the fundies are everywhere

Yes, even in the yoga and meditation worlds.

After my last post about not being allowed to attend a vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka style, one of my long-time readers and supporters, Kevin, sent me this email. I loved what he had to say and he gave me permission to to reprint it.

“I was sorry to hear about your recent encounter with Goenka fundamentalist fervor. I appreciate the fact that that community provides retreats all over the world on a dana basis, but Goenka-ji’s virulent fundamentalism and complete misunderstanding of the history of Buddhism generally and Theravada in particular make him about as good an ambassador and spokesperson for Buddhism as Jerry Falwell is for Christianity (I’m not exaggerating).

As an Indian who “found religion” in Burma he has the fervor only converts can have, and he’s certainly expressed his contempt for Hinduism, yoga of any sort and all other forms of Buddhism many times. It’s clear much of his defensiveness come from the fact that he clearly knows at some level that the particular form of Buddhism he practices and teaches was invented out of whole cloth less than 100 years ago, and has nothing to do with the way meditation is taught in the broader Theravada tradition, let alone the Tibetan or Zen traditions.

The thing is, there is no such thing in the suttas as “vipassana” meditation. Vipassana is insight that arises out of calm abiding (samatha/shamatha) meditation – i.e. anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing. “Mindfulness” or sati means one thing only: keeping the attention focused on the object of meditation. The superb and well-regarded teacher Thanissaro Bhikku defines this very clearly in the article I’ve attached (from Insight Journal).

Now what’s taught at Spirit Rock is a hybrid of Burmese-style instructions coming from Mahasi Sayadaw and his successors (with Goenka being an offshoot of that) and the Thai forest tradition as represented by Ajahn Chah, which teaches and practices samatha and vipassana the way it is presented in the suttas. The Tibetan tradition preserves the original progression as well: you learn calm abiding (shamatha) and do that for a long time, until the mind is stabilized enough for vipashyana (with Dzogchen and Mahamudra being the ultimate such practices).

The Burmese aberration happened because meditation practice altogether had been lost in Burma by the middle half of the 20th century. The whole tradition had become completely scholastic. The philosophical perspective and techniques they came up with are based on the abhidhamma, with its theory of mind-moments, and in particular on the Visuddhimagga. To put it another way, what Goenka presents as the definitive and original teachings of the Buddha is a lineage-less aberration invented out of whole cloth by scholars who at least had the good sense they needed to learn hot to meditate.

Jack Kornfield goes into huge challenges they had trying to integrate contradictory teachings in his recent article on the history of Spirit Rock, which I’ve also attached.

As someone who really loves the Theravada tradition but who came to it after years of practicing in the Tibetan tradition it kind of drove me crazy to see the total lack of clarity about what is and isn’t mindfulness and how concentration practice differs from insight. I finally got to the root of the problem when I read the fantastic book A History of Mindfulness: How Insight bested Concentration by Sujato Bhikku (who, intellect-wise, is the Ken Wilber of Theravada Buddhism). I think anyone who teaches dharma should be required to read this book, which can be downloaded here:

http://sites.google.com/site/santipada/bhantesujato%27swork#books

The fact that Goenka’s clueless staff person said you can’t practice mindfulness on one of their “vipassana” retreats just floors me. What a bunch of Moonies! Well, it’s their huge loss since you are knee-deep in the middle of the transformative yoga and meditation practice that the Buddha himself lived.”

After his email I told Kevin that I just love it all. I am “officially” Buddhist since I’ve taken both the Five and the Eight Precepts in ceremonies, but I love Kali Ma. The shakti blasts that hit me in certain temples in India are too much for me to ignore. I am not going to choose ONLY ONE WAY, I don’t see why I should. It’s all good in my book. I’ve been in the Dalai Lama’s as well as Gelek Rimpoche’s teachings which are Mahayana Buddhism and I study with a Sri Lankan Theravadan Buddhist monk, but sometimes when I sit Kali’s mantra reverberates loudly inside. I certainly don’t feel “confused” as was implied by the vipassana fundie. I feel peace.

“The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail.” — Ramakrishna

This was Kevin’s response:

Alan Wallace…has become my favorite meditation teacher over the past few years. In person I find him even clearer than Tibetan teachers I love such as Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and others. One really cool thing about Alan is during his 14 years as a monk he not only did Goenka retreats but also studied with a Sri Lankan master for the better part of a year, doing classic breath meditation the way the Buddha taught. There’s a fantastic contemporary teacher names Leigh Brasington (great web site too: http://www.leighb.com/) who specializes in teaching samatha and jhana in the old way, and he is the dharma heir to the wonderful Ayya Khemma, who also got all her training in Sri Lanka. My point is in connecting with your Sri Lankan teacher – and of course Bhante Gunaratana is another great example – you are connecting with the oldest strains of Theravada there are, unadulterated for the most part with the stuff they came up with in Burma in the 1950’s (though there are Goenka and Mahasi places even in Sri Lanka now).

