Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa

Larches in the Autumn
Larches in the Autumn, Helsinki, 2003

This posting is part of an ongoing series on writings by Vasubandhu, the founder of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. Nothing has happened over the intervening couple of days to make me any more qualified to say anything about this stuff, so please consider this light entertainment and if you notice that I'm completely misunderstanding something, feel free to set me straight. I'm reading this translation and commentary by Stefan Anacker.

Vasubandhu's Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa, "A Discussion of the Five Aggregates," is dense. It packs a complete model of the human personality into a few pages of text and then throws in a method for dealing with all kinds of unpleasantness, and finishes up by describing what happens in deep meditational states. Almost as an afterthought, he ties it together into a complete psychological theory of birth, decrepitude, and death. What's more, the format of the work is not the most accessible to your 21st century dilettante—it's written as an Abhidharma list, and consists entirely of definitions of terms.
And what are views? These views are generally of five kinds: the view of a fixed self in the body, views regarding the permanence or impermanence of the elements constituting personality, false views, adherence to particular views, and adherence to mere rule and ritual.
I read it. Then I did a round of zazen and read it again. Then I discussed it with someone while reading it a third time. Now I'm reading it a fourth time as I'm writing this. I'll certainly have to read it many more times before I run out of new things to find in it, and I have a feeling that a few decades of intensive meditation would help too. Nevertheless, I think I'm getting a picture of what Vasubandhu is saying in it, and the little I am picking up is nothing short of awesomely brilliant. What follows is a re-telling of what I have gotten out of this text so far, in a more familiar format.

The central question in Pañcaskhandhaka-prakaraṇa is "What is this thing we call a 'personality?'"

Vasubandhu's answer starts from the conception of a discrete citta, or consciousness-event. A citta can occur at any level in a human psychophysical entity. For example, a collection of molecules attaching to receptors in your sinuses is a citta, the sensation of smell that arises from that is another citta, the recognition of that smell as "coffee" is another citta, the thought of freshly-ground coffee beans is another citta, "I'd really like a nice cup of fresh coffee" is another citta, and the decision to go make one is yet another citta. 

Each citta conditions following cittas, as in the example above where aromatic compounds attaching to receptors resulted in a stream of cittas ending up with a volitional action of brewing a cup of coffee. Furthermore, each citta makes an imprint into a "store-consciousness" or "seed-consciousness," which stores things we call "memories," "tendencies," and "habits." This store-consciousness cannot be directly apprehended; it can only be inferred from its effects (presumably using the method of inference he described in Vāda-vidhi.)

Vasubandhu makes no distinction between what we would call psychological events (e.g. a desire for a cup of coffee) and physical events (e.g. molecules attaching to receptors in the sinuses), beyond placing them in different heaps—the skandhas from the text's title. Regardless of whether a citta occurs in the heap of materiality, sensation, cognition, or volition, they're all cittas, and all work the same way. There's no fundamental difference between a smoker ruining his sense of smell by physically overloading his smell receptors with noxious fumes and a fast-food addict ruining his appreciation of good food by teaching himself that the sensations created by ingesting glucose syrup, salt, and saturated fats are "pleasant." In both cases, we have cittas conditioning new cittas and leaving imprints on the store-consciousness.

Even though the personality consists fundamentally of discrete events that follow and condition each other, we experience an illusion of continuity. This illusion is created by the events occurring as aggregates—the skandhas in the title of the work. So, the near-infinity of cittas occurring in a living body, the huge mass of sensory impressions transmitted through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, the streams of cognitional cittas constantly categorizing those impressions, and the streams of volitional cittas created from these impressions and from seeds previously imprinted into the store-consciousness together create an illusion of a continuous personality. Consciousness is nothing more than awareness caused by and of streams of cittas bouncing around a psychophysical entity we call "a person."

As a final flourish in his outline of the human personality, Vasubandhu describes life-force, birth, and decrepitude in terms of his model of ever-flowing streams of cittas. Perhaps it's a failing of mine, but I'm always delighted when someone explains something like this without recourse to supernatural woo:
What is "life-force?" It is, as regards any events taking part in an organism, any continuity, for a certain time, of motivating dispositions which have been projected by past action. And what is "taking part in an organism?" It is any close interrelationship of bodily parts as regards sentient beings. What is "birth?" It is any arising of a stream of motivating dispositions which has not already arisen, as regards any collection of events taking part in an organism. And what is "decrepitude?" It is an alteration in the stream of those like that. 
Death, on the other hand, is merely a "cessation not through contemplation"—fundamentally no different from a cessation of a perception of the color blue when the blue object that caused the perception to arise has been removed from the sense-field of the eye.

Having thus established the structure of a "personality," he moves on to the therapeutic implications of his model. He defines a large number of different types of cittas occurring in each of the aggregates, and classifies each of them as beneficial, harmful, or indifferent. He further describes antidotes for each of the harmful cittas or "afflictions." Implicit in this set of definitions is an entire therapeutic method: first, through meditative concentration, developing an awareness of the cittas making up your consciousness-streams. Then, by recognizing which of the afflictions you're most suffering from, identifying the appropriate antidotes. Finally, healing yourself by cultivating the antidotes to these afflictions by conscious volitional action.

