asterix

*Am working on figuring out the best way to render Devanagari. For now, transliteration...sorry. Namaste.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Dis-ease of Life

I am a teacher, that is my Dharma.

Today, I was teaching Patañjali's Yoga Sutras for the Antwerp Yoga Teacher Training program, a program that I was a graduate of a few years ago. I have read the Sutras over the years, with varying levels of success and failures, tending towards the latter as they just didn't make that much sense. It felt like an obligation more than anything else. If I were to be an Instructor of Yoga, much less one who also teaches the philosophical and literary texts of Yoga, then of course, I needed to read the Sutras, right?

Not so clear.

The Sutras present numerous obstacles for a reader, both experienced and novice. For starters, as they are written as "sutras", the grammar is by and large absent, which in Sanskrit can leave a great deal of room for interpretation and a variety of translations styles. However, many of the translations I have come across do not remotely stick to the Sanskrit, but rather devolve into modern-day lip service for Western Yoga.

The Sutras were indeed written a long time ago (in a galaxy...no, not going there) by a man in India who had the luxury to spend the days meditating. Ultimately, that is the gist of the Sutras, meditation over a long period of time and regularly can set you free (moksha). But, to read them as such would be a grave mistake.

As we discovered today, the Yoga Sutras could have been written yesterday. They are highly pertinent once you get past the archaic translations and the bugaboo of the word "philosophy". They are simply put, good advice on life and how to live it. I will be devoting many posts to the breakdown of the Sutras in the near future, but I want to pause on what I consider to be the most important Sutra of them all, namely II.16.

Heyam duhkham anãgatam.

Three simple words.

Three words that are at the root of the human condition. Three words, that when taken to heart can change one's life. However, it is a hard lesson to learn.

In short, the translation is:

Suffering (that has yet to manifest) ought to be averted.

or

The suffering that has not yet happened is to be avoided.

When reading the Sutras, one realizes this is the crux of the entire text. Suffering (duhkham) that is caused by ignorance (avidyã) is our life's dis-ease. Suffering can lead to disease as well as the dis-ease of wondering what our purpose, our Dharma, in life is. Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing? 

The Sutras are merely a road map for that journey. We begin now (atha) in order to find out what our true Self is, and its power (citi-shaktih). From beginning to end, the Sutras give us tools to address this suffering and ultimately how we can mitigate it within our lives.

Sounds easy enough, but it is a tall order, and even with the best tool kit in town, we can still fall, we can falter, and we can fail. And, we get back up again, and give it another go, equipped with the one thing that can help diminish the ravages of avidyã, awareness.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Moving Mind


A classic Zen story begins like a bad joke…Two Monks are staring at a flag waving in the wind…

But, as it continues, it turns out the two monks are arguing about the nature of the flag and the wind.

One asserts, “The flag is moving,” while the other insists, “The wind is moving.”

Upon hearing this, an enlightened Master interjects, “Not the wind, not the flag; Mind is moving.”

The concept of the endless chatter of the mind that clouds our thinking is also common to Advaita Vedanta as well as Yoga.  In those moments, we are deluded into a trick of perception and perspective. As when we are sitting in a train that is stopped in the station, and suddenly the train next to us begins to move, it is almost impossible NOT to feel like our train is moving. Though our body does not feel it, our mind literally tricks our neural pathways into “feeling” our train move…

In Shankara’s Aparokshanubhuti, he has a series of such deceptions borne out in a string of similes, though all repeating the same concept. Namely, we are often our own best deceivers.

Abhreshu satsu dhãvatsu somo dhãvati bhãti/
Tadvadãtmani dehatvam pashyajñãnayogatah//

Just as when the clouds pass over the moon, it too appears to move, so too on account of ignorance does one see the Ãtman to be the mortal body.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Crown Jewel


One of the seminal texts of Advaita Vedanta is undeniably Sri Shankarãcãrya’s Vivekaçudãmani, or “The Crown Jewel of Discretion,” in which he outlines the progression of the path a devotee needs to follow in order to rid oneself of false ideas because of our mental prejudices.

Much less accessible than Shankara’s Aparokshãnubhuti, it is, however, much more explicit in its program. It is as Plato’s Republic to his Phaedo. Ultimately the same message comes out, it is a difference of degree rather than kind.

