Seeing Eye to Eye: Comparing Yoga + Buddhist Traditions

When it comes to practicing mindfulness, the yoga and Buddhist traditions have much in common.

Not long ago, I was flying from Boston to San Francisco late at night. As the plane roared down the runway, the young woman sitting next to me appeared to be meditating. Given the restraints of air travel, she had adopted a remarkably good posture–eyes closed, sitting with her hands palms-up on her thighs. She sat that way for a good 30 minutes.

Later, as the flight attendant began to serve snacks, my seatmate introduced herself as Beverly. She had just been on a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, a well-known New England center for vipassana meditation. I told her that I was a yoga teacher and I had done many different kinds of meditation, including vipassana. We dived into a long conversation about yoga and meditation, and after a while she stopped for a moment, clearly thinking hard about something. “Can I ask you a question?” she asked, furrowing her brow. “If you teach yoga, how can you be doing vipassana without getting confused? I thought yogis taught samadhi practice and Buddhists taught the insight practices.”

Indeed, Beverly was voicing an interesting and persistent misunderstanding that the yoga meditation traditions teach only what she referred to as samadhi–by this she meant concentration practices–and that the Buddhist traditions primarily stress insight, or vipassana, practice. This misperception is often flavored with the view that samadhi is really about “blissing out,” while insight is about the more serious business of seeing clearly. I have noticed that this confusion has become a stumbling block–especially for the many yoga students who are learning the deeper practices of meditation almost exclusively from Buddhist teachers.

The word samadhi has different meanings in the yoga and Buddhist lexicons. To Buddhists, it usually refers to a whole spectrum of concentrated mind states. (The Buddha said, “I teach only sila, samadhi, and panna“–ethical practice, concentration, and insight.) To yogis, on the other hand, samadhi frequently refers to advanced stages of practice–stages that may, in fact, include much of what the Buddha referred to as both samadhi and panna. In classic yoga, of course, samadhi is the eighth and final limb of the eight-limbed (ashtanga) path.

This confusion has led to the misperception that the classic meditation traditions in yoga–those based on Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra–rely exclusively on concentration techniques for enlightenment. This is not so. There are many views about the role of meditation–not only between practitioners of Buddhism and yoga, but also within each of those wide-ranging traditions. But my seatmate and I were in luck: She practiced a form derived from Theravadan Buddhism (based on the Pali Canon), and I practiced a form derived from classic yoga. As it turns out, both are part of the same classic meditation tradition; each relies on sophisticated methods of training in both concentration and insight.

It All Starts with Concentration

In each of these classic paths, practice begins with the cultivation of the mind’s natural capacity for concentration. This capacity reveals itself all the time in daily life. For example, while on a recent vacation in Florida, I was lying on a beach reading a book. My body and mind were already relaxed–an important precondition for attentional training. I lifted my eyes for a moment, and they drifted to a tiny red granite rock that was just in front of my towel. I was fascinated by its color and shape. My attention sank into the rock and examined it. The rock held my attention for a couple of delightful minutes of spontaneous samadhi.

Several curious things happen when one’s attention sinks into something in this fashion: The stream of thoughts in the mind narrows; external, distracting sensory input is tuned out (I was no longer aware of the sun burning my skin); brain waves lengthen; feelings of oneness with the object arise; a peaceful and calm mind state emerges. These experiences happen to us more frequently than we think. At the symphony, the mind gets locked onto a beautiful violin line in a Bach concerto. At dinner, we find a morsel of food particularly remarkable. Both of these experiences involve a natural emergence of one-pointed attention.

It turns out that this natural capacity for attention can be highly trained. The mind can learn to aim at an object, stay on it, penetrate it, and know it. The object can be either internal, like the breath or a body sensation, or external, such as an icon or a candle. As concentration develops on the object, the mind becomes still and absorbed in the object.

The side effects of this highly concentrated state are quite delightful and can include equanimity, contentment, and–sometimes–rapture and bliss. These concentration experiences are, in fact, sometimes even referred to as “the experiences of delight.” In Buddhism, they are highly cultivated in a series of concentration stages called the jhanas (absorptions). In the classic yoga tradition, a similar, but not identical, series of stages is identified in the development of the final three limbs of the path–dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi.

As our concentration matures through these stages, we are trained to sustain attention on the object without lapses for longer periods of time. Our uninterrupted concentration now becomes powerful–like a laser beam–and we see only the “bare” qualities of the object, beyond categorization and discriminatory thinking.

At these deepest levels of the training, another remarkable result emerges: The mind becomes secluded from the pull of distressing emotions and is temporarily free of craving, clinging, and aversion. In Western psychological terms, we might say the mind is completely secluded from conflict. As a result, concentration techniques provide a much-needed haven for the mind.

