Friday, August 20, 2010

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary

Book Review: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (A New Translation with Commentary) by Chip Hartranft (Shambhala 2003)

This is a remarkable book, certainly one of the most important that I have ever read. This particular translation and the insightful commentary would be a worthy book to study often. While I have read parts of several translations of this sutra – this one is by far the best and the most understandable. The terms are translated more with meditation terminology rather than religious so I think the effect is more understandable as the book really is about meditation. For example the word isvara is translated as “pure awareness” rather than “lord” or “God” – he notes that identification of isvara with a god-being was a later development, although it does refer to purusa, or the most subtle/spiritual nature that may also refer to a supreme person. Patanjali’s view is similar to that of a the Samkhya tradition. Yoga here refers not really to any physical exercises at all but to stilling the mind by “yoking” it in various ways in order to bring the mind to stillness and the state of integration known as samadhi. It is consciousness that is stilled or allowed to settle until it can act as a mirror to reflect the immaterial unchanging pure awareness back to itself. So in Patanjali’s view, consciousness is a part of material nature that merely seems like the pure awareness:

“2 Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness

3 Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature

4 Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness”

The five representational patterns of consciousness are given as correct perception, incorrect perception, conceptualization (based on linguistics), deep sleep (based on non-existence) , and remembering. Next he introduces the two main methods of his yoga which the author translates as the practice and non-reaction. These are in Sanskrit – abhyasa – “the will to repeatedly align and realign attention to the present moment.” He also describes abhyasa as subtle effort focused on the cultivation of effortlessness. The reason for cultivation of subtlety is to avoid the force and struggle which engages the ego. The second method is that of – vairagya – “the will to observe experience without reaction.” It is “the willingness to let a phenomenon arise without reacting to it.” We react to stimuli due to conditioning so this method is a form of de-conditioning. When we de-condition we come to know that consciousness is not separate from nature but subject to the gunas, or modes of nature, like all of prakriti – or materiality. The pure awareness, or purusa, according to Patanjali is, however, beyond the gunic forces of nature. In the commentary he says that cultivation of vairagya, or non-reaction is important since when we react to any stimuli we build the sense of I, or ego. In non-reaction this illusory ego is not involved.

Patanjali says that in the beginning the process of stilling (nirodha) is accompanied by four types of cognition: analytical thinking, insight, bliss, and feeling like a self. When these fade away after extended practice what is left are the karmic impressions (samskaras) that propel one towards rebirth after death. The commentator suggests that the typically perpetual motion of consciousness that is thought effectively seeds the memory with these karmic impressions. Others say that we search for these impressions as a force of habit. If thoughts become less frequent through concentration then less and less of this seeding will occur. He calls it the cycle of karma-samskara-karma, or action-impression-action.

Patanjali gives the form of the path to realization as follows:

“20 For all others, faith, energy, mindfulness, integration, and wisdom form the path to realization.”

(The faith here is said to be not dogmatic but confidence in the efficacy of the method)

He also says that:

“23 Realization may also come if one is oriented toward the ideal of pure awareness, isvara.”

Isvara, he goes on to describe as incorruptible, independent of cause and effect, and without stored impressions. He also says that isvara is represented by the sound of om, (similar to the timeless Brahman.)

During the stilling process (nirodha) when we concentrate on an object (dharana) we react less and less to sensory stimuli resulting in a progressive withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara) which in turn helps one to notice more and more the subtleties of consciousness.

Patanjali goes on to describe the distractions to this stilling process and common reactions to the distractions. He also lists several ways to subdue these distractions to stilling: (from the outline) 1) radiating friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity (these are the four abodes of Brahma, or the Four Immeasurables of the Buddhists), 2) pausing after exhalation (I am trying to remember to implement this one), 3) practicing mindfulness of perceptions (I think this would refer to noticing sensory reactions), 4) thinking luminous, sorrowless thoughts (I am unsure what luminous thoughts would be but luminous refers to sattvic so maybe non-agitating), 5) focusing on things that do not inspire attachment, 6) reflecting on insights from sleep and dreaming (hmmn maybe should do that more), 7) becoming absorbed in any object (maybe less wandering mind and more engaged mind although one can be engaged in wandering!)

After distraction is mastered and one achieves concentration on an object (dharana) and becomes absorbed in concentration (dhyana) one is at the gate to integration (samadhi):

“41 As the patterning of consciousness subsides, a transparent way of seeing, called coalescence, saturates consciousness; like a jewel, it reflects equally whatever lies before it – whether subject, object, or act of perceiving.”

He lists four types of coalescence (samapatti), 1) with thought, 2) beyond thought, 3) reflective, and 4) non-reflective. These are apparently pre-integration states that still bear the seeds of the karmic impressions but from the non-reflective coalescence which refers to interaction not with gross objects but with subtle qualities or elements which include the tanmatras (the subtle aspects of the senses), and the movements of the three components of consciousness which are the intelligence (buddhi), the sensory mind (manas), and the “I-maker,” or ego-organizing principle (ahamkara). At this stage awareness begins to see itself as separate from the senses. When the self is realized to be inseparable from the experience, or there is no subject-object duality, then there is samadhi. Samadhi (integration) is referred to as the stabilization of samapatti (coalescence). Then the nature of reality and the self becomes clear and wisdom (prajna) arises. The basis of the wisdom is the focus on the distinction between consciousness and pure awareness. This wisdom generates latent impressions that prevent other impressions from arising and eventually even these wisdom-generated impressions fall away.