Vasubandhu goes on to describe outcomes of this course of "therapy:" as the antidotes gradually leave their marks in the store-consciousness, the afflictions start to wither; this leads to a more balanced and happier state of mind. At the same time, the meditational activity that accomplishes this healing creates deeper meditational states; the activity of peeling away the afflictions will, in itself, lead to various samadhis, culminating in the "attainment of the cessation of cognitions and feelings," when all the skandhas will have emptied and what's left is direct apprehension of reality itself.

This is a therapeutic and spiritual program rolled into one; there is no distinction to be made between the beneficial effects of meditative practice, the volitional action directed at ridding oneself of afflictions, and the Eightfold Path. This is a mighty powerful—and empowering—insight into dealing with unpleasant or difficult stuff. No doctor, guru, or master can ever tell you which afflictions you're suffering from, or magically cure you. Only you can do that. The best a teacher can do is be a sounding-board and a guide, and teach you the meditational techniques and conceptual tools you can use to effect your own healing, whether it's from depression or dukkha.

I really like this way of looking at the personality—for example, it renders the question of whether schizophrenia is a physical ailment caused by a screw-up in brain chemistry or a mental condition caused by childhood traumas (or whatever) completely meaningless: "schizophrenia" is itself an empty label; the "patient" is merely suffering from a variety of afflicted cittas occurring in all of the skandhas. Similarly, it sidesteps the problems sometimes discussed of, say, different types of Zen—in Vasubandhu's model, bompu Zen ("therapeutic" Zen) would be exactly the same as saijojo Zen (the practice of enlightenment). The only difference lies in the state of the personality staring at the wall—do enough bompu Zen, and you will eventually find yourself doing saijojo Zen.

I was also struck by a few things related to the bigger philosophical picture. 

Vasubandhu is very emphatic about anatta (the lack of any central, abiding, or unchanging self), listing three different types of afflicted views about it—grasping for a "doer," grasping for an "enjoyer," and grasping for "one central entity." This is in clear opposition to the likes of Patañjali, who posit an unchanging puruṣa, and I don't think he would have had much time for The Zennist's views on the self either. Similarly, a deeply internalized sense of universal causal interconnectedness (paticca-samuppada) and emptiness (śunyatta) pervade his entire model.

On the other hand, the ostensible topic of the text—the five aggregates, or skandhas—seem almost incidental. They're a convenient way to categorize cittas, but they clearly have no ontological existence or independent meaning of their own; cittas influence each other across the skandhas, and the illusion of continuity or an abiding "self" arise from the fact that they occur in streams where preceding cittas influence following ones directly or through the intermediary of the store-consciousness.

I was left wondering about one final thing in Vasubandhu's model. He is quite specific about the particularity and distinctness of cittas; he treats them as something like "atoms" of consciousness. This leads to all kinds of philosophical problems: for example, if a citta is a momentary, atomic event, how can one citta influence another? How, for example, can a citta in the skandha of motivational dispositions affect cittas in the skandha of cognition? Vasubandhu's seed-consciousness is clearly at least partly posited to answer this question; however, in his discussion he does appear to state that cittas also influence each other directly. 

In my naive reading of his text, his cittas appear to behave in a more dynamic manner. To continue the physics analogy, they look more like the probability distributions of quantum physics than the hard, indivisible atoms of classical atomic theory. I wonder if this hard and distinct nature of cittas is really essential to Vasubandhu's philosophy, or if it's a conceptual category that he picked up from his environment? After all, discussions about the atomic nature of the universe were very much in vogue at the time, and (or so I understand) an accepted "fact" in Abhidharma orthodoxy.

Philosophers East and West have had a hard time dealing with continuities. A few hundred years previously, Zeno of Elea formulated his famous paradoxes, proving that Achilles can never catch a tortoise, and an arrow can never reach its mark. Vasubandhu's "atomic" cittas are strangely reminiscent of the problems Zeno was dealing with, and, at least on the surface, could be resolved with the same expedient—by describing the series of cittas as a continuum of "fuzzy" quanta rather than "distinct" atoms. As far as I can tell, this modification would have no serious repercussions in the rest of his model.

The next text in the collection I'm reading is titled Karma-siddhi-prakaraṇa, or "A Discussion for the Demonstration of Action." Stefan Anacker's introduction and notes refer repeatedly to it, and apparently it develops further some of the ideas introduced in Pañcaskandhaka-prakaraṇa. I've given it a quick glance, and it appears to be an even tougher nut to crack, so it might be a while before I'm able to write about it. I have a feeling that the little book I bought will be keeping me busy for a quite a long time—there's more gold in it than I will be able to mine in years.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reading Vasubandhu: Vāda-vidhi

Footsteps, Nice, 2010

The first post about my infatuation with Vasubandhu, the founder of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism, is here. It gives a brief overview of who he was and what he was about. Please remember that I'm totally new to this stuff and probably misunderstanding much of it, so don't take any of it too seriously; my primary intent in writing this is to clarify my own thoughts about this stuff. Since I don't read Sanskrit, I'm reading this translation and commentary by Stefan Anacker.

