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Monday, February 18, 2002

Building The Foundation Of Practice

Before I dive into the rich and ever-rewarding topic of the "moral foundation of Yoga," I must first heartily express my deepest gratitude to the truly wonderful and thought-provoking Fortune Elkins. This lovely red-maned Pitta is the extremely talented woman responsible for "my web site," and while I was away in California, she wrote two essays on anger for this "blog" that many of my students have both enjoyed and learned much from. I would like to add that she herself has a delightful web log devoted to bread, chocolate, coffee and yoga and it is always interesting, entertaining and informative. You can get more "good fortune" at http://home.earthlink.net/~frelkins/.

Now, while I was taking part in the first part of a Yoga Training offered by The Yoga Research Education Center, directed by the eminent Georg Feurstein, we spent the better part of three days looking into the "moral foundation of Yoga practice." Nothing generated as much heat in discussion then this topic, and I have been moved to attempt to continue the discussion here over the next couple of weeks. I encourage any readers who would like to take part in the dialogue to join our Karuna Group and post thoughts, insights, questions etc.

The importance of the first limb of Yoga practice, the Yamas, is often overlooked by those who have developed what Thich Nhat Hanh has called an "allergy to precepts." In what has been referred to as our "post-modern" world-view that seems to confuse relativism with pluralism, we seem overly reactive whenever anyone speaks of "morality." Before we go any further into this subject, we may want to remember that even the Hatha Yoga Pradipika notes that Hatha Yoga must be practiced in the context of Raja Yoga, lest in devolve into mere physicality, athleticism and "power games." A terrible irony, indeed, given that Yoga is a practice and a teaching that moves us to a place of breaking our limited identification with this "food body."

Dr. Feurstein began his talk with the simple observation that even many in our society who take up Yoga as a spiritual practice fail to give proper attention to the Yamas because we confuse "higher" experiences with "deep" transformation. "We wish to climb to the roof (samadhi, or even liberation) but we don't want to take the time to build and use a ladder, much less straighten out the ground for the ladder to stand upon!" He goes on to say that "straightening out the ground -- laying the foundation -- is 80% of the spiritual work and continues throughout practice, until the full awakening allows wisdom to be there so all actions spontaneously generated will be 'right'"

It is the practice of the Yamas that allows us to harmonize ourselves with the cosmic order ("dharma" or "rita"). "First Dharma, then Moksha" is a wonderful maxim to keep in mind here. Even Bhakti Yoga requires "work." Right Effort is one of the 8 limbs of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. Abhyasa or "Practice" is the practical application of the teachings, and must be accompanied and counter-balanced by vairagya which is often translated as "dispassion" and is the practice of "letting go." If practice is not accompanied by this form of "dispassion," we run the risk of solidifying the illusion of a separate self (or ego) rather than breaking through the cage of limited self that is the ultimate goal of Yoga.

In the Buddhist Path of Yoga, the moral or ethical center of the path is known as Sila which can be translated as "disposition" or "behavior." It is also sometimes referred to as Shiksa which has the connotation of "trainings." We are exhorted to develop strong awareness and concentration through effort, the three limbs that refer to the aspect of mental devlopment or Bhavana which are known collectively as Samadhi. And the insight developed through practice manifests as True Wisdom and Right View or Prajna.

Looking at this three-fold division of the Path, we can see that it is nothing more than mental categorization at work -- perhaps allowing ease of memory and for the formulating of teachings -- but not in fact the way things work. The eight limbs or divisions of the path are not mere stages or steps along the way -- they are the various limbs that make up the Body of the Dharmic Path. This may seem to contradict the above statement that the moral teachings are the foundation -- "First Dharma, then Moksha" -- but in reality there is no contradiction.

Sila, as embodied in the 5 Yamas and the 5 Precepts of Buddhism, are ultimately empty if they are not the fruition of deep understanding (Prajna) and concentration (Samadhi). Awareness, effort and concentration (Samadhi) directed at studying and living the life of Sila develops deep and expansive insight (Prajna). The life of one who has achieved any aspect or degree of wisdom and insight (Prajna) manifests this understanding in her beautiful and deep awareness and concentration (Samadhi) and in her actions and demeanor (Sila). To use the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh's pregnant coinage, these three components of the Path of Yoga "inter-are."

So, while we need to lay a solid foundation of practice with the moral teachings, we see that Sila Practice is not some mere staging ground we leave behind when Prajna is achieved. The Dalai Lama himself has pointed out, "If a teacher teaches that an enlightened person lives beyond the Presepts, that his acts are not 'confined' by Sila, then that teacher has not practiced correctly. An enlightened person's life manifests as a life of Sila." Thus, these precepts are not merely preliminary practice nor descriptions of the goal; they are an essential part of the means.

Too often Sila, when viewed as a "Moral Code," can degenerate into a rigid moralism. We can instead see Sila as simply being the kind of life that creates ease in our bodies and in our minds, individually and collectively. We do not practice the Precepts or the Yamas because we have been told to do so, but because we can see how doing so helps our minds to grow calm. We do not refrain from harming others because we will be punished or because we have been told it is wrong. We refrain from intentionally harming others because we know that if we do, our mind can not help but become agitated -- consciously and/or unconsciously. As practitioners commited to developing our minds and our insight, it behooves us to do all that we can to aid ourselves in calming our minds. We can not look deeply if the waters of the pool of mind are churning. To quote Patanjali, "Yogascittavrittinirodha."

David Brazier, in Zen Therapy writes that, "precepts can be used at different levels. At the outer level, they guide action. At the inner level, they reveal the pure mind. The person who really understands them finds that they become their blood and bones. Working with the precepts at all three levels gives our training in Zen a cutting edge."

Living with the Precepts (or Yamas) is truly training in mindfulness as well as the result of mindfulness. We are reminded that they are not commandments issued by authority from on high and most definitely not written in stone. They serve us as the North Star served sailors for millenia -- in order to orient ourselves in order to give direction to our life's journey, but we do not expect to ever arrive at the North Star. They are a map, but not the territory, which is given by our lived experience, moment by moment, breath by breath.

The more we practice with the Precepts, the more we see how liberating they truly are. The purpose of Dharma Practice is to become awake, liberated, free. The Precepts allow us to awaken to reality and to choose how to respond fully to life, rather than react mindlessly, conditioned by sensations and mental formations which we then, ironically, label spontaneous. In fact, we haven't a prayer of a chance to act spontaneously if we remain unaware of what we are responding to!

Over the next few weeks, I will spotlight the various Precepts/Yamas and offer some ideas for practice. I truly welcome all who wish to share this journey with me to write.

May all beings be happy. May all beings be free.
May our lives be of benefit to all beings.

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 3:34 PM

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