To Yoga Home Page
Some Concepts on Buddism and its relationship to Yoga -
When I began with Yoga and Buddism I had a lot of trouble trying to understand the relationship between the two, and I was trying to figure out where I stood in all this. Here are some notes from my journey that may be helpful to others:
The most practical definition of Yoga that I can come up with is that it is a set of tools for being okay with yourself.
There is Hindu Yoga and there is Buddist Yoga. There is also Sikh Yoga and any other Yoga you want to invent if it works (that is, if it is a set of tools for being okay with yourself and it is connected with whatever belief system you want to connect it to).
The first statement of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the cornerstone of Yoga practice says, "Yoga is the reduction of the fluctuations of consciousness."
Patanjali, just for the record, was a Hindu who lived in India about six hundred years after the Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Buddism had already made an enormous impact on the Indian subcontinent by the time Patanjali was born. I say this only because it may clear up some confusion: When I first read Patanjali I had trouble trying to figure out if he was Hindu or Buddist. (I think the fact that I had trouble telling the difference between the two says a great deal.)
Patanjali practiced and taught what is called Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga is really a very complete blueprint for living on all levels, but its primary priority is meditation. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra says very little about Guru, and nothing at all about Gods. It is primarily a description of how human beings work and a set of guidelines for being okay with that. It is a guideline for achieving enlightenment. More about enlightenment later.
Patanjali said that you can achieve enlightenment through a Guru. He also said that you can achieve enlightenment through breath control. In fact, he listed quite a few methods. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra does not tell any stories about gods, nor does it focus on devotion to a god, except for the god within each of us. More on this later.
To me, Buddism is a form of Yoga, a certain type of Yoga practice. Yoga is an expression of Buddism, a way of practicing Buddism.
Patanjali said that we suffer when we mistake something temporary for something permanent.
The Buddha said that nothing is permanent.
What does this mean?
I asked the Zen Master: "Is the Void permanent?"
He said, "Yes."
In Mahayana Buddist Sutras, it says, "Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here and now."
I asked the Zen Master: "Is Buddha nature permanent?"
He said, "Yes."
How can Buddha nature and the Void be permanent when the Buddha said that all things are impermanent? The answer is: The Buddha was talking about products of the mind. The Buddha nature and the Void are not products of the mind.
What is the Void? In Sanskrit it is called "Shunyata", Shunya" and "Maha Shunya" (the great void). It is the depths of the universe, from whence all springs and to which all returns. It is equally internal and external. It is beyond all comprehension, including our comprehension of the unknown. All teachings have this. In the Kabbalah there is the Ain Soph Aur. In Native America, the Nauagal.
What is Buddha nature? It is our original nature; our true Self. It is our essence. It is our capacity to grow, to enter into territory we never went into before, to encounter that which improves the quality of our lives and everyone else's life and that which moves so quickly it is in all places at once. Buddha nature is that voice inside us that never lies.
To move towards Buddha nature is like this: "Light falls where no light fell before."
Buddha nature is recognizing the joy in our true essence. Buddha nature is the enlightenment we all share.
The first words the Buddha said when he came out of the meditation that led to his enlightenment were: "How wonderful! I and all other beings have already achieved enlightenment, but because of the distorted nature of our minds, are incapable of experiencing it."
True art is a path to Buddha nature. When the Buddha said that nothing is permanent, he was trying to give people a form of meditation that would relieve them of their suffering by recognizing that all products of the mind are subject to change, age and end. Temporary mind is doomed to pain and eventually to death. Temporary mind is suffering - to be caught up in temporary mind is to not be able to experience one's connection with eternity.
Connection with eternity then, is Buddha nature. Transcendent mind is capable of recognizing its true nature. Transcendent mind leads to Universal mind; that which is unchanging, unending, not subject to age and death. Universal mind is beyond the understanding of Temporary mind.
Patanjali called Universal mind, "Ishvara." He described this as the god within each of us. He did not have any descriptions of this god. Ishvara does not perform any miracles or heroic feats. It is simply a living, continuous reality, completely unaffected by outside stimulus. A Hindu guru said, "Ishvara is our eternal self."
Patanjali said that at the surface of consciousness is continuous fluctuation; in the depths lies the stillness. The purpose of Yoga is to disconnect from the continuous fluctuations, the unending turmoil at the surface of consciousness and to connect with the stillness in the depths.
This is just like when the Buddha talks about Temporary mind, Transcendent mind and Universal mind. The main difference between the Buddha's teaching and that of the other gurus is that the Buddha was trying to get people to feel the joy of their true nature by recognizing that all experiences of connections with eternity were, in themselves temporary, because they were products of the mind, and therefore subject to change, distortion, aging and ending.
In a sense the Buddha's teaching was like the teachings of the other gurus, only in sillouette; a kind of "negative space" of meditation techniques.
Generally speaking, religions tend to try to relieve human beings of their suffering by giving them some kind of connection with eternity. This is usually done through focusing on some person who had some kind of special relationship with God. The idea is that God spoke to this person, this central figure in their religion, and revealed his will for the human race through them. To be a Christian means that one believes that Jesus had some kind of unique, special relationship with God, that Jesus was God's spokesman for the human race. The same is true of Mohammed for Islam, Moses for Judaism, Baha'Ullah for the Baha'i faith, Guru Nannath for the Sikhs, etc.
In Buddism, it is a little bit different. The Buddha never claimed to have any kind of special relationship with God. In this respect, he is unique among founders of world religions. The Buddha's primary priority is not to reveal to people what he believes God wants. The Buddha's primary priority is to share with people his tools for enlightenment. What does it mean to be enlightened? It means two things:
1. To be liberated from suffering.
2. To know the truth.
That these two concepts are one and the same is an expression of faith.
