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Yoga and Buddhism

Yoga, while usually not classified as such, is a science, but in the more traditional definition of that word as special, or specialized, knowledge. Today the word science basically means “an investigation of the material or natural world,” but that more restricted notion is a historical result of the splitting of knowledge spheres, and the different ideas of validity and authority, which occurred during the modern era, a trend set in motion in the West about three hundred years during the “Age of Enlightenment.” (Which, by the way, is certainly not a blanket condemnation of a positive, progressive, and necessary cultural development in Europe and the West).

Although religion and science are often oppositional terms, in Medieval Europe theology was actually considered the queen of the sciences, since understanding God’s nature and will were of the utmost importance to Christians during the Middle Ages. Like the natural sciences today, theology is a reflection on something assumed to be an outer/other reality (i.e. God). It is contrasted with gnostic introspection or mysticism, which is an investigation of one’s own soul. The difference between theology and the modern scientific method is that the latter refines the process of study; speculative texts are not authoritative, science instead relies upon deductive reasoning based on applied mathematics, in tandem with inductive reasoning based on observation and data collection. By comparing Yoga to Gnosticism, which has the goal of attaining esoteric divine knowledge, as well as the empirical (experiential) bent of modern, rational knowledge-seeking, you can get the full meaning of Yoga as a science. Put plainly - the knowledge of Yoga is directly obtained and comes from within.

But what tools does Yoga use for this end? Intellect is one aspect of the mind that is utilized, but that alone is not sufficient. The full reflective capacity of the mind, including an observation of the intellect itself, is necessary. There is no need for sophisticated technology, in terms of building physical enhancements to aid the researchers’ senses in order to perceive external objects, as we already have the ability to sense ourselves internally, provided we settle down (although simple tools can be used for the purpose of purifying health, or to make the physical postures that precede meditation easier).* This investigation does not extend into outer space beyond the atmosphere or inside the surface structure of matter, but instead is an exploration of consciousness itself, which is both closer to us than anything else, and yet (seemingly) further than any distant star. The goal is not just to gain knowledge in order to satiate curiosity, but to isolate consciousness from manifestation, which is a simultaneous realization of its true nature - moksha/mukti (liberation) in Hinduism and nirvana (unbinding) in Buddhism.


The reason why I feel it’s necessary to qualify that Yoga is really a science is that it explains its non-sectarian appeal - it can be done by anyone without any need for a religious conversion or the acceptance of a narrow worldview, other than a belief in the possibility of self-transformation. But while you don’t have to be from a certain region of the world or a certain society to practice Yoga, it is not metaphysically neutral either, since it originated in India. To what extent cultural baggage can be jettisoned for Yoga to still remain Yoga –  in keeping with the idea that it is a science – is certainly an interesting and open question. As is the issue of what traditional yogic beliefs perhaps should be left out in the modern era, especially if it is to be useful for non-Hindus. Regardless, I have no doubt that Yoga, in its many forms, can benefit people from many faiths, as well as those who adhere to no religion. 


Some traditional proponents and practitioners of Yoga believe it developed for thousands of years from sages in the caves of the Himalayan mountains, although these ideas and techniques, some of which were incorporated into religions like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, could be found rather ubiquitously throughout the Asian subcontinent. A lot of this wisdom, in very general forms, has also existed in other great civilizations – Egypt, China, Tibet, Greece, Central America, etc. Some “New Age” thinkers believe there was some original template, some higher Atlantis civilization, that dispersed all of this wisdom and knowledge in scattered form around the globe thousands of years ago, but that sort of speculation is based on an very literal reading of myths about past golden ages without evidence to support it. The salient point here is that Yoga, while being a science, was and is rooted in what we now called “Hinduism.”

In popular parlance, Hinduism is the religion – although more properly a family of religions – native to India. It should be kept in mind that Indian religion has generally been holistic, as natural and supernatural concerns are both expressed in an interwoven tapestry of philosophy, mathematics, art, music, architecture, medicine, literature and history/myth. Yoga does incorporate theistic belief and devotion to gods and goddesses, saints and saviors, but on the whole does not require it. Indeed, in its non-dual forms, it could even be considered atheistic.

