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The Limitations of Yoga and Buddhist Practices
Ram: Dear Martina, here are my replies to your excellent questions. I tidied up your English a bit so that your statements would be easier for others to understand.
Martina: Thank you for your encouraging letter and the satsangs. It is helpful to read them again and again. They show how to diligently and patiently monitor the mind from the old way of thinking to thinking from the point of view of the self. First, in the sense of seeing oneself as the still, quiet, luminous self and then as the paramatman, the Self beyond the self, taking back the world that was rejected, embracing and owning all the dualities: glory, peace, anger, ups and downs, etc.
Ram: Yes, one should continue to reflect and recondition the mind to think from the self’s point of view until the knowledge “I am the self” becomes automatic and drops out of consciousness. I was with a friend the other day, we were thinking about doing something and as we were considering what was involved, he said, “We need to do this and that because something could go wrong.” And I said, “We don’t need to do anything, because something could go right.” The thought that one is inadequate and incomplete, like his thought that something could go wrong, is just a habit of thinking. So it is important to neutralize that thought with the right thought. It’s a nice stage of one’s sadhana. One knows one is fine, that nothing is to be done, and one enjoys watching the mind not understand. It is a kind of amusement.
Martina: One of my oldest students (since 1985), who loves inquiry and enjoys Vedanta-style meditation, is a teacher of yoga in the school of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar from Bombay, who carefully study and teach the Patanjali sutras. Some other students of mine teach yoga as well. She finds the distinctions in the difference between the language of knowledge and of experience very helpful, but your description of yoga does not relate to what she learns about yoga at all.
Ram: You are right. She will not be able to relate to what I am saying. She is probably using yoga as a kind of religion, beliefs to be practiced or as a physical/psychological tool, a therapy. She probably does not understand the limitations of yoga as a means of enlightenment and I would bet that her teachers don’t either. What I am saying is not intended to stop anyone practicing yoga but to give a clear idea of what one can and cannot expect from the practice.
There is a very old and very deep misunderstanding in yoga and in other enlightenment philosophies about the nature of enlightenment and how to get it. I am not attacking yoga. I am trying to clarify the issues. The karmas that one undertakes in yoga can have a very helpful effect on the mind and can prepare it for enlightenment.
Most people begin the spiritual path as doers committed to certain practices. What these practices will bring and what they are thought to bring are often two different things. Spiritual practice, yoga, can have excellent benefits, healthwise and psychologically – no doubt about it. And it can generate self-experience, apprehension of the reflection of the self in a sattvic mind. But when you get past the question of experience and need to solve the question of the relationship between the experiencer, the yogi, and that to which he or she is yoked, the self, yoga falls flat. Below you will see a discussion of the heart of Pantajali Yoga, which is the root of all the yogas, and its limitation as a means of enlightenment. By “enlightenment” I mean the hard and fast knowledge, backed by experience, that “I am limitless, actionless, ordinary awareness, the self, in short. Backed by experience means that one has at some point consciously experienced from the self’s point of view. It does not mean that someone who has no experiential idea of the self can claim enlightenment merely by stating or believing he or she is whole and complete, actionless awareness.
Martina: They learn that understanding is the key aim and any experience is just an aid at best once it is understood.
Ram: They say experience is to be understood. Sure, but who understands it? Is this person, the ego, actually capable of understanding experience? How could it, since it is nothing more than a fundamental misunderstanding about the I? If we are talking about the experience of the I, the reflection of the self in a sattvic, inward-turned mind, then what is the point of view that allows one to evaluate the meaning of the I? People experience the I twenty-four hours a day and have all sorts of incredible experiences in meditation – but still see the I as limited.
Martina: What kind of yoga are you referring to? What texts, schools or teachers? I hope your yoga does not follow the argument style I know from the Tibetans. They draw a caricature of Zen, Hinduism or whatever, and then criticize it as useful, but… not quite right. The same style any teacher here has who does not know the “other school” from experience but just from the caricatures his tradition creates of “them.”
I am interested in how certain methods work and what does not work well. People are different and have different doubts as well, so yogis work with what works. In short, what yoga are you referring to? This way could offend serious yoga people who do not suffer from what you describe.