Insight: Exploring the Steady Mind

Through the practice of concentration, the mind becomes a highly attuned instrument. And as the mind matures in steadiness, something extraordinary begins to happen: This concentrated mind develops the capacity to explore itself. It becomes capable of systematically examining the ways in which all phenomena–thoughts, feelings, and sensations–arise and pass away into the stream of consciousness. Mental phenomena previously too fleeting to be noticed begin to fall within perceptual range. In effect, the mind may begin to take itself as its own object.

The rudiments of this subtle investigative mind are perhaps not so common in everyday life as the rudiments of a concentrated one. Nonetheless, anyone who has entered a contemplative mode may have experienced them. Sitting in church, at prayer, we are suddenly aware of the ways in which other thoughts intrude. Or, resting quietly under a tree, we watch as a wave of difficult feeling moves through the stream of consciousness like a dark storm cloud and then drifts away.

It turns out that this investigative capacity of the mind can be systematically developed and trained. And this training, as you might imagine, depends on an altogether different attention strategy: Rather than narrowing the stream of attention, we learn to methodically widen it and observe the endless fluctuation of thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations.

Through insight practices, the meditator learns to attend to as many mental and physical events as possible exactly as they arise, moment to moment. The meditator sees precisely how the world of ordinary experience and the Self are actually constructed. (“I have seen the builder of the house,” said the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment.)

This type of training is known as insight training, and though it has been well developed in the Buddhist meditation traditions in America, it has not been quite understood in the yoga traditions as they’ve been transmitted to us. This explains our misperception–and Beverly’s–that insight practice does not exist in the yoga tradition.

The question of why the insight series of Patanjali‘s program remains neglected in actual practice–at least in America–is a fascinating subject for another time. (Yet it’s undeniable that his program does depend on the development of insight—as the conclusions of Books Three and Four of his Yoga Sutra make clear.)

Once Patanjali lays out the training in concentration–dharana, dhyana, and samadhi–he instructs the practitioner to use the resultant attention skills to explore all phenomena in the created world, including the mind itself. The yogi learns to use the “perfect discipline” (samyama) of concentrated mind to explore the entire field of mind and matter. Indeed, much of the third book of the Yoga Sutra, which is widely believed to be just about the attainment of supernormal powers, actually contains Patanjali‘s instructions for a systematic exploration of the field of experience.

Moments of insight can be more than a little terrifying. Some Buddhist traditions will even refer to these as “the experiences of terror” because, as we begin examining experience closely, we discover that the world is not at all as it appears to be. Insight practices in both traditions effectively deconstruct our ordinary way of seeing ourselves and the world. Learning to bear this moment-to-moment reality can be fragmenting and can cause considerable anxiety. As a result, we need a regular return to concentration and calm. In order for our practice to proceed successfully, we must develop a systematic interplay between the experiences of delight and the experiences of terror.

Reaching a Clearer View of Reality

At the conclusion of these meditation paths, meditators in both traditions see thousands of discrete events arising and passing away in each millisecond. Patanjali describes the most momentary vision of phenomena that he believes humanly possible–dharma megha samadhi, in which they are seen as a rainstorm in which each separate raindrop is perceived.

Meditators in both traditions see how all phenomena (including the Self) simply arise and pass away due to causes and conditions. Buddhists discover the so-called three marks of existence, which consist of suffering (duhkha), no self (anatman), and impermanence (anicca). Yogis discover the similar “four erroneous beliefs”: the belief in the permanence of objects, the belief in the ultimate reality of the body, the belief that our state of suffering is really happiness, and the belief that our bodies, minds, and feelings comprise who and what we really are.

Some aspects of the views at the end of the paths are not identical. Yogis discover that behind this “shower” of phenomena lies an abiding pure awareness (purusha)–unborn and unchanging–while Buddhist meditators see pure discontinuity and momentariness, an emptiness that gives rise to form.

Nonetheless, it does seem apparent to me that what is truly freeing in both traditions is much more similar than either tradition seems to realize. In the final stages, meditators in both traditions see that the world of ordinary experience and the Self are actually constructions, compounds in nature rather than “real things” in and of themselves.

The great classic meditation traditions are interested in two outcomes: helping the practitioner end suffering and helping her see reality more clearly. Both traditions discovered that these dual goals are intimately connected, and that only the strategy of methodically training both concentration and insight can accomplish these astonishing end states. It is for this reason that both traditions are valued as authentic and complete paths toward liberation.

Stephen Cope is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and senior scholar in residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health located n Lenox, Massachusetts. He is the author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (Bantam, 1999) and The Complete Path of Yoga: A Seeker’s Companion to the Yogasutra (Bantam, available in 2004).