Notes on Talk Two
2015 Dhamma Talk Series
@ Rojana Center, Asoke
Despite the terrible rain, 75+ people waded and swam their way to the talk. Someone called it a ‘soggy sangha’. Others turned back in the deadlocked traffic – next year, perhaps the rains retreat season is not the best time for it!
Below find the notes from week two – for those who would like to follow up on any of the subjects touched upon there are links provided.
Join the next talk Thursday 24th, at the inspiring Rojana Center, Asoke, titled DIET OF WORMS (details maps etc.. here)
This was the second week looking at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is an enlightenment text that has been adopted by the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, as a pointer to Enlightenment, to which their tradition subscribes.
Within the Sutras, which are not long and you can read in full in an hour or so, there are a lot of different teachings, both practical and transcendent.
But the text is not easy to read – and we took a little time to consider why.
There are three main forms of record keeping. This a topic that is covered in other talks, so only very brief notes will be given here. Each of the methods has advantages and disadvantages.
- 1. writing – in the ancient world this was considered the weakest form of record or knowledge transmission
- 2. Story – probably the most powerful, but unreliable way of bringing a point of wisdom alive
- 3. Recitation – the most accurate form of record
The Yoga Sutras were, like the early Buddhist Texts, meant for recitation. They would be learned by heart first. And then the teacher would give commentary after each stanza. Kind of like an ancient powerpoint. Thus you can’t expect it to read like a book. Further, because there are limitations on how much a person can learn by heart, it can’t be too long. So we find very pithy comments, short and sharp. But they need some explanation.
Part of the Yoga Sutras describes Eight steps, or limbs. These are not a 1, 2, 3, map that has to be accomplished in order. Rather, like the Buddhist Eightfold Path, they are steps that can be developed simultaneously. Nonetheless, the treatment is put in a logical order.
First came the moral restraints.
Next comes the ‘higher’ restraints. This means renunciation practices, or austerities. Not for moral reasons though.
In Buddhism it is called Abhisila – or higher restraints. It is higher because it is unnecessary, and only undertaken by one intent on the goal. The whole of the monk’s Vinaya is included in this.
There are several thousand rules that the monks are supposed to follow. Some we no longer do follow. Some we don’t know what they meant. Some are no longer applicable in this age. Many seem arbitrary, but we do follow nonetheless.
For example there are many protocols on how monks are supposed to walk in public – eyes down, not making unnecessary contact with people. Not looking around like a tourist. Not walking too quickly. And only gong to complete the business at hand, followed by a quick return to the forest or monastery. You might notice in the morning when the monks are on almsround they do not make eye contact with the people. They do not say thank you. They walk mindfully, eyes down, serene.
Ok, so it’s not always like that in practise, but that is the protocol.
These are not moral precepts, but renunciate ones. What is the purpose? It is difficult to describe.
In the talk I gave a story that I had just heard from The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam – he’d been a poor swimmer having learnt relatively late in life. One day he swims out on some coral – further than he felt safe doing. But as he swam, he was confident and strong. Only when he turned back did he realise he had been swimming with a strong current. Now he was going against it, he was learning the hard way how strong it was.
This is why we take on extra renunciation practises. There are currents to your behaviour. But you don’t notice them. Only when you undertake a form of behaviour that is contrary to the currents, do you notice them.
In Psychology we call it ‘heuristics’ – automated behaviours.
One example is in Lopburi province in Thailand. If you go to see the monkeys, when you park your car an attendant puts a tatty fake crocodile on your car. They are so old they barely resemble anything at all! But the monkeys will not go and cause mischief on your car when the croc is there. This is instinctive behaviour – they have not been conditioned.
The example given in the talk was the Turkey that is afraid of stuffed animals that resemble a cougar, but will go and mother the same stuffed toy if it makes a cheeping sound (bit more info here).
The world’s first great Advertising Guru, Claude Hopkins, identified the pattern. He was trying to sell Pepsodent toothpaste at a time when very few people brushed their teeth, and even fewer used toothpaste. He identified three stages to the action – trigger, automated behaviour, and reward. You can find a fuller account of this fascinating story here.
The mechanism is now well researched and proven – there is a good book about it called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
So, back to the Yoga Sutras – the opening stanzas of part II say:
Yogic action has three components (1) discipline (austerities, tapas), (2) self-study and (3) Orientation toward pure awareness.
It’s purpose is to disarm the causes of suffering and achieve integration (yoga, union).
Taking on a ‘higher’ austerity, it exposes these streams of behaviour to yourself. This is why good spiritual practises always begin with disciplined behaviour – and why you have to get up so early!
The main component in Buddhism that we are looking at is Desire – in it’s different forms.
One form we can look at it is in the three ‘roots of unwholesome behaviour’. This is an involved teaching that I have covered more thoroughly elsewhere. In brief it outlines three kinds of stimulation and engagement:
- Lobha (greed) – placing the mind on things you like
- Dosa (hate) – placing the mind on things you dislike
- Moha (delusion) placing the mind on things you are neutral about
All animals like to be unconscious of themselves. This is achieved by absorbing the attention in some activity. That might be a computer game, sleep, conversation, books etc.. Note, there is nothing morally wrong with these behaviours, but they all lead attention away from mindfulness, and into some kind of absorbing activity. This is a constant stream – a heuristic behaviour, to always be seeking some kind of stimulation to get absorbed in.
Note the opposite of these qualities is not their counterpart – for instance, the counterpart of hate is love, but the opposite of dosa is non-dosa. The opposite of a quality is it’s absence.
So we note when lobha, dosa or moha are not there. Which is quite rare, but with mindfulness it becomes more obvious. Dropping the need to absorb in something exposes how strong the current is. It shows just how uncomfortable you are with yourself, and how much more pleasant it is to dive into an activity. Noting and developing the counterpart exposes this process just like the swimmer finding himself going against the current.
It also begins the learning process by comparison – non-greed starts to become more attractive. It is more peaceful! It is brighter and more aware. Usually people are only aware of the present mind state, and do not notice what is not there in the instant.
So Buddhism has 3 volumes of special rules for the monks and nuns – these are the higher restraints.
The Yoga Sutras list five :
 The five internal disciplines are
- bodily purification: With bodily purification, one’s body ceasesto be compelling, likewise contact with others. Purification also brings about
- mastery of the senses,
- and capacity for self-awareness. [aatma-darsana – atma dassana]
- contentment: Contentment brings unsurpassed joy
- Austerities: [tapas – renunciate practises] As intense discipline burns up impurities, the body and its senses become supremely refined.
- self-study: Self-study deepens communion with one’s personal deity [ideal of the supreme]
- and orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness [ishvara] Through orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness, one can achieve integration