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!

Monday, January 22, 2018

Yoga & Abuse

Part One

Recently, riding the rising tide spurred by the #metoo movement, women yoga students have been speaking out about the abuse and harassment they have been facing -- some of them for years. We're by now all aware of the horrendous criminal behavior of Bikram Choudary, but many of us are just learning of the long-term harassment perpetuated by Astanga Yoga guru, Pattabhi Jois through the revelations of Karen Rain. (Please be sure to follow the links in order to read Mary Taylor's anemic response to Karen Rain as well as to view the linked video)

If we've been practicing for any length of time, we're probably familiar with the all-too-many scandals including those around John Friend and Rodney Yee.  Sadly, these are just two of the western yoga celebrities who have failed to live up to yoga's own ethical guidelines embodied in the Yamas (or the Buddhist yoga equivalent, the Precepts). But it's not been just western teachers, and it's not simply a very recent problem as this comprehensive list shows. And it includes those held up as "saints."

I've previously written about abuse in the buddhist community and pointed out that such abuse is -- at heart -- not about sex or money, but ultimately it's an abuse of power

One take-away from all this is that yoga is not something apart from human foibles. There is a long and deep tendency to romanticize yoga, yoga teachers, and yoga practitioners and perhaps this very romanticization is one of the factors behind such atrocious behavior (along with the patriarchal nature of traditional yoga and the contradictory and confused relationship to sexuality in our culture).

And now, Yoga Alliance is wishing to center itself as an arbiter of ethics. To be frank, I am no fan of the Yoga Alliance. Over the course of 20 years it has positioned itself as being something it is not. The Yoga Alliance is NOT a certifying or licensing body; it is simply a registry of yoga teachers who can prove they've taken a yoga teacher training that meets Yoga Alliance's woefully dismal standards (200 hours emphasizing postural practice, with barely any depth in terms of the history and philosophy of the vast Yoga Tradition). 

But by clever positioning, they've created a situation where many employers who know no better will only hire a yoga teacher who has registered with Yoga Alliance (perhaps days after completing their 200-hour training) over someone with decades of experience who has not fallen for the money-making scam of the Yoga Alliance. And students looking for a Yoga Teacher Training will often pass by longer, more in-depth trainings offered by seasoned veterans for a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training mill because it is registered with the Yoga Alliance.

So, with that said, I will say that it is good news to see Yoga Alliance seemingly taking the abuse and harassment in the yoga community seriously. Especially given their historical woeful "responses" to those who have gone to them for support such as Cori Wright. Of course, as a registry, they really have no power other than -- as Sharon Roche says -- taking away their "credential." Note that on their website regarding their grievance process it says:

Yoga Alliance will respond to each grievance received. We will also take appropriate action(s) to ensure compliance with our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, and Policies. 

Yoga Alliance will address all breaches in our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, or other Policies with the person and/or school. Any information you share will be recorded in the account holder’s file. This information is only accessible to Yoga Alliance and may be used to inform the development of our grievance process in the future.

In the interest of protecting students and trainees, we address all breaches in our Standards, Requirements, Code of Conduct, or other Policies with the person and/or school against whom the allegations were submitted. 
Yoga Alliance affords all registrants due process. Therefore, we may not be able to provide updates regarding any action(s), conversations, and/or outcomes taken with the person or school. 
This all sounds to me like a lot of blustering. As you can see there is very little other than platitudes and empty phrases being offered here about "appropriate actions" and addressing "all breaches" of their standards, but they don't actually say what such actions are or will be, nor via what channels they will address "all breaches." And then in response to the question: 

Will Yoga Alliance revoke or suspend the school or the teacher's account?

Yoga Alliance affords all registrants due process. Yoga Alliance may or may not satisfy your intended outcomes and desires if you file a grievance.
In other words, caveat emptor.

