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.