The goal (a dubious term, for like Zen, or the Tao, to define it is to destroy it, or worse, to show that one does not understand it), being a paradox in itself, is the cessation of erroneous judgment, caused by delimiting our experiences into pigeonholes, all the while missing the interconnectedness of everything. The Mãyã, or illusion that we “perceive” is that we distinguish and create boundaries and borders, rather than finding the underlying comparison.

P.D. Ouspensky, in his A New Model of the Universe, describes this spurious activity as being within the visible, or exoteric world, while we meanwhile have forgotten the underlying truths within the esoteric, or invisible world. One is reminded of the recent Nobel Prize in Physics, celebrating the discovery of the “God Particle,” or the Higgs Boson, “invisible” to us, but "found" all the same borne out of theory, and perhaps is a building block of the Universe. However, the mystery of the vast majority of the Universe still eludes us, namely, the yet “invisible” Dark Matter.

So, with all of this confusion buzzing around us, what is one to do?

For me, various types of meditation have emerged as the most effective means of calming the storms of thought, or the fluctuations of the mind, the first step in the practice of Yoga. Over the years, swimming has been my meditation of choice, but I have recently added the practice of zazen, which is proving to be a perfect complement to “losing myself” in the water. As such, this passage struck me as appropriate for this stage of my journey.

Virajya vishayavrãtãddoshadrshtyã muhurmuhuh/
Svalakshaye niyatãvathã manasah shama ucyate//  22

After having detached (itself) from the multiplicity of sensory perception, again and again contemplating their defects, the continuous resting of the mind upon its aim, is called Shama, or serenity.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Was it a Snake, or was it a Stick?


In Ancient Indian philosophical treatises, one of the favorite mind games to play with someone is the question of whether it is a Snake or a Stick. Nagarjuna, sometimes called the Indian Socrates, was famous for this conundrum.

Essentially, the question is posed, if the mind thinks a stick is a snake, is it then really a snake, or is it a stick? In other words, what is more important, the perception of reality, or the reality itself?

That seems like a rhetorical question on the surface, but not quite. If one were to see a stick, and thought it was a snake, and turned and fled in fear and ran to the neighbors to tell them there is a snake in the road, and they then decided to go and investigate after calming the ophidiophobe down and assuring him that it was probably just a stick. However, in the meantime, an actual King Cobra has decided to mosey on down the lane, just about the same spot that the branch had been, that had been mistaken for a snake, and then lo and behold, there is a snake.

So, the “Truth” that will then be recorded from that day on is that it was indeed a snake and not a stick. It would have to take an eyewitness observer to have seen the whole incident to ever prove this “Truth” to be a fallacy, but if there were no perfect eidetic eyewitness to be found, this fallacy would forever be considered a truth.

For me, the take-home message is that we should be wary of what we are too quick to call THE Truth, and moreover, just because many people engage in that fallacy, does not make it any more truer than before. Not that we should doubt everything we see, but sometimes, things might need a closer look before we create the dogma that surrounds it. And, as my illustration suggestions, numbers do not necessarily make it any better.

So, next time I see a stick and perhaps think it is a snake, or vice versa, I might need to pause a bit longer, though we always run the risk of being bitten if the Truth is a snake and not a stick, so we take our chances in life.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Synecdoche






Synecdoche

The Chandogya Upanishad is principally concerned with the question of what is the “true self” or Soul, the Atman of the individual and how it relates to the larger question of the Universe at hand.

It is a catechism of parts for the whole, though the whole, in Truth, is never divided, but only perceived as being divided by our discretion, though born out of ignorance of how things are all truly entangled, leaving us confused about the coherent nature of existence.

This is unsettling when one thinks of the concept of Theodicy, or the explanation of Evil in the world, and how can there be bad things in a world created by a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient power. For if All is One, then it begs the question of whether Evil then is part of Good, and vice versa.

Having lived now for 43 years, I am inclined to believe that this is true. When one reaches this age, you have lived long enough to see a lot of shit in the world, as well as a lot of beauty. How can we reconcile the extremes that we see and experience on a daily basis? While in India, I was confronted by this seeming dichotomy every day of the piles of shit next to blankets of flowers. Back in Belgium, it is more subtle, but there all the same.

Hearing of the death of a former student and friend, one who sought desperately for Beauty in the world, claiming that he saw it all around, yet at the same time felt desperately alone and discouraged, feeling the absence of the beloved for his Love for the world. His life ended running blindly amongst the traffic of Austin’s I-35, being struck down by a truck in a most indignant death. He was loved by many and mourned by many. In his memorial guestbook, words such as Beauty, Love, Peace, and Life were reiterated over and over. All of those words overshadowed for the time being by Death.

