Buddhism is rooted in a yogic understanding of the world. Zen is a yogic practice. Yogic views are at the root of East Asian civilization and these views differ significantly from the views of Western civilization. Buddhism is based on the views and practices of prebuddhist, yogic culture, especially those that support a nontheistic understanding of the world.
The fundamental assumption of yogic culture is that all mental phenomena have a physical component and that all sentient physical phenomena have a mental component. There is no human mind without a body and no alive human body without a mind. It is not that there is a body and a mind, there is a bodymind and a mindbody – otherwise there could be no relationship. Thus, all teachings and practices are both physical and mental.
The easiest way to observe something is to hold it still. The physical yoga of Zen is to establish postures through which we can observe the activity of mind: first holding the body still to observe the mind, and then holding the mind still so that it can be better observed, understood, and absorbed physically. Since the mind is slipperier than the body, Zen is practiced first of all through the body. It is simply easier to observe the body – and easier to hold the body still, than the mind.
Knowing the activity of mind, we can develop a yoga of mental postures through which to observe and study the body and the relationship of body and mind. Thus we practice through the body to the mind and through the mind to the body – and to the bodymind and mindbody. In this way the relationships of mind and body are developed.
Knowing the stillness of the body, opens us to knowing the stillness of the mind. The stillness of the body draws out the stillness of the mind. The stillness of both together, allows us to observe and study the activity of mind: perception, feeling, emotion, and thinking – and more subtle movements of mind and body than fall into these named categories. Eventually, through the stillness of the mind, we can know the mind itself, the field of mind itself free of movement or activity (even during activity).
It is a yogic act to take a cold shower in order to change our state of mind, as it is to stretch in the morning to get the sleep out of us—as a cat does. What we do is not much different from a cat, except that we study the changes differently. To observe physical change in ourselves is commonplace, but to observe thoroughly is the root of yoga.
A second assumption of yogic culture is that because everything changes, to work with change itself is the best means to effect change. Change is either integrating, disintegrating, or neutral. Yoga is to use change as an upward bridge. A yogic posture is an upward bridge. Practice is to know the bridge and the movement across it and how to stay on the bridge. Mental and physical postures are yogic when there is a conscious holding or amending of a posture so that we know a movement from a lower or less developed mental, physical, or energetic mode of mind, being, or energy to a higher or more perfecting mental, physical, or energetic mode. Yogic practice is to move consciously from one state to another: for example, from a dull to a clear state, from an energetically blocked state to an open state, or from a place from which we cannot understand to a place from which we can understand.
Yogic practice can be just how we sit, for example, when we wait for a bus or a plane, or sit in the plane or bus, or get in and out of bed. It does not have to be some special meditative or physical state. Any conscious physical state, especially when we bring breathing to it, is a yogic posture. Zen practice is to develop a yogic attitude and sensibility in what we do: in simple things, like how to pass the salt to another person. Or how you are sitting reading this just now. The posture of mind we call mindfulness is yogic because it transforms our relationship to mental and physical change. Zen monasticism is rooted in the yogic potentialities of everyday activity – as well as the practice of meditation.
A third assumption is that something holds, stays in place, in the midst of change and ‘that which holds’ can be discovered. Change is transformative through knowing what holds still. The Sanskrit word ‘dharma’ means ‘what holds’. Buddhism is Dharmism. The word ‘Buddha’ means one who is awake through being awake to what holds. Awake to all things as the Dharma! Enlightenment is to realize the unmoving, inclusive Mind that holds, absorbs, and transfigures change. The unmoving mind is also called in Zen our ‘Original Face’ or ‘Original Mind’. The Isha Upanishad in Sri Aurobindo’s translation describes it as: “One, unmoving, that is swifter than mind, that the gods reach not, for it passes ever in front; that, standing, passes beyond others as they run.”
A fourth assumption of yogic culture is that the relationship of mind and body can be cultivated. Mind and body are not separate, nor are they one. They are a relationship that can be cultivated. The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ shares with the English word ‘yoke’ a root, meaning: ‘join, juncture, union, unison’. This is not an assumption of oneness. Unison is not oneness. The practice of yoga is to cultivate both the mindbody and the bodymind and to cultivate and mature their relationship – through mental and physical postures. Buddhism especially emphasizes a yoga of mental postures.
Mental postures are mental and perceptual states that are used (distinguished, held, repeated) as means to observe, study, and transform ourselves. Physical postures are transforming positions and movements of body and breath. All yoga is a combination of mental and physical postures – emphasizing one or the other, or their relationship. Popular yoga in the West emphasizes physical postures and accompanying postures of breath and mind. Buddhist yoga emphasizes mental postures and physical postures as the condition for the development of mental postures.
A fifth assumption of yoga is that the relationship of mind and body can be best cultivated through the breath. It is through breath-practice that mind is physicalized and stabilized, and the body is mentalized and refined.
A sixth assumption is that the world in its smallest and largest aspects is interdependent and interpenetrating. It is through ourselves we know the world, and through the world we know ourselves. We and the world are the same stuff. Each affects and effects the other.
Altogether Buddhist yoga is a practice of articulating and joining: stillness and activity, the components of mind to the wholeness of mind, the components of body to the wholeness of body, and mind and body to each other. Yoga joins consciousness to the source of mind. Yoga joins and relates the minds of waking, dreaming sleep, and nondreaming deep-sleep. It joins the mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions of existence. Yoga is to develop attention until mind and body are uninterruptedly aware. Yoga is to cease the automatic activity of mind. It is to realize onepointedness of consciousness. It is to join our small mind with Big Mind. It is to bring body and mind together with our basic energy. It is to join us to the immediacy of the present. Yoga is to know everything as true and present – both delusion and realization.