Standing on the Shoulders of the Past

by Ganga White
Reprinted from Yoga Beyond Belief, Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
- Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter, circa 1676

Yoga’s growing popularity in the West raises many questions. For example, is yoga becoming “Americanized” and does that Americanization degenerate the purity or authenticity of the teachings? If yoga is being changed in the West, what right do we have to make these modifications? These concerns also raise deeper questions: What is the nature of tradition and authority? Can we truly know exactly what was taught and practiced in the past? Is there any actuality to the concept of “pure teachings” from the past?

I first realized the importance of these questions at a lecture series in the early seventies on one of the foundation texts of yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The lecturer was my great friend and mentor, Swami Venkates (1921–1982), a much-loved and respected yogi and Sanskrit scholar from India.1 He explained that very little is actually known with much certainty about Patanjali, whom many consider one of the early codifiers, if not the father, of yoga. I use Patanjali as an example because his yoga sutras are used by many teachers as the touchstone of yoga, yet the text can be interpreted in widely differing manners. My swami friend emphasized that any translation or commentary on any text always involves someone’s point of view. In fact, the translation process itself is interpretation. Even if we read or listen to a text in its original language, we must acknowledge that a large amount of personal interpretation still goes on in the way we receive it.

Language usage, meaning, and circumstance change over time. We have heard the story in Psychology 101 of the man who runs menacingly into and out of a classroom with a banana and the students are asked to write a report. Nearly everyone describes having witnessed the man doing different things; some saw the banana as a gun, a flashlight, or a telephone. What does this case of multiple interpretations of a single event imply about the possible purity of subtle teachings handed down over thousands of years? What should we learn about the limits of tradition and authority from our observation of the phenomenon of every major religion and tradition breaking down into dozens of sects and subgroups with conflicting opinions, often with each one asserting that only its members have the actual truth? Even secular laws written in contemporary times with clear intent are prone to conflicting interpretations. Carefully written laws can be stretched, interpreted, and argued in different directions. Spiritual concepts and teachings, especially from the ancient past, are far more vulnerable. Spirituality is not an exact science to be laid out in narrowly defined paths.

Tradition and Interpretation

An adept scholar can find many different, often contradictory, meanings in the ancient texts. There are many examples in every tradition where, in order to support various philosophical positions, the same texts are translated in different ways. For example, some teachers believe Patanjali was an advocate, if not one of the originators, of Hatha yoga, while others assert that Patanjali’s sutras do not support the practice of physical yoga at all. When I first started teaching, I mentioned in a class that I was taught that the sutras were the foundation of Hatha yoga. A few days later a well-known elder swami from another organization called me and angrily chastised me, asserting that Patanjali was not at all an advocate of physical yoga. He stated that Patanjali’s mention of asana and pranayama, posture and breathing, only referred to sitting quietly and stilling the breath for meditation. The swami said spending time and energy to cultivate the body would lead to attachment, body consciousness, and would detract one from the true spiritual path. This opinion is the antithesis of what most modern, Western yoga students believe.

Another example of differing opinions in the yoga sutras is the word brahmacharya. Usually translated as celibacy and abstinence, brahmacharya has also been reinterpreted by some teachers in modern times to mean responsible sexuality or spiritual sexuality aimed toward God. This shows how the same text can be assumed to have opposite meanings. There are texts that prescribe renunciation in order to attain godhood and those that say indulgence is the path. Some ancient scriptures say the doors of heaven are only open to vegetarians and others that say the opposite. I remember Swami Venkates pointing out that yogic texts and teachings are so vast and so complex that we can find traditional support and authority for almost anything we want to do. In spite of these limitations, students and teachers often spend great energy in debate to try to bolster an edict or find an exact meaning of a Sanskrit sutra in English. This quest may ever elude them. How can truth or the immensity of life and spirit be confined and captured in explanation? How can wisdom and spiritual realization be attained by mechanical processes or the practice of specific techniques? In this book you will see how these questions or problems should not cause us despair but, rather, strengthen us in following our hearts and minds.

Yoga is a cherished and valuable tradition. We can learn from and use the tradition in an approach tempered by the realization that what we call tradition is truly our own, or another’s, interpretation of what something may have been in the distant past. My swami friend Venkates suggested that we use ancient writings to stimulate our inquiry and to catalyze our direct perception and understanding of our own lives without becoming overly dependent on tradition. Relying too much on doctrines and texts for guidance in living cuts one off from direct perception and from the living awareness of insight. Yoga should be viewed as an art as well as a science. Structured, more scientific, aspects of yoga and techniques also involve unstructured, indefinable dynamics that require artistry and awareness to apply. Living in wholeness and creativity has structural components, but life is more an art than a science.

