Buddhist Yoga

Larry Johnson, O.M.D., L.Ac. ~ White Elephant Monastery

Hatha Yoga is enjoying unprecedented growth in both the U.S. and abroad. It is being used as a tool for physical fitness, physical therapy, and spiritual development. Present day Hatha derived from ancient Tantric exercises. Less well known, but equally valuable are the systems of Buddhist Yoga, which share a common lineage with ancient Hatha.

History

In India, references to Hatha Yoga predate the Buddhist period (6th century B.C.) by many centuries. It was originally developed as an integral part of the Spiritual Path, a preparation for higher meditative practices. With the birth of Buddha, and subsequent popularity of his teachings, for many, meditation alone became the main expression of Spiritual Practice. More than 500 years after the death of Buddha, two great centers of Buddhist thought were established in India. Nalanda became the center of the Hinayana (Narrow Path) Buddhism and Mingar became the center for Mahayana (Great Path) Buddhism.

Hinayana Buddhism claimed orthodoxy, while Mahayana adopted a more liberal view of the Buddha's teachings and incorporated some material not directly touched upon by the Buddha in his public sermons. Included in this material were some indigenous Tantric practices, including Hatha Yoga Exercises.

Bodhidharma

The semi-legendary figure, Bodhidharma, is said to have transmitted Zen from India to China in the early 6th century C.E. Some historians doubt his very existence, while others cite Chinese Imperial Records as evidence of his presence and teaching. Most modern Zen lineages trace their genealogical lines directly to Bodhidharma and the Shaolin Monastery where he taught.

Bodhidharma was born a prince in a small tribe of Southern India. He converted to Mayhayana Buddhism at an early age and became the student of Prajnadhara, the 27th lineage holder of the Zen Tradition.

As a prince, Bodhidharma was a member of the Warrior Class (some assert he was of the Brahman Class), thus schooled in the martial arts. As a student of Prajnadhara, he was steeped in Mayhayana Buddhist practices. Perhaps it is this meeting of the Martial and Spiritual that produced such an enduring legacy.

With encouragement from his teacher, Bodhidharma traveled to China. Surviving an arduous three-year journey, he arrived in China around 520 C.E. After meeting with the Chinese Emperor, who was not overly enthused with his teaching, Bodhidharma withdrew to Shaolin Temple.

According to oral tradition, he found the monks at Shaolin too weak to make satisfactory progress on their Spiritual Paths. Bodhidharma secluded himself in a cave for nine years, emerging with a solution to the health problems of the Shaolin Monks and powerful tools to expedite their spiritual development. These tools manifested as several sets of Yogic exercises.

Before Bodhidharma, meditation was the primary method used by Chinese Buddhists for seeking enlightenment. Yogic methods used in India had not been passed to the Chinese Monks.

Bodhidharma advocated training the physical body as well as the mind. "He knows his mind through internal wisdom and takes care of his body through external discipline." Wake-Up Sermon(1). "To fast means to regulate your body and mind so that you are not distracted or disturbed. Breakthrough Sermon(2). A healthy body made Spiritual Cultivation less difficult, and the same exercises that would strengthen the physical body could be used to prepare the mind for liberation.

Channels and Chakras


"Buddhist and Yoga practitioners utilize three energy channels and seven chakras (energy centers closely related to major nerve complexes) in their working model of major energetic/spiritual structures." "The channels that Buddhist and Yoga Practitioners use are the central channel (Sushumna) which runs up the middle of the spinal cord, the left channel (Ida) which runs on the left side of the spine and the right channel (Pingala) which runs on the right side of the spine. These channels roughly begin at the base of the spine and end at the Brow Chakra. The left side channel is considered negative (Yin) and the right side channel is considered positive (Yang). The middle channel is neutral."

"By harmonizing and invigorating the left side channel and the right side channel all three are opened and the latent Kundalini (an aspect of eternal supreme consciousness) begins to rise. Through disciplined practice the Kundalini rises up the spinal cord passing through each of the seven chakras. Spiritual development (ultimate singularity) is reached through this process of Kundalini rising, purifying, energizing, and transforming each Chakra"(3).


The Yogic Practices


Depending on the "authority," Bodhidharma taught three sets of Yogic exercises. These exercises met with stiff resistance from many in the established Buddhist community. The exercises eventually became "secret" practices, passing to only a few disciples in each generation. They are time-tested methods of awakening, strengthening, and improving the flow of vital energy in the body. This will lead to a healthy body, integrated emotional life, peaceful yet vitally alive mind, and blossoming spirit.