Vasubandhu's Vāda-vidhi, translated as "A Method for Argumentation" is the first attempt in Indian philosophy to describe a formal system of logic. Since no complete manuscript has survived, the text I'm reading is based on reconstructions from quotations by Vasubandhu's students, in particular the great logician Dignāga, as well as translations to Chinese and Tibetan.

I was surprised and thrilled to discover that Vāda-vidhi isn't really about logic. It does describe a simple formal structure for argumentation, but that structure is grounded in the author's ideas about cognition. In particular, Vasubandhu's methods for distinguishing fallacious arguments from valid ones rely heavily on his theory of cognition. These methods are simpler and arguably less rigorous than the ones described in the formal logic derived from Aristotle, but they're also highly practical and, I think, are pretty good at avoiding discussions about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Where Aristotle takes the P and Q in his "If P, then Q" type syllogisms as given, Vasubandhu devotes a considerable amount of  this short text to exploring the relationship of the objects in an argument to our ways of cognizing them.

Vasubandu's argument structure is very simple:
Thesis: "This mountain is fire-possessing."
Justification: "Because this mountain is smoke-possessing."
Invariable concomitance: "If a thing is smoke-possessing, it is always fire-possessing."
Example: "Like a kitchen."
Counter-example: "And not like a lake."
He then goes on to describe a number of logical fallacies, which he classifies into three types: reversed, incorrect or unreal, and contradictory. He then moves on from the trivial example above to thornier ones involving properties like arising-instantaneously-upon-an-effort and non-eternality, and shows the applicability of his system for these more complex cases.

Overall, his formal system of argumentation is simple and practical, and especially well-suited for the quick back-and-forth of the verbal debates that were very much in vogue in Vasubandhu's day. He had a reputation for being a ferocious debater, and I have no doubt that it was well-deserved—nor that Vāda-vidhi is the fruit of a lifetime's experience of matching wits with the sharpest minds in a subcontinent full of them. However, I found his ideas on cognition a good deal more interesting.

Underlying Vasubandhu's treatise on logic is an unstated premise that the objects in the argument structure—the mountain, the kitchen, the lake, their smoke-possessingness, fire-possessingness, or lack thereof, have no independent existence. Instead, they only come into existence provisionally, when cognized. He further breaks down our process of cognition into direct perception, such as perceptions of pleasure, pain, sound, or sight, and inferred perception, such as the perception of a mountain as fire-possessing when it is observed to be smoke-possessing.
Knowledge through inference can be specified as an observation coming when the means-of-evidence is directly observed, and the invariable concomitance between it and what can be inferred is remembered. One does not occur unless something else is directly known. Otherwise there is no inference.

We can never be absolutely certain about anything, because we can only make inferences based upon our perceptions, which can be misleading, and memory, which is unreliable. He goes on to give examples of problems with cognition, such as a false cognition-of-silver arising from looking at mother-of-pearl, and cognition of objects that do not exist, such as a luminous circle that is perceived when a torch is hurled in an arc.

This makes the example and counter-example so vital to the argument. Any thesis can be disproved by showing that the proposed invariable concomitance is not, in fact, invariable. The last part of Vāda-vidhi is devoted to methods that can be used to distinguish logical fallacies from valid arguments. In my opinion, Vasubandhu does not quite manage to resolve these problems; there appears to be a great deal of room left for pontification about the validity of invariable concomitances, examples and counter-examples; our more familiar categorization of fallacies would come in very handy there.

The more I read Vasubandhu, the more I'm impressed by him. His insights into what makes us tick are deep indeed, and he describes and analyzes them with a rigorous and truly brilliant intellect. He's a very refreshing reminder that the "going beyond words" Buddhist teachers often mention is anything but an abdication of intelligence or a descent into a mushy fluff of anything-goes. He's also way more accessible to a 21st century dilettante than I feared. I can't wait to get to the next part, titled Pañcaskhandhaka-prakaraņa, "A Discussion of the Five Aggregates."

Incidentally, the photo at the head of this posting is a nice example of Vasubandhu's false perception. When I saw those footsteps, I assumed that someone who had been swimming or wading in the sea was walking barefoot on the Promenade, since I thought there was an invariable concomitance between the marks in the photo and wet bare feet. When I caught up with the individual in question, it turned out that I was slightly off the mark, and a more careful application of Vasubandhu's method would have led me to the correct conclusion. I leave the correct chain of inference and the error in my initial conclusion as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Dripping Water
Dripping Water, Luberon, France, 2010

I'm getting a sneaking suspicion that Zen teachers—at least the ones here in the Western Paradise where practice is easy—might be neglecting the Indian ancestors. Over the past year, I've heard and read a quite a few teishos from a number of teachers, several books about Zen and Buddhism, and, not least, a quite a lot of blogs and shorter articles on the Internet. Lots of this stuff cites various teachers and thinkers. However, most of these are either contemporary or near-contemporary—Shunryu Suzuki, Taizan Maezumi, Chögyam Trungpa, the current Dalai Lama or the current Karmapa, Pema Chödrön, etc.—or one of a handful of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Tibetan masters, like Dōgen, Hakuin, Hui-neng, Chinul, or Je Tsongkhapa. It's as if they jump straight from the Shakyamuni to Bodhidharma, even if names like Nagarjuna, Ashvaghosha, and Vasubandhu appear in the lineage of ancestors that gets chanted on occasion.