I’m with you 100% on being open to anything that liberates. Yes I am a Buddhist, but to me that means (as I say when I do the refuge every day) “I take refuge in the teachings and practices that lead to lasting freedom and happiness.”

Patanjali, Sri Krishnamacharya and his successors, Shankaracharya and Ramani Maharishi, Sri Nisardatta Maharaj and countless liberated beings from various traditions throughout the motherland of India are just as much a part of that refuge for me as Lord Buddha – and I don’t think he would have wanted it any other way.”

Neither do I.

(correction: Goenka-ji was born in Burma to Indian (and Hindu) parents. The comment about the fervor of converts still applies.)

how easy to forget


“Happiness is what greases the wheels of life. It’s also what opens the floodgates, marshals the forces, commands the elements, raises the sun, aligns the stars, beats your heart, heals what hurts, turns the page, makes new friends, finds true love, calls the shots, waves the wand, connects the dots, feeds your mind, frees your soul, rocks the world, and pays compound interest.

Yeah, so easy to forget.

Wild on,
The Universe”

This was my email from The Universe this morning. happiness: something that is easy to forget, yet easy to choose.

We’ve been having a typical Chicagoland spring with days of brilliant sun mixed with freezing days of snow and sleet. as I drove to the yoga studio yesterday morning the sun was shining gloriously after a Saturday of gloomy clouds and rain, cold enough for me to start my fireplace. as I drove I thought that even though the day before was exactly the type of weather I hate, how wonderful it was to experience everything that this life has to offer. I was grateful, I had an attitude of gratitude by the time I reached the studio.

Sometimes unpleasant things can teach us greater lessons more so than the pleasant. I am still dealing with an eye problem, still dealing with (sometimes) excrutiating lower back pain, still dealing with the remnants of rage left over from the actions of an alcoholic yoga studio owner.

yet, I am grateful. despite the eye problem, I am not blind in one eye. despite the back pain, it is not constant and I can still do a strong yoga practice and still teach. I know in my bones that my back pain is a manifestation of the rage I felt over the betrayal I experienced at the yoga studio where I used to teach. after deep examination I’ve come to know that the rage is actually against myself for allowing myself to be affected so deeply by the actions of others. I’ve beat myself up for not “letting go and letting be.” but that realization is a way through it and out of it. it’s all good, every day is a gift.

The Buddha believed that our natural state is happiness. As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche writes:

“We need to seriously investigate whether people who have fame, power, and wealth are happy and whether those who have nothing are always unhappy. When we look into this, we see that happiness is not based on objects but on one’s mental state. For that reason, those who are truly happy are the ones who appreciate what they have. Whenever we are content, in that moment, we are fulfilled. The teachings of the Buddha are common sense.

On one hand, it’s very simple: we are all searching for happiness. How do we become happy without a big effort? Whenever we appreciate what we have, we are happy. That effort is an intelligent technique. We might have a very simple life, but still we can think, This flower is lovely or This water is good. If we are too picky, thinking this is wrong and that’s wrong, then nothing is ever perfect. We need to learn how to be content so that whatever we have is precious, real, and beautiful. Otherwise, we might be chasing one mirage after another.”

In Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield wrote:

“When the mind ceases to want and judge and identify with whatever arises, we see the empty flow of experience as it is. We come to a ground of silence and inherent completeness. When we stop struggling and let be, the natural wisdom, joy, and freedom of our being emerges and expresses itself effortlessly….

To come to this we must accept paradox. As T.S. Eliot beseeches, ‘teach us to care and not care.’ In meditation we learn to care with full-hearted attention, a true caring for each moment. Yet we also learn to let go. We do not separate out only those experiences we enjoy, but cultivate a sense of harmony, opening constantly to the truth within us and connecting with all life.”

Atma hrdaye
Hrdayam mayi
Aham amrti
Anrtam anandam

“Let my life force be linked to my heart
and my heart be linked to the truth that lies deep within me.
Let that truth be linked to the eternal
which is unending joy.”

addthis_pub = ‘yogagal60510’;

the retreat, part 1


Phillip Moffitt said it was an historic event. Jack Kornfield said that he has not been this excited since the Dalai Lama came to Spirit Rock. Stephen Cope compared us – the 90 yogis from around the world – to the original yogis, the sramanas, who in the 8th Century BC distanced themselves from the rituals of the Brahmin priests, taking to the forests and questioning the status quo.

