When I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English. We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes. She also served as a babysitter from time to time.
The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children. They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture. One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen. I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert. I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space. I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.
I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary. It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable. It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening. I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.
This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa, in the Sütras of Pantanjali. Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill. Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.
As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe. I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment. This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.
The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe. In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says. This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.
The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning. In other words, the “I” is the sum of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be. One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken. Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”
To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya. But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization. Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go. It leads into more suffering, not away from it.
In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while. A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body. Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.
Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being. Some days I am strong. Some days I am weak. Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing. When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable. Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.
The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.” Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings. My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.
You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not. If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy? The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.
Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him, Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable. Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean? Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.
The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about. We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma. We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow. If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.
We don’t have to do this. Why do we do it? Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity. If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.
The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.
I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence. My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).
No. For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.
As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Buddha did not found a religion. He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.
This is how I understand yoga. Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.
My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.
Yesterday I visited an important Buddhist shrine, Namo or Naya Buddha, with two other volunteers, Shannon and Darima, and a group of Hindu women from the Women’s Center. I teach these Nepali women English, and they taught me more about Nepali spirituality than any book or article I’ve read. They don’t think of the Buddha as a god–he is “very different,” they said, from Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Saraswati, Durga, and the rest of the Hindu pantheon. They think of him as a “wise man.” He is buddamani, sage. So why do they venerate him with all the same emotional intensity as they bring to Ganesha and others? Because they are Nepali. The following are notes from my journal during the day. Headings have been added.
2 July 2011
I’m on a bus with Menuka, Devi, Susshila, Dilu, Ambica. They are taking Darina, the other teacher at the Women’s Center, and me somewhere towards Banepur to place called Namo Buddha. Shannon is coming along for the ride because tomorrow is her last day in Nepal and she and Darina have become very close. It is raining, of course. This bus looked suspicious decrepit when we boarded it. It did not seem to bother Dilu, who tends to take charge, that the driver’s head was halfway into the engine. The last bus ride that started out this way was supposed to take only one hour but actually took 6 because the bus kept breaking down.
I’m very pleased to be going anyway, since this is my first outing with my new Nepali friends. I love women but would not say, as I was about to say, that I like women better than men. Sometimes I trust them more, but not always and not finally.
As I get older, I find comfort in the similar experiences and challenges that women have and suffer because we are women: menstruation, childbirth, menopause, hormonal shifts, surges, stress, discrimination, catcalls on the streets, harassment, come-ons, rape, stares, the policing of the body, its clothing, gestures, and locations. Not all women will admit or talk about it. Some women are ashamed to be women; some deny and some repress.
Not all women become mothers, of course, or get to keep and take care of their children. But we all as women share the common lot of women. We all live in cultures that, to various extents and in different manners, insist that we dress, behave, and move through the world as women. Those who resist these codes are brave. If they survive and thrive, we celebrate them, but not generally during their lifetimes. What do we call the ones who defy their cultures’ policing of the body and mind and who then fall into poverty, isolation, and depression? weird, insane, unnatural, or evil.
We’re climbing through endless terraces of rice fields doted with brick houses. Many of the houses are habitable only on the ground floors. These send up aspiring columns of brick or concrete that bristle with steel reinforcing rods. Many roofs in the city are flat, which is useful for hanging laundry or creating gardens with potted plants. In the country, where there is room, roofs are peaked. Susshila touches her palms together as we pass a giant stature of Shiva, who holds his trident and looks benevolently over the valley. She says this place is called Sagar, or something like that. The bus strains up the mountain and we go through a small village where a butcher displays flayed carcasses of unidentifiable animals on stone counters and rocks.
The sun breaks out and I want to mention it, but have to look up the word, surya, for sun. Suriya the sun-god is one of the oldest Indo-European deities, along with Chandra, the moon, Indra (war, storms and rain), and Agni (fire). My book is wrong about the word for sunny. Gamlagyeko is the correct term. It is not yet gamlageko but the surya has come out.
I see women bent under loads of bricks carried with a forehead strap, dark-skinned children standing in dirt lanes between fields, corn in patches everwhere. Women wearing red headcloths and ragged red saris are planting rice in the rain. A butcher shaves the hair and hooves off of a headless goat. A shirtless man washes himself by a concrete cylinder. Now we are arriving in a larger town, driving down a broad street bordered by 4 and 5 story buildings. Dogs forage in spread-out mounds of garbage lining the road. This is Banepa.
We have boarded a crowded bus. The Nepalis sit three to two seats and push towards the back, where all the spots are claimed. Darina and Shannon are complaining that the trip is taking too long. We have gotten on our third bus. The women told them that we were going to someplace far away. Menuka said that it will cost 1500 rupees to get into Namo Buddha, and this has really set Shannon and Darina off. They say, “I’m not paying that,” and want to go home. Darina is sick with a bad case of gastrointestinal dis-ease. Shannon has been traveling too long and longs to get back to the States and her boyfriend. Darina understands that the women have high hopes for this journey and doesn’t want to disappoint them, but she looks miserable.
