This is part three of the series
To climb the Stairway to Heaven, the Disk of Yin and Yang needs to be fitted onto the Pillar of Virtue. From there it should be made to spin so that it rises away from Evil towards Good.
Mind precedes all things,
Mind is their king,
They’re all mind-made.
[click here for audio]
So begins the Dhammapada. The universe both within and without is composed of mind and its energy. That energy is generated through the charge between the opposing polarities of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang duality manifest itself in innumerable ways, the most fundamental in Buddhism is the duality of name of form. Name and form (namarupa) then proliferate into archetypal dyads like mind and body, chaos and order, feminine and masculine, young and old, liberal and conservative, romantic and classical, water and fire, earth and heaven and so on.
Recall the description of the Stairway to Heaven in Part I. The Disk is hollow and filled with Yin and Yang powder. When the Seeker emanates the music of the spheres from his hands, the powders purify, shift and interact to produce the symbol of the Tao. This sets the Disk spinning and the spinning sends the Disk upwards.
Emanating the music of the spheres is a metaphor for practising the cures to the Five Hindrances (more on that later). The powders represent the mind-energies that comprise the body-mind complex. Purification of the powders denotes the gradual removal of the Five Hindrances. The shifting of the powders into the symbol of the Tao is a description for development of harmony in the body-mind complex. The spinning of the Disk symbolises the experience of flow, meaning and uprightness that come from living in harmony. And the movement of the Disk upwards symbolises the gradual destruction of clinging, craving and conceit.
When healthy, Yin is characteristically hidden, internal, sensitive, supportive, nurturing and flexible. Healthy Yang, on the other hand, is characterised by obviousness, externality, resilience, assertiveness, protectiveness and honour. Unhealthy Yin is manipulative, insecure, controlling, deceptive and oppressive. Unhealthy Yang is brazen, aggressive, vulgar and brittle. When healthy, Yin and Yang are complimentary, mutually respectful and symbiotic. In their unhealthy states Yin and Yang go to war, denying, denigrating, oppressing, colonising and destroying each other.
In its details the topic of Yin and Yang is potentially endless. Yin and Yang go around each other, so the study of Yin and Yang for its own sake is like a dog chasing its own tail. As such, the Buddha wasn’t interested in teaching the details of Yin and Yang, that is, the myriad ways that mind-energy manifests itself. He was only interested in teaching Yin and Yang to the extent and manner necessary to assist us attain the ending of suffering. Worldly harmony in Early Buddhism is not the goal, it is a means that a practitioner must cultivate to remove clinging, craving and conceit.
Readers who are well-versed in Buddhism may object here that actually, the historical Buddha never mentioned Yin and Yang at all. To which I reply: Indeed, well spotted. Yin and Yang are familiar terms to the modern reader, but they are derived from Taoism, not Buddhism. I use them here because the Buddha did use an equivalent set of terms in Pali (or more precisely the ‘Pali-like’ language/s that the Buddha spoke): he regularly spoke about ‘ānāpāna‘. In my understanding ‘ānā‘ means Yin and ‘pāna‘ means Yang.
But doesn’t that word mean ‘in-and-out-breathing’? If you think the answer to that question is ‘Yes’ then you would be a well-read Buddhist. However, you’ve just given away that you’re not a deeply enquiring Buddhist with critical Pali-reading skills, a sharp eye for details and a willingness to question the status quo on the basis of consistent experiential evidence. Please allow me explain.
The word ānāpāna only occurs in one context — as a part of the compound ‘ānāpānasati‘ as per the famous Ānāpānasati Sutta. Most people think that ānāpāna means in-and-out-breathing because it is usually translated into English that way based upon traditional commentarial exegesis. In my view this is a partially correct but limited translation. I will make the case for this view on the basis of linguistics and practical experience.