Ram: Yes, this idea is offensive to most yogis because it exposes the limitations of yoga as a means of enlightenment. I am not referring to a specific school of yoga, although what I am saying applies to raja yoga, Patanjali yoga, hatha yoga and any practice-oriented sadhana by whatever name, including Hinayana Buddhism, which emphasizes practice. I am using the word “yoga” to describe any spiritual practice that sees enlightenment as the outcome of a certain experience-based sadhana. I am referring to any action-oriented practice that takes the self to be a doer.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras you see the fundamental idea of all the yogas. The first verse says, “Now the study of Yoga.” The now (atha) means that some pervious work has been done, some maturity has been reached and the person wants moksa. The second verse says, “Yoga chitta vritti nirodha.” This means that yoga is the removal of the vasanas, since the vasanas are the cause of the vrittis, the thoughts and feelings, i.e. the mind. In the third verse you see what is thought to be the outcome of this practice. It says, “Then the Seer shines in all his glory.” The “Seer” means the self.
The idea is that the self is hidden behind the mind and that one has to remove this covering to reveal the self. Aside from the fact that the self is self-evident and impossible to cover, and that literally countless unconscious practices like extreme sports, drugs, falling in love, accidents, etc. remove the covering and reveal the self, the self is not understood to be the “I” precisely because this system is based on the belief that mere experience of the self is enlightenment. But we know that this is not true, unless the understanding that what one is experiencing is “me” arises and this understanding remains firm. “Remains firm” means that when one continues to see oneself as limitless awareness when a sense of separation and limitation prevails in the mind.
Furthermore, in conscious practice, that is, practice that is consciously aimed at self-realization, one is always confronted with the problem of keeping the mind free of vrittis, what I call the maintainance game. As soon as a vritti comes the self goes. When the vritti goes the self comes. Is there anything more absurd? I call this “firefly” consciousness. One is enlightened for a period, anywhere from a second to months, and then unenlightened for a period. In fact this is the condition of most people who have been doing sadhana for a long time.
The practice of vasana exhaustion is valuable – to get a relatively peaceful mind. But it is based on the idea that the self can only be known when the mind is dead. Yes, it can be known when the mind is dead, but it can just as well be known when the mind is not dead. And since the mind is almost never not dead, except in deep sleep, how likely is enlightenment for most people? Even if the mind is dead, there can be a problem: Who is there to know the self if there is no mind/ego? Enlightenment would not be for the self, since it is already enlightened, so it would have to be for the doer, the knower, the ego/mind.
In fact this whole way of seeing enlightenment is incorrect. In a non-dual reality there is only the self with apparent ignorance and apparent knowledge. Apparent ignorance is motivating the practice (as is the case with all practices) of yoga because the vasanas (the vrittis and experience) are only a problem when one doesn’t know that one is whole and complete, and therefore that one is always free of them. “Experience is me, but I am not experience. It depends on me, but I do not depend on it.” If this is true, then why am I trying to get rid of my vrittis, why am I chasing experience by performing actions, i.e. yoga?
Yoga is just karma, practice. It is not a means of self-knowledge. (You see the limitation in the word itself. Yoga means “to yoke.” It is a verb, an action word. It involves the action of joining or merging the individual self with the universal self, the bhakta with Bhagavan. This is not possible as an action, because the individual self, the jivatman, and the universal self, the paramatman, are already one. It is only possible through understanding.)
Yoga is not a means of self-knowledge, because the knowledge that is gained is relative knowledge, knowledge of experience, and it is gained by an agnani, an ego/doer. This ego/doer will never be set free for two reasons: relative knowledge will not permanently free one of a sense of limitation and there is no ego/doer. Yoga does not counsel inquiry to the doer, the yogi, because that would destroy the whole practice. And yoga is for doers.
As the Buddha says, there is no separate self, anatma. This is so because one is already free. One needs to only know that one is the self. And one doesn’t need a particular vasana free experience of the self, since all experience is the self. So one needs a means of self-knowledge. One needs to be first seeking understanding, not experience, and then one needs to have a legitimate means of knowledge. An ego interpreting experience is not a legitimate means of knowledge. The ego by definition does not see reality and the reality it is learning from is anitya, impermanent. One can never get truth from an apparent reality. The apparent reality, experience, is neither completely real nor is it completely unreal – so what kind of knowledge is one going to get from it?
My yoga is just common sense and reason. See the argument above – it is based on a clear understanding of the nature of the mind and the self. It is based on the fact that no sadhana will produce a limitless result. The self is limitless. How can a sadhana, a finite action, produce limitless awareness or experience of limitless awareness? If you want experience, then manipulate the mind and body and you will get experience. But don’t expect some sort of permanent experience that will set you free, because if you get an experience that was not there all along, it will definitely go. The only experience that will not disappear is the self, which means any and all experience. You do not get this kind of experience by doing anything. You get it by understanding something.