That ain't cool. I'm almost feeling a little cheated here—first by my regular plain ol' Western education, that never even mentioned any of these guys, and second by the imaginary, real, and virtual community of Buddhists I follow and interact with. I just came across Vasubandhu when reading Patañjali, and looked him up, and damn if he didn't earn his place in that lineage. It's as if I stubbed my toe on a rock and then noticed that it was a massive gold nugget.

I'm going to have to do some rabid reading to get my bearings in this entirely new and immensely interesting intellectual landscape. I'll be chronicling some of it here. For anyone stumbling on this blog, please keep in mind that (a) I'm very much a newbie to this whole Buddhist show, and (b) I'm only discovering these guys for the first time now. In other words, I'm probably misunderstanding most of it. And, of course, I am in no way qualified to comment on any of the transcendent shit, not having transcended anything much yet.

So please take anything you read here with even more salt than usual, and please feel free to set me straight when I go into the woods. I'm really only writing because it helps organize my own thoughts. I'm not going to be doing any real serious sutra study or stuff like that at this point; just random reading, fitting the pieces together, and trying to get a big picture of what some of these people were about and how it fits together.

With those preliminaries, Vasubandhu.

Vasubandhu comes up in the short version of the line of ancestors we chant on Sundays, between Nagarjuna and Bodhidharma. He appears to have been a quite a colorful character; he comes with a traditional and somewhat mythologized biography that (tangentially) features Maitreya and some dragons.

Dragons aside, it appears that he lived for 80 years in the fourth century CE, traveling, debating, and teaching extensively in northern India, Nepal, and Kashmir. He started out studying with the (now defunct) Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism (about which I don't know jack shit either), sneaking to study at their university in Kashmir by pretending to be a lunatic, and then sneaking back the same way four years later. Apparently, they had rakshasas as border guards at the time, which is bound to have done wonders to control immigration. Something for Arizona to consider? But I digress...

Back home in Gandhāra, he started to give lectures on Sarvāstivāda teachings. He condensed each day's talk into a single line, which he then had paraded around on an elephant, challenging anyone to refute it, which nobody managed, naturally. Once he had put together a bunch of these lines, he sent the collection back to the Sarvāstivādins, along with a big ol' pile of gold as an expression of his gratitude. (Presumably lecturers were paid rather better back then than they are now.) The Sarvāstivādins liked it so much that they sent the gold right back, with another big pile of it added (presumably universities were rather better funded as well), asking him to write a commentary on the synthesis he had written. Unfortunately for the Sarvāstivādins, he had converted to Mahayana Buddhism in the meantime, and the commentary he sent back meticulously refuted every single one of their doctrines. The Sarvāstivādins were not pleased, but these two works—the Abhidharmakośa and the Abhidharmakośa-bhāsya—are still considered some of Vasubandhu's greatest contributions to Buddhist philosophy.

Eventually, Vasubandhu went on to start his own university and found the Yogācāra school of Buddhism. Along the way, he wrote a big bunch of stuff, including the first systematic treatise of logic in India.

Vasubandhu also had a great deal to say about the mind. The Yogācāra school is also known as the "mind-only" school of Buddhism (that's cittamātra, for those of you who like to drop Sanskrit terms.) In contrast to Nagarjuna's Mādhyamaka school, it put meditation practice—yoga—front and center. Måns Broo called Mind Only philosophy "idealistic," which I've come to realize is something of a put-down among enlightened folk, although I'll be damned if I can see which definition of idealism it would fit, since it's very much centered on practice on the one hand, and the philosophy itself explicitly denies the validity of unchanging essences (or ideas, in the Platonic sense).1

His core ideas of the mind are brilliantly summarized in his Thirty Verses on Representation-Only. According to a few commentators I've read—as, in fact, Måns Broo appears to have done—Vasubandhu's philosophy is often misunderstood as the simplistic position that nothing exists apart from the mind. It's clearly more nuanced than that.

Vasubandhu doesn't deny the existence of an objective reality. He says so right there, in verse 22 of the Thirty Verses:
Ultimately, perfect nature, the fully real, arises
When there is an absence of mental projection onto appearances.
For that reason, the fully real is neither the same nor different from appearances.
If the perfected nature is not seen, the dependent nature is not seen either.
His point is that phenomena—things, what he calls dharmas—have no independent existence. The universe is continuous; when we observe it, we project our mental constructs on it, and come up with stuff like "chair" or "rock" or "mountain" or "you" or "I" or "subject" or "object." It's these things that only exist in the mind, and they can exist in the mind quite independently of the universe, such as when you're dreaming, imagining, or (what we but not Vasubandhu would call) hallucinating. The point is to practice meditation—yoga—in order to transcend these mental constructs and see the universe as it really is (verse 29):
That is the supreme, world-transcending knowledge
Where one has no mind that knows
And no object that is known
Abandoning twofold grasping
The storehouse consciousness is emptied
Hey, that's Zen, right there!

