What is Yoga – A Tibetan Perspective – Herbert Guenther

What is that which is called Yoga?
A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective

By Herbert Guenther

The Indic word yoga has become a household word in any Western language where, as in its original Indian cultural context, it has become a cover term for a variety of disciplines and techniques, each claiming to be the last word.

Given this state of affairs the question “What is that which is called Yoga” is still pertinent and must be dealt with in its historical context. As a discipline it goes back to or is associated with what is generally considered to be the oldest (and, by the way, most influential) Indian philosophical system, the Samkhya, as propounded by and forming the infrastructure of the medical treatise by the physician Caraka (78 CE).

The salient feature of this system is its emphasis on the so-called elements (dhatus) that constitute the prakrti (the multifaceted stuff the world is made of) in its conspicuously dual aspect of being “manifest” (vyakta) and “unmanifest” (avyakta) that in its Western transplant under the influence of the Cartesian bifurcation has been misinterpreted as the matter-mind duality. Starting from this fallacious premise with its hidden assumption that matter was evil and mind together with its figments was good, and applying this welter of misconception to what was deemed to be yoga, the word yoga has been defined as the union of the self with a or the supreme being and as a system of ascetic practices, meditative exercises, and other control mechanisms. designed to achieve this end.

From among the welter of India- based yoga disciplines two have gained prominence in the Western world. These are the ones that are known by their Indian names of Hatha-yoga, a system of physical exercises and breathing control, and Kundalini-yoga, basically an imaginal system detailing the arousal of a human being’s latent energy imaged mythopoieically as a serpent in female guise lying coiled at the base of the spine.

It is interesting to note that the posturings of the Hatha-yoga are also the posturings of the Classical Ballet in the West. This should not come as a surprise. The main exponent of the Hatha-yoga is the Hindu god Siva-Mahadeva who doubles as an ascetic and a dancer par excellence (nata-raja). And is not the classical ballet the most sublime dance form that demands strictest discipline (askesis in its original Greek meaning)?

The so-called Kundalini-yoga has not fared so well in the Western world. Its basically imaginal character that lifts it out of the “nothing-but” physical, by its insistence on the co-present and inalienable feminine component in a human being’s being, re-inforced the physical that was quickly identified with sex and commercialized in (“yogic”) sex workshops and/or massage parlors.   It was the dimension of the imaginal with its critique and rejection of the physical-qua -physical as some misplaced concreteness, that was of primary concern for the Buddhists who, within the Indian context, could not but use the Sanskrit word yoga.   Inasmuch as the Buddhists’ way of thinking – their so-called Way means a going with the added connotation of the way being a friendly companion and guide, rather than an inert link between two points – was process-oriented, they described their “going” as involving three phases, each phase presenting a specific form of yoga, which goes to show that the word yoga has no fixed meaning, but acquires any meaning by the context in which it is used.  

The first phase was called Maha(yoga) and explicated to the effect that Maha was a short term for a complex process of a transfigurative vision (Skt. utpattikrama/utpannakrama, Tib. bskyed-rim, themselves process-product words), in which the experiencer “saw” himself and others as luminous presences against a background of a meaning-saturated dimension from which a meaning-pervaded pattern as the fore- structure of his embodiedness stood out conspicuously. These seen and felt luminous presences were summarily termed gods and goddesses, and as projections of intrapsychic realities differed from the popular notions of gods of whom the Buddhists had no high opinion. They might be more powerful than ordinary humans, but otherwise were inferior by far.

To give an example from our Western “cultural” setting: a human being may be an occasional rapist and feel sorry for what he did, but Zeus, the chief deity of the Greek pantheon, was by all accounts a serial rapist and never felt or showed any regret.   In the context of the Maha(yoga) as a device by which the experiencer was thought to be about to learn more about himself and his situatedness in a world of his own making, the word yoga acquired a distinct meaning that was hermeneutically explicated to the effect that yo – meant the practising experiencer’s never- ending efficacy and -ga meant the practising experiencer’s non-referential appreciatively cognitive acumen.

Only if any experiencer’s cognitive capacity is not blocked by deadening pre-suppositions, can he “see” himself as well as others with “fresh eyes” and appreciate the light that shines through everything that makes up his visionary field. But far from being absorbed in itself, this vision calls for action that takes into account the luminous quality of all that is. This action is termed efficacy and is a far cry from a person’s egological blundering. Efficacy and appreciative acumen are mutually enhancing and thus the first phase in restoring the indivdiual’s lost unity that is another term for integrity.  

