of phenomena issues from the contingent body-mind, and is in constant flux and are not inherently ‘self’.’ When the ‘pure’ awareness of Purusha mistakes itself for the shifting contents of bodymind, we are not seeing clearly things as they really are (avidya). Consciousness unfolds, projected before awareness. The situation is similar to someone watching a movie in a theater. Imagine if s/he were to forget they are in the theater watching the movie, but instead have gotten so identified with the protagonist in the film that they feel terror when s/he is being stalked, they crouch in their seats to hide from their stalker, and finally feel relief as the stalker walks off in the other direction.  They have ridden the ups and downs, feeling fear and relief when in fact they have always been safe, and free, sitting in the theater watching the projected images.

How To Do, How To Be

In this section, Chip explores the methodology used to ‘deconstruct’ the illusion that there is a self navigating through a seamless life and reality in order to see directly the separate, sequential “frames” of the movie called “chitta” in the Yoga-Sutra, but referred to as dhammas in the Abhidhamma teachings of Buddhism.

The twin ‘poles’ of yogic will and practice, begins with abhyasa, the continuous, applied effort to keep the mind focused. This continuous practice of staying with, and coming back to the point of focus each and every time the mind wanders is the ‘heart’ of meditative practice. Over time, the yogi comes face to face with conditioned habits of thought and reactivity (samskara / vasana). As concentration develops, the yogi cultivates samadhi.

The other aspect of meditative practice is the cultivation of a non-reactive mental stance to the flow of experience. This “non-reactivity” is vairagya and is the enactment of the deep trust needed to stay with whatever experience, however enticing or anxiety-provoking, without any reactive grasping or aversion. This is one reason the Buddha referred to the practice as 'going against the stream,' as it requires the yogi to literally go against the stream of biological, cultural, and social conditioning! Over time, a deep equanimity is developed.

Looking forward to 'hearing' from you,
in metta,
frank jude

Practice in Four Steps:
1.    Bring your attention to the natural flow of the breath.
2.    Notice when the mind is distracted from the breath.
3.    Bring your attention back to the flow of the breath.
4.    Repeat steps 2 and 3 several billion times.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September Daily Practice: Wisdom Practice DAY EIGHT

So, dear ones....

Today begins the second week of this month's Daily Practice. If you're just joining us, you can look back at the previous posts to learn about this month's practice of the "Waking Up Gatha" and the "Gatha On Impermanence."

Today, I am simply reminding those of you who have made the personal commitment to take up this month's Daily Practice, to share any and all insights, questions, experiences you might like to share. I am hoping to hear from those of you who have taken up this practice so that we can create the situation of a 'virtual sangha.' Also, hearing how you're doing with this month's practice can influence future month practices.

So, have you noticed any effects of the Waking Gatha on how you move through your day? Has the evening gatha provoked any interesting, perhaps challenging thoughts and/or feelings? Has it been difficult or fairly easy to remember to practice the gathas?

I'm all 'ears!'

frank jude

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind Book Club: "The Introduction" by Michael Stone

Michael lays out his purpose in conceiving and editing this book in his very first sentence where he says that it is written for those who find themselves “compelled by the teachings and practices of both Yoga and Buddhism” who are “moved to better understand the porous border between them.” He goes on to affirm their “interdependent history,” and their shared goal of “recognizing suffering and bringing it to an end.”

Before going any further, we again need to clarify what it is that we are referring to by the term “Yoga” in this passage. If one is referring to what I call the “ocean” of teachings and practices originating in the sub-continent of India, I’d say to speak of “Yoga and Buddhism” is already inaccurate as Buddhism is a form of Yoga. If, however, one is referring to the so-called “Classical Yoga” of Patanjali, then we can most certainly compare these two Yoga traditions, but for accuracy, I’d write “Classical Yoga and Buddhism” for greater clarity. And, from this perspective, it is certainly true that the Yoga teachings of the Buddha and of Patanjali share both an interdependent history AND are their respective traditions are incredibly porous!

Michael makes a point that I find both important, and personally frustrating at times in its having to be necessary at all: Yoga has been reduced in the contemporary mind to being all about body practice, and Buddhism has been equally restricted to being an exclusively mental practice! Nothing could be further from the truth!

Michael makes an interesting analogy with trees, comparing (Classical) Yoga and Buddhism to an oak and a maple tree. They share many commonalities, and of course have many differences. He takes it through three levels of comparison. I too often make use of the tree analogy, but I have one tree: the Tree of Yoga. And one branch of this tree is Buddhist Yoga, and another is Classical Yoga (and others include Vedanta, Tantra and from that in turn Hatha.

What do you think? Does either of these models seem more relevant to your own understanding?

What may come as a surprise to many readers is just how little we know of the Buddha and Patanjali as individuals. Do you think this makes any difference as to how we should receive their teachings?