The Buddha never claimed to have any kind of special relationship with God, because he saw that as part of the suffering. He remained silent when asked about God because he saw that to set himself up as some kind of spokesman for God's will was to add to the suffering, to perpetuate the distortions of the mind.
You can have any kind of image of God that you want. It will change.
There is no point in asking, "Is this because God changes?" Who knows? What we know is that the mind changes. Something happens and we attribute it to God (or the Gods), being angry at us if it's bad, loving us when it's good. In turn, we tend to love God when he's good to us and be angry at him when we feel like he is punishing us. We keep trying to figure out what God wants for us; we keep trying to see traces of him. This is because we are caught up in our mind.
Our image of God is invariably a product of our mind. This is not to say that God is ONLY a product of the mind, or that God does not exist, but only to recognize that any image of God that we come up with is prone to the mind's distortions. For that matter, any image of ourselves is also prone to the mind's distortions.
To be a Buddist then, simply means that one believes that the Buddha achieved enlightenment, and that the Buddha's method of achieving enlightenment will work for me too, if I follow that path. In other words, by practicing the forms of meditation that the Buddha taught, I can recognize and live in my true nature.
The Buddha knew that ANY answer he gave to ANY question regarding God was to set himself up as some kind of spokesman for God's will. This, unfortunately, is invariably temporary. He would have simply come up with another story.
I believe that on a certain level, life is a series of solutions. What worked for me when I was 18 had to be discarded when I was 30 because it was no longer the solution, it had become the problem. We must have the courage and flexibility to discard old solutions in favor of new ones whenever old solutions become problems. As far as I can tell, we live in a world where this happens on a regular basis.
Mysticism is the shutting down, or diminishing of the ego, the internal dialogue. What we experience beyond the realm of consciousness continually fascinates and frightens the ego. My ego sees itself as the protector of my well being. It is externally oriented, constantly looking to see what it is that is keeping me from being happy, constantly trying to solve the problem of my comfort. Life is a continual flux of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. My ego experiences its own importance, its own power by figuring out what I need to change or do at any given moment in order to be okay.
When I was new to meditation, it seemed like such an enormously exceptional experience: the shutting down of the internal dialogue. Indeed, the human race passes from day to day, year to year, seldom recognizing that this continuous voice within each of us is only that: a voice. Unfortunately, a large part of the human race continues to believe that thoughts are facts. The very idea that thoughts are not facts is peculiar and even outrageous to perhaps most people. People are generally very attached to their thoughts and do not want to see them as creations of the mind - they want to believe that they are real.
But as I continued in my meditation practice, it became apparent to me that the internal dialogue is in a continuous state of flux, and there is an endless array of experiences that "turn down the volume of the mind." And consequently set it off in an entirely new direction.
A few: Laughter, sex, love, warfare, music, art, violence, drugs, rollar coasters, alcohol, rage, pain, childbirth, gambling, etc. etc. etc.
When the ego experiences the unknown, it is invigorated by that experience of something beyond itself. It must have this invigoration, this re-creation (hence the word "recreation") to continue. But it cannot accept that its power is an illusion, so it has to come up with some kind of story or explanation for whatever it experiences. When the mind turns the unknown into something explainable, it feels very powerful.
Mythology is the explanation that the ego comes up with in order to make sense of the unknown that it experiences when it (the mind) shuts down. The ego always has to have a story. The problem is that the mind replaces the experience of the unknown with its story about the unknown. This returns power to the ego. This is reponsible for the human race's main problem: When the internal dialogue shuts down, then the ego returns again, the ego takes credit for the products of the unconscious that it has experienced. The ego gets power by "figuring out" what had been unknown.
It is certain that Patanjali and the Buddha would agree on this: The thing that matters is to do the practice.
Patanjali said, "Practice and detachment are essential for progress."
He also said, "With practice, thoughts become like seeds baked in an oven, they cannot sprout roots."
The Buddha said, "One moment spent in meditation is equal to the reading of a thousand teachings."
From a scholarly perspective, Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is considered dualistic Yoga, which means that god is perceived as something separate from the conscious ego. Buddha teaching is non-dualistic: the core of the Buddha's teaching is that there is no separation. The mind's job is to separate, to make judgements and comparisons. It does this to help us out, but the solution becomes the problem: separation creates suffering. The goal of Buddist meditation is to recognize that there is no seperation between my mind (my daily self) and my Buddha nature (my true self, or my original self).
From my perspective, the core of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra becomes almost perfect Buddism the minute one replaces Ishvara (the God within) with Buddha Nature (our true self).
The Buddha referred to Buddha Nature because he wanted to avoid giving people a description of god. He also saw the connection with Buddha Nature as a solution to what he considered to be the main problem: We suffer from the illusion that we are seperate.
Patanjale saw the Ishvara as something seperate from the conscious mind. The Buddha felt that to complete the connection between conscious mind (Temporary Mind) and Buddha nature was to heal the suffering. He felt that the separation between the two was an illusion.
I could be clever and say that the healing continues once one realizes that the separation between Buddha and Patanjali is an illusion, although in a sense, that statement is true.
In the East it is not unusual to practice two or more religions at once. In the West, we find this strange. I used to think the problem was that we had this thing about monotheism (If there is only one god, then mine must be right and yours wrong). I still think that may be part of the issue, but today I think that the main thing is to do the practice and not worry so much about which of the ego's stories to subscribe to.
You can be a Christian, Jew or whatever you feel is right for you and still practise Yoga and Buddism. All that Patanjali asks is that you recognize the tools of Yoga as methods for stilling the turmoil at the surface of thought and remain committed to having a connection with the stillness in the depths. All the Buddha asks is that you recognize that there is no clear dividing line between God and your image of God. God is simply your true nature.
Back to Top