Saturday, December 12, 2020

Popularity vs. Profundity in Yoga and Buddhism: some reflections

1. Now the teachings of yoga.
2. Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
3. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
4. Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness. 
                                 opening verses of the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali

These four verses are the definition of yoga from what is widely regarded as the tradition's most canonical text. Not a whole lot of linkage here to Lululemon tights, "yoga butt," or twisting yourself into knots in a hot room while listening to techno, is there?

Things aren't a whole lot healthier in the secularized, dumbed-down world of what the brilliant David Chapman calls Consensus Buddhism, the mash-up of white people's versions of Theravada, Zen and heavily expurgated Tibetan Tantra that is all over Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun and Oprah Magazine. Ixnay on renunciation, death contemplations, ethics and the rest, and pass the everyday mindfulness and radical acceptance of pro-consumption nowness, please. 

For yoga, one can (and should!) read an overview text on the tradition as a whole, and I can think of nothing to equal Georg Feuerstein's The Yoga Tradition. Even if you just skim this encyclopedic work you get a very clear sense of the hundreds of yogas that exist, and of how recent - and how trivial - a part bodily contortions and fitness play in the tradition as a whole. 

For Buddhism, get hold of a copy of David McMahan's essential The Making of Buddhist Modernism (see the review by David Loy here) to get a sense of how profoundly "filtered" our understanding of the Buddha's teachings really are. 


I'm nowhere near as well-versed in yoga philosophy and practice as I am in Buddhism, but at least I've read and practiced enough to be thoroughly humbled by the vastness of my own ignorance. Like author/translator Chip Hartranft (whose translation begins this post) I see Patañjali and the Buddha as perhaps the two greatest yogis of ancient India. The soteriological intention and most of the means to it are the same, and both teachers were clearly masters of pranayama, dhyana leading to samadhi, and liberating insight.

As Mark Singleton has demonstrated nearly all of what passes for yoga in the West is an amalgam of Western gymnastic exercises with a few introductory Hatha yoga techniques, heavily filtered through Christianity, Theosophy, and romanticism. Meanwhile the yoga tradition as a whole, of which Buddhism is one small part, comes out of the shramana rebellion against the Vedic tradition, and is distinguished by its profound spirit of renunciation and self-reliance.

On a mass-market level, yoga in the West consists of various stretching workouts, many under brand names (Bikram, Core Power, Anusara, etc.) and the content of group classes (themselves a very recent and weird anomaly in the tradition's long history) is close to 100% asana

At a somewhat more refined level we have the traditions flowing from Sri Krishnamacharya, with Iyengar and Ashtanga being by far the best-known, while his more mature teaching as represented by teachers such as T.K.V. Desikachar, A.G. Mohan, Srivatsa Ramaswami and Gary Kraftsow enjoy much smaller followings. The Krishnmacharya traditions are also very asana-oriented, but at least there is instruction available in pranayama and therapeutic applications, even if classes in these traditions are just as unlikely to include the silent meditation that all the asana and pranayama are supposed to be a mere prelude to.

I don't have any personal experience of Tibetan yantra yoga or the tsa lung practices (training in which is restricted in any case and certainly not appropriate for someone anywhere near my age), but my sense is that yoga practices of these sorts, that move the physical body in order to activate and cleanse the subtle body, have probably mostly disappeared from the Indian subcontinent and in any case, being part of the Tantric tradition, are certainly far removed from the Brahmanical, mostly Vaishnaivite teachers of modern "orthodox" hatha yoga.

The Buddha, Sarnath


I sat my first Zen sesshin (with Joshu Sasaki Roshi) at age 15 and by 17 had moved to Boulder, Colorado to study with the well-known (and notorious) Chögyam Trungpa. I was a passionate student of philosophy and psychology, East and West, and chose the Nyingma and Kagyü lineages of Tibetan Buddhism after a careful exploration of every other option for both study and practice I could find. Much earlier on - starting around age 10 - I had been sending away to far-off Ceylon for little pamphlets from the Buddhist Publication Society, but like so many others in the West I glossed over - or rather sped through - the fundamental teachings on the 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, śīla, samādhi and prajña and the like in favor of pursuing the "highest" teachings.

At some point after repeatedly receiving advanced teachings in Mahāmudra and Dzogchen from wonderful teachers I realized that I, along with many fellow students, simply did not have the freedom from defilements or steadiness of mind to really put these teachings into practice in a consistent way, and I decided to set them aside temporarily and build a stronger foundation. To that end I began a thorough investigation into the earliest teachings and practices of Buddhism, as found in the Pali suttas.

What I found as I encountered Westernized, secularized Theravada Buddhism (the "vipassana" movement, or as Bhikkhu Sujato puts it, vipassanavāda) was a rather amazing juxtaposition of teachings of the utmost clarity and usefulness (4 Noble Truths/Eightfold Path, the 5 Hindrances, 7 Factors of Awakening, precept practice and much more) with meditation practices featuring conflicting instructions, unclear origins and vehement insistence by famous teachers that their technique, and only theirs, was the true path to liberation, what the Buddha taught, etc.

I was exceedingly fortunate that the timing of my personal "back to basics" quest coincided with great advances in the scholarly study of Early Buddhism, by scholars such as Richard Gombrich and Rupert Gethin and a new generation of scholar-practitioner monks capable of reading the suttas in every language in which they are preserved - most notably Bhikkhu Anālayo and a handful of his colleagues.  As a result of their work, we have, in just the past 10-15 years, gotten a much clearer idea of what the Buddha actually thought (the most concise summary of which can be found in a document with that name referenced at the end of this post).

If Iyengar and Ashtanga are the two best-known brands of mainstream yoga, the equivalents in modern Theravāda (or rather, vipassana, a highly secularized offshoot) are the methods expounded by Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma and S.N. Goenka of India, a student of another Burmese teacher by the name of U Ba Khin. Today's best-known Western vipassana teachers (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, etc.) studied with these teachers and their leading students, along with having some exposure to the less well-known Thai forest traditions.

Jack Kornfield details the challenge of integrating diametrically-opposed meditation instructions from revered teachers in this fascinating history of Spirit Rock meditation center. More important though is what's left unsaid: namely, the fact that all of the meditation techniques being taught were invented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the basis of late commentarial literature rather than the Buddha's own words in the suttas. I'll list a couple of books by Bhikkhu Sujato at the end of this post for those who want to explore the why and how of this in more depth, but the concise summary of the invention of vipassana is here, in Theravada Reinvents Meditation.

So what we find, in both the yoga and Buddhist worlds, is that the loudest and most strident claims of authenticity are made by those furthest removed from the radical simplicity and transformative power of the traditions in question. Anyone who reads the early suttas gets a pretty clear picture of the kinds of meditation the Buddha himself taught and practiced: Satipaṭṭhāna (the four establishments of mindfulness),  ānāpānasati (mindfulness with breathing, and the brahmavihārās  or "divine abodes" through which our normally egocentric heart-minds can be reoriented towards limitless friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. Samatha and vipassanā, rather than being presented as separate forms of meditation in the suttas, are alternating and equally important aspects of all of these practices. 

What isn't found in the suttas is this: anything called vipassana meditation; any words or techniques corresponding to Jon Kabat-Zinn's out-of-thin-air recasting of mindfulness ("paying attention on purpose, nonjudgmentally, in the present moment"); mental "noting" a la Mahasi; "body scanning" a la Goenka; "dry" insight, "momentary" concentration, etc. 

This isn't to say that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) or the noting and scanning techniques of Mahasi and Goenka aren't beneficial to many people. Clearly they are, but the exclusive claims to validity of their proponents (I know several people who were refused entry to Goenka retreats because they'd practiced at Spirit Rock, and on the Mahasi side the abuses are even more rampant) are harmful, while more than a few who've practiced in these traditions end up unable to function in the world, or having to take up therapy and other practices to reconnect with their hearts, as Bhikkhu Sujato discusses in this short video.

So what form of meditation did the Buddha practice and teach? Bhikku Sujato gives this useful summary (the full blog post is here):

"The word sati, which we translate ‘mindfulness’, means ‘memory’, and was originally used by Brahmans in the sense of memorized Vedic scriptures. To effectively recall large bodies of text, you get into a zone of clarity and presence, free of distractions. This was one of the influences in developing what we today call ‘meditation’.

The Buddha adopted this Brahmanical usage, and used sati to for both ‘memory’ (of texts) and ‘presence of mind’ in meditation.
Modern teachings on mindfulness are almost exclusively derived from a peculiar 20th century interpretation of one text, the Pali Satipatthana Sutta. This doctrine, the vipassanavada, says that satipatthana is a practice of ‘dry insight’, where the meditator, without previous practice of tranquility meditation, is ‘mindful’ of the changing phenomena of experience. This alone is sufficient to realize enlightenment.

When we carefully consider the range of teachings found in early Buddhist texts on mindfulness, it becomes clear that this doctrine does not hold up.

There are seven versions of the Satipatthana Sutta material, as well as hundreds of other texts on mindfulness. Relying on all these, not just one, we come to the following picture of mindfulness in early Buddhism.

While sati is used in many contexts, the most important is the four satipatthanas, or ‘establishments of mindfulness’. These are ‘right mindfulness’, the seventh factor of the eightfold path. The purpose of satipatthana is to gain the eighth factor, right samadhi or the four jhanas.

The word satipatthana is a compound of sati and upatthana, meaning to ‘set up’ or ‘establish’. It is the focussing and presence of awareness on an object; in other words, it basically means ‘meditation’.

Satipatthana is the ‘contemplation’ (anupassana) of body, feelings, mind, and principles (dhammas). ‘Anupassana’ means ‘sustained watching’. It is an awareness that stays on one thing and doesn’t jump from object to object. For this reason satipatthana is said to be the ‘way to convergence’, ekayana magga.

The main practice of satipatthana is breath meditation, anapanasati. One focusses on the breath, keeping awareness there, continually ‘remembering’ the breath. As the physical breath becomes tranquil, one moves from body contemplation to the awareness of the subtle feelings of bliss and rapture that arise in the breath. The mind becomes purified. Finally one reflects on how the whole process is impermanent and conditioned; this is contemplation of dhammas (‘principles’).

There are many other types of meditation that can be classified as satipatthana, but all of them follow a similar course.

The Pali Satipatthana Sutta includes a number of sections that are not shared with other texts on satipatthana, and which are later additions.

One of the additions is the inclusion of the awareness of postures and daily activities among its meditation exercizes. The awareness of postures is, in every other text, part of the preparation for meditation, not a kind of meditation itself.

Another late addition to the Pali Satipatthana Sutta is a ‘refrain’ following each meditation, which says one practices contemplating ‘rise and fall’. This is a vipassana practice, which originally belonged to only the final of the four satipatthanas, contemplation of dhammas.

The contemplation of dhammas has also undergone large scale expansion. The original text included just the five hindrances and the seven awakening factors. The five aggregates, six sense media, and four noble truths were added later.

Each version of the Satipatthana Sutta is based on a shared ancestor, which has been expanded in different ways by the schools. This process continued for several centuries following the Buddha’s death. Of the texts we have today, the closest to the ancestral version is that contained in the Pali Abhidhamma Vibhanga, if we leave aside the Abhidhammic elaborations.

Tracing the development of texts on satipatthana in later Buddhism, there is a gradual tendency to emphasize the vipassana aspect at the expense of the samatha side. This happened across various schools, although there is some variation from text to text, and perhaps some differences in sectarian emphasis. This led to various contradictions and problems in interpretation.

Nevertheless, in all schools and periods we also find presentations of satipatthana that hark back to the original meaning. For example, the great Yogacara teacher Asanga defined mindfulness as ‘the sustained awareness of the previously experienced object’.

By considering mindfulness in its historical context, by including all relevant texts, and by understanding the historical evolution of the schools, we arrive at a richer, more nuanced, and more realistic understanding of mindfulness. This not only helps us appreciate our tradition better, it gives a more useful, balanced, and authentic framework for practice."

Summing Up

One of the explanations (excuses, really) given by Mahasi Sayadaw for omitting the samatha meditation of the Buddha and replacing it with vipassanā of his own invention is that modern people don't have the time to practice what the Buddha taught. Noting and dry insight on intensive retreat were thought to guarantee "stream entry" (the first stage of liberation in Theravada), or at least a smoother ride in samsara.

The great scholar-practitioner Alan Wallace, meanwhile, estimates that the average practitioner will need to spend about 5000 hours in meditation under secluded conditions to achieve shamatha (the first jhāna). The Buddha himself taught samatha  and jhana to laypeople, confident that learning to find pleasure in states of profound calm generated from within was a vital first step towards renouncing the clinging to sense pleasures that is the root cause of suffering. 

There's no question that yoga-as-workout, like mindfulness for stress reduction, are here to stay and are of great benefit to many, and the same is true of the watered-down Dharma Lite that's all over the internet. Any amount of healing from pain, amelioration of illness, increased ease in body and mind, is wonderful. At the end of the day though, such uses of the "vehicles" of yoga and Dharma are like using a Lamborghini for a stop-and-go commute, and what I fear may be lost is any knowledge of what they are capable of on the open road of full commitment. 


Historical and Doctrinal Context

As I mentioned above, the magnum opus for understanding how "vipassana" essentially replaced the integrated practice of samatha-vipassana taught by the Buddha is this tome by Ven. Sujato. Most lay practitioners will probably be sufficiently informed by reading just his synopsis of it which I provided the link to above, plus Chapman's excellent summary of the history in "Theravada Reinvents Meditation."

Meditation en masse by Erik Braun is an article that details the invention of vipassana meditation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and its worldwide dissemination. It's a "Cliff's Notes" version of his highly-regarded book on the same topic. 

What the Buddha Thought by the great Pali scholar Richard Gombrich provides unique insights into the Buddha's use of metaphor, satire and simile and how his key teachings were often thoroughly misconstrued by later commentators. It's the only book I know of that considers (and sheds much light on) the audience the Buddha was speaking to and his historical context. 

Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (And Why it Matters), by Robert Sharf: Professor Sharf, in this particular article, shows clearly how much of both Vipassana and Zen as we've come to know them in the West are very recent inventions made largely in response to colonialism and Western influence.

Broken Buddha by the Ven. S. Dhammika, a long-term monk in the Thai Forest tradition provides a detailed overview of Theravāda Buddhism as it's currently practiced, from an experienced insider's point of view. And hen also points out one rather telling fact: there wasn't a single meditation manual published in The Theravada tradition in between the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) in the 5th century A.D. and modern Burmese manuals in the early 20th century. 


Satipatthana Meditation : A Practice Guide by Bhikkhu Anālayo. A masterful work and great introduction to this amazing scholar-practitioner. Over the course of the past couple of decades this one-of-a-kind monk, due to his combination of unique language skills (he reads texts in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese) and intensive meditation practice has created a body of work which gives us the most comprehensive answers we have to the question "what was the Buddha's own practice?" (or more accurately, "what do we know of Buddhist practice during the tradition's first 200 years?"). His Mindfulness of Breathing : A Practice Guide "bookends" satipaṭṭhāna practice with the more advanced ānāpānasati ones. Add his unique sutta-based instructions for practicing the Brahmiviharas (found in his book Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism and also taught wonderfully in these guided meditations and you have a complete path of practice for a lifetime. 

Three Steps to Awakening by pioneering Western insight meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg is a much shorter, simpler and more accessible guide to meditation than Bhikkhu Anālayo's more scholarly texts but is no less profound. 

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