I am quite familiar with the story about Buddha’s enlightenment under that fateful banyan tree in Bodh Gaya.
But until recently, I was much less familiar with his wandering ways before he became Sakyamuni Buddha. Here’s a brief history about yoga in context of the life and time of Buddhism’s founder.
But first a few familiar terms, followed, perhaps, by a few unfamiliar interpretations, to give this article some context:
Tantra: a spiritual path and practice; in its early form also called Shaivism; the yogic practices developed by the indigenous non-Aryans of India related to mantra meditation, kundalini, pranayama, asanas dharana, dhyan, etc,; the various schools and movements of Tantra, such as Pashupatha, Kaula, Shakta, Kashmiri, Vaishnav, Kapalika, Ajivika, Aghora, etc.
Yoga: a spiritual path and practice originally based on Tantra which blended with the Vedic tradition and this Tantric/Vedic synthesis produced the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Samkhya, Vedanta, the Yoga Sutras, Today, we often use the term yoga as a general umbrella-term to refer to all of these schools, paths, and philosophies.
Veda: a sacred tradition based on religious rituals brought to India by the Aryans; there are four Vedic scriptures and Indian civilization is largely a blend of the Tantric and Vedic traditions
Religion versus Dharma
If we define religion as a belief system that people faithfully and often blindly follow, then spiritual teachers, be they Buddhist, Hindu, or Sufi Muslim, are not religious. They are awakened masters of the soul who embody their awakened state through practice; by walking the talk. Enlightenment comes first, then the philosophical interpretations, then the doctrines and dogmas, then the religion, then the faithful—and lastly the fanatics with their heavens and their hells.
These exceedingly rare mystics, yogis, and shamans of the soul, they follow the path of human nature, the path of dharma. This path is not just one straight path for all, but a curvy, sundry, many-legged walk up the cloudy but ultimately sunny vista of enlightenment.
These self-inspired teachers do not ask us to simply believe in the dharma. They do not ask us to create a religion. They do not sit in front of fires, or stand in front of alters performing the rites for us. They ask us to practice the dharma ourselves and then to follow the inner challenges of its awe-inspiring revelations. Buddha was such a spiritual mountain climber. Buddha was such a yogi.
Buddha and the yogi mystics
“The pre-Aryan civilization, which in proto-historical times had extended its influence as far as Western Europe, had not been annihilated by the invaders and had to a great extent continued to exist parallel to Vedism. The ancient concepts of Shaivism, Tantrism, Shaktism, and Yoga, together with the ancient Samkhya philosophy, lay beneath the surface and continued to reappear at every level and in every period.” ~ Alain Danielou, Shiva and the Primordial Tradition
Danielou is here claiming something uncommonly heard in Western yoga circles: that yoga and Tantra existed independent of the Vedic tradition and then blended into it, just like the colors of Mayan shamanism has blended with Catholicism, but even stronger, much stronger.
If we use the same analogy as above between religion and mysticism, then Aryan Vedism represent religion and Tantric Yoga represent mysticism and yogic dharma as practice. Two archetypes, two icons, are revealed: the priest and the yogi. Or these: the interpreter and the mystic, the believer and the practitioner.
For the sake of historical and psychological simplicity—for in reality the priest and yogi, at least in India, are often various psychological and cultural aspects of the same person—we will assume that the priest is a Vedic Brahmin and the yogi a Shaiva Tantric.
So, this is what mystic and historian Alain Danielou is driving at: Indian sacred tradition is largely made up of these two archetypes, just like the Christian tradition is made up of priests and mystics, religious firebrand dogmatists like Jerry Falwell and spiritual ecstatics like St. Theresa. And sometimes these archetypes emerge as a Tex-Mex of attributes and behaviors, as in the case of some priests and believers.
Danielou is also reminding us that yoga is much older than Patanjali’ sYoga Sutras (200 BC), that it did not originate in the Vedas as most scholars and contemporary yogis believe, and that yoga is inherently not a religion or belief but a set of practices and a philosophy to live by.
Yoga, just like Christian mysticism, has been heretical wisdom, percolating from the forest ashrams, the mountain caves, an untamed awareness trickling up and into the mainstream Vedic society from the poor, even the outcasts, the Dravidyan shudras, for thousands of years. The young Buddha was often seen wandering among these yogi outcasts.
