Monday, February 16, 2015

Truthfulness in Yoga and Buddhism

This is part one in a series of articles examining key principles of Yoga and Buddhism.

Today many people in the West approach Yoga primarily as a physical practice for training the body, and meditation as a tool for subduing the mind's noise and cultivating peace. These are fine goals in themselves, but they really only begin to scratch the surface.

Looking at Yoga and meditation in this way is sort of like looking at the small tip of an iceberg that sits above the surface of the water and believing you’ve seen the whole iceberg. There is so much more hidden down below — in fact, you may be missing about 95% of the iceberg.

In a gym Yoga class or in a contemporary mindfulness seminar, you’re not likely to hear the teacher speak much about morality and ethics. But that’s actually where both of these paths begin.


In Buddhism (which is the source of most contemporary meditation and mindfulness techniques), meditation is actually the second of three areas of training: Shila (Ethical Conduct), Samadhi (Meditation), and Praj├▒a (Insight or Wisdom). Without the foundation of following certain ethical principles, it’s difficult or impossible to cultivate the higher states of meditation and insight that lead to spiritual freedom and awakening.

In the classical Yoga tradition, the same is true. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lay out an eightfold path called ashtanga, more commonly known as the eight limbs of Yoga (ashta = eight and anga = limb). The first limb of Patanjali’s Yoga is Yama, the ethical standards that a Yogi should follow. The physical asana practice is the third limb, and its intention is not only to care for the body but to cultivate the discipline and focus necessary to approach the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th limbs of Yoga, all of which are concerned with meditation and insight.

To put it simply, without ethics your life is a mess — and you are haunted by the mess. You harm yourself and others with your thoughts, words and actions, and the consequences of this behavior torment your mind and body. The apple is rotten from the inside, and no amount of polishing its surface with asana practice or meditation is going to make it edible. The ethical precepts in Buddhism and Yoga restore the apple to a wholesome state, from the inside out.

The ethical principles from each tradition are largely the same. I’ll focus here on just one of them: Truthfulness.



Truthfulness (not lying, not deceiving) is one of the most basic ethical principles in Yoga and Buddhism. Looking around us, it’s not hard to see the harmful effects of lying and deceit played out at the personal, societal, national and global levels. Sometimes it’s more challenging to look within ourselves and become aware of the often-subtle ways in which we deceive ourselves and others: the little white lies, the lies of omission, the attempts to manipulate perceptions for financial or personal gain.

The Mahanirvana Tantra says:

“There is no virtue greater than truthfulness; there is no sin greater than falsehood. Therefore, a mortal being should take refuge in truthfulness with his whole being. Worship without truthfulness is worthless. Mantra recitation without truthfulness is worthless. Asceticism without truthfulness is likewise worthless. It’s like planting seed in salty earth. The essence of truthfulness is the supreme absolute. Truthfulness is the most excellent asceticism. All actions must be rooted in truth; nothing is superior to truth.”

When we don’t practice truthfulness, our conscience lets us know about it. We have a built-in awareness that knows when we are being deceitful in order to get away with something. We might be very talented at ignoring and suppressing the still, small voice of our conscience, but we can never eradicate it. It stalks us in our dreams and gives us nightmares, if that’s the only place it can get our attention. And if it can’t get through to us in this lifetime, the Buddhist and Yogic traditions alike assure us that it will catch up with us in the next go-around.

When we practice truthfulness, on the other hand, our minds are lighter. We aren’t plagued by guilt or worried about being caught in our own web of lies. Our minds can more easily rest in meditative states because we are more naturally at peace with ourselves. And when we are at peace with ourselves, it is reflected not just in the mind but also in the body.

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