Notes on Talk Three
2015 Dhamma Talk Series
Asana: The Diet of Worms
This year’s series is going well so far. The next talk is SELF MEDITATION Thurs. Oct 1st– which in case you did not get it, is a relevant pun on ‘self-medication’. We will be half way through the series – so if you did not join in yet, now is the time!
Now we are at week three of this year’s program. The Eight Steps of Yoga are proving to be an interesting approach to enlightenment. While the Yoga Sutras themselves are very short and sharp, Buddhism expands on all of the topics contained in them. This makes for some interesting discussion points.
Just to recap – the Yoga sturas open with a no nonsense statement of the goal – Enlightenment:
“Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Then pure awareness abides in it’s own nature”
A few lines further along the Yoga Sutras state:
When the ultimate level of non-reaction has been reached, pure awareness can clearly see itself as independent from the fundamental qualities of nature.
All enlightenment traditions revolve around this point – that the whole confusion of Samsara (the cycle of life and death) arises when awareness is confused with the objects of awareness.
In Buddhism we have the same point. There is Citta (knowing) and Arammana (the object known). These arammana are the world of changing things, unstable, and ultimately unsatisfying. Also known as Samsara.
The preventable cause of all this suffering is the apparent indivisibility of pure awareness [citta] and what it regards [arammana]
with realization the appearance of indivisibility vanishes revealing that awareness is free and untouched by phenomena [Yoga Sutras]
Normally it is not possible to distinguish between the knower and the known. William James in his 1917 classic, but difficult to read, Varieties of Religious Experience, pointed out that we can’t see consciousness, only the objects that consciousness sees.
The Yoga Sutras say:
The sense of ‘I’ ascribes selfhood to pure awareness by identifying it with the senses.
(1) Attachment is a residue of pleasant experience
(2) Aversion is a residue of suffering
This pushing and pulling (Vedana in Buddhism) is overcome by 1. meditative concentration as a crude method, and 2. by seeing the source of the causes of sufferings as a refined method.
It is noteworthy that Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras talks quite a bit about the ‘pure awareness’, which is the final insight and goal of ‘Union’ or yoga. In Buddhism such talk of actual enlightenment is considered quite vulgar. In fact, one of the 4 big rules for monks is to never claim any kind of attainment or spiritual power in order to impress people. Thus talk on ‘nibbana’ or the ‘unconditioned’ is not emphasised and is relegated to something way off in the future.
Personally, before I ordained as a Bhikkhu, I went to see a guru that most people considered fully enlightened called Papaji, or Punjaji. I really loved his presence – such a gentle voice, and so full of humour. In those days it was really hard to do this – you had to travel across India. I could only remember he was in Lucknow, and had to find him just by asking around. Nowadays of course, you can find anyone you want on Youtube.
There are tons more videos of Papaji on Youtube.
But I found that much as I loved his presence, there was no systematic teaching. There was no discipline, no format to the teachings. So what do you do? This is where Buddhism was so much better – the system is clearly laid out, in all its parts. There is a discipline and a way to apply effort. Only really great teachers can present the path in such a way.
You will note also that the Yoga Sutras, while leaving some things incompletely explained, do outline the whole path. This is what makes it so valuable.
So the Yoga Sutras own summary is a path comprising
- self enquiry
- orientation towards pure awareness
The Buddha’s own summary of his teachings was
- refrain from evil
- cultivate the wholesome
- purify the mind
We have at one end, the teaching about enlightenment, and at the other end we have the earthy practises of what you should actually do. The goal is very lofty, the practise is always simplifying.
Somehow most religions corrupt these two ends. The simple practises become more and more esoteric. And the goal at the other end becomes dumbed down. It happens in Buddhism too – Nirvana is no longer the extinction of greed, hate and delusion, but is a heavy metal band. Simple awareness practise, such as watching the breath, gets replaced by all kinds of special mantras, charts and chakras, diets, funny hats, and visualisations.
Which takes us to the Diet of Worms. I thought this phrase was a colourful way to describe the third step of the Yoga Sutras – Asana, or body awareness. It sounds so earthy!
But the Diet of Worms has a more technical meaning – it was a meeting called by the Catholic authorities in 1521. It was basically a court case where Martin Luther was put on trial. It makes for an interesting story. As I love history, and a good story, and as it is relevant to the issue, it was worth relating it.
In brief: you had on the one hand Luther. He was angry at the church for selling ‘indulgencies‘ which were basically certificates that people would get for making money offerings to the church, which would guarantee them a place in heaven. Or at least it would reduce the time they spent in purgatory hell. Forget good works, or faith, or purity – all you needed was the papal indulgence to give to St Peter at the Pearly Gates. This is what I mean about the basic practises becoming more magical (and thereby easier to obtain).
|you might be interested to note that Buddhist traditions
have a St Peter like guardian of death/rebirth called
King Yama. Wikipedia entry here.