At least she has a seat. Ambica is sitting on Susshila’s lap. The rest of us are standing and have been standing for almost an hour. Once we get going we will travel for yet another hour, so we will be weary when we arrive. I don’t know where the bus driver is. Few of the Nepalis appear to be distressed or impatient. Ah, here is the driver. He has started the engine, but still we sit. At last we are leaving the filthy city of Banepur.
We climb through a village where I see a tall, thin, grey-haired woman in Tibetan dress, which is much plainer than the Hindu style. Tibetan women wear long dark skirts and vests over along-sleeved blouses, and tie horizontally striped aprons around their waists.
The family next to me has brought cucumber from a vendor outside. It looks and smells delicious. I dare not touch it.
We have been climbing a winding, steep dirt road and seem to have come up 2 or 3 thousand feet. But bus rolls into a deep pothole and everyone hears tearing metal. The driver cuts the engine and the ticket-takers jump out to inspect. No damage is found, and we crawl forward. I have finally found a seat, which I am sharing with Menuka. It is quite uncomfortable but better than standing.
We get off the bus at an inauspicious crossroads—a muddy track bordered by brick shacks. We head down a dirt trail and I am worried that Shannon and Darina are going to be very angry because there seems to be nothing here. Signs of civilization ahead include an outdoor restaurant where the chickens are pecking around the frying pans on top of the stove. A battered sign reads, in English: “We serve hygienic, fresh food here.” There is a somewhat clean squat toilet with a door. After we use it a ragged boy with a Dalai Lama medallion appears from nowhere and shouts at us to pay the fee. Devi gives him 30 rupees. He still complains, so she throws some coins into his palm. We head down the hill and pass under prayer flags that lead us to a medium-sized stupa. This is Namobuddha, then. This is looking better.
Lunch: Amazing food: channa (round, red beans), roti, tharkari (curried vegetables), roti (fried bread) and chura (beaten rice), ladu (Nepali sweet cakes), and coffee-chocolate candy which we wash down with Mountain dew and sweet Nepali tea. We westerners cannot believe that they brought so much to eat, and are even more surprised and grateful when we find out that they have gotten up at 4:30 in the morning to cook it all. Menuka pays for the tea. Shannon says that she feels better and that she always gets cranky when she is hungry. Darina has a serious stomach ache and cannot eat much, but she soldiers on.
After we eat we visit the small stupa. I make an offering and light a butter candle, then round the shrine, spinning prayer wheels as I go. I join the Hindu women at the inner temple of the stupa, and offer prayers. Menuka pour a handful of rice into my hand and give me some marigolds and a white, silken scarf. I throw the rice around the Buddha inside and give the flowers and the scarf to the old man who tends the shrine. He tucks the blossoms into the statue’s knees, drapes the fabric around the Buddha’s neck, and then blesses me with a tika, a smear of red powder that he mixes in his hand, combines with some of the sacred orange smear on the Buddha, and then rubs into the crown of my head. He also pours holy water and flower petals into my hands, which Susshila shows me to throw over my forehead and hair.
We go to another shrine nearby, removing our shoes as we enter. Inside there are three relatively large Buddha statues and a frightening looking demon who looks like Bhairab, the angry manifestation of Shiva. I have no idea which bodhisattva this is, but I make an offering here, on impulse, and hope for strength to manage the stormy changes that seem to be coming my way.
End of journal. Continuation of the Story
We walk up a very steep hill bedecked with thousands of prayer flags. Many of the women fall behind and finally it is only Shannon and I puffing towards the summit, where we find expansive views of the valley in all directions and a line of Buddhist shrines. The red, yellow, blue and white flags festoon the top and lead down the hillside on a path that I am eager to follow. We wait for our companions. They, however, refuse to take another step, so I content myself with what purports to be the holiest spot at Namobuddha, the site where a young prince—who may have been the Buddha himself—encountered a starving tigress and her five cubs. She was about to devour a small child, but the prince offered his own flesh instead. His sacrifice transformed him into a boddhisattva. After he died, legend says, he was reincarnated into Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself. The Tibetans call this place Takmo Lujin (Tiger Body Gift). Namo Buddha means Hail to the Buddha.
I feel especially moved by this place, because tigers have always been my favorite animal. When I was little I had a giant Steiff tiger named Suzann who guarded me while I slept. She had glowing green eyes and was nearly as big as I was. I made up the story that she protected me so that I would not feel afraid of her. I say a sincere prayer to the tiger spirits of the mountain and move on with my friends, who have gone ahead.