While the case for distinguishing Yoga, as an esoteric science, from Hinduism in its exoteric religious forms can be difficult to make, it can be done. Before the modernization and commercialization of Yoga, with its commingling with gymnastics and the fitness industry, traditional Yoga was mostly done by ascetics not bothered with normal domestic chores, occupational, political, or economic activities engaged in by the rest of society. The religious aspects of Hinduism, on the other hand, are integrated with the worldly lives of Indians in villages and cities, expressed in shrine rituals at homes and in temples, with fire offerings, chants, celebrations, and pilgrimages that are largely public affairs. As mentioned before, however, that doesn’t mean Yoga is completely unconnected to Hindu religious beliefs or rituals, but that it includes an element of empiricism in its confirmation of (inner) divinity.

Early Buddhism was clearly a type of Yoga. Theravada Buddhism, which many consider the form that most closely resembles the original model of the Buddha and his teachings, is a specific means of investigation. There are lay-Theravadins in Asia, but unless they have monastic or mendicant experience, they normally just follow local, worldly forms of Buddhism. In the Mahayana, or “greater vehicle,” sects of Buddhism the most monastery-oriented type is called “Chan” in China, and “Zen” in Japan (the Seon lineage in Korea). In Tibet, Buddhism was the national religion, and thus Tibet was a theocracy or religious state, but there was Buddhist Yoga done in monasteries and by yogis on the fringe of society, not unlike in India (indeed the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and certain parts of Nepal, probably resemble in a broad way what the old Tibet was like before the PROC occupation). Other forms of Buddhism in Asia are generally devotional and geared towards life in the world, which means that they can be properly referred to as religions.

There are differences both between and within Buddhism and (Hindu) Yoga regarding their paths and specific aims. The Hindu Yoga tradition, in its wider sense, includes Sankhya philosophy, Patanjali (and his central text the Yoga Sutras), Vedanta (especially the Upanishad texts), and Tantra. And with Buddhist teachings, there is also a great deal of variety. This can bewilder western converts, who may jump from sect to sect, going to, say, Tibetan teachers to learn about dream-states and afterlife bardos, Zen teachers to learn how to simplify life in an increasingly complex world, and to Theravada teachers to learn vipassana meditation and the finer points of the eightfold path.

I think advocates of any of these paths can agree that they are basically transcendental in scope in that they aim to liberate consciousness.


In Advaita (nondual) Vedanta this means overcoming the illusion of an individual self and realizing one’s true identity as Atman/Brahman (pure consciousness/being). Sankhya, like Jainism, sees pure consciousness as completely independent of the material world. Advaita sees Brahman as undifferentiated reality, beyond cause and effect, behind the multiplicity we normally perceive in manifestation, whereas dualistic Vedanta and Sankhya take almost the opposite position, seeing matter as an undifferentiated materia prima that individual souls (atman) are trapped within. Tantrics see the material world itself as an emanation of pure consciousness, which is eternally real, with matter as its condensced expression, one to be enjoyed, rather than treated as an obstacle to enlightenment. Matter is like a slower vibration, spirit a more subtle vibration, both represented by the AUM: the seed syllable and the root sound of all movement/vibration (Brahman ultimately transcends even this). 

Yoga in general posits that matter and personal mind together form a single complex separate from pure consciousness, which is uninvolved in the world; “mind” corresponds to mental activity, desire/will, and intelligence, which can have a direct effect on the world, whereas pure consciousness is simply aware but itself not active.

The general thrust of Buddhism holds that the outer world restricts us because it arouses our passion for fleeting things. In a way, Buddhism presents three factors - manifestation (which is bound/conditional), the unbound (liberated awareness), and a mind that can be oriented towards either.

Dzogchen – part of one of the major sects in Tibetan Buddhism – holds that Buddha-nature is our inherent essence and teaches followers to adjust the mind in order to recognize its own state that’s already nondual, blissful, and open. We do not really have to strive hard to change the way the mind is, only realize its true essence that is always enlightened. Mahayana sects in general hold that the Bodhisattva – “one whose essence is enlightenment” – can continue functioning in the form of a normal living being, bestowing endless benefits/merit in a world of beings who are endlessly becoming and face suffering. 