Similarly the church where Luther pinned his 95 thesis, was famous for it’s relics. If you prayed before these relics the power of the prayer was amplified! One of the relics, was a piece of straw from baby Jesus manger. A pretty long lasting piece of grass at 1500 years old. Can you imagine the salesman selling this piece of straw to Frederick to add to his collection?
And on the other hand you have the ultimate goal of the Church – an eternity of heaven. And it is something you can buy for cash.
Both ends of the spiritual path get corrupted. It always happens. In Buddhism too, though of all the schools that I looked into, I found none so earthy and straight forward as Theravada Buddhism. Especially as its primary practise, like Yoga, is body awareness. Very grounded, and very much real. This physical sensation is real. It might not seem like much, but it is the first step to disentangling from the world of delusion.
First note the Yoga Sutras only very briefly comment on this step:
[3.1] The postures of meditation should embody steadiness and ease
This occurs as all effort relaxes and coalescence arises, revealing that the body and the infinite universe are indivisible
Then, one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites
From a Yoga tradition that works so hard on physical poses, it is embarrassingly brief!
The key text on body awareness in Theravada Buddhism is a little more systematic. Here it is in full – it is only a few pages long, but you might find it difficult to read – remember this is because it is arranged for monks to learn word perfect by recitation, before trying to understand or practise it.
Before trying to explain the reasons for emphasising body awareness, it is helpful to look at it’s counterpart – the ‘World‘.
According to Buddhism, the universe is Samsara – a cycle of life and rebirth in layers of heavens and hells. It is all Maya – delusion. There is a detailed and interesting Wikipedia entry on Maya here.
Maya means that the ‘world’ is delusion – not ‘illusion’. That is, we don’t say that it is not real. It is real, but misunderstood.
For instance, a mirage in a desert is illusion. But a vanishing orange in the hands of a conjurer is delusion – there really was an orange, but we mistook what happened to it.
In what way is the world delusion?
In my teens I read several books by a hero of mine, Carl Sagan. He still stands as a great science writer. One of the chapters of this book Broca’s Brain, as memory serves, asked the question how much a human mind can know. He calculated the number of neurons, synapses, and other indicators of the limits of knowledge. Then he looked at the number of molecules in a grain of salt.
He worked out that a human cannot possibly know a grain of salt. All those sodium and chlorine atoms, arranged in a crystalline format. It is too much for a brain to know.
But what we can do, is identify a pattern. Seeing how the atoms are arranged in molecules, and how these are arranged into crystals. We can quite easily make a Theoretical Model of a grain of salt. I tell my students that a model should do two things:
- describe or explain something
- enable predictions.
If you cannot know a grain of salt in entirety – how can you know the world? It is too vast, too complicated. You can’t even know your spouse or your child (which is why they will always disappoint you!). To know me, you would have to know all my thoughts, all my ideas, all my feelings. Even I don’t know all that!
The best you can do is make a model – this is how you expect me to behave. your model might be accurate or not. It will be different to other people’s too – think of the worst possible person; there are people who think that person is just dandy! Who is right? Even Hitler was nice to animals.
Economics, history, democracy, science, and why England will not win the Rugby World Cup this year – all just models. Rules of thumb that you use to get by. Or as George Kelly called them, constructs. (this is one of my favourite psychology models).
This is why the world is delusion – you can’t know the world, you can only have a few working, and very changeable models of how you expect things to proceed.
Even animals are subject to the same thing – a dog knows who feeds it, who to growl at, where to poop, and that furniture is designed for chewing. It has its working models that for the most part, get it by very nicely indeed.
I found a fabulous description of this in Zen Words for the Heart – Hakuin’s commentary on the Heart Sutra.
I’ll quote in the style of the book – the stanza first, and then the notes:
|Hakuin’s Opening Remarks on capping words and verses:Blind old futzer down in a dark cave thick with a maze of vines and creepers. He comes back and sits stark naked in the weeds. Pity about poor Master Fu. He’s going to lose all his lovely mansions. And don’t say these words are cold and indifferent, that they have no taste. One bellyful eliminates hunger till the tend of time.
Casting a forest of thorns over the entire universe
Waddell notes: “the maze of vines and creepers refers to verbal complications and conceptual understanding. Unable to stand on their own, they envelop and constrict the true wisdom and prevent it from working freely.”
Sitting naked – means to drop all the concepts, and sit in the weeds, the pleasant and the unpleasant without adding concepts to the experience.
Master Fu was a layman who is destined to become Maitreyya Buddha. He has great merit (mansions), but of course, will lose all these as the final enlightenment is beyond merit and demerit.
The Buddha also used the simile of the vine – because, despite its vast size and form, if one cuts at the strategic point (root), the whole edifice will come crashing down.
So the first step out of the world of delusion is to return to what is real. That is the body. Physical sensation.
And if you join a meditation retreat in the Theravada tradition, you will know all about body awareness meditation. It is always the foundation. Physical feelings are real – there is no need for conceptual frameworks here (though there may well still be some). It is a cooling, earthhy, grounded practice. We spend endless hours watching the breath, and watching the feet move in walking meditation.
