Monday, July 13, 2009



An interesting thing about yoga and Buddhism is their inherent escapist stance. Anyone who denies this is either referring to a much later branch of yoga/Buddhism, or has not read any of the original teachings on them. When you look at the popular modern religious notions, people are either very interested in traditional, orthodox, escapist stances or they are very turned off to the idea of religion. They may choose to be agnostic or atheist, take refuge in science, or choose beliefs from non-traditional sources. Either way, there's not much going on the "progress" department.

Let's take an in-depth point of view on the Indic meditative paths. We can adjust them a bit later.

Yoga's basic beliefs are based in dualism, that life is inherently "not good," and that there exists some other, transcendant state which is the goal of practice. Yoga's dualism derives from its sister-school, saaMkhya, or "enumeration." This school establishes the components of the physical world so that one can understand what prakRti, or "matter" is. By understanding this, one can understand what puruSa, or "the underlying Self" is. As stated in the upaniSad's, one can only describe this higher Self by saying "neti neti," "not this, not this." Well, prakRti is what it is not. These two, puruSa and prakRti are two seperate things. puruSa manipulates prakRti, but is not fundamentally changed by it. The traditional metaphor for the interplay of these two are the "viewer" and the "dancer." prakRti is the dancer that captures the attention of puruSa, who sits entranced. Once the viewer realizes what the nature of this divine play is, the viewer can cease to be enraptured and be free. This state of awareness, where the viewer can see beyond the performance, is the transcendant state of mind that is the goal of yoga. Once this state is attained - which, by the way, is composed of many stages, each with its own tricks and hazards - one is freed from the bondage of the cycle of karma and lives to which we are all suffering from. This can all be found right in the yoga sutras of pata~njali. sha~Nkara's monist views diverge from traditional yoga noticeably, but he does a lot of work trying to justify, explain, and defend his point of view in technical terms that are beyond the scope of my post. Suffice it to say, there are both monist and dualist approaches.

Buddhism is even easier. Let's take a look at the Four Noble Truths:

1) Suffering is omnipresent in life.
2) Life's suffering has a cause: desire.
3) The cessation of desire causes the cessation of suffering.
4) The way to cease desire is through the Eightfold Noble Path.

Negative view of life: check.

Next, the Buddha describes in the dharmapada (I prefer saMskRta to paali) that once desire is subdued, then one can experience a happiness that is enduring, limitless, and beyond all other happiness: nirvaaNa. Transcendant state: check.

The last one is a little tougher. Buddhism has many forms of non-dual/monist thought as well as dualist thought. The Buddha himself discouraged theological or philosophical theorizing, at least without a direct reason for it. He refused to comment in depth on the existence of Gods and demons, heavens or hells, insofar as it was for the sake of understanding some sort of afterlife or beyond-human power. The Buddha was a "self-effort" kind of guy, and that was his approach. His definition of nirvaaNa does imply that there is a state of mind or a state of being that is monist in some way, but he does not discount dualism in any physical way. As Buddhism was heavily influenced by yoga, and the Buddha was supposedly taught yoga, it would make sense that dualism was present in some major way, especially considering it was not properly discounted (like the buddhist stance of anaatman, which explicitly states its dissenting stance).

So, when we look at yoga and Buddhism, we can clearly see the roots of escapism in them, or perhaps they take their roots in escapism. I find this to be a little pessimistic and a little misguided.

While I wholeheartedly value the teachings and the paths noted above, I feel that if the goal really is "true" "enlightenment" ("true" meaning final, complete; "enlightenment" meaning mokSa and nirvaaNa for yoga and Buddhism, respectively), then it wouldn't direly avert normal, everyday life. I feel there should be a balance. After all, for most people, the breadth of the human experience is what teaches them. In the sense of pure accessibility, they don't have much, despite tempting us (yes, the irony of my word choice here is not lost on me) with very lofty, yet awe-inspiring, goals.

Sufiism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity provide some very interesting models for us to look at. Eastern Orthodoxy strongly encourages meditation/contemplation among lay followers and provides avenues to guide those who take to that approach. It tries to provide a balanced experience of life. Sufiism goes so far as to say that those who do not have families, take jobs, or contribute to their communities are not only spurning valuable aspects of life, but they are missing out on valuable opportunities for spiritual lessons. It says that those who take an ascetic approach are ultimately at a disadvantage. How's that for some food for thought, eh?

I feel that escapism doesn't quite fit the nobility of these spiritual traditions. It is, perhaps, a slightly ignorant idea of what we should be striving for. It's from an old and drastically different age, and yes, I suppose there ARE certain spiritual "universals," but I definitely think we can improve the model at the very least. Yes, suffering still exists, and yes, desire is still the cause. But, ignoring what's right in front of us isn't exactly a good answer.

There are those who will argue that once you are "enlightened," escapism stops. I suppose that's true, as I don't quite know any better, but who's to say that we can't have a path that gets us there that's not based on escapism? Buddhists, think 'upaaya' here. There are many ways to crack the nut of universal, transcendental truth.

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