The second phase was called Anu(yoga) and explicated to the effect that its summed up (Skt. sampattikrama/sampannakrama, Tib. rdzogs/rdzogs-rim) the drawn out laboriously performed transfiguration process by directly inspecting the underlying core dynamic of what presences as a luminous god/goddess figure. While Maha still moves in the confines of representational thinking, Anu moves into the realm of the experientially imaginal that has its own cognitive dynamics such that a – denotes the vortex character of the dimensionality that is Being in its emergent aspect of Being-in-its-beingness and as such is not a thing that can be said to have an origin or being something that is born, and -nu denotes the radiance that is (this vortex field’s) originary awareness mode that, too, is not a thing that may cease to exist. In this phase the word yoga acquired a different meaning from the preceding one. Here, yo- was said to denote the inseparability of (Being’s) dimensionality and its originary awareness mode, and -ga was said to be the non-duality of (Being’s) dimensionality and its originary awareness mode in what was coming-to-light, the lighting-up of the phenomenal.  

The third phase was called Ati(yoga) and explicated to the effect that it denotes wholeness (Tib. rdzogs- pa/rdzogs-pa-chen-po/ rdzogs-chen) in the sense that wholeness comprises what we would call the phenomenal world and the interpreted world, interpretation involving both the probabilistic character of the phenomenal and the latter’s underlying probabilistic dynamics. In this holistic or, more exactly, near- holistic approach to man-in-his-humanness, the term Ati was hermeneutically explicated in the sense that a- referred to a kind of vision untrammeled by objects in misplaced concreteness, and ti- referred to a kind of active imagination that was not impeded by objective references. In other words, the practising experiencer had to have a vision of himself in the sense of an opening and that he had to develop this vision imaginally and imaginatively without the vision’s openness becoming closed. In this context the word yoga acquired yet another meaning, different from the preceding ones, such that yo- referred to the practising experiencer’s comportment that was no longer egologically and egocentrically determined by an urge to “do something” and an equally egologically and egocentrically domineering code of affirmation and negation, and -ga referred to the core of his being-human that as the matrix of his creativity was not (and never is) some sort of thing that can be put aside or acquired.  

Such was the state of affairs concerning what was understood by yoga as a device to break loose from the stifling intellectualism of the various philosophical systems that, apart from a constant quibbling about unessentials by their adherents, were bent on constructing a world-view that left man out of the picture. It was at this time in the history of thought that Padmasambhava (8th century CE), this enigmatic sage from Urgyan (an ill-defined region extending from south of the Aral Sea into the Iranian plateau) breathed new life into what had become known as Yoga, by his own two yoga disciplines, the so-called sPyi-ti (yoga) and Yang-ti (yoga), the added word yoga being more of the nature of a concession to the prevailing Indian intellectualism. About the sPyi-ti experience he has this to say in answer to a question by the “Little Man (who is the whole’s) self-manifesting Light,” an image pointing to Padmasamhava’s acquaintance with gnostic ideas and images that were wide-spread in the region from which he hailed: spyi means to break the frame (into which) the [traditional] spiritual pursuits (have been cast), By ti the core of all (of them) is exposed; yo means pairing (the opening and openness of) vision with (unpremeditated praxis and/or) comportment (in one’s engagement in World), By ga (one’s existential) authenticity is displayed at one stroke.

This aphoristic statement that Padmasambhava elaborates in many passages of his writings in terms derived from direct experience and not arrived at by postulation, already shows that Yoga-proper has nothing to do with an escape from the world by becoming absorbed in or united with what basically was and is some figment of one’s mind, called reductionistically the Absolute (Nicolas of Cusa) or the One (Plotinus), as which Yoga only too often came to be misunderstood and whittled down into some theistic devotionalism, called Bhaktiyoga.

Padmasambhava was too astute a thinker as to leave his probing into what was meant by man’s humanity at this stage. And so he goes one step further in his exploration of man’s search for himself, his Menschwerdung, from a dynamic perspective that is constantly undermined by the treachery of language that is geared to a static world-view. This probing he called Yang-ti (yoga) and what he understood he understood by it he summed up in the following quatraine: yang denotes a vision in which the categories of rational thought have dissolved (and thereby have ensured vision’s opening and openness),   ti denotes (the vision’s exercise by the experiencer’s) participatory imagination that expands in depth and width; yo denotes the (practising experiencer’s) comportment (for which) there is no name and (hence) voids (any and all) limitations. ga denotes the climaxing (of the process), the out-of-the-ordinary creative impulse.  