That "storehouse consciousness" (ālayavijñāna for you Sanskrit snobs) is from Vasubandhu's theory of the mind. He divides the mind into three basic components: the storehouse consciousness, which accumulates and contains all of our experiences, including memories, tendencies, behavior patterns, and so on; the "reflective consciousness" (mānovijñāna), which does the thinking and reflecting, and the "volitional consciousness" (upalabdhavijñāna), which does all the fun stuff like grasping and avoiding. All these are, however, continuously flowing and changing transformations of Mind (citta), and the point of the whole exercise is to go beyond them and see things as they really are.

I'm struck once again how closely this stuff relates to relatively modern Western philosophy—we have Kant's Ding an sich, Husserl's phenomena, and Popper's rejection of essentialism in favor of fluid, contextually constructed definitions—all in a rigorously constructed conceptual framework, about 1500 years before any of our team stumbled onto them. And to think that these guys never even get mentioned in our philosophy courses!

I think I'll be doing a good deal more delving into Vasubandhu. The problem for a dilettante like me is, though, that he—like Ashvaghosha or even Nagarjuna—hasn't gotten anywhere near enough attention. That means that there isn't all that much stuff available about them in languages that I understand, and much of what is, is academic stuff like doctoral dissertations that analyze the Sanskrit on a word-by-word basis. Pretty dense. I found one promising book that's in print, and will be reading it once I'm back home, but so far, I feel a bit like I'm a dog by a table hoping for scraps to fall on the floor. There are plenty of highly approachable commentaries on Dōgen around. I should hope these Masters from the West deserve some of their own, because as far as I can tell, Vasubandhu's a very clear and incisive thinker, and the main obstacles to understanding him lie in the distance between me and some guy writing in Sanskrit in fourth-century Gandhāra. I would really appreciate some help bridging that gap.

1Actually, on further thought, Vasubandhu's philosophy does veer close to something called "subjective idealism," as described by "when-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods" Berkeley. It's more complex than that, though, I think.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reading Patañjali's Yōga Sūtra

Crossroads In The Rain
Crossroads In The Rain, Luberon, France, 2010

It's been raining here, which is OK because it means I get to read stuff without feeling that I really ought to be out there taking advantage of the weather. I just finished an excellent translation of and commentary on Patañjali's Yōga Sūtra, by a guy called Måns Broo.

I really don't know squat about Indian philosophy. All I have is a grab-bag of second- and third-hand accounts and some Buddhist, mostly Mahayana, stuff I've absorbed from here and there, a good deal of it during the past year or so. Peeking at Patañjali was so interesting to me because it gave a glimpse of the mental landscape from which Mahayana Buddhism, among other things, springs. A good many concepts I've encountered in the Zen context now make more sense, since they're clearly parts of a big ol' debate between a myriad of schools of thought, all concerned with similar problems.

Patañjali explores the same territory as the Shakyamuni and his followers, but the map he draws is radically different in some crucial respects. Patañjali's philosophy is also primarily a philosophy of action rather than ratiocination. The Yōga Sūtra is a concise roadmap of yoga as a spiritual practice—what to do, what obstacles you're likely to encounter, how to overcome them, and what the ultimate goal of the exercise is. This is very similar to core Buddhist philosophy, and in fact many of the concepts I've encountered in Hakuin, Dōgen or the Dhammapada are present in Patañjali, although many of them do take on somewhat different senses.

However, it is unabashedly anchored in a set of metaphysical claims. Apart from the practical advice in the first part, it really doesn't make much sense at all without the metaphysical concepts of God (īśvara), puruṣa, and prakṛti. In Zen at least, the discriminating mind is what we're supposed to transcend; in Patañjali, it's what we're supposed to develop: for him, the key to liberation is the realization of separateness, whereas in Zen at least it's the exact opposite. Hakuin says in Zazen wasan that
...Nirvana appears before you.
This place is neither more nor less than the Lotus Country.
As it is, this body is neither more nor less than the Buddha.

Very different! And altogether fascinating.

Ultimately, I think, Patañjali, Hakuin, Isaac Luria, Ibn Arabi, and all the other mystics across the ages have been exploring the same thing. That thing is like something of a singularity; a black hole where our notions of reality just collapse and lose their meaning—where fundamental concepts like "existence" or "self" or "reality" no longer apply—the "whereof one cannot speak" of Wittgenstein 7 again. Ibn Arabi and Isaac Luria call it God; Patañjali calls it īśvara, Hakuin calls it the Buddha, Dōgen calls it the Great Matter. If I ever manage to get a glimpse of it, I'll be very curious to find out which of these conceptions, if any, match that glimpse.

So how much does this philosophical stuff matter, ultimately? Quite a lot, actually, in my opinion, if you're into any of this mystical shit anyway. It's certainly possible to practice yoga or meditation outside the context of a philosophical or religious framework. However, weird shit will happen along the way, and if you have nowhere to connect it and no framework to make sense of it, you'll as likely as not try to start your own religion, which usually doesn't go so well. Some very mildly weird shit has already happened to me, and I'm very glad to have somewhere to file it, as it were.

The specifics of the roadmap do make a difference too. The map will direct your practice; what you make of it, and what you do with the results. Not all roadmaps are the same, even if the territory they describe is. "You shall know a tree by its fruit," some guy or other said, and different trees do bear different fruit. Ayatollah Khomeini was an accomplished mystic in the tradition of Yahya Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi, and I don't much care for what he did with any insights he may have gained.