Patanjali describes the three components of yogic action as: discipline, self-study, and orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness. The purpose is to break free of the causes of suffering and realize samadhi. The causes of suffering are given as not seeing things as they are (avidya), the sense of “I,” attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. Not seeing, or avidya is considered the root cause from which the others stem. This is akin to delusion in Buddhist terminology and may be from the same word. These causes of suffering are said to be the root of our every action though it does not seem that way at the time. He says that we discover this when our attention is yoked to the source of suffering. He makes an interesting statement regarding the function of the phenomenal world itself: “... Patanjali asserts that the primal purpose of the phenomenal world is to reflect the true nature of awareness back to itself.”

The commentator gives a quick overview of the yogic skill of discrimination, or viveka, which comes as a result of practice of the focusing technique (abhyasa) and non-reaction (vairagya). When the settling or stillness occurs then pure awareness can be discerned. This discernment, or discrimination, is viveka. From samadhi arises the power of viveka which leads to the realization of reality as it is.

Patanjali goes on to introduce the familiar eight limbs of yoga (astanga): the external disciplines (yamas), internal disciplines (niyamas), posture (asana), breath regulation (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), absorption (dhyana), and integration (samadhi). He also lists some of the reasons for these practices and their benefits. Regarding postures he says that in meditation there should be steadiness and ease so that the body and the infinite universe are not seen as separate. The commentaries through this section are excellent and worthy of further study.

As a result of practice Patanjali says that: “... continuity develops between arising and subsiding perceptions.” This he suggests is due to the generation of new karmic impressions that foster the stilling process which prevent the grosser karmic impressions from arising. This idea I think is similar to the Buddhist notion of the generation of meritorious energy.

The commentator links concentration (dharana) to “the effortful domain of abhyasa” and absorption (dhyana) to vairagya (non-reaction). The path of realization goes from conditioned reactive behavior to spontaneous unconditioned behavior.

Patanjali speaks of “the perfect discipline of consciousness” as composed of concentration, absorption, and integration regarding a single object. So when these three highest limbs are yoked to consciousness one can gain perfect discipline on any subject. He also talks about mastering the flow of energy in various parts of the body and the powers this confers. Beyond these various masteries there is non-attachment to the masteries themselves. It is only then that suffering falls away.

The chapter on “extra-ordinary powers” goes on to describe the resultant benefits of this perfect discipline of consciousness regarding various objects and mental focuses. Patanjali again distinguishes purusa, or pure awareness, from the luminous quality (sattva) of consciousness and the phenomenal world of which it is a part. What happens is that:

“55 In this way discriminative insight deconstructs all of the phenomenal world’s objects and conditions, setting them apart from pure awareness.”

The commentator says that, “By remaining absorbed in the procession of momentary events, one recognizes that what had seemed a continuous flow of reality reveals itself to be a sequence of consciousness moments, each composed of irreducible perceptual phenomena, or dharmas.” This happens he says because this perfect discipline (samyama)basically slows down time.

In the last chapter Patanjali goes into more detail, assuring again that the true function of consciousness itself is to reflect the unchanging pure awareness. The final product in this system is the fully integrated state of “dharma-megha-samadhi,” where all is reduced to a “cloud of irreducible experiential forms.” The pure awareness is then seen as it is, beyond all cause and effect, and timeless.

Even though these are all just words, a system of meditation described with various terminologies – it is said that attempting to understand such things conceptually can most certainly be helpful when one undertakes the task of working the system in order to understand directly.

Later there are a few short chapters dealing with the modern influences and effects of the Yoga Sutra, the comparison to scientific knowledge, and a great comparison of this system and the Samkhya system in general to that of Buddhism which the author compares very favorably, noting any discrepancies as minor or more or less terminology-oriented. The most obvious difference is the Buddhist emphasis on Anatma, or non-self versus the Samkhya (and Vedanta) emphasis on Atma, or the Higher Self. Even so he explains that this is not so unresolvable (as is also explained in Padmasambhava’s Rosary of Views). In fact, it is likely that Samkhya and Vedantic thought in Patanjali’s time was much influenced by the detailed mind-teachings of the Buddha and his students. He states that the Buddhistic system developed out of the Brahmanical-Upanisadic system and Patanjali’s system developed more out of the Buddhistic system. So one can see the inter-weaving and cross-pollinating influences here.

Mr. Hartranft states that the Yoga-Sutra is compelling because it addresses the central concerns of human existence. Like the methods of Buddha the methods here described by Patanjali are aimed at the reduction and elimination of human suffering.

The comentator also discusses the Samkhya darsana, or view, that is usually considered dualistic in that awareness is considered to ultimately be distinct from consciousness and nature. However, he also notes that purusa, or pure awareness, in this system is considered to be without qualities or attributes (nirguna?) which makes it pretty much conceptually indefinable so if one sees consciousness and nature as part of a temporary and illusory world (maya) then this view is similar to the Buddhist-style view of the two truths which actually derives from the Vedas’ description of universal unfolding so we have come full circle. The dualism of Samkhya may then be said to be a more functional type of dual nature. Samadhi still refers to integration of subject-object duality so the idea
of non-dual wisdom is still at the heart of the philosophy and method.

Finally there is a section about the translation and he notes again his choices of terms and how the terminology of the meditative traditions informed his commentary. It is important to note that there are several sub-traditions in Indian meditative traditions and sometimes terminology varies and means specific things to different sub-systems. It is good to keep this in mind.

Overall, this is a profound text, translation, and commentary. In my opinion it may be one of the most important texts ever for describing what happens when one wakes up to reality as it is (vidya). I hope to study it over and again and perhaps memorize a good chunk of it. Keeping such wise words in mind may be quite useful.

No comments:

Post a Comment