Finally, I would love to hear from any of you regarding what may be the most pertinent issue raised in the Introduction: Michael asserts a “fundamental affinity between mind practices and body practices.” What do you think of this statement? How does it relate to your own experience of meditation and/or sitting meditation? Is it accurate to conceive of meditation as being about the mind and hatha-yoga-asana to be about the body? Or do you agree that this is a simplistic reduction at best, and perhaps a broad misperception?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mindfulness Yoga Book Club: "Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind"

The "Foreward" by Robert Tenzin Thurman 

I’d like to ‘ease’ into our reading and discussion of this anthology, edited by Michael Stone, first so that we can enter into the spirit of the book and to encourage (hopefully) thoughtful dialogue. Second, I’d like to give people a few days to get the book – if they haven’t already – and to begin reading. Third, it’s good to access where we are before beginning and to orient how we’d like to proceed.

Robert Thurman’s “Foreward,” sets out the topic of the book as being “Yoga and Buddhism.” We might want to take a moment and ask ourselves just what we are referring to by these two terms. From my side, Yoga (with the capital “Y” and which I sometimes refer to as ‘the Yoga tradition’ is the large body of teachings and practices – with an emphasis on practices – coming from the various cultures of the  Indian sub-continent. The practices are what Georg Feurstein calls “psycho-physical technologies’ designed to transform one’s bodymind in a radical way such that one transcends the ‘typical’ human existential situation, from one of duhkha to one of freedom (moksha).

This leads to the further inquiry as to how does this definition differ from what we may say of Buddhism? I would argue, ‘not at all!’ Where things get interesting is when we speak of the various ‘yogas’ and then there are many differences to be uncovered. But, as I hope we shall see, there can be larger differences between two Hindu yogas then between some Hindu and Buddhist yogas!

Thurman has often insisted that Buddhism must cease to function as “Buddhism” for its various methods to have the biggest impact on modern (western) culture, and in many respects I agree with him. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, the west is not in need of another religion! Thay has said that Buddhism can have its biggest influence on modern culture through psychology, ecology, and feminism. I would simply add that it is as a form of yoga, that Buddhist practice can perhaps influence and permeate all the other areas.

An important point Thurman makes is the necessity for one’s “taking responsibility for one’s own health, cultivating a stronger sense of meaning in one’s life, finding the inner strength to express joyful altruism, and developing artful connoisseurship toward enjoying every minute as if it is the ultimate in every sense.”

Our culture tends to support a rampant sense of ‘victimization,’ whereby we seek to blame others for our situation. This is most absurdly evidenced by a case I’ve read about where a burglar sued a homeowner for an injury the burglar sustained while attempting to break into the man’s home!

But the Dharma teaches us that we create our life’s meaning; that our response in the world determines our happiness; and that each moment is indeed ‘absolute.’ Right here and now, we can choose the actions that will determine whether we live as free people or as victims. In Zen, we chant the Gatha of Atonement (at-one-ment) as a practice of remembering (mindfulness) of this fact:

All unwholesome karma ever committed by me since of old,
Because of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

With this expression, we take back any power we have given over to others to determine our happiness and freedom. With this expression of strength, we assert that we will not be victims; that we acknowledge that no one can, for instance, ‘make’ us angry.

Thurman ends his “Foreward” by speaking a bit about how during the fifty years of his teaching and practice of the Dharma, “it seemed that Americans were intently preoccupied with the pursuit of money, status, possessions, and experiences of pleasure, and unrelentingly unconscious of the impact of their lifestyle on the world around them.” He speaks of how little training in ethical consideration, and in the mind’s higher faculties of concentration, mindfulness and wisdom’s critical insight we are given. This truth points again how truly 'counter-cultural' authentic yoga is -- or 'should' be!

Thus, he says, books such as this are essential to the curriculum of ‘hopefully ever greater numbers of students’ in order for them (us) to be prepared to live meaningful, productive, self-less, satisfying lives, and in so doing, to enter fully into a positive, contributive relationship to our globalizing society.

It is my hope that this blog, and our joint investigation and discussion (of this book, specifically, and of our Daily Practice, generally) can help us all to cultivate such meaning, joy, compassion and wisdom!

Poep Sa

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September Daily Practice: Wisdom Practice DAY ONE

I am not planning on posting about Daily Practice everyday. Don't worry! However, the journey of a thousand miles begins with that first step, and if that first step is a bit halting, if we do not address that 'mis-step,' the whole journey can be set off the rails!

SO, today was the first day, and you may have found that you either crawled or bounced out of bed, completely forgetting to glance over at your "Gatha Card" this morning! No problem! Use this 'forgetting' to impress upon yourself just what the Buddha meant when he said that the practice of awakening goes against the stream.

Our habitual reactions -- in this case how we get up from bed -- are deeply rooted. The stream of our conditioning leads us to wake up each new day as we did the day(s) before until we remember to stop and go against that stream of conditioning!

It's helpful too, to remember that the word we translate as 'mindfulness' is the Pali word sati (in Sanskrit, smriti) which comes from the word meaning "to remember." Mindfulness is the practice of consciously remembering to be present, to remember to notice when we lose presence, and to come back to presence when we see we've forgotten. 

SO, make that internal commitment to remember to read the Gatha of Impermanence this evening before bed. Impermanence means that you can indeed stop and change your habitual reactivity. So that's the good news of impermanence: tomorrow is a new day. And you can begin anew!

poep sa