I have some issues with Patañjali's map. His views on epistemology leave the door open to rigid literalism, and if taken at face value, the supernatural stuff in the second and third parts of the sutra is pretty out-there. I find it slightly worrying that someone as obviously intelligent, intellectually rigorous, and generally sensible as the author of the commentary clearly wants to believe that if you practice yoga with enough dedication, you can make yourself invisible, or as small as an atom, or travel anywhere in the Universe faster than the speed of light.

While such beliefs are probably relatively harmless in and of themselves, they do leave the door open for more dangerous ones. India is full of spiritual hucksters that thrive on such beliefs to amass hordes of adoring followers, and such phony gurus are far too common over here too. Belief in the supernatural requires an abdication of critical thought, and that leaves you wide open to exploitation. I don't think that's a healthy place to be. While philosophical debate and metaphysical speculation won't give any answers, they do serve to ground the practice; to validate a journey already traveled.

As profound as Patañjali's insights were, he—like all these other guys—was just another guy, working from his experience, knowledge, and mental background; his karma and his samskaras, in his own terms. That means that none of them are automatically and always right. If someone asks me to accept stuff that's physically impossible, my default assumption has to be that he's mistaken, or being misinterpreted, or talking about something else.

I don't believe that yoga can give anyone, however dedicated, the superpowers Patañjali describes in such a matter-of-fact way. His insights and philosophy can still be relevant, but finding that relevance cannot require me to believe in things I know to be impossible. It is a disgrace that intellectual giants like Patañjali have been as good as completely ignored in our education, but that doesn't mean we should make a complete U-turn and think of them as inerrant either. We read Plato and Aristotle without considering them the last word in metaphysics or politology. We can and should read the likes of Patañjali, Ashvaghosha, Nagarjuna, and Vasubandhu with the same respect, and the same open but critical mind.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Posture matters

Fisherman's Bicycle
Fisherman's Bicycle, Tyre, Lebanon, 2003

Sometimes cycling feels really good. The limits fade. The bike is a part of me, and I'm part of the road I'm spooling up; the blood rushes around inside me; the breath through me, the wind around me, and it's all one, connected whole. That usually happens a few minutes before I run out of steam and end up looking up at a hill going "Uh-oh, that looks... steep."

The bike makes a big difference. If you're on a heavy, clunky, poorly maintained machine that forces you to sit too straight or too high or too low or too cramped, it's almost impossible to get that feeling of flow and connection; instead, you're just fighting the damn bike and pedaling doggedly on. It's still good exercise, for sure, and if you then switch to a really good bike that's perfectly fitted for you, you'll appreciate it all the more.

However, if your only cycling experience is from one of those Dutch things where you sit up straight as a ramrod while cranking majestically along at low cadence, you will have no idea about what it can be like. You need a bike with the saddle at the same height, or a bit higher, than the handlebars, and that's mechanically together enough not to start wobbling on a fast downhill, or flexing if you crank it. Only that way will you be using your entire body to cycle, rather than just your thighs. That's just physics and physiology.
I honestly can't understand how a people that cycles as much as the Dutch choose to inflict those horrors on themselves. They seem otherwise such sensible people. Then again, they also came up with clogs. I wonder if they also run the marathon in them?
It takes a bit of time to get used to riding a bike with drop handlebars and proper, deep posture. Not all that much, and the biggest obstacle is usually the unfounded fear of flipping over the handlebars while braking, and the belief that arching the back while cycling is painful or uncomfortable. It isn't: in fact, having bumps in the road transmitted directly up your spinal column when cycling upright is far less comfortable. There will be some adjustment pains—specifically, a deeper posture will use upper-body muscles that you might have neglected, which means that they will be sore and tired before you get used to it. Gym and stretching helps.

Upgrading the bike itself is easy. If you have the money, all you have to do is get yourself to a competent bike store that caters to enthusiast cyclists, and ask them to fit and sell you one. If you don't, you can do a bit of research on the Internet and then buy a nice 1970's or 1980's vintage racing bike off the Internet for a hundred smackers or so, and then adjust it yourself. It'll be exactly as nice a ride; the gears will just be a bit fiddlier and it'll be a bit heavier, which you can easily compensate for by taking a dump before going on a ride.
My favorite ride is a fixed-gear I built around a 1950's racing frame. It's much slower than a modern road bike, of which I have two, but it's even more fun to ride. Good bikes don't have to cost much. Seriously.
Meditation is like cycling in more ways than you might think. However, upgrading the bike is a bit trickier. That's because your posture is the bike.

I've been working on my sitting posture for about a year now. I have been making slow progress in upgrading it. Some of that progress is chronicled on this blog. The results of the progress keep surprising me.

Most of the time, I sit in quarter-lotus. That's because I have to warm up and stretch in order to get into half-lotus, and I can only get into half-lotus on one side; I'm still working on the other one. In the mornings and often at the zendo, I sit in seiza, because it takes some time to coax my legs into any of the cross-legged positions, and the bells and clappers at the zendo don't give me that time. It also takes me some time to get out of the cross-legged positions, which is inconvenient at the zendo. That means I encounter these different postures quite a lot, and in different combinations.