Even in asana practice there is structure as well as the artistry of application to the individuality of the person and the moment. Yoga is practiced within the tradition but must be applied according to the uniqueness of each person’s life and situation. We should not simply idealize the past and assume that teachings, purportedly unchanged from the ancient past, are perfect, superior, or appropriate for the present. It is impossible truly to know the ancient past. Giving teachers, and even teachings, the status of perfection is the beginning of authoritarianism and a recipe for abuse. When teachers say they are presenting a perfected teaching, there is the veiled implication of unquestionable authority. The teacher is elevated as the pure vessel of this perfected path. It is important to be aware of what power, stature, and position a particular viewpoint gives to the teacher expounding it. There is no single interpretation of yoga. We cannot learn to fly by following the tracks left by birds in the sand. We must find our own wings and soar.

Another great teacher, J. Krishnamurti, said, “The observer is the observed,” meaning, among other implications, that when we study something it is affected and colored by our own interpretations and projections. This influence is also a problem in setting up scientific experiments. The way the experiment is set up affects the outcome. Is light matter or energy? It turns out that it depends on how we look at it. The method of observation has a direct relationship to the way the observed object is perceived. Krishnamurti also said, “Truth has no path, and that is the beauty of truth, it is living. A dead thing has a path to it because it is static.”2 He pointed out that because we have exactness and authority in the technological world, we unconsciously carry the ideas of authority and structure over to the spiritual arena where they have no place. We are living, changing beings. We can learn from and honor tradition and we can also grow beyond it to develop the ability to listen to our own uniqueness by incorporating contemporary insights and discoveries. If we are too busy trying to relive the past, we may miss birthing the new. We do not have to limit ourselves to searching backwards through the musty corridors of the ancient past for answers to the mutating and constantly changing questions of the living present. Tradition can be valuable and useful, but we should not forego the much more relevant insights that can be found right here and now on our own yoga mats, and in the laboratory of our own lives.

Freedom from the Known

An insatiable appetite and energy for learning and a fresh inquiring mind are among life’s greatest assets. This is why the concept of beginner’s mind has been emphasized in the East. When we come to learning as a beginner, we are open, questioning, looking. When we approach a subject as an expert, we are more closed and fixed in the accumulated information we have gathered, in the past experiences we have had. When we’re an expert, or experienced, when we know something, even a yoga posture, we tend to approach it mechanically, from the past. We lose the freedom of discovery, the freedom of being fresh and new.

As our journey in the unending process of learning and growing in wisdom progresses, we must endeavor to keep a fresh context, a fresh attitude, a beginner’s mind. We must keep the content we acquire from hardening and clouding the context in which we hold information and experience. Our context, the ground of being with which we hold the information, should be kept open, flexible, and free.

There is an ancient saying: “He who knows, knows not. And he who knows not, knows.” Or: “He who knows doesn’t say. And he who says, doesn’t know.” One of the messages of this saying is that there is much more to wisdom and understanding than mere knowledge and information. Knowledge and information are limited, as there is always room for growth and change. One who thinks he knows doesn’t understand this limitation and has therefore a restricted perception. One who sees his or her own limitations, and the limits of knowledge, may actually see more clearly. The word intelligence, from inter legere, means to see between the lines. Intelligence is seeing between the hard lines of fixed information and knowledge, having the subtle, flexible perception that can see beyond the norm, beyond limited definition and formula. I once heard a very wise man discussing this concept and also what brings about a state of clear intelligence and penetrating perception. His inquiry revealed that the necessary ground for awakening intelligence is an open state of consciousness that begins with not knowing. Saying “I don’t know” is the beginning of the awakening intelligence. As this wise man was explaining this, he looked up at his questioner and said, “And you don’t know either!” pointing out that this type of seeing does not happen by looking to others to fill our void. The vulnerable state of humility, of saying “I really don’t know” opens one to discovery—but we must also be vigilant not to allow ourselves to become susceptible to those who would like to fill us with their dogmas and doctrines.

