9. The Vedic pitfall

Although my first efforts at actual meditation came in the context of yoga, I found that yoga – as much as it helped me – was not my path.

There’s not a lot of talk about meditation in popular yoga today, but there is some, and it sounds quite nice and very appealing. But there are problems there, and you might like to look into it a little deeper before jumping in. To get into a yoga meditation practice and then discover what it’s all based on could be an unhappy experience.

Hope I didn’t sound too critical of yoga in those last few posts… I really love yoga, and I do think it’s a very helpful thing to do. Good for your health, – mental and physical –  and good for your meditation practice. In fact there are people teaching yoga specifically to go along with other forms of meditation practice now. Which is interesting, as that was how it originated – we’ve come full circle.

I do feel that much of what is being done in yoga studios these days is pretty silly stuff. Find a good basic hatha yoga class and it will support your meditation practice. But beware.

One of my stated purposes for this blog is to help people avoid the pitfalls that might sabotage efforts at developing a good solid meditation practice. There are many, and once you fall into one, it can be difficult to get out. Hence the term ‘pitfall.’

I have some differences with Vedic philosophy, which is what yoga came from (mostly), so a meditation practiced based on yoga is not for me. Perhaps it is okay for you, but you should know what the philosophical implications of a yoga-based meditation practice are before falling into its pit.

Maybe you’re wondering why we need to discuss philosophy at all.

Many people don’t think philosophy is important or worth the effort – the “who needs it?” attitude. However, everyone actually has a philosophy. The assumptions that all of your decisions and actions are based on is in fact your philosophy of life. It’s just a matter of whether that philosophy is examined, understood, consistent, and rational – or just a hodge-podge of the various ideas you’ve been exposed to through your life, with the various inconsistencies all nicely compartmentalized.

As Socrates or some wise-guy said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Mostly because if your actions are based on inconsistent assumptions from one day to the next, you will live in a zig-zag line that makes finding happiness difficult.

In the same way, if the underlying philosophical assumptions your meditation practice is based on are not in synch with your own basic beliefs and assumptions, it won’t really work for you. So it’s important to know what Vedic (or Vedanta) philosophy says, at least in brief, before following it as a meditative practice.

Simply stated, (perhaps oversimplified, but I’m trying not to get myself in too deep here!) Vedic philosophy is based on the assumptions of atman and Brahman – the self and the overself. It presupposes that the self, or the individual soul, is a permanent entity that moves from existence to existence on various levels through the course of many many lifetimes. This is the samsaric round. The purpose of meditation, in this system, is to break out of this cycle and merge with Brahman, or God, oceanic existence. Obviously there’s a lot more to it than this, as it’s an extremely complex, ancient system of intertwined beliefs and practices.

The simple version is, yogic philosophy sees meditation as a way to end one’s karmic accumulation so that on dying one is not reincarnated into another life, but enters the state of nirvana, merging with the all-encompassing Brahman. Which means you need to believe in, first of all the permanent soul and the existence of an absolutist version of the karmic round, and some kind of deity.

Personally, I have great problems with most of these underlying assumptions. It’s another version of the theistic approach that I left behind long ago. As I said earlier, it’s not necessary to believe any of this in order to have a profound meditation practice. On of the reasons I embraced the Buddha’s teachings is that they don’t ask you to accept anything on faith – except maybe that this practice is worth investigating and finding out for yourself whether it works or not.

Buddha came from the Hindu world, and his teachings were in the context of this Vedantic philosophy. His major contribution, which came from his own meditation experience, was anyatta, or no-self, which explicitly says the self is simply a put-together thing, not some permanent entity. His enlightenment was realizing, by direct experience, that this impermanence is the nature of all reality, and that seeing it brings a great freedom and release from the burdens and boundaries of life.

If you find that Hindu philosophy is appealing to you, investigate it more deeply and find out if it works for you, if you can accept its beliefs and ideas. Then it may be that yoga meditation is your path.

7 thoughts on “9. The Vedic pitfall

  1. Gareth Young says:

    I love what you’re doing here. I have found, though, that practicing Buddhism I accumulated a lot more beliefs than I would like to admit. Actually I have come to the personal truth that Atman and Anatman are precisely the same thing, and to see them separately is the kind of dualism against which Buddha cautioned.

    • John Eden says:

      Thanks Gareth, good to hear! I’ve always tried to understand the teachings on dualism, but somehow they elude me. I think I’ve got it and then next thing I know I’m caught in it again… and then I try to understand why dualism is a bad thing… and just get confused again. Clearly self/no self is a dualism. But I struggle to see what that means. Logically, there is one or the other. I know a lot of Zen teaching is designed to break one out of the logical prison, but seems to me that the problems inherent in clinging to this idea that I’m a something is at the root of so many things that plague us… I’m going thru the ‘Mind Training’ book, Chogyam Trungpa, again and it is strong on the “one point” of realizing emptiness. So I guess that’s where I am now… Barbara (from Austin) told me when I talked about going to Vipassana that I should try to find a teacher, but they don’t do that, so now I’m again thinking I need a teacher, ‘cuz I just go round and round in my own head!