Part Two
So, unable -- or unwilling -- to look to Yoga Alliance for any guidance, the discussion and actions that must be taken look as they are up to us to take the lead. And, as to be expected, perhaps, when the topic of ethics is raised, there is bound to be much drama, heat, and argumentation. 
"Aren't the Yamas (or Precepts) enough of a guideline?" ask many practitioners. But the history of abuse should be answer enough that they are not. And while we would all agree that rape is absolutely wrong, rationalizations around some of the adjustments Jois gave, for instance, are still being made by some among the Astanga Yoga lineage. And then the issue of the relationship between teacher and student grows even murkier, with quite a surprising number of teachers saying there is nothing at all wrong with teachers and students becoming sexually or romantically involved and others finding it absolutely a non-negotiable no-no.
The most common argument against yoga teachers becoming sexually involved with their students is the argument based upon the alleged "power imbalance" between teacher and student. But here's an article written by a women who argues against the idea of any power imbalance. 
I've been asked if I would think it wrong for a personal trainer and their client to become sexually involved; that in most cases the relationship between a yoga teacher leading a class in postural practice is more similar to that of a personal trainer and their client than between a therapist and their client or that between a dharma teacher and their student. 
I'm writing this to invite any who may read it to offer your viewpoints, as I am not putting myself out as some final arbiter of ethics. Attempts by any organization to create a universal code of ethics will continue to meet resistance from those who wish yoga to remain de-centralized.  Given that, I believe individual studios and local communities must become involved in responding to the abuse that has remained in the shadows for too long, and work to dissolve the current murky situation with clear guidelines made known to all students.

I do think that the Yamas or Precepts may serve as a foundation for ethical guidelines, but then I believe studios and individuals may need to formulate their own "Codes of Ethics" that get more specific and go beyond the general categories covered by the Yamas and Precepts as Spirit Rock has done with their "Teacher Code of Ethics," most notably in their added points on sexual relations.

I wish to end this with a short survey of the Five Precepts from the Zen traditions as a way of sparking discussion:  

1. I vow to avoid causing harm; I vow to cultivate reverence for life.
This is the first precept I took with Thich That Hanh in 1995. And how do we avoid causing harm? The buddha recommended that we think ahead about the possible consequences of our actions. And even if we proceed to act because we have not foreseen any possible harmful consequences, we must keep vigilant to see if there are any unforeseen harmful consequences and change course and make amends. We are human; we will mess up, but we must be committed to learn from our unskillful actions. How do we cultivate reverence for life? Thay suggests we do so by being as mindful as we can, practicing gratitude to the life we all subsist upon (whether vegan, vegetarian or not), and by eating moderately. 

2. I vow not to take what is not freely offered; I vow to practice generosity.
This second precept reminds us to not steal, which includes not taking credit for anything others have said or done. We also should not steal from ourselves. And generosity, the buddha said, goes to the very heart of yoga: self-transcendence. We all can give of our time, energy or material resources, whether a kind word or smile or volunteering at a non-profit, or donating money to a cause we support. 

3. I vow not to indulge in exploitative, oppressive sexual relations; I vow to practice consensual sexual responsibility.
Whether we are monogamous, polyamorous, or involved in any kink such as BDSM, it isn't the act itself but the heart/mind motivating the act. By definition, consensual sexuality cannot be exploitative or oppressive.

4. I vow not to lie, or spread rumors of which I am not certain; I vow to speak the truth at the appropriate time, to the appropriate person, in the appropriate space for the appropriate reason.
Right Speech is a powerful yoga practice and perhaps the most difficult. Truth can be wielded as a weapon to harm others, so note the point about checking our motivation for speaking. There may be times when noble silence is the best way to practice right speech. Right speech most notably includes not speaking of things of which we are not sure, which would end the divisive, cancer of gossip.

5. I vow not to intoxicate my mind; I vow to maintain clarity of mind.
Buddha means "awakened person" so Buddhism could literally be translated as "Awake-ism." Thus, the value of a clear mind cannot be overstated. We often fixate on drugs and alcohol as intoxicants, but we can intoxicate ourselves with gossip, Facebook, television... and even yoga practice if we are using our practice to avoid reality. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Middle Path

“Let me tell you about the middle path. Dressing in rough and dirty garments, letting your hair grow matted, abstaining from eating any meat or fish, does not cleanse the one who is deluded. Mortifying the flesh through excessive hardship does not lead to a triumph over the senses. All self-inflicted suffering is useless as long as the feeling of self is dominant.

You should lose your clinging involvement with yourself and then eat and drink naturally, according to the needs of your body. Clinging attachment to your appetites – whether by deprivation or indulgence – can lead to slavery, but satisfying the needs of daily life is not wrong. Indeed, to keep a body in good health is skillful, for it supports the mind in staying strong and clear.

This is the middle path.”