Sitting in seiza—on my knees, with my weight supported on the cushion, stood on its side, between my legs—is like riding a Dutch bike. It's easy to get into it, but it's very hard to go fast or get fully into it, as it were. I have a hard time finding the proper balance for my spine, and tend to either fall into a slouch or try to flex my lumbar curve too much. I often get drowsy or drift into a reverie, especially if switching to seiza from a cross-legged position due to pain. However, I can only manage all-day zazen in seiza, and a pretty high seiza at that. I've also noticed that learning to sit in the cross-legged positions has helped me resolve some of the problems with seiza; I get a feel for where the spine should be, so I can put it there, even if the posture itself doesn't tell me.

Sitting in the Burmese position—like cross-legged, except the legs are one in front of the other rather than crossed—is a bit better, sort of like riding a decent mountain bike, only with knobbly tires. There, my main problem is the angle of my hips. I usually have to put something under the zafu so that it tilts forward. That tends to make me slide forward onto my legs. My back is better, but my legs end up squeezed or cramped in some weird position, and while it ought to be less taxing than quarter-lotus, it isn't, really. So I don't use it much; mostly just during teishos when I know I can switch positions once it gets too uncomfortable.

The quarter-lotus—with one foot resting on the calf of the other leg—is my default posture at home. Again, I usually tilt the zafu a bit to get my hips in a better position. Here, the spine balances rather nicely, and the legs stay put. Unfortunately, I can only manage two sessions in a row in quarter-lotus; after that, my hips and legs get rather sore. The quarter-lotus is like a real bike with drop handlebars, even if it's one that's not quite perfectly adjusted and has maybe the tires a little flat.

If I've warmed up and stretched properly, I can get into half-lotus. I'm working on making that my default posture, but I still have some way to go—my current objective is to be able to get into it on both sides. It's been rather rewarding, though—the adjustment pains with this posture have receded much faster than I expected. The posture itself feels really "right" in a way that none of the others do: I get a much better feel for where my spine should be, I move around less, both my upper body and my legs feel much more relaxed, and it's far easier to maintain focus. Interestingly, it's also no more difficult to get out of than from quarter-lotus, and my legs are no more sore afterwards. I'm pretty sure that once I adjust more to it, it'll be more comfortable than any of the other positions, because of the lower muscle tension needed to maintain it.

Posture matters, in cycling and in meditation. It is possible to meditate lying down or sitting on a chair, just like it is possible to ride your late grandmother's rusty, heavy, un-maintained bike with half-inflated tires and no lube on the chain. However, it's not much fun, you will have a flat or a broken chain or some other nasty surprises on the road, and if you're counting on getting somewhere, it'll be very slow going. If you cycle more than an occasional trip of a couple of miles, you really should get a proper bike.

Finally, a note on pain. Adjustment always involves some pain. Physical adjustment, such as upgrading your posture, involves some physical pain. However, pain can mean a number of different things. Sometimes pain just means that your body is adjusting. I've been told that sometimes it's your ego resisting change. However, sometimes pain means that you're doing something wrong, and if you continue, you risk breaking something.

I think you should be particularly careful about your knees. Some people are lucky enough to have strong knees. Others, not so much. It is possible to permanently damage your knees by trying to get to a sitting position of which you're not yet capable. To get into cross-legged positions, the stretching and rotation should be at your hips, not at the knees. The knee is a hinge and is only meant to bend in one direction. The hip is a ball and socket joint, and bends and rotates in any direction. If your knees hurt, it means that your hips aren't flexing enough, and the solution is to stretch your hips. Sticking with the position will certainly do that, but you also risk damage to your knees. In my opinion, that's a risk that's not worth taking. So if the knees hurt, find some stretches that rotate the hips, do those for a while, and then try again. Just like when you're upgrading to a deeper cycling posture, you should take the time to practice proper braking technique, so you won't go over the handlebars in an emergency. If you do intensive meditation practice, there will be pain enough in areas where it doesn't mean that you're about to bust something, whether you're looking for it or not.

Certain Zen teachers—Brad Warner and his teacher, Nishijima Roshi, for example—go as far as to say that it isn't zazen if you're not in half-lotus. I find that attitude unnecessarily categorical and discouraging, because it's all too easy to read it as "if you can't get into half-lotus, forget it, you plebe." It certainly isn't my experience—I am riding my bike, whether I'm on Grandma's old clunker or the nice fixed-gear I built specifically for myself. If, like me, you start out with Grandma's hand-me-down, upgrading the bike isn't easy, and it takes time, effort, and persistence. However, that process is very good practice in its own right. In fact, one of the things that keeps me going is the progress in posture practice that I'm making. It's nice to notice that I'm now doing something daily that felt like a real ordeal, or downright impossible, six months ago.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Personal, the Political, Karma, and the Free Gaza Flotilla

Storm over Beirut (16:9)
Storm over Beirut, Lebanon, 2005

The Middle East isn't much fun. Interesting, yes, but also frustrating and depressing. If you want to see the karma wheel turning, look no further than the Israelis and the Palestinians, trying to outdo each other at giving it a shove for over sixty years now. And no, I won't get into the "who started it" game, not this time.

