August 17, 2011

Buddhist Yoga: Joining with Naturalness. ~ Ari Goldfield & Rose Taylor Goldfield

Rose Teaching Buddhist Yoga

About this series:

The tradition of Buddhist Yoga is vast and wonderful. It is profound in its insights that we can discover for our own and others’ benefit, and rich in its variety of skillful methods that we can use to put it into practice. This seven-part serialization aims to present the key points of Buddhist Yoga in a way that Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike will find helpful and applicable to their own practices of yoga and meditation.

We will begin by looking at what the phrase “Buddhist Yoga” means, so that as we proceed to explore the practice of Buddhist Yoga, we will be well-equipped with a clear understanding of what Buddhist Yoga is all about. In the subsequent three pieces, we will examine the three qualities of mental outlook that form Buddhist Yoga’s foundation: renunciation, compassionate bodhichitta, and the profound view of the true nature of reality.

In the fifth piece, we will be ready to learn how to apply the principles of Buddhist Yoga in physical exercise and dance. Then, we will see how we can practice Buddhist Yoga when our bodies are afflicted by illness, and learn why the great masters have taught that being sick is actually a more conducive condition for practice than being healthy. In the last piece, we will explore how to practice Buddhist Yoga in the activities of daily life, so that no matter where we are or what we are doing, we can live fully and joyously as yogis and yoginis.

~ Ari and Rose

Yogic consciousness…arises from meditation…When the net of concepts is cleared away, Genuine reality vividly appears.

—Dharmakirti, 7th Century Indian Buddhist Master

Although the disturbing emotions, the five poisons, may agitate your mind, Look at their true face, and let them be self-liberated. Whatever thoughts of despair may arise in you, Know their true nature, and thereby gain courage. When you know how to practice these points well, You will be a relaxed yogini.

—Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Master

What Does “Buddhist Yoga” Mean?

The words “Buddhist” and “yoga,” and by extension the names for adherents of yoga, male “yogis” and female “yoginis,” can refer to such a wide range of meanings and images that it will be helpful to begin by looking at precisely what we understand these words to refer to. “Buddhist” in Tibetan is “nang pa sang jeh pa.” Nang pa literally means “insider,” but not in the sense of someone in a club or group to which outsiders do not belong. Rather, it means “someone who looks inside”—someone who looks in at the true nature of things, particularly at the true nature of their mind. When we are not content to search for happiness or truth in outer objects or situations; when we recognize that there must be some deeper reality to the objects that appear to our senses and the thoughts and emotions that appear in our minds; this can be the beginning of our Buddhist journey to discover the true nature “inside” appearances and mind.

Rose teaching Buddhist yogic exercises

Sang jeh is the Tibetan term for “Buddha,” and each syllable is a word with its own meaning. Sang means “awaken”—to awaken from ignorance of the true nature of reality into wisdom that realizes it. The true nature of reality—meaning the true nature of mind and all the phenomena it perceives—is luminous awareness. This awareness transcends conceptual labels and expressions, and even transcends the duality between the outer objects we perceive and our inner consciousness that perceives them. It is open, spacious, and relaxed.

Jeh means “expand,” referring to how the qualities of enlightenment such as clarity, equanimity, love, compassion, and happiness all grow from having awakened into wisdom. In fact, these qualities are inherent within mind’s true nature, and by training in Buddhist Yoga, our ability to actualize them grows and grows.

Thus, no matter what religious, spiritual, or philosophical tradition we may follow (or not), we act in harmony with Buddhist principles when we look beyond the surface of appearances, thoughts, and emotions into their true nature; train in awakening from ignorance into wisdom realizing this true nature; and train in engendering compassion and the other qualities of enlightenment.

“Yoga” in Tibetan is nal-jor, meaning to join (jor) with naturalness (nal-ma), the true nature of reality. Yoga, therefore, is any and all of the practices by which we join with naturalness; by which we achieve our awakening into wisdom. And so although one might think that one could identify yogis and yoginis by the pure clothes they wear or the pure foods they eat, in fact anyone who dedicates themselves to practicing on the path of joining with naturalness is a yogini or a yogi. As the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa explained:

In my tradition, if you sincerely want to practice the Dharma, you do not have to change your name. Since you can reach buddhahood with a full head of hair, you do not have to cut it off, or change your clothes.

How do we join with naturalness?

To join with the naturalness of the outer material world, we must ascertain outer appearances’ true nature, and rest within it. To join with the naturalness of mind, we must ascertain mind’s true nature, and rest within it. Our bodies are the perfect place to focus on in order to do both of these kinds of yoga, because as Milarepa taught, the body is the border where mind and matter meet each other.

Rose leads a Buddhist yoga class

Our bodies are made of matter, yet matter that is suffused with mental sensation and feeling. Body and mind are interdependent: Changes in the body affect the mind, and mind’s perceptions and feelings bring about physical changes as well. By penetrating to the true nature of the body, we can discover the true nature of mind. And by ascertaining mind’s true nature, we can discover what the body actually is.

Ultimately, our practice of Buddhist Yoga reveals to us that the difference between body and mind is merely a conceptual one, and in the true nature of reality—non-dual, inexpressible awareness—body and mind are inseparable. This is why it is skillful to employ both body and mind on the path to enlightenment. If we were to focus too heavily on one or the other, our practice would be out of balance. The key, therefore, is to give appropriate attention to each, and to train in their interrelationship by involving mind when we work with body and involving body when work with mind. Then our practice is balanced and whole, and we make good use of all available resources on our journey.

We will begin to see how to do this in our next installment on the three qualities of mind we develop in order to give our practice of Buddhist Yoga its soundest possible foundation.

[to be continued here on elephant, next week]


Ari Goldfield’s Harvard Law School training led him to a six-month unillustrious career in corporate law before he set off for Asia to study Tibetan and find his Buddhist teacher. He went on to travel the world for thirteen years with his teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, acting as Rinpoche’s translator and secretary. Rose Taylor Goldfield grew up in a Dharma household, where she learned meditation at a very young age, and progressed through the practice and study lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She received her masters from Naropa University in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies with Tibetan language. Ari and Rose translate and teach Buddhist philosophy, meditation, yogic exercise, and dance in their local San Francisco Bay Area and internationally. They are spiritual directors of the Wisdom Sun community. You can explore more about them and their offerings on their website.

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