Vive Los Angeles Distinction: Yoga Vs. Buddhism

09 Aug 2018, 2:30pm -

Health Advice

- About Buddhism
by NinaLotus by Heidi Santschi of Heidi Santschi Garden Design
Did you know that a significant portion of the fourth chapter in the Yoga Sutras is an argument against Buddhism? That’s because Buddhism was already popular during the time the Yoga Sutras was composed so Patanjali was apparently feeling a bit defensive. And although there is much in common between Classical Yoga and Buddhism (which you may have noticed!), there are significant differences. The most significant of these differences is the whole premise of the yoga of the Yoga Sutras regarding what causes human suffering and what the purpose of liberation actually is.

“in Buddhism there is no autonomous atman (purusa) self that can be separated from its interdependence with prakriti. Not only is there no purusa, but clinging to notions of such an entity is a primary cause of ignorance rather than enlightenment. The two views are thus diametrically opposed—the very goal of yoga and human existence in the Yoga school is the very cause of bondage and ignorance in Buddhism.” —Edwin Bryant

I will try to explain this quote in—hopefully—simpler English. In our posts Spiritual Ignorance and Richard Rosen Clarifies the Meaning of Avidya (Ignorance) we discussed the concept of ignorance (avidya) as the cause of human suffering. The ignorance in question was specifically spiritual ignorance of the difference between the soul and the body-mind, with the soul (also called the “self” or atman) being eternal, pure, and joyful, and the body-mind (also called the “non-self”) being ephemeral, impure, and sorrowful.In Classical Yoga, understanding this difference is essential to achieving liberation. In Buddhism, however, clinging to this very idea that there is a separate soul (atman) itself the cause of bondage and ignorance. So, the whole aim of the practices described in the Yoga Sutras is, to Buddhism, based on a concept that will only perpetuate suffering and bondage.

Throughout the fourth chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patajanjali makes several arguments directed toward the Buddhist point of view not just by saying what his yogic point of view is but also by stating pointedly what it is not:

“IV.9 Nor is the mind self-illuminating, because of its nature as the object of perception” —translated by Edwin Bryant

Here Pajanjali is arguing directly against a basic Buddhist concept by saying, no, you are wrong about the mind being self-aware. Edwin Bryant’s commentary on this sutra begins by explaining more about this particular difference between Classical Yoga and Buddhism:

“In this sutra, Patanjali rejects the position, identified by the commentators as being that of the Vainsika Buddhists, that the mind is itself self-aware or self-illuminating, svabhasa, like fire, which does not need any outside agent to illuminate itself. In this view, accordingly, there is no need to posit the existence of an outside source of awareness in the form of purusa—the mind itself is held to be self-aware, the source of awareness.” —Edwin Bryant

Bryant then goes on at some length detailing the yogic epistemological arguments about why that Buddhist point of view must be false. For a yoga nerd like me, it’s all very interesting, though a bit challenging to read. But because you’re not all yoga nerds like me—yes, I do know it—I realized some of you may feel completely overwhelmed by this or not even interested. And you might even be wondering, does it really all have to be so dry and complicated?

The problem is, according to Bryant, the only way these two differing points of view on the nature of the human mind and soul can engage in a debate about what is true and what is false is through these very types of nerdy, abstract logical arguments. Because when experienced yogis and Buddhists compare their lived experiences with meditation and liberation—which is when the answers to these questions about the human mind and soul (atman, according to yogis) actually become clear—their reported experiences don’t match up.

“After all, where Hindu yogis might claim that they or their spiritual masters have perceived the existence of the atman in the state of samadhi, Buddhist meditators might equally claim that they have perceived precisely the nonexistence of any such atman in the state ultimate to Buddhists, nirvana, each laying claim to direct perception.” —Edwin Bryant

Well, that’s pretty interesting. You can meditate all your life and achieve the state of samadhi or nirvana and the clarity you experience during that state about the essence of human nature can be the opposite of some other person’s clarity. So, in the end, all us yoga practitioners who are trying to understand the Yoga Sutras can do is either take a deep dive into some challenging philosophical arguments and see how convinced we are by them, simply take the arguments put forth in it on faith. And some sincere and knowledgeable yoga teachers I know have even just gone ahead and rejected the basic premise of the Yoga Sutras.

In fact, this post was prompted by some very interesting private email correspondence I had with an Iyengar yoga teacher who was starting to wonder whether the Yoga Sutras was outdated and who said they much preferred the work of Pema Chodron, who is a Buddhist nun. I did say to my correspondent that I knew some yoga teachers who were also Buddhists and that it is possible to be both and yoga practitioner and a Buddhist, but that it is important to understand there are some significant philosophical differences.

Now that I’ve finished reading Edwin Bryant’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I’ve learned that even in Patanjali’s time everyone was having it out about those differences!

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