It is an undeniable fact that Indian ways of thinking deeply influenced the thinking and ways of life of those who came into contact with them. This does not mean that Indian ideas were uncritically taken over, as the reductionist would like to have us believe. The fact is that the users of one language thought about what was meant by a word used by someone using another language. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Tibetan cultural framework, though conveniently or intentionally overlooked by Euro/Indocentric linguists who are even reluctant to admit that any translation is already an interpretation, made by someone who carries with him his fore-structures of thinking and languaging.  

While in the Indian cultural context the word Yoga, derived from the verbal root yuj, meaning “to yoke,” “to harness,” always implying some materiality (though not in its popular derogatory sense), the corresponding Tibetan compound rnal-‘byor has been interpreted by the Tibetans themselves as meaning the whole’s linking itself back, if not to say, linked (‘byor) to its source (rnal/rnal-ma) that is immaterial, self-originated, uncontrived, and of symbolic pregnance. It is its own supraconscious ecstatic (ek-static) intensity that somehow reverberates in the experiencing individual’s heightened consciousness, of which his ordinary consciousness is a sort of malfunctioning, a going astray into mistaken notions about its luminosity.

In modern diction this is to say that the individual’s heightened consciousness is a function of and expresses the whole’s supraconscious ecstatic intensity. As a consequence of this shift of attention from the materially “tangible” to the immaterially “spiritual” and, by implication, the whole’s “intelligence” (though not in the sense of an arbitrarily set-up IQ) as the driving force in what we call the universe, the first utterance by which we attempt to announce and communicate with its presence is the triune phoneme- morpheme-sememe Hum, being comprised of five originary (pre-egologically originating) awareness modes. Imaged as a pentamerous radial symmetry these five awareness modes form the strongest possible pattern with no planes of weakness because none of its sutures lie opposite each other.

Could this have been the reason for the process-oriented Buddhist rdzogs-chen thinkers to conceive of their experience- based teaching as the highest form of the Vajrayana, the vajra or diamond scepter being a symbol of indestructability?   The Hum that as a first utterance asserts nothing and yet initiates everything, is inextricably intertwined with what I prefer to call “in-depth appraisals” in an attempt to bring out their inner meanings that provide details pertaining to the very dynamics of psychic life.

The Tibetan term is descriptive of a deeply felt experience that starts, as it were, with some “tinkling sound” (ting-nge) that holds (‘dzin) the experiencer/listener spell-bound and to which the experiencer/listener holds (‘dzin) in order to learn more about himself and his becoming enworlded. That is to say that, in a certain sense, the experiencer already is his world that is always made up by meanings. The implication is that through these in-depth appraisals we as their experiencers are sonorous and luminous beings in a specific context that demands of us that we preserve and spread and share the light that we are with others. This challenging theme lies outside the scope of this essay.  

In conclusion a difference-in-identity of one and the same image and idea may be pointed out and provide an answer to the question of what is that which is called Yoga. In the Hinduist tradition the god Siva- Mahadeva is referred to as Lord of the Yogis (yogißvara), where ißvara, more precisely rendered, means “supreme Lord.” The corresponding Tibetan term rnal-‘byor dbang-phyug or rnal-‘byor dbang-phyug chen-po (where chen-po used as an elative has the meaning of “ultimate” and/or par excellence) is understood as meaning the following: rnal-‘byor means the originary awareness modes’ linkage with the quietness of the (anthropocosmic) supraconscious ecstatic intensity, dbang means that whatever is is at this intensity’s disposal so as to be brought up to the level of its intensity, and phyug means that this intensity and/or dynamic quietness is not at all stingy. Both the yogißvara and the rnal-‘byor dbang-phyug are said to be or likened to a dancer. In the one case the emphasis is on the concrete person/god as a dancer, in the other case the emphasis is on the whole’s or, psychologically speaking, the Self’s dancing out its potential.

SUGGESTED READING Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 1998, Hohm Press, Prescott, Arizona Herbert Guenther, The Teachings of Padmasambhava, 1996, E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands