What are we doing and where are we going?
“All rivers flow to the ocean.” “Many paths to the same summit.” In yoga and Buddhist circles, we often hear that although there are many different paths (maybe as many as there are practitioners), that all the paths lead to the same place. This is a common refrain, taught not just by people (like me) who tend to use tools from many different traditions in their spiritual search, but from sages (like Ramakrishna, the great 19th c. Hindu saint) who recognize that many faiths and practices lead to the same thing: union with the Divine, which comes in many names, but is One. As much as I adore Ramakrishna and other teachers who say this, honestly, I’ve always had my doubts. It’s come up this month in our workshop on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and I think is one of the most interesting issues in the integration of multiple traditions (like yoga and Buddhism) – an integration that I and so many practitioners I know are devoted to exploring.
Reading the Pradipika (a 15th c. yoga manual, and one of the root texts for modern yoga) it is clear how different it is from either the classical yoga texts, like Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita, or the tantric texts that more directly precede it. And it’s even further from the Theravada Buddhist tradition that is my foundation. The practices described in the text are relentlessly physical (like in most modern yoga manuals, though here they’re breath and energy practices rather than mostly asana), and the stated goal of the practice is siddhi (perfection, or supernatural powers) and “immortality” (though I’m pretty sure they’re speaking – like the Taoists – esoterically rather than literally). A natural question came up in discussion with one of the participants, who like me practices both hatha yoga and Buddhist meditation: how does this relate to the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering? Good question. How, while we’re at it, does it relate to Patañjali’s goal of kaivalya, or recognition of the independence of consciousness and form? Or the tantric goal of jivanmukti – full awakening in this lifetime? DO all these very different practices lead to the “same” result? My question for the ecumenical teachers as well as to enthusiastic lump-togetherers is this: if cause-and-effect (karma) is a natural law, wouldn’t the results of these very different practices be… very different? And a question for multi-lineage practitioners is: are we working at cross-purposes? How deeply are these practices simpatico?
There’s assertions both ways. One argument from the tantras that is repeated in the Pradipika is that the more physical practices (like asana, pranayama, purifications, etc.) prepare one for, or lead to, the state/experience of raja yoga, which is the meditative absorption at the pinnacle of Patañjali’s method, essentially synonymous with the samadhi at the heart of the Buddhist path. Some say that because our modern age (and minds) have degenerated (from a more pure past), grosser practices are necessary, but that they guide us to the same place. The Gita says basically the same thing, adding that many of the practices (like the meditations that lead to raja yoga) are very difficult, but that bhakti yoga – specifically, devotion to Krishna coupled with renunciation of the fruits of one’s actions – is the best because it’s the easiest.
Many traditions take the opposite view: that their own path is the only way. The Buddha famously practiced under the best yoga teachers of his time, achieving the deepest meditative attainments (dhyana/samadhi) taught, and was invited to teach alongside his teachers. But he recognized that that yoga only led to temporary freedom (bliss while in samadhi, but ordinary consciousness – including suffering – when not), and left to continue his search for an unshakeable liberation. When he finally came upon the practice that did bring about the end of his search, he identified specific insights (the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination) that were not taught in any other yoga, and which are the keys to liberation. He called his method “the Direct Path”. And of course lots of religions say that theirs is the Only Way.
Without getting into “best” or “only”, I’m more interested in “different”. The Buddha’s liberation hinges on letting go of the causes of suffering, namely grasping and ignorance. Grasping (and its angry brother, aversion) are what lead directly to suffering and stress (dukkha), and they themselves are rooted in ignorance (avidya) – not seeing reality clearly. I’m devoted to this letting go (though I fail all the time!), and practice aspects of it – like noticing preference and comparison, and feeling the sting of attachment and ego – throughout my activities, and certainly while doing yoga. Those of you who come to my class know this interweaving well. The question of goals came up in conversation with my friend Ashley Sharp, an excellent teacher who also integrates Buddhist mindfulness into yoga asana. If hatha yoga is rooted in the cultivation of physical and energetic clarity and power, as the classical texts emphasize and which we definitely practice in modern asana-based yoga, how does that square with a mindfulness practice that encourages us to let go of attachment to the body and cultivate an equanimity of mind that recognizes aging, sickness and death as inevitable?
