Practice and all is coming? Western vs Eastern approach interview

An interesting discussion is going on in the Yahoo Ashtanga Group, where some practitioners encourage us to (respectfully?) question the contemporary yoga traditions as they are being “abused” by brahmins, claiming that Westerners have the advantage of being able to «go beyond dogmas».

I completely agree, everything should be questioned. Everything, including the questioning, intellectual mind, which is just another judgement that in the West we often hold to be the Ultimate Truth.

The point is, we are also conditioned by our culture, and as human beings we are not always aware of the dogmas our minds operate with, so how can we accuse other people with a different approach to learning/knowledge of not being able to surpass theirs?

In the first part of the yoga sutras, Patañjali explains that correct knowledge is direct, inferred or proven as factual (Y.S I.7). However, he also warns that verbal knowledge devoid of substance is vikalpa or imagination (Y.S I.9), and insists that truth-bearing knowledge is first-hand, intuitive knowledge (Y.S 1.49), different from the knowledge taken from books, memory or deduction.

This intuitive knowledge tends to be forgotten, undervalued, or directly despised in the West as superstition, blind faith, simply not valid, since it doesn’t come from inference. Isn’t that another dogma?

In this interview translated from drukpamexico.org, Tibetan buddhist teacher SS Gyalwang Drukpa throws some light on the difficulties Westerners experience along the spiritual path:

Q: How do you see the understanding of Tibetan Buddhism by Westerners, do you see any difference in the way it is comprehended and practiced in the West, compared to the Tibetans?

SS: I see a big difference between Western and Tibetan students. Now that I mix with very different kinds of people, I think that Westerners have a very peculiar way to start their spiritual life, very peculiar. There’s nothing wrong with it, it is just unique, very different from the Tibetan way.

Tibetans have a structure that is almost fanatic. They already have a path that’s been built by their cultural and spiritual ancestors, so it is already there. They don’t need to create it, to invent it, and that helps a lot. But the Western way is very interesting to me, because they have to create everything from A to Z. For this reason, they need to pay a lot of attention, they need to put a lot of effort into it to understand, they have to use their brains a lot, their intellect, and that’s what they’re doing, that’s what they’re fighting.

However, in terms of what is real, of the practice, I think that Westerners are still far behind. This is because they use their intellectual knowledge very well, they do the intellectual effort really well, that is the interesting part. But when it comes to experiential knowledge, they can barely do it. They have too much intellectual knowledge in their minds, which makes people go crazy.

It may be because too much intellectual knowledge makes people go crazy, or because your head becomes too big and you turn into an idiot. It is very easy to get carried away by stupidity, or by madness.

And it is not that holy madness: some people believe that when they go crazy like that it is because of that crazy wisdom, and it’s not like that. You know, in Tibetan Buddhism we usually talk about «holy madness» and then Westerners think «oh, this must be it». This is totally wrong, it is regular madness. This is the main issue in Buddhist societies, particularly in the West.

On the other hand, the way Western people understand is very good, very interesting, because they use their intelligence, their knowledge, their effort and their brains.

In our case in Tibet, we don’t really need to use our brain a lot, we only need devotion because the structure is already there. So anything the Guru, the Teacher says, you only need to follow. He’s already done all that previous hard work and he’s merely giving it to you. Whereas in the West, the Teacher gives it to you, but you need to work it really hard, this is they kind of society Westerners live in.

Q: So would you recommend that we focus more on faith and devotion and not only on the intellect?

SS: Yes, yes, this is what I always recommend, devotion is completely necessary. Devotion meaning clear understanding: you have to put yourself in a state of deep understanding, enter deeply that state of realization. Even if you don’t really know what realization is, try to get deeper into realization with your heart, rather than keeping it in you mind. Just put your heart into realization, and try to find something really deep there. Then you will obtain true compassion, true devotion, really easily. This will mantain a balance between intellectual and experiential knowledge.

Even if you don’t have much experience, it doesn’t matter, you have to experiment with it, try it out. Don’t just look at it, experience it. Try something and then you’ll know what it tastes like. Is it delicious, is it bitter? Does it have any taste at all? Or what?

When you try it you’ll know how to talk about it, you’ll know what to think about that particular thing. Otherwise, you’re just exposing everything, and you think you know everything. If you say: «This is yellow, this is white, this is red, this is beautiful or this is not» and you think you know everything and you haven’t even tried it, you haven’t even experienced it, that knowledge is only in your mind. That is the kind of knowledge that most Westerners have. Western students have a lot of knowledge because they’ve read thousands of books, they’ve listened to thousands of teachings and they know every corner of every teaching. Vajrayana, Mahayana, Hinduism, Christianism, Chatolicism, Judaism, EVERYTHING they know. That is fantastic. But they haven’t had the experience, they don’t really know anything!

So they doubt everything: «Er… I don’t know if this is sweet or not, someone told me it was sweet but I don’t know, it looks bitter to me, but I don’t know if it’s bitter…»

So take it, experience it, try it and you will know what it is. This is the factor that is lacking in Western societies.

___________________ end of the interview ____________________

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2 responses to “Practice and all is coming? Western vs Eastern approach interview

  1. Interesting.

    How about this?

    “Not only is there no clear textual history, but there’s not even a clear teacher-student lineage that indicates systematized oral teachings handed down over generations. In Zen Buddhism, for example, students can chant a lineage of teachers stretching back for centuries, with each Zen master certified by the one preceding. No such unbroken chain of transmission exists in hatha yoga.”

    (From Anne Cushman’s “New Light on Yoga”, Yoga Journal http://www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/466?page=2)

    But for Ashtanga, couldn’t one say:
    One’s primary teacher
    Sharath Rangaswamy/Pattabhi Jois
    Pattabhi Jois
    Krishnamacharya
    Babu Bhagwan Das/Yogeshwara Ramamohan Brahmachari

    It isn’t centuries. Can anyone name further back?

  2. linguistic communication is always imperfect in some sense. if we go back to what words mean, they usually have a high degree of circular definitions based on other low granular words, so even words of spirited leaders are imperfect…but gross rudders can help guide us through the storm, no?

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