First, the linguistic side. In the body of the Ānāpānasati Sutta, the word used for ‘in-breathing’ is ‘assāsa’ and the word for out-breathing’ is ‘passāsa‘. These two words are used throughout the Ānāpānasati Sutta, so it is easy to assume that ānāpāna must be an unusual abbreviated compound of the those two words. However, that’s not how compounds work in Pali (or any language). New syllables don’t appear out of nowhere. The proper compound of assāsa and passāsa would be ‘assāsapassāsa’. Given that the syllable ‘na‘ does not appear anywhere in that compound, it’s impossible to abbreviate it to create ānāpāna.
Ānāpāna is a compound of āna and pāna. Admittedly, both are words that mean ‘breath’ in the ordinary sense. But could there be more to it? At times like these, when the meaning of Pali words is up for grabs, it’s good to look into Vedic Sanskrit literature for clues. The idea is that the Buddha would have appropriated terms from the Vedic millieu of the time, so Vedic literature can help us get at what the Buddha meant by his words. This comparative religious and linguistic approach was used, in my opinion, very successfully by Bhante Sujato in his seminal book A History of Mindfulness.
The equivalent Sanskrit word for ‘pāna‘ is ‘prāṇa‘. As well as meaning ‘breath’ in a mundane sense, in Sanskrit cultures prāṇa denotes the universal life-force or energy. It is also used in a more technical sense. In the yogic and Ayurvedic traditions, prāṇa can be subdivided into five ‘vāyus’ (winds). The first two are the foremost, and they are called ‘prāṇa‘, the upward and expansive energy; and ‘apāna’, the downward and contractive energy. A naked compound of these two would be ‘apānaprāṇa‘, but if abbreviated it can be ‘ānāprāṇa‘. In Pali, this would render as ‘ānāpāna‘.
In Taoism, Yin is understood as being the downward and contractive force and Yang the upward and expansive force. This is made graphic by the symbol of the Tao. Both Vedic and Taoist literature are pre-Buddhist and are replete with imagery indicating the need for harmony and balance between opposites. Think, for example, of Shiva standing alongside a doe-eyed cow or Parvati next to her fierce lion or Taoist ink paintings that strike balance between earth, air, fire and water. Many commentators throughout history have noted these similarities, but this may be the first time they have been blogged in the context of the Ānāpānasati Sutta
And then there’s the experiential evidence that ānāpāna is much more than just the physical breath: here we have my experience as a meditator and the reports of meditators in various traditions both Buddhist and non-Buddhist that mastery of the forces of Yin and Yang inside the body-mind complex is the heart of meditation. Understanding the Ānāpānasati Sutta as the historical Buddha’s summary of what needs to be done to master Yin and Yang redeems Early Buddhist literature from the status of lame-duck among the mystic traditions — for a mystic isn’t a mystic unless he has something deep to say about Yin and Yang — to the tradition with the clearest, most direct and practical teachings on the matter (although not necessarily the flashiest, most poetical and high-falut’n, which is often what counts in esoteric circles). This, I believe, bridges the gap between the simple, plain-looking instructions about meditation inside the Suttas, and the matter-of-fact descriptions of how, if practised, these instructions lead to the development of miraculous psychic powers like the ability to walk through walls and fly through the sky. That is to say, the Ānāpānasati Sutta is actually about what needs to be done to master the fundamental Yin and Yang energies of the Cosmos, within and without, as well as what should be done to develop the meditative aspect of the path to Enlightenment.
Here’s another long-standing translation fault which explains why many kinds of Buddhist practice have become lame-ducks. ‘Sati‘ doesn’t mean ‘mindfulness’. At least, it doesn’t mean mindfulness in the way that people today use that word, in the sense of ‘non-judgemental and non-participatory awareness’. This understanding of sati is anathema to the way sati is defined in the Suttas. There it is defined as having three components: self-control (ātāpī), full awareness (sampajañña), and recall (satimant). To have sati, one needs to have:
i. self-control for the sake of developing good and abandoning evil,
ii. full awareness of all things an individual needs to be aware of to
………….properly exercise self-control, and
iii. constant remembrance of the need to apply the first two factors.
