Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Reading David Loy's "The Path of No-path: Shankara and Dogen on the Paradox of Practice"
Shankara, as David Loy writes, had some very specific ideas regarding the usefulness of a yoga practice: It is "for those of inferior intellect," he commented in the Brahma Sutra Bhasya. Repetitive meditation techniques? They may be helpful because "people do not always understand the first time."

Shankara, or Adi Shankara, who perhaps lived some time around 800 CE, was the renowned scholar and consolidator of the strain of philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. In the world of ashtanga vinyasa, many of those who practice the ashtanga pranayama recite the first verse of the Advaita Guru Parampara to begin the four chants that come at the closing of the practice. In so doing, they honor Shankara among the prominent teachers of Advaita.

So it may seem a bit paradoxical to, at the end of a practice, salute a prominent, pre-eminent teacher who didn't think much of "practices" at all. The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (I.iv.7) suggests that "the Self alone is to be meditated upon" — and Shankara does not agree. He comments on this line to say that "except the knowledge that arises from that statement ... there is nothing to be done, either mentally or outwardly."

I personally find it useful to locate my relationship to a practice or a belief-system in relation to yet a third system, one that appeals to me in some way and one that shares many similarities, and yet one that also presents opposites and oppositions. It is this act of triangulation that allows us to examine areas of overlap, areas of concordance, and areas of tension. I've heard Richard Freeman use the algebraic metaphor of the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, in which one overlays different systems to see where they meet and, more importantly, where they don't. It is these seams, these areas where systems meet and flex and threaten irruption, their borders and boundary areas, that provide the richest, most useful insights.

In order to reconcile our practice of ashtanga vinyasa with, at least according to a key philosophical figure in its tradition, its utter uselessness, it's useful to veer completely and totally in the opposite direction, and head towards Dogen, a key figure in the Zen tradition. Unlike Shankara, "the heart of [Dogen's] teaching is this shusho itto (or ichinyo), 'the oneness of practice and enlightenment.'"

More importantly, as Loy says, where "Shankara resolves the delusive dualism between means and ends by denying the need for any practice, Dogen resolves the same dualism by incorporating enlightenment into practice."

In this light, we can re-examine the metaphor of the eight-limbed tree of ashtanga yoga, in which all limbs are in fact part of and inseparable from the same tree. From this viewpoint, the practice of the yamas, the niyamas, the asanas, the pranayamas — the external limbs — are inseparable from and equivalent to the internal limbs — including, most importantly, samadhi. The practice of the yamas is samadhi; samadhi is the practice of pranayama. Samadhi is the practice of the asanas.

Loy's suggestions for the Zen practice of zazen echo Patanjali's famous "abhyasa vairagyam tan nirodha": "This does not deny the reality of enlightenment from the relative standpoint. Done in such a fashion — neither seeking nor anticipating any effects — zazen in itself gradually transforms my character, and eventually there is an experience in which I realize clearly that the true nature of my mind and the true nature of the universe are nondual. Zazen cannot be said to cause this experience; enlightenment is always an accident, as Chogyam Trungpa has said, but practice undeniably makes us more accident-prone."

*The entire article can be found here: "The Path of No-path: Shankara and Dogen on the Paradox of Practice," Philosophy East and West, Volume 38, Number 2 (April 1988), pages 127–146