Buddha, Tantra and the Vedic priesthood
“Every educated Hindu have looked upon Tantra as running parallel and in close interaction with (rather than merely in opposition to) the Vedic heritage. They distinguish between Vedic and Tantric—vaidika and tantrika—currents of Hindu spirituality.” ~ Georg Feuerstein, Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy
“After the Vedic Aryans came into India, two types of practice used to take place side by side: one the one side, the sacrificial fires of the rishis…and on the other side, the non-Aryans’ Tantra sadhana, the practice of self-control and attainment of divine knowledge.” ~ Shrii Anandamurti, Tantra and Indo-Aryan Civilization
These two sacred rivers of India stretch far back into historical antiquity and have often had a rocky relationship, much more rocky than Feuerstein and the Western yoga community acknowledges.
Before the Buddha became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, he was a yogi, a mystic wanderer, a Shaiva Tantric. Moreover, together with his friend Mahavira, later recognized as the founder of Jainism, he spoke out against the excesses of the Vedic priesthood: the animal sacrifices, the caste system, the opulence of the temples. And these protests makes sense, given that the Buddha had spent his young adulthood among the heretics of Vedic society–the yogi tantrics.
In other words, the Buddha, after leaving behind his life as a prince, became a yogi quite familiar with the various practices of Tantra: mantra meditation, kundalini awakening, asana practice, fasting, the smearing of the body with ashes, the begging of food from a human skull.
“Owing to a historical aberration, there has been a tendency to present [the] re-appearances [of Tantra and Yoga] as new developments, except when they have been envisaged solely in relation to Vedic civilization.” ~ Alain Danielou, Shiva and the Primordial Tradition
Just like the Christian priesthood eventually closed the book on Jesus’ revolutionary revelations and encased them as the final “word of God” in the Bible, so has the Indian Brahmin priesthood claimed the often heretical wisdom of yoga as their own.
How old is yoga? Very old!
This is particularly so in the case of Tantra, which according to Yoga Journal and most Western scholars is no more than 1500 years old, because that’s when the Tantric texts were written down.
That’s like claiming Shamanism to be no older than the first book on shamanism.
“Tantra is widely said to be based on the Vedas. That is, however, very disputable for there is much evidence to suggest that the root of Tantra predates the writing of the Vedas…” ~ Swami Satyananda Saraswati
“Yoga, which is the paramount factor in spiritual practices, is itself based on Tantra.” ~ Shrii Anandamurti
Buddha came of age as a wandering monk with this kind of insight. He, like so many of his contemporaries did not distinguish between Yoga and Tantra. And many years after his death, the Buddhist and Hindu Tantras would cultivate similar meditation practices, and utter many of the same philosophical ideas.
According to Danileou, as an oral tradition Tantra had been alive and well since at least 6000 BC as an outgrowth of shamanism. This oral history and genealogy was passed down through antiquity and eventually written down in the various Puranas.
The philosophy was eventually written down in the many Tantras and the Agamas, and some of the practices in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika amd the Gerandha Samhita.
Tantra was certainly alive and well a thousand years earlier than the Tantric texts from the Middle Ages, during the time of Buddha (ca 500 BC). Indeed, the Buddha was not just a contemporary of Tantra, he practiced it, he was a yogi.
But, what else is new? History has been written for and about those in power—the priests, politicians, kings, and merchants—for as long as there have been minstrels, bards and scribes with the ability to tell stories and write them down on sheets of bark, hide, and banana leaves. And that’s why the history of yoga has also, in large part, been written by those in power: the Vedic Brahmins. And today it is written by those Western scholars who emulate their point of view.
Buddha and some of his yogi teachers
After Buddha, or Gautama, renounced his life as a prince, he joined various groups of wandering yogis and Shaiva tantrics. One of these yogis was named Makkhali Gosala.