Thus, sati in its original sense is very much judgemental and participatory and not non-judgmental and not non-participatory. It is judgemental in that it is constantly judgeing/discerning the difference between good and evil, and it is participatory in that awareness is not for awareness’ sake but to facilitate skilful, wilful and deliberate action of body, speech and mind.
This makes sense of the Buddha’s last words: “Strive on with vigilance.” These words certainly do not support the idea that the Buddha wanted his disciples to cultivate non-judgmental and non-participatory awareness. In that case, he would have said something more along the lines of “Stop striving and get out of the way”. What we have here is one understanding of Buddhist meditation and practice in general that puts pro-activity and deliberation to the fore, and another that values as the utmost cognitive passivity and intuitive spontaneity. At the very least, we need to admit that something not quite right is happening here and avoid the temptation of dismissing the contradiction by saying words don’t matter and everything is the same from a higher level. Let’s take some time to work out what’s going on.
Actually, I’m in favour of neither of these approaches (at least, as they are usually understood). This divergence in orientations, or more accurately speaking, these diametrically opposed orientations — different religions, really — is an example of how schisms between Yin and Yang lead to the enervation of both. I’d say that the reason why traditional Buddhists of all kinds and traditions are still generally split into the study-and-ritual camp, on the one hand, and the meditation troupe, on the other, is the failure to integrate these two orientations. Ordinarily, if we study, deliberate upon and discuss texts, then we can’t have peaceful meditation; and if we still our minds in meditation, then we lose the capacity to think straight and have decent discussion about challenging ideas. It seems like it’s either one or the other, and we can’t have both. Unfortunately, the one-sidedness of both of these approaches has made practice inside mainstream Buddhist institutions moribund on both the worldly and transcendental levels — the temples of study- and-ritual lack the meditative-vitality necessary to inspire noble change in the everyday behaviour of laypeople still entrenched in worldly life; and the forest monasteries lack the critical intelligence needed to guide monastics away from blind group-think towards the truth that shall set them free.
The ‘just be natural and get out of the way of your own inherent perfection and vision of emptiness’ approach feels nice in the short term, but, unfortunately, empirically speaking, it has some very negative long-term side effects. It makes the mind flabby, unable to maintain standards of excellence due to too much letting go; turns practitioners into overly-agreeable doormats who are easily subdued and manipulated by others; makes for lack of mental and physical resilience; prevents people from thinking straight about hard truths; and generally fosters delusion — which is why this approach is the religion of popular choice across the traditions (Buddhist and non-Buddhist). It’s a form of soma.
On the other side of the coin, trying to make one’s way to enlightenment by Striving! Striving! Striving! has it’s short term benefits too, but, again, leads to very negative long-term side-effects. The short term benefit is that it’s great for the ego: a practitioner can paint themselves as a great and all-conquering hero. But down the road there is anger and frustration from over-perfectionism, loss of community, internal dryness (anhedonia), out-of-control intellectualism, physical and mental tiredness and delusion born from judgement-call overshoot.
As with all varieties of Yin and Yang disintegration, the average person will either stick dogmatically to one side or the other out of fear of change, or swing back and forth from side to side out of the desire to gorge on a continuous string of shallow and short-term benefits. Thus it is that traditions, institutions, memes, doctrines and methods can easily attract large followings over very long periods of time, not despite their flaws and harmful consequences , but precisely because of them. Yin and Yang disintegration leads to addiction cycles and the average person holds onto his or poison till the day she dies. The pattern is always the same: find some poison that brings short-term pleasure and long-term pain and keep on running back to the poison to dull the long-term pain the poison is creating. Traditions and institutions can be formed by getting people with a common poison together to work in common to get more poison, and doctrines and memes are the poison that keep on keeping on because of the steady demand.
We live in a culture of runaway craving, addiction and short-term thinking which feeds like a cancer on previous hard, wise and virtuous striving. Cancers just keep on growing until they can’t because the host is dead. There is, however, a cure to cancer and the dire predicament of this civilisation. It’s a mystery that fell through the floor of Buddhist history perhaps more than two millennia ago. And it has something to do with the Buddha’s last words, Yin and Yang integration and the proper translation of ānāpānasati.