A Fresh Point of View

A famous Zen story is told about a student coming to learn from a wise teacher. During the introductions the student tries to show his worthiness to the teacher by narrating a history and explanation of his studies. The teacher begins to pour the student a cup of tea while listening to the monologue. He fills the cup, then keeps pouring until it overflows onto the table and into the student’s lap, causing him to jump up and shout at the teacher, saying, “How could you! You’re supposed to be an aware person; can’t you see my cup is full?” The teacher replies, “Yes, your cup is full. You’re so full of yourself, in fact, that there’s no room for anything new. Please come back when your cup has some space in it.” This story points out that we must have inner space and receptivity to learn. But I have never heard this popular parable looked at from the perspective of the student. Spiritual teachers are usually assumed to have authority and higher knowledge. The story can be seen to cut both ways, however, and can also point to the teacher being so full of himself and what he has to offer that he devalues the student’s knowledge and chastises him.

The idea of keeping a fresh, open context and not getting stuck in explanations, words, and descriptions resonates in the first verse of the honored, ancient text, the Tao Te Ching. Verse one of the Tao says, “The Tao that is explained is not the Tao. Now an explanation of the Tao.” With that opening paradox and contradiction, the teacher cautions that his explanation only points toward something—toward direct perception and revelation. We need to teach and educate each other, but we must be careful not to get stuck in the words we use to do so. We are cautioned in the beginning not to get stuck in the text, the words of the Tao that follow. Instead, we are urged to see beyond words, to see what the words are pointing toward.

In Sanskrit, a mahavakya refers to a great saying or formula that should be contemplated. Tat Twam Asi, meaning Thou Art That, is considered by many to be one of the greatest mahavakyas. We see in many ancient Sanskrit texts the word Tat, or That, used to point toward the sacred, the immeasurable. The English word that comes from the Sanskrit word Tat. It is interesting and informative to note that this great saying uses the word that instead of a description, a specific name, or a less abstract word. That is a word used to point. When we point our finger we often say “that.” This word was chosen in this great saying to remind us it is pointing toward something we should not overly describe and limit with words and names. Overly describing, defining, or personifying the sacred leads to division and religious conflict. We are all part of the infinite, the immeasurable, the ineffable. You are that.

The word Vedanta also points toward freedom from the limitations of knowledge. Vedanta is one of the ancient yogic philosophical systems. The word Veda means knowledge and anta means the end. Vedanta is the end of the ancient Vedas and is often said to imply the end philosophy or the highest philosophy. The double entendre and hidden message in the word Vedanta is that it also means the ending of knowledge, or freedom from the known—that which is beyond the known. A central practice in Vedanta is negation—discovering the actual by removing, or negating, what it is not. For example, if you negate or remove arrogance, humility may come into being. There is a related form of inquiry or meditation approach called Neti Neti—not this, not this. Neti Neti aims one toward the realization that the transcendent cannot be contained in an object. We can explain love but love itself remains beyond words. By removing what is not love from our lives, we create more possibility for love to come into being. The greatest things in life are not obtained simply by acquiring knowledge of them.

As a final example to point out the distinction between context and content, between the accumulation of knowledge and that which is beyond, consider a modern koan. A koan is a cosmic riddle pondered to achieve an insight that catalyzes a non-rational flash of understanding and illumination. One of the most famous such koan questions is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” In koan style inquiry, one isn’t supposed to circumvent the process by giving the answer. The process of questioning, pondering, and breaking the riddle yields a light of understanding.

A humorous, modern Zen koan addresses the paradox of contradiction encountered when trying to convey the teachings. In this story a teacher gives a student a question to solve: “How many Zen masters does it take to screw in a light bulb?” After working for weeks on the riddle, the student finally has a flash of seeing. “It takes two,” he says. “One to screw the light bulb in and one not to screw it in!” The student saw that the true meaning of Zen lies in the explanations and at the same time is beyond them. Words and descriptions can only be part of the equation, part of the actual. That which lies between the lines cannot be conveyed in words.

This book raises many questions, perhaps more than it answers. It is often more important to question our answers than to answer our questions. The process of questioning and holding a question within ourselves becomes part of the light on the path of discovery, softening and opening us to new realizations. When we trust ourselves enough to begin to question tradition and authority, we begin the process of direct discovery. It has been said that the highest learning comes in four parts: One part is learned from teachers; another part from fellow students; a third part from self-study and practice; and the final part comes mysteriously, silently, in the due course of time. Inquiry and questioning can free us from the rigid, mechanical life of strict adherence to one belief, and can move us into the joy of continuous learning.

Once, while walking in the mountains, an old Chinese teacher said to me, “If I teach you, you must stand on my shoulders.” This is a beautiful metaphor. We don’t throw away tradition: we stand on the shoulders of the past to find how we can see a bit farther.

© 2007 Ganga White, All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. From Yoga Beyond Belief, By Ganga White. White Lotus Foundation, 2500 San Marcos Pass, Santa Barbara, CA 93105