Notes on Talk One
2015 Dhamma Talk Series
@ Rojana Center, Asoke
Below find the notes from the first talk – for those who would like to follow up on any of the subjects touched upon there are links provided.
Join the next talk Thursday 17th, at the inspiring Rojana Center, Asoke, titled MONKS HAVE MORE FUN (details maps etc.. here)
Last Thursday was the first in this year’s series.
This is the one thing I put a ton of effort into each year, mostly in the PR. Getting the word out is not that easy. Large crowds are not the goal, but it would be nice if everyone who would like to attend gets to hear about it. These days everyone relies on myself to do all the PR, but please remember to help spread the word – it really helps.
This year’s talks follow the format of Enlightenment in Ashtanga Yoga – outlined in 8 steps (or ‘limbs’)
Why bring a different tradition into Buddhism? Well, if we take enlightenment to be something real, and the core of all consciousness, it makes sense that many people have discovered it. Of these people, some will have the charisma and articulation to put across the method to others. Thus we have various ‘Enlightenment traditions’. Many of which come from India.
the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali is one such tradition. If you are very keen, you can read a pretty good version of the full text here. There are numerous online resources too, that break it down and analyse in detail.
The Yoga Sutras outline the path to enlightenment, and have a lot in common with Buddhism. In fact, many parts of it seem to be taken directly from Buddhism – which is quite natural. They were composed around 1000 years after the Buddha, when the Vedas, Upanishads, Mahayana and Tantric texts were well known.
It might be mentioned that what most people think of as Yoga, the bending of the body into various poses, is hardly connected with this sutra at all – those likely comes from various Tantric physical practises (as we were informed by Dr Georges Dreyfus last month in our event with him on this topic). It was only about 100+ years ago that this text, then rather obscure, was dusted off and appended to traditional Yoga exercises.
The sutras begin :
Now, the teachings of yoga
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness (citta-vitti-nirodha)
Then, pure awareness can abide in its very nature
We find the same idea in Buddhism – after his enlightenment, the Buddha wondered if this generation mired in sense desire, would be able to unsderstand something so abstruse as the stilling of the mind (Sankhara).
The Sutras continue:
Both practice (abhyaasa) and non-reaction (dispassion/virakha) are required to still the patterning of consciousness.
Practice is the sustained effort to rest in that stillness.
And this practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time.
Here we have the crux of the issue: Enlightenment is the nature of awarenesss, independent of what is in consciousness. Or put another way, there is Citta (consciousness) and Aramana (object of consciousness). Animals are so enmeshed in the objects they can sense, that they miss the more fundamental nature of awareness itself. So there is a practise required in order to get back to that ‘original mind’.
As for non-reaction, one can recognize that it has been fully achieved when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.
When the ultimate level of non-reaction has been reached, pure awareness can clearly see itself as independent from the fundamental qualities of nature.
Ok – so Enlightenment talk is like we’re starting at the end of the path. But it is important to know that saints and sages have taught about this, and that it is there (something implicitly understood in Indian culture).
And the opening steps of this path are always restraint.
We can compare to the story of sugar. (see the documentary here). It used to be worth more than gold by weight. It is not easy to find in nature. Thus we have evolved to have a craving for it, along with fat and salt.
After Europeans developed sugar cane plantations, it became more accessible. And then with the introduction of the unlikely looking sugar beet, processed sugar became ubiquitous. Evolution however, has not had time to catch up, and we are blighted with this craving.
It is called hyper-stimulation in psychology, or supernormal stimulation. One famous experiment by Niko Tinbergen (who studied instinctive non-learned behaviour) who found that a breed of gulls had an orange spot on the beak. Chicks would peck at the spot to get attention, and food. So he placed a bigger, brighter orange spot in the nest. The chicks proceeded to ignore their parent, and peck furiously at the spot, even to the point of death. [There is a TED talk on the subject of supernormal stimulation here.]
So we have to learn restraint around sugar.
I bring this up by way of comparison.
In this age, we are privileged to large amounts of free time. This is something quite rare in humanity – normally the daily grind providing food takes a lot of time. Plus the other tasks of making, preparing and preserving things. What do we do with ourselves when we have so much free time? Most people are not equipped. They sit meditation and find the mind runs amok. Monkey mind!
Then they feel they can’t meditate. Or they launch into some obsessive behaviour to escape being aware of themselves.
Well, not everyone goes crazy – but few people are able to restrain the mind. It is hard work learning to meditate. But for many of us, it is well worth it. Meditation opens space in the mind, and provides a way to tame the automated impulses.
Thus all genuine spiritual paths begin with moral restraints.
It might not be popular, as we don’t like being told what to do. Much less do we like to be threatened with an afterlife punishment for transgressing laws we did not subscribe to.
But when you look at it, we already live with restraints. Most people are not bad.
In Buddhism the basic moral code is very rational, and importantly, is not commandments, but voluntary restraints.
- refrain from killing animals
- refrain from stealing
- refrain from sexual actions harmful to oneself or another
- refrain from lying, slandering, swearing, and gossiping
- refrain from intoxicants
Acting in this way has the effect of making the mind more upright and stable. Acting in a poor way has the effect of tightening and creating tension – this is how lie detectors work. They measure stress markers in the body when you tell a lie. Even a small fib, creates a stress. Much more so theft, slander etc..
There are lots of discussions about this list elsewhere – exactly what is meant by these clauses?
But for our purpose here, it is enough to note that all of us can do with some improvement. Taking care with our interactions in the world is a lifelong practise. Right Speech for instance, is very tricky – when you make the determination to follow this precept for a period of time, you find all kinds of instances when you are saying things deliberately designed to get what you want, or to put down another person.
The Yoga Sutras have a similar list of basic restraints. And these comprise the first of the 8 steps of Enlightenment. The five external disciplines included in step one are
- not harming, ahimsâ
- truthfulness, satya
- not stealing, asteya
- celibacy, brahmacarya
- and not being acquisitive aparigrahâ
Each item is discussed only very briefly in the Yoga text. It is interesting to note what exactly it says:
[1.1] the first item allows one to replace unwholesome thoughts with wholesome ones (in Buddhism this is part of Right Intention; to refrain from thoughts of greed, hate and harm, and cultivate thoughts of renunciation, non-hate and non-harming)
[1.2] “For those grounded in truthfulness, every action and its consequences are imbued with truth” (Sacca, truthfulness, is one of the ten perfections in Buddhism – qualities to cultivate)
[1.3] “For those who have no inclination to steal, the truly precious (ratna jewel) is at hand.” (the nature of this jewel is not expanded on, but it is interesting to note that Buddhism and the Yoga Sutra in later sections, do frequently talk of a ‘wish fulfilling gem’ as an internal meditation experience)
[1.4] “The chaste acquire vitality” (celibacy for you Yoga guys, but only restraint from harmful conduct for Buddhists! Which way do you want to take to enlightenment?)
[1.5] “Freedom from wanting unlocks the real purpose of existence” (again this is not specified, but in both traditions the ultimate goal is the same).
To finish off, we did return to the topic of Enlightenment, and what we can say about it. In fact, in Buddhism and yoga, it is not talked about much. There is a fear of talking about something that you have not attained to, and a fear of false bragging.
But personally, I think it is well worth discussion – that is how we keep things in mind. Otherwise the practise is just a purposeless way to dampen down the natural effervescence of the mind. A bit of peace and quiet is not the goal!
We’ll leave this discussion for another time.
But note that the Yoga Sutra agrees that it needs to be kept in mind :
Realization may come if one is oriented toward the ideal of Isvara (pure awareness).
Come join in for week two: MONKS HAVE MORE FUN