From here we follow a narrow path up the spine of the mountain to another sacred spot, where we again give rice, flowers, silk, and money. Menuka seemed to have an endless supply of scarves. Susshila, the holdest and most overtly religious of the group, brings out her chrome offering bowl, her waxed wicks, and incense, as she does at every holy spot. She circulates the burning flame and smoke three times over the sanctuary while murmuring a prayer. Menuka waves the heat and light from the butter lamps over her head. All the women pay their respects by raising their hands to their foreheads, setting money, and pouring rice into the center of the shrine. Before we enter, we walk clockwise around it turning prayer wheels. I join their venerations out of curiosity as well as spiritual need. Shannon and Darina stand apart and watch.
We still have not reached the highlight of our journey. a spectacularly beautiful, enormous, and seemingly brand-new monastery, the Thrangu-Tashi Yangste Gonpa, which at first glance looks like an expensive resort hotel.
The Tibetans have thrived in Nepal and they like to spend their wealth on monasteries. Inside we find a large and elaborately painted rectangular passageway with columns decorated with tiger heads and lotus flowers.
We remove our shoes and follow a young monk up to golden doors, and then wait with him for an older monk, who opens the great doors to the great hall, drawing a gasp from all of us. Inside we see a huge, vaulted temple with six huge, golden Buddhas serenely staring down over rows and rows of prayer benches, silken banners, drums, and exploded thangka-like wall paintings, some of which are still in process. There is the customary large photograph of the Dalai lama on the central dais, where we leave more rice, scarves, bills, and prayers. We linger for a long time but not long enough for me. As we leave monks begin to arrive and to sound cymbals, drums, and chants.
Back downstairs in the open passageway that runs beneath the temple, I copy out the following text from a newspaper entitled “The Voice of the Young Monks” and dated July 2011:
Today we collectively are facing so many environmental crises such as global warning, natural disasters, extinction of animals, population growth…
Now we cannot simply rely on current economical and political systems to solve the problem, because to a large extent they themselves are the problem. The critical element of our problem is lack of awareness, which brings us to Buddhism.
Buddhism offers a precise solution to the environmental crisis by showing the method of cutting the self [off] from clinging. The delusions of a separate self, which does not exist and is empty in nature, still because of which we become obsessed with things that we hope will give us control over situations, especially the competition for power, sex, and fame.
The syntax gets a little convoluted there at the end, but the message is clear enough.
I think all of us have been renewed by our visit to Namo Buddha. I feel more at peace with myself than in a long time. It has been a welcome escape from the tensions of the VSN project, which have been particularly taxing lately.
Here the journal ends.
Returning home through the language haze
The journey back to Pepsi-Cola was so arduous, the buses so crowded and steamy, that we decided to walk the last short leg home. This turned out to be more difficult for some of the women than they had expected. Shannon and Darina, anxious to get home, sped ahead and were soon lost in the mud, dust, cows, motorbikes, vendors, bicycles, dogs, and mayhem of the busy road. I also longed to rush towards my room, but remained with my hosts, who had taken us so far to see wonderful sights. I had happily spent most of the day with them anyway, listening to their chattering, picking up words were I could, and building my vocabulary. While Darina and Shannon and spent most of the day talking to each other, I had made the effort to speak to my friends in their own language. They were not very good students of English, after all, and if I was going to get to know them I would have to do it in Nepali. But this long, voluntary language lesson had exhausted me, and I was eager to retreat and recoup.
To my dismay, Ambica lived on the road we were walking along and invited everyone in for cold drinks. It would have been rude to refuse, so I spent yet another hour in a language haze, following the women’s tone and facial expressions more than what they said.
Dogs and Men
Ambica’s son has a beautiful German Shepherd puppy, with whom I fell in love. The son—I never did catch his name—said he was going to get rid of him because the dog does not bark and is too obedient. To my mind, this made the dog perfect, but the son wanted an animal to scare unwanted visitors. He spoke pretty good English and launched a barrage of questions at me, which I was glad to escape. He insisted that I come back again soon and often, to see the new, better dog. I demurred and explained that Americans do not like to drop in on people without warning. Throughout this interchange his mother, Ambica, said nothing. She remained silent not only because her English is weak, but also because in Nepal women have very little say about what their sons do. The husband rules the house and in his absence, the eldest or only son takes over as lord.
Nepali women are strong, like women everywhere, but they use their strength to endure and cooperate with their subordination, instead of resisting it. If they work a full-time job, they come home to cook, clean and cater to the men in their families. A good wife presses her forehead to her husband’s feet. She marries a man from a collection of suitors from her caste whom her parents have selected. Then she moves into her husband’s family and never return to her mother’s house again.
Very slowly, I am learning about how women live within these strictures. One of the women at the center, for example, is divorced. But she tells everyone else that she is married, because even these seeming friends of hers would shun her if they found out the truth.
Finally it was time to go. Susshila split off a few steps down the road, and Dilu and Menuka accompanied me to Sugandha’s house, where I gratefully collapsed, finally alone, onto my bed.
All in all it was a very good day—ramaylo cha—as I learned to say. I made better friends with the women from the center as well as with myself. We had made a pilgrimage together and it was very good. Hail to the Buddha and to Nepali women!