Monday, February 19, 2018
Guarding The Senses
The Buddha was talking with Uttara, a young pupil of a teacher called Parasariya.
“Uttara, does Parasariya teach you how to control your senses?” asked the Buddha.
“Yes, Parasariya does indeed teach us how to control our senses.”
“And how does he do this?”
“We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear. This is how we are trained to control our senses.”
“But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses, for the one does not see and the other does not hear,” the Buddha replied.
Uttara was silent.
After several moments, the Buddha continued, “Well, Uttara, Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach. When a yogi sees a form with the eye, usually a feeling of liking or disliking comes into being. The yogi understands that liking or disliking has arisen but that either one is not inevitable but is conditioned and dependent upon myriad causes and conditions. So, the yogi cultivates a state in which there is equanimity and finds that in so doing, the liking or disliking begins to fade and the yogi can then see things as they are. This is how the yogi can control their senses. That is what we teach.”
I am often asked what are the differences between the yoga taught by the Buddha and that taught by Patanjali or the Classical Yoga tradition. While there are quite a few, this passage points to a fairly central difference in actual practice. But first, it’s helpful to remember that the earliest definitions of the word yoga emphasized the practice of yoking. And this “yoking” was itself described as the practice of meditation. A common analogy of yoking the senses, breath and mind was to parallel it to the yoking of horses to a chariot, where the horses were the senses, the charioteer the egoic self and the owner of the chariot, sitting within, the ‘True Self.’ The implication was that the horses or senses, given free reign would cause havoc and needed to be restrained.
In Classical Yoga, pratyahara, the fifth limb of the eightfold path described in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, was often defined as “withdrawal” and described as sensory inhibition. The most popular image for this process of sensory inhibition is offered in the Goraksha-Paddhati (2.24): “As the tortoise retracts its limbs into the middle of the body, so the yogin should withdraw the senses into himself.” Of course there are other understandings of the process of pratyahara as in “the pleasant state of consciousness that beholds the Self in all things” as stated in the Tejo-Bindu-Upanishad (1.34) but in the contemporary yoga world it is the former view of the tortoise withdrawing inwardly that is most encountered. As Georg Feuerstein said to a group of us in 2002, “For Patanjali, yoga was a process of in-up-and-out.”
In this passage from the Majjhima Nikaya, Uttara is describing his teacher’s teaching on sense control as a process of shutting down the process of perception: “We are taught not to see material forms with the eye nor hear sounds with the ear.” It might be easy to miss the Buddha’s wry sense of humor as he responds, “But, in that case, Uttara, the blind and the deaf must be in total control of their senses.” I can picture poor Uttara standing there, now mute in the face of this subtle smack-down!
The dramatic tension exists in those moments where Uttara remains silent, until the Buddha rescues him with his teaching. And note, he doesn’t completely negate Parasariya’s teaching as “wrong,” but rather just says “Parasariya teaches you one way and here we teach a different way. Let me tell you what we teach.”
And what the Buddha teaches is what my teachers more accurately describe as “guarding the senses” in that the senses themselves are not “controlled” or “yoked” but the conditioned reactivity to the sense perceptions. In other passages, the Buddha exhorts his students: “In the seeing let there just be the seeing; in the hearing let there just be the hearing.” What the Buddha is getting at is that just about immediately upon a sense organ making contact with a sense object (eyes making contact with form/color etc. or ears making contact with sound) and the arising of sense consciousness, a conditioned reaction of a feeling-tone of pleasant or unpleasant arises. Without mindfulness, that conditioned reaction will condition and determine how we then react through action that is either clingingly desirous or aversive. The feeling-tone will present a kind of ‘veil’ that prevents us from actually seeing or hearing with more objectivity and clarity. We react to our feeling-tone and not the actual sense object (form or sound, in the case of eye and ear).
With mindfulness, we can stop, take a backward step from the conditioned reactivity and then choose a more skillful and beneficial way of responding. While Parasariya’s way may lead to a deep samadhi-like state of peace, it ultimately is very limiting as there can be no engagement with the world of “sound and vision.” With the practice of satipatthana (mindfulness), the yogi does not have to disassociate from the world, but rather changes the way they relate to the world. From conditioned reactivity to creative response, the practice of mindfulness can cultivate greater freedom here and now in the realm of inter-relationship, or perhaps even more the reality of “interbeing.”