“The figure of Gosala is very important, for in presenting a different version of the old culture, until then ignored and rejected by [Vedic] Aryan society as the superstitions of despicable slaves, he attracted those, such as Mahavira and Gautama, who were dissatisfied with Vedic rigidity, and he aroused a sudden interest in the antique pre-Aryan philosophy [Shaiva Tantra] within the good society of the period. Mahavira traveled with Gosala for six years, and Gautama joined them for three or four years. The commentary on the Avashyaka Sutra by Jina Dasa, which gives a rather complete picture of the life of Mahavira, contains the story of his travels in the company of Gosala. Gosala finally argued with his two disciples over points of doctrine, and they separated.” ~ Alain Danielou, The Play of the Gods
Their argument: is our life predestined or do we have free will? Gosala argued that human beings were under the complete control of a cosmic principle while the two young rebels, Gautama and Mahavira, argued that, through yoga, one was no longer under the spell of determinism. One could, through yogic practice and ethical behavior, get one leg up on one’s karma—and be free!
Gautama was not a slacker monk. He was not just hanging out in the shade of the ashram walls smoking hashish and waiting for another bowl of rice and dal. He had intense spiritual ambitions.
He knew how to fast and sit in lotus position for days on end without losing his concentration, without moving his body. This we learn through his encounter with two other yogic teachers, namely Arada Kalapa of Magadha and Rudraka Ramaputra of Vaishali.
Sage Kalapa taught the coming Buddha a yogic practice enabling him to finally enter a state of no-thing-ness (akimcanya-ayatana). Indeed, the young Buddha-in-the-making entered these trance states with ease and Kalapa soon asked him to share the leadership with him in his order of yogis. But the young, former prince declined his offer.
He then joined the order of sage Rudraka Ramaputra, whose teachings held within its nondual vision the prediction of new heights of spiritual evolution. Through these new practices the young spiritual athlete became intimately familiar with a state of “neither consciousness nor unconsciousness” (naiva-samjna-asmajna-ayatana).
Still, the fierce yogi’s thirst for enlightenment was not quenched. He was not convinced he had attained the spiritual plateau of permanent awakening. He picked up his begging bowl and moved onwards.
Buddha, Tantra and enlightenment
“When Siddhartha was moving about in Bihar in search of Truth, he met Sanjaya, a great Tantrist near present Gaya, and was initiated by him into Tantra Sadhana.” ~ Lalan Prasad Sing, Tantra: Its Mystic and Scientific Origins
Little is known about the exact practice Buddha embarked upon, but it is commonly accepted that he ended up meditating under a banyan (fig) tree.
“According to the accepted Tantric belief and usage, the banyan-tree is one of the five trees recognized as Kula-trees. It is therefore not without any reason that Siddhartha performed his Sadhana [spiritual practice] under the famous banyan-tree near Gaya and attained spiritual enlightenment. (Buddhahood).” ~ Lalan Prasad Singh
When I lived in an ashram in Nepal, I was initiated into the practice of Dhyan Sadhana of Tantra, which is also the 7th limb of the Asthanga Yoga of Patanjali. The practice–which culminates after performing the other 3 meditation lessons of this well known eight-limbed path, namely pratyahara, pranayama, and dharana—involves using an internal image as a point of concentration and gateway to the nondual realm.
As Tantra embraces opposites, one employs the paradoxical practice of form to reach the formless. The practice of thing-ness to reach no-thing-ness. One also uses longing to reach a state of no-longing.
Some years later, I picked up a copy of Andrew Harvey’s excellent book Journey to Ladakh in which he describes in detail a Buddhist Tantric practice of this technique which is stunningly similar; down to a tee similar.
Which is to say, these practices are nearly as old as the Himalayan hills; they are generally not taught by Vedic priests (unless in those rare circumstances they have taken Tantric initiation and serve the dual role of yogi-priest). They are taught by yogis, often in secret. They are also not generally described in books or sutras, not even in the Yoga Sutras.
Moreover, with some variation, they are also taught in Buddhist Tantric circles. Indeed the Buddha himself must have practiced and taught similar practices to his disciples.
“Some scholars think that Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school [of Buddhism], is the real exponent of Buddhist esotericism. [In] our view it is the Buddha himself who is the founder of Tantrism in Buddhism.” –Lalan Prasad Sing
In other words, when looking at a Buddha statue you not only get a glimpse of the form of the formless shine of enlightenment, you also get a glimpse of the inner Yoga, the inner Tantra of enlightenment. For Buddha, no doubt, was a yogi both before and after he became the Buddha.
Just take a look at how beautifully he positions his lotus feet, holds his mudra hands, closes his eyes….a Mahayogi, a Great Yogi, no doubt.
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