      • Hi John, I just started to read this blog.
        I like the clarity of your explanations.
        And Gareth’s words made me smile.
        Here’s my comment:

        > Atman and Anatman are precisely the same thing, and to see them separately is the kind of dualism against which Buddha cautioned.

        I agree, in the sense that “Atman” and “Anatman” can be viewed as ideas – descriptions – that actually can be compatible descriptions. With a very few efforts. There is a joker about such few efforts (or about Russian mentality, if you wish):
        India bought the technology to produce modern Russian interceptor jet. After short time, they addressed Russian workers with a question: “Did you send us the correct blueprints? We followed the instructions precisely, but when we assembled all the parts, it was not an interceptor jet. We got a steam locomotive. OK, we disassembled it, checked everything, then assembled again. And again, we got a steam locomotive!” Russian workers took the blueprints, the parts, started to work, and soon there stood a super-high-tech interceptor jet. “Wow! How that’s possible?” – asked Indians. Russians replied: “Pay attention to this sentence in the instruction: Details need to be finished off with a rasp”.

        > explicitly says the self is simply a put-together thing, not some permanent entity
        Vedic philosophy
        > presupposes that the self, or the individual soul, is a permanent entity that moves from existence to existence

        My finishing off with a rasp is that Vedics say “entity”, not so necessarily “permanent entity”.
        They said that the entity reincarnates. Buddha pointed out that it’s not permanent. But this does not invalidate all the previous philosophy. It rather clarifies some details and makes it more effective.
        Buddhist teachers also use ideas of rebirth. And ideas of something not affected by impermanence (“the unborn”). Maybe Vedic rishis also spoke about that unborn aspect, when they mentioned something eternal or unchanging.
        I think that permanence of reincarnated entity is not the crucial point for Vedic philosophy.

        Of course, different people can have different views on “Vedic philosophy”, and might argue that I’m totally wrong. But we would argue about our understanding, not about “Vedic philosophy” in itself. Really, who and how could prove that only his understanding is True Vedic philosophy?
        Usually, both criticism and object of criticism are interpretations by our understanding, not “the philosophy itself”.
        Thus, I disagree with vedic teachers that I met, but I prefer to think that it’s their understanding limited, not the philosophy that they interpret.
        This way we can use special treasures from Vedic wisdom when we need. Buddha did that.
        The question is that we shouldn’t limit ourselves with limited manners of understanding.
        Such limited understanding is what was meant by “dualism criticized by Buddha”. More precisely, not “dualism” or “monism” is wrong; but the thinking that dual logical oppositions is the reality itself.

        Buddha cautioned against clinging to extremes.
        It would be wrong to say that “your concepts are wrong because they contradict my concepts”. That’s only trying to put together flat pieces of the mosaic. Sure, they can mismatch on a flat surface. But that doesn’t mean they will mismatch on a globe.
        (I like to use the image that desriptions are flat, reality isn’t. Desriptions are like photos of a voluminal object). To check the compatibility of different descriptions, we need to check them not against each other, but against reality. Just as we usually check is something true or not – against reality, not against other concepts.
        The practical conclusion is that when we meet a new, contradictive knowledge, we don’t evaluate it against our old concepts, because they are ever incomplete. We take this old and new knowledge together, as a whole system, and re-evaluate it against reality (against our experience, and logical possibilities) – to synthesize a new system.
        This can be called “non-dualistic understanding”. But, of course, it matters not if our view is “dualistic”, “monistic”, “trialistic” etc. The question is do we refer to concepts and limited experience in our thinking. Or we learned to see that there may be wider experience, and learned to see the sources of the concepts – behind all the concepts. We can learn to see causes and processes that created any particular knowledge.

        People can try to overcome dualism in a different way. Saying something like: “Nothing is true. You use words, words are lying. Claiming anything, you create dualism. You can’t really criticize me. I make no mistake, because everything is true”.
        Of course, such rejecting of dualism, saying “nothing can be certain” is also an extreme. Clinging to dualism and clinging to anti-dualism are extremes. The attempt to correct a mistake of a “flat thinking” can’t succeed inside limits of “flat thinking”.
        Some people can say: “Truth is different for everyone”. So my truth is not true for them. Well, that’s not true. Understanding is different, but reality… It needs to see the reality to be able to say if the reality is different for people.
        When someone says: “Everyone has his own truth”, does he mean to open to other truths and incorporate them into bigger truth? Or he means to reject to see other truths? The difference is do we learn to see the bigger and bigger reality or try to hide from it.
        Rejecting to see different views come from our bondage to concepts. Liberation from such bondage may be felt like healing. Thus, attention to different and unpleasant concepts may help our healing. Even when such concepts turn to be wrong. We can then learn to understand people better and judge them less.

        Of course, when we are unable to analyse ourselves and others without too much criticism, then it’s better to abstain from such analysis and practise something else first. But there are times when some analysis, especially self-analysis, is needed. For example, to correct our mistakes quickly. Therefore, it’s better not to drop the analysis with criticism, but to try to analyse, just detaching it from judgements. That’s useful training.
        Also, learning to see the processes behind knowledge – processes that form our knowledge – helps to make our mind flexible, calm, honest and humble. It can become easier to clean out delusions and come closer to the point where “the mind is dropped”.

      • John Eden says:

        Thank you so much for this illuminating response! “Constant Illumination” is a good name! You embody it well!
        I especially like your statement: >Such limited understanding is what was meant by “dualism criticized by Buddha”. More precisely, not “dualism” or “monism” is wrong; but the thinking that dual logical oppositions is the reality itself.<
        That helps me understand it all – maybe I can remember this and get some clarity.

        I was in Zen for a long time, struggling with non-dualism and emptiness and understanding Dogen, and then I kinda fell into Vipassana and settled back into its dualisms with something of a sense of relief. But then a couple of years ago, I realized I couldn't stay with that… it grated against my experience too much. Too much 'gaining idea' in it, I guess. So now I'm realizing my path to be a hybrid one, as I blogged about last entry. But am clearly finding my way back into Zen – or maybe zen with small 'z'? Thanks for your help!

        Also thought you might find this article interesting: http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/logic-of-buddhist-philosophy/
        — I'm planning to comment on it and post the link on the blog as soon as I have time… would be interested in your response to it as well.

  2. 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement to spread Dharma.
    I’m planning now to collect all the useful notes that I’ll make when commenting, and put them into our DokuWiki, such as this:
    Thus, with a minimal editing, we could collect some set of explanations on different topics.
    First step that we might do to change our world is to gather a body of clear and working ideology. If you wish, do that too: edit and add any helpful materials. Hypertext form of wiki can be very suitable for that task. Ideas can be not necessarily very new, but we always try to tell about our experience, and describe our understanding as it forms in modern conditions.
    I will read your blog and recommended articles on. See you in our further dialogs. 🙂

  3. Hi John!
    You pointed at my words about “dual logical oppositions” and I realized how incomplete was that explanation.
    “Dualism” manifests also in our daily habits and dispositions.
    We treat ourselves differently from others. We often care more about something if it belongs to us, than if it’s something alien. And so on.
    Probably you can say that this kind of dualism has common roots with our “logical” dualistic view. It grows from keeping some model, view of life and ourselves.
    Keeping such models puts a screen to our wisdom.
    We take ourselves and others as puppets, in some sense. Some limited things that cannot be truly free. (And we rarely understand what the true freedom should be).
    All this dualism is also substituting reality with models.
    The cure is – opening the whole space as [s]our[/s] this reality. Where everything has the freedom to act.
    Then there is no Me-Puppet; there is Everything-Now.

    I have read and commented the article that you recommended. You can also read and discuss that comment here:

    BTW, I think I could write good articles too, so if you know some magazine or something where I could be paid for writing, please let me know. I have a vow not to have worldly jobs. Thus it’s not always easy to survive. Of course, most of “worldly” jobs can be done as Mahayana practice. Still I want to do something close to what I feel as most meaningful. And right now, writing somehow educational articles seems to be a good option.

    • John Eden says:

      Thanks for your eloquent explanations! I’m beginning to feel I understand the notion of dualism a little better. It’s a hard thing to integrate into my thinking. As for a venue for your writing, I’m not sure what to suggest. I’ve have tried that only a tiny bit, all unsuccessfully, so I’m not a very good source! I have a book (on my vietnam war and related experiences) mostly done that’s online, but I’ve not tried to get any of it published. I am currently thinking of different ways to put it out there, but not expecting to get money for it. Right livelihood is a great challenge in our world.
      I am hoping to get back to the wiki site soon, but have been pretty busy lately. Thanks for keeping me engaged!
      Also — interesting response to the Aeon article. I don’t really understand all that philosophical/mechanical stuff… I find it interesting to try to think about and work thru the steps – kinda like an algebra problem, but I don’t see any relation to reality… also like an algebra problem! Be interested to see if he responds.

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