18 Buddha Hands Energy Work is one set of exercises that traces its origin to Bodhidharma. The original system had 18 exercises, and some lineages retain that number. The system referenced above now contains 18 chapters of from one to three exercises each. Additionally there is a standing position following each chapter to allow energy that has been mobilized during the exercise to return to balance. These additional exercises were added by later generation monks to "improve" the original system.

Like Hatha Yoga, the 18 Buddha Hands technique is directed at regulating body, breath, and mind. The purpose of these regulations is to increase the quantity and quality of energy in the body, facilitate a smooth balanced flow of energy, remove obstacles, calm the mind, and nourish the spirit.

Illnesses of both the body and mind result from insufficient energy or uneven-impeded flow of energy in the body. "Our endless sufferings are the roots of illness." Wake-Up Sermon(4). 18 Buddha Hands is an excellent remedy for these conditions.

A healthy, vitally alive body and balanced mind provide fertile soil for Spiritual Growth.

As a Yoga system, 18 Buddha Hands is unique in several ways. As one might expect from a manifestation of the "Middle Way," the system does not contain extreme postures, making it approachable by almost anyone. Physically, it can be practiced (with slight alterations) by chair-bound people yet, in its unaltered form, can offer challenges to the most extremely fit athlete. From a breath and mind regulation standpoint, it challenges all.

18 Buddha Hands utilizes both moving and standing postures. The trick is to develop stillness in movement, and movement in stillness. This is accomplished by regulating the body, breath, and mind. In the Bloodstream Sermon(5), there is a wonderful explanation of the connection between mind and motion. Excerpted from that work, "Motion is the mind's function, and its function is its motion."

"Middle Way" is an apt description of the functions of 18 Buddha Hands. On the physical level, the practitioner gently exercises the whole body, opening and balancing the acupuncture meridians. On a deeper level, 18 Buddha Hands is designed to energize and balance the two side channels, thereby opening the central channel. In esoteric traditions, this harmonizing of the left/right to open the center is said to produce the highest state of Buddhahood.

The Three Channels are said to meet in the 6th Chakra or Ajna Center. This is an area just above the center of the eyes. In olden times the area was referred to as the "square inch". The meeting of these three channels produces a bright white light. In the First Letter of The Bodhidharma Anthology we read, "For the first time I realized that within the square inch of my own mind there is nothing that does not exist. The bright pearl comprehends clearly and darkly penetrates the deep tendency of things"(6).

Within the scope of exercises to open the central channel, a great amount of attention is directed toward the middle (heart) chakra. Compassion, a fundamental tenet of Mahayana Buddhism, is associated with the Heart Chakra.

In the beginning, the practitioner's awareness is primarily focused on the body. After some period of practice, the awareness gradually shifts from purely physical sensations (our gross sense of self) to awareness of energy circulating in the body. "When your awareness circles your body and mind without stopping, this is called walking the stupa." Breakthrough Sermon(7). "BUDDHA means awareness, the awareness of body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either." Breakthrough Sermon(8).

With further practice that awareness breaks through our sense of self (physical confines) and forces the mind to directly experience "other than the old perceived self." There remains the potential to experience undifferentiated singularity. "If you are looking for the Way, the Way won't appear until your body disappears." Wake-Up Sermon(9).

Although 18 Buddha Hands was originally an integral part of Zen Buddhism, it remains a valuable tool for anyone interested in using Yoga for physical well being, mental harmony, and spiritual growth.

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NOTES

(1) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
(2 ) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
(3) 18 Buddha Hands Qigong
(4) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
(5) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
(6) The Bodhidharma Anthology
(7) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
(8) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
(9) The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma
Translated by Red Pine copyright 1987
Published by Empty Bowl, Port Townsend, Washington

The Bodhidharma Anthology
The Earliest Records of Zen
By Jeffrey L. Broughton copyright 1999
Published by University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California

18 Buddha Hands Qigong
By Larry Johnson copyright 1998
Published by White Elephant Monastery, Crestone, Colorado

Hatha Yoga Pradipika
By Bihar School of Yoga copyright 1993
Published by Sri G.K. Kejriwal Bihar India

Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teachings
By Andy Ferguson copyright
Published by Wisdom Publications 2000