I returned from the first 10 day retreat of the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California inspired but also with a confirmation of what I have always felt about yoga – that yoga taught without attention to mindfulness of the body and the breath and without meditation is not yoga, but merely acrobatics. Indeed, this is what Desikachar told us in my trainings at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.

This training is a ground-breaking 18-month program for yoga teachers and experienced practitioners that integrates asana and pranayama, mindfulness meditation, and Patanjali’s classical yoga system. It is led by nationally renowned teachers in both the Buddhist and yogic tradition, using asana and pranayama as foundations for the more subtle limbs of yogic practice (meditation, concentration, and insight), using the techniques taught by the Buddha. Phillip Moffitt told us that planning this program has taken two years and as far as they knew, this training has never been taught anywhere in the world, that is, a program that integrates Buddhism with Patanjali’s classical yoga as written in the Yoga Sutra-s.

According to Spirit Rock’s website, the benefits of this blended program include: an experiential grounding in an integrated yoga and vipassana practice that can nourish practitioners in their daily lives; a solid understanding of the entwined history, philosophy, and techniques of both yoga and Buddhism; and the foundational skills and understanding necessary to practice yoga–and for teachers to teach it–in a way that embodies and facilitates a deep understanding of core Buddhist principles such as mindfulness, lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and the interdependence of all life.

There is a core group of vipassana and yoga teachers with guest teachers coming in for each retreat. The vipassana teachers are Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffit, Mark Coleman, and Anna Douglas. The yoga teachers are Stephen Cope of Kripalu, Anne Cushman, and Janice Gates. The guest yoga teacher for this retreat was Tias Little. Future guest yoga teachers will be Sarah Powers, Frank Jude Boccio, Judith Lasater, and Jill Satterfield, among others. Dr. Dean Ornish is also scheduled to teach.

Before the retreat we were required to read portions from four books: Loving-Kindness: The Revoluntionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg; Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Jack Kornfield; Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body and Mind by Frank Jude Boccio (who was also at the retreat but did not teach); and a recent translation of the Sutra-s by Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. This is the first translation I have read that takes into account the influence of Buddhism on Patanjali.

We woke up every morning at 5:15 for the first 45 minute sitting meditation at 5:45 am. The first three days we had 11 periods each day of either sitting or walking meditation, 30 or 45 minutes at a time, with two hours of yoga practice, together with a yoga talk in the morning and a dharma talk at night. The next 7 days we had 9 periods each day of sitting or walking meditation. We had a choice during one of the 45 minute morning time slots to do walking meditation or our own personal yoga practice. Most people chose yoga. At this point in the retreat we did not have the yoga talk in the morning, but had a three hour yoga seminar in the afternoon and this is when Janice Gates and Tias Little taught. We still had the dharma talk led by a different vipassana teacher every night.

I have never been to Kripalu but I’ve read Stephen Cope’s books. All I can say about him is that he is brilliant. A brilliant lecturer and a brilliant yoga teacher, besides being a classical pianist obsessed with Beethoven. If you ever get a chance to go to Kripalu, run, don’t walk, to sign up for his teachings. On the second night of the retreat he gave the dharma talk and drew us a yoga timeline from the Vedas to the explosion of yoga after 1975 when Yoga Journal was first published. He emphasized that the renouncers of the Hindu rituals, the sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC to the 2nd century CE, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind — just as we will do during the next 18 months.

He told us that Patanjali wrote the Sutras as a treatise for advanced yoga students and reminded us that only three sutras mention asana, all the rest are about meditation and the human experience. So when people say that “yoga is 5000 years old”, that really isn’t accurate because it was not until the Middle Ages (1300 app.) when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written followed by the Geranda-Samhita (1600 app.) and the Shiva-Samhita (1700 app.) that the yoga poses we do today were revealed.

Cope said that the core of the Yoga Sutra-s is not about asana practice but about uncovering the roots of human suffering. He said that yoga and Buddhism both grew out of the same cultural milieu of India at that time, that is, as a reaction to the dogma of the Vedic and Brahmin culture. Buddha (563-483 BC) lived about 700 years before Patanjali wrote the Sutra-s but Cope said that given the religious atmosphere of India in the 2nd Century (wandering Buddhist monks), it would have been impossible for Patanjali not to have been influenced by Buddhist thought. Both the Sutra-s and Buddhism seek to uncover the roots of human suffering. When Buddha said that “second hand answers have no power to transform”, he was talking about direct insight into known experience, the known experience of sitting and watching the breath, watching the body in the body and the breath in the breath.