If you think clearly about the third mantra of the Yoga Sutras, “Then the Seer shines in all his glory,” you can see that the next step is missing. This is so because Pantanjali does not know what the next step is. What is the next step? That you are the “I.” If Patanjali knew the next step he would say, “Now that you are experiencing the Seer shining in all his glory, investigate the Seer.” And then he would say, “Who is the Seer?” And then he would say, “You are the Seer.” Yoga is fine as far as it goes. But it leaves you right where you started – caught in experience. Yes, you now have the experience of the self, not the experience of samsara, but you still have separation, longing and doubt. This “who am I?” doubt needs to be removed.
Any practice-oriented sadhana that does not raise the “who am I?” question from the beginning I call a yoga. Below I’ve copied in a letter from Bettina that addresses this issue better than I could.
Bettina: Dear Ramji, famous video star, supreme comedian and beloved couch potato!
Thank you for your loving little email. So you are already sitting under the hot Greek sun while I am writing this to you. Joan Halifax left yesterday. She liked to be here and the course went very well. I went to her talks, she is a charming and entertaining speaker and teaches about the self. She calls it “boundlessness,” and this is the subject of the Heart Sutra, the issue of her course (the original term is shunyata, emptiness):
Oh, Sariputra, form is not seperate from boundlessness emptiness, limitlessness, Self…;
Boundlessness is not seperate from form;
Form is boundlessness;
Boundlessness is form.
(Fullness, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and discernment are also like this.)
Sariputra, boundlessness is the nature of all things. It neither arises nor perishes neither stains nor purifies neither increases nor decreases.
Boundlessness is not limited by form nor by feelings, perceptions, mental formations and discernment.
It is free of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind;
free of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and any object of the mind, free of sensory realms, including mind consciousness.
It is free of ignorance and the end of ignorance.
Free of old age and death and free from the end of old age and death.
It is free from suffering, arising, cessation and path and free of wisdom and attainment.
Being free of attainment, those who help all to awaken abide in the realization of wisdom beyond wisdom and live with an unhindered mind.
Without hindrance the mind has no fear.
Free from confusion, those who lead all to emancipation embody complete serenity…
Beautiful, isn’t it? But what is so amazing to me is that in these Buddhist teachings THIS is always present, kind of vibrating in and through the talks, but they never say: “And THIS is you!!” Its always something like: “This is your innate nature, it is always present, it is here now, it is the core of your being…” or, like Roshi once put it in one of her discourses, “The other shore is already here.” But she does not say, “YOU are that other shore!” In fact there is of course no “other” shore, no shore at all and again words come to an end… But I see more and more clearly what is the difference between the teaching of Vedanta and Buddhism, although they talk about the same subject. Vedanta is so much more direct. It doesn’t leave you any choice, it just states, “You are That and there is nothing else, take it or leave it!” While Buddhism says, “There is this other shore and that shore is here now,” but I can still remain as this little I, thinking this other shore, this boundlessness, this Buddha nature is available for me. And even if they tell me that it is here now, there is still this I for whom it is available and I have to practice and DO something to attain it. Even though the text says, “It is free of wisdom and attainment,” somehow one just doesn’t really believe it. I am happy and grateful that you made me see that it is not so, that you made me believe it, and whenever I think this way and feel the release, the freedom, the fearlessness, the space, the fullness that come with this view, a great and strong wave of love for you wells up inside me, kind of rolls through my body and mind.
In this course Joan had a brilliant translator, Agnes, one of these students of Martina whom she infected with the Ram-virus. She came to me, we talked a lot and I told her about some things you had told me in Tiruvannamalai in Peter’s Restaurant. Once I said that I would experience my body and mind differently from any other body and mind, that is, I would experience “myself” from inside and any other body and mind from outside, and you said, “No! You experience your own body and mind in just the same way as every other body and mind.” The other thing was that I told you about how limited and locked-in inside the limits of my body I often feel when I wake up in the morning, and you said, “All that is happening is that YOU experience limitation. It doesn’t mean that YOU are limited.” I told this to Agnes, she understood it and it made her so glad that she hopped away above the lawn like a happy puppy, all little jumps and leaps, when she left me. Maybe we really should invite a little group of people and you could give a few satsangs when you come the next time. Think about it. Although as far as I m concerned you could as well just come and lie on the couch. I miss you happily.
