The Yoga Sutra
Neither Hindu nor Buddhist, these texts are crucial to both practices.
Brian K. Smith (Venerable Sumati Marut)
Yoga is not the sole possession of a single religion or any one philosophical school. For all of its four thousand year history in India, yoga has always transcended the boundaries of sectarianism. It was practiced by and was an integral part of the worldviews of the many and various strands of both Hinduism and Buddhism. A form of yoga was also traditionally practiced in China by the Taoists, and currently yoga forms a part of the spiritual practice of many Christians, Jews, Muslims and others. .
The Yoga Sutra of Master Patanjali, probably composed about two thousand years ago, is the mother-text of all the yoga traditions deriving from South Asia. The notion that there were at that time such things as “Hindu” or “Buddhist” texts distorts the historical reality and projects religious boundaries and orthodoxies that simply did not exist in India then. The Yoga Sutra is a yogic text; it is not specifically “Hindu” or “Buddhist.”
Yoga can be a meaningful component of any spiritual practice. For the many people in this country currently interested in both yoga and Buddhism it might be helpful to point out how the Yoga Sutra can be understood as wholly compatible with and supportive of Buddhist doctrines and practices.
First, it is interesting that both in the Yoga Sutra and in Buddhist texts the spiritual quest was structured into eight parts: the Buddhist “eight-fold path” to some extent mirrors the “eight-limbs” (ashtanga) of Master Patanjali’s yoga. The specifics of the two frameworks overlap to a large degree. Both lists culminate in the meditative state of mind called samadhi, while both begin with ethics – the yamas or “restraints” and the niyamas or “commitments” in the Yoga Sutra, correlating to right view, right speech, right action, and right livelihood in the Buddhist list. Four out of the five of the yamas listed in the Yoga Sutra (not harming, not stealing, not lying, and avoiding sexual misconduct; YS II.30) exactly match the first four of the standard list of the Buddhist precepts. The Yoga Sutra also specifically mentions what were known in Buddhist texts as the “Four Immeasurables”: loving-kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha) (YS I.32).
Both the Yoga Sutra and Buddhist texts agree that the goal of the spiritual life is to stop the suffering caused by the mind’s distorted ways of viewing the world. Our deluded minds, says Master Patanjali at the very beginning of his text, “turn things around,” and he uses the same Sanskrit term to describe the goal of yoga that we find repeatedly in Buddhist texts: we must get a “cessation” (nirodha) of the mind’s ignorance. In another verse that inevitably recalls distinctive Buddhist doctrines and vocabulary, Master Patanjali says that due to ignorance we see things that are impermanent (anitya) as if they were permanent (nitya); things that are impure as if they pure, things that are in the nature of pain or suffering (duhkha) as if they were pleasurable, and things that have no essences or “no-self” (anatman) as if they had some such “self” (atman) (YS II.5). Even the Mahayana Buddhist concept of “emptiness” or shunyata is directly mentioned in the Yoga Sutra: things are said to be “empty of self-nature” (svarupa shunya) (YS I.43) and the purpose or goal of meditation or samadhi is to realize this same emptiness of self nature (svarupa shunya) to things (YS III.3).
The Yoga Sutra belongs to all serious religious practitioners, regardless of their religious affiliation. The teachings put forward there on the real goals of yoga – the end of suffering through the development of ethics, meditation and other forms of self-discipline and the attainment of wisdom about the true nature of the world – transcend and pervade all authentic spiritual traditions.
Brian K. Smith (Venerable Sumati Marut) is an ordained Tibetan Buddhist monk and the spiritual director of the Asian Classics Institute, Los Angeles (ACI-LA) (www.aci-la.org). He is a founding Board Member and current President of the Yoga Studies Institute (www.yogastudiesinstitute.org). He also teaches courses in Buddhism, yoga and Sanskrit for the Yoga Philosophy Program of Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles (http://www.lmu.edu/pages/3891.asp) and at Diamond Mountain University in Arizona (www.diamondmtn.org).
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