--- The Buddha from “Discourse One”

The Buddha had lived a life of indulgence before setting off to become a yogin. And then after six years of extreme austerities, on the verge of collapse, if not death, he decided to bathe and eat, build up his strength and stamina and eventually broke through to full awakening. And from the first teachings of what became a 40-year teaching career, he taught the middle path, and ever since, this moniker has become synonymous with Buddhism.

The Emaciated Buddha after years of extreme tapas

Even to this day, there are yogins in India practicing the extreme forms of renunciation, but what the Buddha is reminding us, whether we abstain from or indulge in our appetites, though it looks very different, there is the same fixation on the self. And it is this fixation that traps us in the round of dukkha (dissatisfaction, stress, suffering, pain).

In another teaching from later in his career, he had a student who had been a veena player. The veena is a lute-like stringed instrument, and the Buddha, consummate teacher that he was, addressed Sona’s experience as a musician to teach him the middle path of practice. He must have noticed Sona sitting in meditation either in a collapsed, overly loose way or in what zen teachers refer to as the “stone Buddha,” sitting rigidly and overly stridently effortful. The Buddha asked:

“Sona, what happens when you tighten the strings of the veena?”
Sona replied, “The pitch increases.”
“And if you continue to tighten the string?” the Buddha asked.
“Then eventually the string will snap,” replied Sona.
“And what happens when you loosen the strings?” the Buddha continued.
“The pitch decreases,” Sona answered.
“And again, if you continue to loosen the strings?” asked the Buddha.
“Then the string will become so slack that it won’t make any sound” Sona replied.
“Then how do you make the strings sound harmoniously? the Buddha responded.
“By making them not too tight and not too loose” said Sona.
“And that is how you should practice meditation” the Buddha pointed out.

Now, raised as we are on fairly tales, many who hear this story assume that once one is not too tight, not too loose, we live “happily ever after” as if “not too tight, not too loose” was a permanent state of being. But any string player will tell you, that “not too tight, not too loose” is always a relationship to circumstances. If you tune in a room that is 70-degrees F and 30% humidity, and then move into a room that is 85-degrees and 75% humidity, you are going to have to retune!

We are always having to make adjustments to ever-changing circumstances. There is no such thing as balance so much as we are continually balancing. It is a dynamic process and relationship and to maintain this relationship requires vigilant mindfulness.

This is important to understand because otherwise the “middle path” may be misunderstood as equivocal, but it is properly understood as “upright, centered, and neutral.” The middle path requires us to investigate and penetrate life’s circumstances with as unbiased an attitude as possible (which is where a metacognitive aspect comes into mindfulness practice; we need to learn about and be alert to biases such as the confirmation bias in order to compensate and correct for it). In order to see clearly so that we can respond skillfully and wholesomely to life’s ever-changing conditions, we need to position ourselves in a stable, neutral, upright, unbiased attitude. Those of you familiar with the definition of yoga-asana may see some similarities here! From this stable, yet relaxed grounded position, we can investigate our situation from various angles, analyze what we discover (uncover), understand clearly (clear comprehension, as the satipatthana has it) and find a creative and skillful response. In this way, we can liberate ourselves from our conditioned, biased reactivity and move toward the skillful response.

The middle path represents the distinct perspective and way of Buddhist practice more common to humanism than to other religions. Buddhism lays great emphasis on human thought and action and their relationship to the environment, society and culture. It is concerned with the relationship between the changing conditions of the environment, society and culture and the thoughts and actions of the individual and groups and the relationship between these thoughts and actions and their consequences. It is an investigation into causality.

Through this investigation, the Buddha came to offer two main characteristics of the middle path: the teaching of Dependent Origination and the Noble Eightfold Path. Dependent Origination shows the process of causality, how phenomena and situations arise and pass away based upon myriad causes and conditions. The Noble Eightfold Path shows the way of practice as a response to Dependent Origination.

"The Tathagatha avoids the two extremes
and talks about the Middle Path.
When this is, that is; with the arising of this, that arises.
Through ignorance volitional actions or karmic formations are conditioned.
Through birth, decay, death, lamentation, pain are conditioned.
When this is not, that is not; with the ceasing of this, that ceases.
Through the complete cessation of ignorance, volitional activities or karmic formations cease. 
Through the cessation of birth, death, decay, sorrow, cease."
(Samyuktagama, Chapter 12)