It might not seem like much. After all the talk on the nature of the Unconditioned, the ultimate attainment, we are given only simple feelings. But after a while, it is noted that the whole world arises only at our senses. There is no difference between the body and the universe.
Pure awareness is just seeing, itself.
Although pure, it usually appears to operate through the perceiving mind
In essence, the phenomenal world exists to reveal this truth.
Once that happens, the phenomenal world no longer appears as such;
it continues to exist though, as a common reality for everyone else.
Thus in one sutta, the Buddha talks with a man who has developed psychic powers such that he can send his (astral) body the entire length of the world, but yet claims there is no end to the world. The Buddha replies that you can’t get to the worlds end by ‘going’, but until you reach the world’s end, you can’t know the Unconditioned
It is in this very fathom-long physical frame with its perceptions and mind, that, I declare, lies the world, and the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world [full sutta here]
As to whether the world is real, or is delusion, the Buddha also said that if one has seen the arising of the world, one cannot deny it is real. If one has seen the cessation of the world, one cannot say that it is real.
The ‘world’ or the ‘cosmos’ in Buddhism as in the Yoga Sutras, is the same thing as the body with its senses.
So, before these notes spiral out of control, lets boil it back down to basic practise.
A good example is how the Buddha taught his own son, Rahula. The collection of suttas in full on Rahula is here
It is by the way, very likely that Siddhartha Gotama really did have this son – we accept that there are many ideas of what a ‘Buddha’ is – an historical figure, a comsic attainment, a demi-god, and a superbeing (as later traditions deified him). In the Theravada tradition (considered by all schools of Buddhism to be the most historically accurate) we find the Buddha as a father giving advice to his only son.
Here the body meditation is based on the 32 parts of the body – a classic Indian formulation. They are divided up according to their primary property (element). This is the quote that finished the talk:
“Whatever, Rāhula, pertains to oneself as an individual, is hard, of a solid nature, and a product of grasping—as for example; hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, stomach, intestines, mesentery, excrement: or anything else whatsoever pertaining to oneself as an individual, that is hard, of a solid nature, and a product of grasping: this, Rāhula, is called the personal ‘element of earth.’ But even this personal earthy element, as well as the external earthy element, is merely the element of solidity. This, in accordance with fact and with perfect knowledge, should be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine; this am I not; this is soulless’; Having seen with perfect knowledge that such is the case, one becomes disgusted with he element of earth, and one’s mind is detached from the element of solidity.
“What now, Rāhula, is the element of water? … bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, lymph, tears, serum, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine, … one becomes disgusted with the element of water,—and one’s mind is detached from the element of fluidity.
“What now, Rāhula, is the element of fire? …Whatever pertains to oneself as an individual, is hot, of a fiery nature, and a product of grasping that whereby there is deterioration, whereby there is intense burning, whereby what is eaten, drunk, chewed and tasted, is well-digested, … and one’s mind is detached from the element of heat.
“What now, Rāhula, is the element of air? … Whatever is gaseous, of an airy nature, and a product of grasping—as for example: ascending and descending flatus, the vapours in the abdomen and bowels, the air passing through the various parts of the body, such as inhalation and exhalation, or anything else whatsoever pertaining to oneself as an individual, that is gaseous, of an airy nature, … and one’s mind is detached from the element of air.
“What now, Rāhula, is the element of space? … Whatever pertains to oneself as an individual, is void, of an empty nature, and a product of grasping as for example: the cavities of the ear and nose, the mouth aperture, that whereby one swallows what is eaten, drunk, chewed and tasted; where such nourishment accumulates, that whereby such nourishment passes from the lower part (of the body), or anything else whatsoever pertaining to oneself as an individual, that is void, of an empty nature, and a product of grasping: this, Rāhula, is called ‘the internal element of space.’ and one’s mind is detached from the element of space.
Rāhula, by practising meditation like the earth, the contacts that have arisen—agreeable and disagreeable— will not continue to obsess your mind.
Just as pure and impure things, Rāhula,— excrement, urine, saliva, pus and blood—are cast upon the earth, and yet the earth neither abhors, nor loathes, nor dislikes such things; even so yourself, Rāhula, earthwise, practise meditation.
Likewise develop meditation that is like water, fire, air and space – that do not abhor or loathe disagreeable things. The contacts that have arisen will not continue to obsess your mind.
“Develop the meditation on loving-kindness [then] ill-will is abandoned.
“Develop the meditation on compassion, Rāhula. [then] cruelty is abandoned.
“Develop the meditation on sympathetic joy, [then] aversion is abandoned.
“Develop the meditation on equanimity, Rāhula. [then] hatred is abandoned.
“Develop the meditation on impurity,[then] lust is abandoned.
“Develop the meditation on the concept of impermanence[then] pride of self is abandoned.