And yet, to sound very trite, what is Life without Death, and the contrary of Death without Life? Such reflections are often made in the armchairs of philosophers, but when it is reality, and it takes on a visceral nature when you are one of the Living, contemplating the Dead, words take on new meaning.

Within the Chandogya, there is a metaphor of the life essence of person as a tree, that all throughout, there is life, but when dead, Death permeates all, except for the Soul, which lives on. Though this sounds like a duality, it is the root of Advaita, that is that the Soul, or Atman, is not related to Life nor Death, but is beyond, beyond Good and Evil, beyond the Time and Space that we experience in our corporeal selves. To this extent, there is no “Heaven above us, nor Hell below…” Imagine.

I don’t have answers, but have been running through many questions of late, and I recently returned to the Chandogya for some such reflection and these verses jumped out at me today.

So, here they are:

Asya somya mahato vrkshasya yo mule-bhyãhanyãjjivinsraveddhyo
Mathye-bhyãhanyãjjivansraveddhya-pre-bhyãhanyãjjivansravetsa
Esha jivenãtmãnãnuprabhutah pepiyamãno modamãnastishtati

Asya yadekãm shãkhãm jivo jahãtyatha sã shushyati
Dvitiyãm jahãtyatha sã shushyati
Tritiyãm jahãtyatha sã shushyati
Sarvam jahãti sarvah shushyati

O, Fair One, if anyone strikes the root of this great tree, it seeps while living. If one strikes the trunk, it seeps while living. If one should strike its crown, it will seep its juices while alive. This one, thus, while drinking the sap, abides by being permeated by the Soul.

If the individual removes one of these branches, that branch will wither. If one removes a second one, it too withers, and a third. When the whole is discarded, then the whole withers as well.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Upa-Ni-Shad

"Come closer, sit down with me, and let us discuss the philosophy of Life"

Well, in essence, that could be a "poetic" translation of the word Upanishad, which more or less does mean, "come, sit, near" and was a term that designated a teaching method that ultimately the Buddha, Krishnamurti and many other educators would come to embrace. Invite the student to your physical comfort zone and space and learning will emerge.

Well, otherwise proclaimed teachers such as the Buddha, Krishnamurti and many others quickly realized that this type of Upa-ni-shad leads to idolatry and worse, disciples.

The Buddha, upon his dying words, decreed that more or less there should not be followers and each man (and woman, as at the time, it was not gender-based, to a degree) should be responsible for his or her own Path, the Eight-Fold Path.

But, isn't it easier to have teachers? Isn't it easier to have someone tell us what to do? Isn't it easier to blame someone when that teaching goes wrong??

Yes, it is easier.

And, there is no metaphysical proof one way or the other that mandates that education of any level leads to something better or worse, and yet both sides of the equation, teachers and students, each have a stake and at times are at complete odds with each other.

So, what gives?

Education and means of education have been a topic of concern for thousands of years, this much is evinced by the mere form of the Upanishads in the genealogy of Indian philosophical thought. However, what it really marks is a turning away from the dogmatic views of the Brahmanic caste of priests towards a "New Hope (Star Wars IV...)" of what the knowledge of the universe actually means.

Siddhartha Guatama was born into the Kshatriya caste, or the Warrior Caste, and not the Brahmin, or Priestly Caste, contrary to many pre-conceived ideas. He was destined to be a warrior-king, but an old mendicant proclaimed him to be a great teacher, much to his father's disgust and disgrace. A teacher he shall not be, but a king.

Well, things did not go as planned by the father and Siddhartha left the royal fold to later become one of the world's greatest teachers, as was the words of the prophet at his birth.

But, what made him a great teacher?

Much in the tradition of the Chandogya Upanishad, the teachings of the Buddha are so incredibly "simple" that they on the surface seem to be mere tautologies.

However, the beauty of a tautology, or self-evident "truth" is that it takes one decades if not lifetimes to either see the simplicity and to accept it or to forever remain blinded to the fact that on a daily basis, if we do, for a moment, sit down, come closer, and listen, we just, just perhaps, might learn something from others on a secular and worldly level.

Or, we can walk with our heads in the clouds all day and be none pence the richer.