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.