Casual observation tells me that the different paths lead to different places. I see powerful yoga teachers that shine with an inner and outer radiance, and preach on bliss, grace, and abundance. And I see Buddhist teachers who exude the deepest calm and stability of presence I’ve ever seen, and who preach on the virtues of letting go and seeing clearly. Both kinds of teacher seem awakened, but their liberations manifest in very different ways. One compromise possibility is that the various traditions do lead to similar states of Union (and the deep meditative states are described very similarly in many traditions), but that the understanding that arises from that Union manifests in ways that reflect the Path taken to get there. In this way, the Buddha’s nirvana, Patañjali’s kaivalya, and the tantric sahaja samadhi, (all names for the pinnacle of practice), could be “the same”, but enlightened beings would still walk through the world differently, based on all the conditions that brought them to that enlightenment.
Complicate this by remembering that nirvana is described as “unconditioned”, meaning that it is not a result of practice. This is very difficult to grok. Practice is necessary for liberation, but if liberation was dependent on practice, it would be – like samadhi or any profound state – a transient experience bound to its conditions, and thus not a reliable release from dukkha. So we get a two-pronged mystery: do lots of practice, making the conditions ripe, and then when it’s ready, the fruit drops (this is the metaphor used in the ancient mahamritunjaya mantra we often chant in class). Or go in the advaita direction, and do as Sri Poonja suggested: “call off the search!” This really means call off attachment to anything at all, of course, and thus is itself a practice, even if it’s the practice of non-practice! There is still the moment of something dropping away. This spontaneous (sahaja) dropping still begs the question: does it drop from – or to – the same place?
Rather than propose an answer (I don’t have quite enough hubris for that), I want to suggest a practice for us as polymorphous postmodern yogis. Often at the beginning of yoga class we pause to set an intention (sankalpa) for our practice. We dedicate our practice to an aspect of our own unfolding, or remember someone we want to send blessing to, etc. Likewise, “wise intention” (samma sankappa) grounds the Buddhist 8-fold Path. The Buddha teaches that whatever we repeatedly dwell upon becomes the “inclination of the mind”. So I propose that whatever specific practice we’re doing, we will be inclining the body and mind toward whatever specific intention we are holding – whether conscious or unconscious. So if we’re in yoga to get a calmer mind and a flatter belly, and practice techniques to achieve those things, that’s where we’ll be headed. (Whether we get there or not will depend on conditions.) If we’re in yoga to see through the grasping ego, we’ll progress in that, even as we stretch and sweat. If we’re (unconsciously, perhaps) practicing in order to gain power over others, then that power will be the center of our practice – with predictably painful results.
This only works up to a point, I think, because certain practices are more conducive to certain results. Yoga might be more suited to the cultivation of power and energy than non-attachment and deep stillness, even if all of them are possible in it. Meditation might support equanimity more than devotion and bliss, even though the latter certainly can arise. What seems to happen, then, is that our intention – what we want to achieve – meets the natural inclination of a specific practice, and what we end up with is some mixture. As an teacher who preaches an “integrated practice”, what I’ve cobbled together is this: yoga asana for grace, strength, health, and energy; bhakti yoga/kirtan to open the heart; and Buddhist meditation for calm, clarity, and insight. Add to that the study of sacred texts and I have something for each of the four yogas of the Bhagavad Gita: karma (action), jñana (knowledge), raja (meditation), and bhakti (devotion). (And this is not even including all the complementary practices: therapy, dancing, art, romantic partnership, social action…) I hopefully avoid confusion of results by having one primary goal: freedom from suffering. I thus generally ignore, for instance, the classical hatha yoga goal of siddhi and immortality, even as I deepen in yoga practice. (Maybe I’ll spontaneously become immortal one day in yoga class, though I’m not holding my breath. Oh, wait, pranayama is all about holding my breath!)
How do you orient yourself in a spiritual culture that offers an endless array of beautiful, useful practices? Do you just do what feels right and take the results that come, or do you have definite goals for your spiritual practice? Do you feel like all this talk of goal and result is completely missing the point because it’s all already here? (Hello advaita folks, Soto Zen non-doers, and non-dual tantrikas! I love you too.) For those of you focusing your practice in one tradition, have you taken on its stated goals as your own, or do you bring additional intentions to it? Is the stated goal of a given tradition the reason you’ve chosen it?
I hope that this rambling exploration has at least opened the question up a little further for us as yogis, and if you’d like to discuss in the comments or talk to me when I see you, that would be fun. Take care in all ways, and namaste.