Ram: One statement of Bettina’s that struck me as particularly interesting, dear Martina, is this: that even though you are experiencing limitation it does not mean that you are limited. Nor does it mean that when you experience limitlessness that you are limitless, although this particular brand of ignorance is called knowledge. In fact the whole question of experience, which is at the heart of yoga, no longer applies at this level. All that is left is to understand something. And since understanding does not happen on its own, one needs a means and that means, in this case, is the knowledge that you are neither limited nor limitless. You are the knower, the seer, of both. Do you find this idea in any of the practice-oriented sadhanas?
Okay, dear Martina. The question may arise: Is inquiry a yoga? And the answer is yes and no. Obviously, someone has to inquire. So yes, inquiry is a kind of sadhana. But to make this inquiry you need to be governed by some very specific knowledge. You cannot successfully realize who you are without any knowledge operating. Even in the famous case of Ramana’s self-realization experience, some knowledge – logic-based inquiry – was operating. You can see it operating throughout:
“I felt I was going to die and that I had to solve the problem myself, there and then. The shock of the fear of death drove my mind inwards and I said to myself mentally without forming the words, ‘Now death has come, what does it mean? What is it that is dying? This body dies.’ And I at once dramatized the occurrence of death. I lay with my limbs stretched out still as though rigor mortis had set in and imitated a corpse so as to give greater reality to the enquiry. I held my breath and kept my lips tightly closed so that no sound could escape, so that neither the word ‘I’ nor any other word could be uttered. ‘Well then,’ I said to myself, ‘The body is dead. It will be carried stiff to the burning ground and there reduced to ashes. But with the death of the body, am I dead? Is the body I? It is silent and inert,’ but I could feel the full force of my personality and even the voice of the ‘I’ within me, apart from it. ‘So I am spirit transcending the body. The body dies, but the spirit that transcends, it cannot be touched by death. That means that I am the deathless spirit.’ All this was not a dull thought. It flashed through me vividly as living truth which I perceived directly, almost without thought process.
“I was something very real, the only real thing about my present state, and all the conscious activity connected with my body was centred on that ‘I.’ From that moment onwards the ‘I,’ or self, focused attention on itself by a powerful fascination. Fear of death had vanished once and for all. Absorption in the self continued unbroken from that time on. Other thoughts might come and go like the various notes of music, but the I continued like the fundamental sruti note that underlies and blends will all other states. Whether the body was engaged in talking, reading or anything else I was still centred on the ‘I.’ Previous to that crisis I had felt no perceptible or direct interest in it, much less any inclination to dwell permanently in it.”
Now, many are blessed with this kind of experience, but very few can use logic and reason to understand its significance. In fact most people who are spiritually seeking, and especially those whose quests have been formed by the sadhana-based schools, yoga particularly, have been taught that critical thought, logic and reason, are chitta vrittis, to use Patanjali’s term. And they are right. They are vrittis. But do they need to be eliminated? Do they prevent the understanding of who one is? They do not. They are in fact the means for understanding who one is. So if there is an I that is inquiring, this I would need not only to have knowledge to make the inquiry but would need to know how to use that knowledge to extract the right conclusion about oneself.
The way yoga tends to deal with problems is to counsel more purification. This is necessary and helpful up to a point, but at what point do the yogis address the issue of the limitation of karmas and encourage the practice of inquiry? And even though inquiry is a subtle action, its purpose is not to get a particular experience. Its point is to remove ignorance. Once ignorance is removed, it doesn’t need to be removed again, like the knowledge of your name. But once an experience is gained, it dissolves and needs to be gained again.
Finally, if there is no doer then there is no inquirer either, since inquiry is just a subtle action. In fact inquiry is built into the human mind. It is going on all the time, not just on a spiritual level but in the everyday samsaric state of mind. One wants to know the meaning of everything that happens. You fall in love, a particular kind of experience, but is that the end of it? Not at all. You immediately want to know what it means. You want to know if it will last, you want to know how it will go. You have a million questions. Astrologers, psychics, mediums, shrinks, etc. do a thriving business for one reason – inquiry is going on all the time. As you say above, you are now relaxed enough to let the mind think on its own – and it thinks on its own. But it can get confused, it can come to erroneous conclusions, so it needs guidance, a means of knowledge, a way to keep it on topic and a way to correct itself. So you could say that knowledge, not ego, makes the inquiry. Does yoga do this? No, it tells you the mind is the problem and that the solution is to kill it. It tells you that knowledge is a chitta vritti and needs to be destroyed.
I’m sure you will have something to say about this and I eagerly await your reply.
~ Much love, Ram