At an individual level, Buddhist ethics are pretty useful for dealing with compulsive destructive feedback cycles like that one. As in, just stop turning the damn wheel. It's no secret that that simple piece of advice is hellishly difficult to act upon, but at least if you're dealing with something like an abusive relationship or an addiction, it's possible. If you really want to, you can break the habit. Sometimes, anyway.

Collectively, at the political level, it gets a lot more complicated. It's difficult enough for even a single individual to walk away from an abusive relationship. For groups of millions, it's as good as impossible. So we get into cycles like the English and the Irish, which went on for a half a millennium before finally starting to wind down a decade or two ago. I see no immediate reason to think the Israeli-Palestinian mess is about to sort itself out any quicker.

So here we are, in 2010. The peace process is as dead as a doornail, with Abbas and Netanyahu pretending to go through the motions for the benefit of Saint Barack of Obama. Hamas continues to lob a half-hearted bottle rocket over the wall every once in a while, and Israel continues to make sure their falafel taste bland by not letting them have any coriander.

Then something a little bit unexpected happens.

Some Turks load up a cruise ship with cement and blankets, and attempt run the blockade. The IDF, figuring they'll be received by a bunch of hippies sticking flowers in their guns, rappel onboard from a helicopter. They get beat up with sticks instead, and before you know it, people are dead, and a massive backlash against Israel is in progress. Predictably, the usual hasbara starts to flow—it's a "hate boat" not a "love boat," the people onboard are "Hamas supporters" (no lie, that's how Jerusalem Post refers to them), and the poor beleaguered IDF marine commandos were only defending themselves against a "lynch mob."

Then somebody triumphantly points out that the operation was a provocation, that the point wasn't to deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Well no shit, Sherlock. Of course it's a provocation. That's the whole point of direct mass action, to provoke the bad guys into doing something that makes them look bad.

My counterpoint to all that is simply this: let's suppose for the sake of the argument that the whole shebang was dreamed up by Osama bin Laden, Khaled Meshaal, and the ghost of Adolf Hitler, in their secret hideout. Wouldn't that mean that they've decided that blowing their supporters up at checkpoints and lobbing rockets at Thai field hands isn't getting them anywhere, and nonviolent action might work better? If so, how in the name of all that is holy is that a bad thing?

Yet the very same people who have been saying that the only reason there isn't peace in the Middle East is that the Palestinians aren't making like Gandhi or Mandela, but are terrorizing Israeli civilians instead, are now denouncing the Free Gaza Flotilla, if possible, even more furiously.

I'm enormously impressed by this turn of events. It's something new, and it's proving to be more effective—or at least less woefully ineffectual—than violent action. If the Palestinians, encouraged by these events, take this up in greater numbers, more creative ways, and more frequently, hope will spring again. It will take a long time for this particular karma wheel to stop crushing hopes and lives under its tread, but this, at least, is new; something that just could be the beginning of the end, or at least the end of the beginning. Perhaps there will come a day that I'll be able to drive down to Jerusalem from Beirut. It's not a long drive. Just an impossible one, for now.

I've already agreed to meet a few good people there for beer and falafel, the first day after the war.

Perhaps next year.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Dusk over South Bekaa
Dusk over South Bekaa, Lebanon, 2003

I passed another milestone in my posture practice yesterday. I managed to do zazen in half-lotus.

A year ago, my hips were so stiff that my knees were nearly 30 cm from the floor when trying to sit cross-legged. I've been working on them steadily since then, largely with stretching exercises given to me by my mother, who is, among other things, a yoga instructor. It's been slow going, but it does really work. I first managed to sit in zazen in the Burmese posture some time in October, and I've been sitting in quarter-lotus at home since late March. Yesterday, after doing my "long" stretching program—it takes about a half an hour—I noticed that settling into quarter-lotus was very easy, so I decided to try to pull my foot up a bit more.

Rather to my surprise, all I got was a bit of pain in the ankle. So I thought I'd sit a bit like that, until it got too intense. Then the pain went away. So I started my practice.

I stopped after about twenty minutes, because I started to get a pain in my knee. I've had real problems with my knees, so I'm not about to risk screwing them up. It wasn't too bad, though, and I have a feeling that that problem will sort itself out with practice, as long as I don't get too greedy about it.

The funny thing is that the posture Nazis are right. Lifting my foot up those few inches did make a real difference to my zazen. My back was better balanced and my position was noticeably more solid, and my breath flowed more naturally. I hardly turned into an immovable mountain, but I was a lot closer to that than before. I would not have thought that the difference between quarter-lotus and half-lotus is so big. Then again, I would not have thought that the difference between seiza and cross-legged sitting is so big either.

Lots of Zen teachers emphasize posture. They're right... even if I still think Brad Warner et al who say that it isn't zazen if you're not in half or full lotus are just a bit hyperbolic. It really is worth the effort to train the hips to get into those more difficult postures, and it really is possible to do, if you don't have actual, real medical problems preventing it. It takes a certain amount of time, effort, and persistence, though—but then, so does zazen. So why not make the effort to do it properly, if you're doing it at all?