Tag Archives: Buddhism

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.16

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The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul.

Indifference to the subtlest elements, constituent principles, or qualities themselves, achieved through a knowledge of the nature of pure consciousness, is called supreme non-attachment

That highest non-interest occurs when there is
freedom from desire for the features of material nature and thorough awareness of the spiritual person

This sutra is saying that the ultimate detachment comes from indifference to the gunas, or qualities of nature. There are three gunassattvas (creation), rajas (preservation), and  tamas (destruction)I take this to mean that once we are aware of the constant flux of life and nature, and learn to be indifferent towards it, then we achieve detachment and can see things as they really are.

However, this sutra does not give any guidance on how to obtain this detachment, it does not give us any practical help yet on how to do this. Surely the answer is through meditation though?

The creation, preservation and destruction elements are quite powerful, and all-encompassing. This sutra is guiding us to be indifferent to new life, and also to death. This is certainly not easy. If I have a baby, how can I possibly be indifferent towards it? Or if a relative or friend dies? Perhaps using the word ‘indifference’ implies not caring, but I don’t think that this is the case. If I have a good meditation session, I am pleased about that, but as Suzuki said we should retain a ‘nothing special’ attitude – it’s ok to be pleased about it, but don’t expect to be pleased every time, or sit on the cushion in order to be pleased. This is harder to apply when we come to our relationships with other people. Suppose I have a new baby, I feel love towards it, which is a form of attachment. The indifference does not mean not caring for that baby or feeling nothing towards it, but rather not expecting to gain pleasure from the relationship, and not having that pleasure as the goal of spending time with the child.

I must admit, I do struggle with this yogic / Zen concept of indifference. Patanjali does not explicitly state here in this sutra that the gunas refer to our relationships with others, but it seems to me that they must apply to all aspects of life. We must remain indifferent to the impermanence of life in order to see things as they really are. Impermanence is a huge concept in Buddhism, and we must recognise it to avoid the suffering it causes in us. This impermanence applies to human life in the aging process, the cycle of birth and death, and in any experience of loss.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.9

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Verbal knowledge devoid of substance is fancy or imagination [Iyengar]

Fantasy or imagination is a thought pattern that has verbal expression and knowledge, but for which there is no such object or reality in existence. 

Verbal or written information which is followed by concepts which are devoid of reality, is imagination.

Fantasy is the third type of thought pattern that Patanjali identifies, describing it in terms of it being able to be verbalised, but not having a corresponding reality. For instance, I can imagine a green, two-headed monster. I can see it vividly in my mind’s eye, how it looks, how it walks and talks. I can describe it in minute detail, but of course there is no objective green, two-headed monster which I am describing. It is total fantasy, or in Iyengar’s words ‘delusion’.

However, much of what we ‘see’ day to day could be said to be a delusion, in that it may be merely a product of our own imagination, that perhaps there is no objective reality ‘out there’ which we are mapping. How do we know, for instance, that what I see is what you see when we both look at a particular object? Anti-realists might argue that everything is a delusion, as we cannot prove that there is any sort of objective reality beyond what goes on between our ears.

The Buddhist concept of ‘avidya‘ (delusion or ignorance) refers to not seeing things as they are, a slightly different way of framing it. There is no reference to a concept or perception being able to be verbalised, as there is in Patanjali’s sutra.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.5

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1.5 The movements of the consciousness are fivefold. They may be cognizable or non-cognizable, painful or non-painful.

[from BKS Iyengar]

Other interpretations:

Those gross and subtle thought patterns  fall into five varieties, of which some are colored and others are uncolored 

The vibrations in the mento-emotional energy are five-fold being agonizing or none-troublesome.

By ‘movements of the consciousness’ or ‘vibrations in the mento-emotional energy’, it means our experiences, thoughts and memories. This sutra is saying that there are five ways in which our mind can be disturbed by such things (an explanation of the five ways follows in 1.6).

This website gives some alternative interpretations for the coloured / uncoloured dichotomy:

  • klishta — aklishta
  • painful — not painful 
  • not useful — useful 
  • afflicted — not afflicted
  • impure — pure
  • troubled — not troubled
  • negative — positive
  • vice — virtue
  • away from enlightenment — towards enlightenment
  • resulting in bondage — resulting in freedom

The practice of yoga can help to eradicate these pains or troubles. In our daily lives we can be aware of things which cloud our minds, through practicing mindfulness, as a way to get back to seeing things as they really are without judgement or interpretation. There is a good article here on Zen Buddhism and its fascination with the mundane activities of everyday life. In the West, we are very much preoccupied with the extraordinary things which might happen. But Zen values the mundane, everyday activities, such as washing the dishes. To be truly mindful, when you wash the dishes, wash the dishes – with no detachment or thinking of what you are having for dinner, that argument with your partner or how much washing you have to get done. Just wash the dishes, feel the temperature of the water on your hands, the squidginess of the sponge, the hardness of the plate, etc. If thoughts about other things come into your mind, just notice them, and let them pass. Don’t force them away, but gently guide your mind back to the task in hand. This is a good way to be more present and to be aware of the distractions in our minds moment-to-moment.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.4

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1.4 At other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness

[from BKS Iyengar]

Other interpretations:

At other times, when one is not in Self-realization, the Seer appears to take on the form of the modifications of the mind field, taking on the identity of those thought patterns.

At other times, there is conformity with the mento-emotional energy.

The ‘other times’ referred to here are the times when we are not practising yoga, or are not seeing things as they really are (because of the kleshas or afflictions, such as jealousy, anger, fear, etc). When we are not aware of the true nature of things, we are caught up in sensory experience, the thoughtstream, and even identify ourselves with those thoughts and experiences, not seeing ourselves as distant from them.

As an example, let us imagine that we notice a thought in our heads which states that we are not good at such and such an activity. We may start to believe this as a fact, rather than just notice it as a construct of our minds. Then, when we next do such and such an activity, this thought may actually influence our ability to perform the task. Both yogic and Buddhist philosophy argue for the need to detach ourselves from our thoughts, that we are not those thoughts, we just have the thoughts. The thoughts are not us, just in our heads. Of course, it is not always easy to gain this distance from our thoughtstream / memories / sensory experience, but the path to doing so is that of the eight limbs – asana, pranayama, meditation, the yamas and niyamas (coming soon!).

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.3

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1.3 Then, the seer dwells in his own true splendour

[from BKS Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali]

Alternative interpretations:

Then the Seer abides in Itself, resting in its own True Nature, which is called Self-realization.

Then the perceiver is situated in his own form

This relates closely to 1.2, so that by practising yoga, one can see the true nature of the self. Iyengar says that when the consciousness (or mind) is stilled, it is no longer distorted, and its true nature can be seen. This is very similar to Buddhist philosophy, where the process of meditation (obviously without asana) removes the obstacles from the mind and allows us to see our true nature. These obstacles / afflictions or ‘kleshas‘ in Buddhism include strong emotions (anger, fear, jealousy) which cloud our ability to see the nature of reality.

The difference in language between the yoga sutras and Buddhist philosophy is interesting. The yogic view stresses restraint and regulation of the mind, whereas (to my understanding) the Buddhist view is to simply be aware of the affliction as it arises, and that awareness removes its cloud over our ability to see things as they really are.  There are obvious parallels with psychotherapy here, too. The therapy process, particularly Gestalt therapy and also psychoanalytic therapy, emphasises being aware of how our minds interpret the world around us, which is not necessarily how the world really is.

So to my mind, this sutra is emphasising that this eight-limbed path can lead to clearer thinking and the ability to see things as they are, without being clouded by thought or false interpretation.