Theravada focuses on using the natural capabilities of the mind to free itself completely from manifestation, and like Raja Yoga, links suffering/disturbance to mental fluctuation: sensation, feeling, thinking, desiring, etc. Even though kindness and compassion are developed, they are not the final goal of the practice, but used as tools for enlightenment, since the desire for happiness – for self and others – keeps the mind on track in eliminating the stress of becoming (the endless wheel of life-evolution). Suffering does not only happen to “you,” even if it is a private experience. Dissatisfaction is not “yours” alone if you objectively see the unsatisfactory nature of the world itself, even though some beings are relatively happier and have more fortunate circumstances than others (due to karma). The important insight here is that the world is not structured to perfectly conform to every desire as we might imagine it should. Fully understanding this should loosen the fixation with obtaining temporary rewards in a temporary world, competing and trying to obtain power. (While acts of virtue are certainly encouraged to lessen the burdens of others, in Buddhism nirvana is superior, though there is debate about the extent to which this can be affected in others by the Bodhisattva as “Buddha-to-be.”)


Zen and Vajrayana Buddhism both emphasize mental stabilization so that consciousness can rest free in its own unbound nature. They also take into acount the insight that if happenings in space-time, the context of all production and consumption, are excluded outright from your spiritual path, then that leaves a subtle duality, a trace of self-being left that only compassion for the suffering and confused beings still becoming can overcome. Thus, some Mahayana Buddhists take the “Bodhisattva Vow” to save all beings in samsara (space-time), and this is their means of Buddhahood (total awakening). 

Theravada parallels Raja Yoga in that it’s based on a systematic eightfold path of morality, meditation, and effort. As mentioned above, it is primarily about eliminating all (dis)stress, attachment, and mental proliferations that get in the way of Awakening. For Raja Yoga this means going deeper into multiple inner layers until one reaches the ultimate core of true selfhood, isolates it, and fully abides in it. In Jnana Yoga, similarly, one mentally identifies with this center, and nothing else. The goal is Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the total cessation of mental fluctuation. The highest Samadhi in Raja Yoga does not need to be maintained by effort or sustained concentration, like the lower levels of Samadhi. This is why it’s considered an ever-abiding Self for Hindu Yogis, even though Buddhists find that term unhelpful, at best. Rather than finding a self, Buddhism points to a luminous mind that is freed once accumulated hindrances and fetters are removed.

Both Theravada and Mahayana vehicles retain the “no-self” doctrine, but with a different emphasis. The interdependence and impermanence of the world in Theravada is noted as the source of dissatisfaction, as nothing except an awakened mind is reliable for constant peace and happiness. Mahayana, however, sees the interconnected, diverse, and impermanent nature of the world as something we can celebrate, as it negates that we are a completely isolated self, and the fear of everything outside of us that results. Nirvana is realized in the midst of samsara, not apart from it.

Are the cycles of production and consumption (i.e. samsara) in the world totally worthless? Is the whole process nothing but a mistake? Theravadans, Jains, some Yogis, and Gnostics generally take that position. Tantrics, Mahayana Buddhists, Hermeticists, Sufis, and Judeo-Christian mystics generally do not. Even if the only value of the world, in which, no doubt, pleasure and pain cycles reoccur, is its ability to rouse us to search for an unsurpassed happiness and nobility of being, that is still a positive meaning we can give to the world - it does give our existence some purpose.

I like the more playful Hindu and Vajrayana mystics who hold that while creation is maya (magical/illusory), it is also leela, a show or dance to be enjoyed. To paraphrase the Yoga Vasishtha Sutra: To the ignorant, the body is a source of endless suffering, to the wise, a source of endless delight.

See also an interesting article by David Frawley Yoga and Buddhism: Similarities and Differences on his website:

* This is not meant to be a disparagement of neuroscience and technological breakthroughs that have been used to alter consciousness, such as brainwave entrainment, bio/neuro-feedback, or other "mind machines." Although these devices are generally expensive, compared to other consciousness altering techniques, they can be helpful and therapeutic.