Yoga Sutra - Samādhi Pada 1.32
Practice [of fixing the mind] on one object [should be performed] in order to eliminate these disturbances.
Vyāsa states that the disturbances mentioned in sūtra I.30 are to be counteracted by the practice and dispassion mentioned in sūtra I.12—in fact, he considers this sūtra to conclude Patañjali’s discussion on practice. Although in consonance with I.39, the one object, eka-tattva, mentioned in this sūtra as the support for the mind can be any object, the commentators take it to be Īśvara, thereby also concluding this section of the text relating to Īśvara. This seems the correct reading, given that this sūtra is a continuation of the theme stemming from I.29, which states that from the repetition of Īśvara’s sound designation oṁ comes freedom from these very obstacles. In other words, by fixing the mind on oṁ in a devotional mood, the obstacles to yoga are removed and the goal of the entire system is attained.
Vyāsa then launches into a lengthy engagement with Buddhist notions of the mind, which is summarized here for those interested in the history of Indic philosophical dialectic and debate on this subject. (Those primarily interested in yogic practice might choose to skim the following section and proceed to the next sūtra.) Unlike other schools of thought, such as the Vedānta tradition, which dedicates one of its four chapters to refuting other philosophical views, the Pātañjalian Yoga commentarial tradition, with a few exceptions such as Śaṅkara and Vijñānabhikṣu (themselves Vedāntins), does not concern itself excessively with this type of disputation, since its main claim to truth is based on experiences rather than logical debate (I.6). However, as we find here, the commentators on occasion (and Patañjali himself later in the fourth chapter) do make a point of discussing certain Buddhist notions of mind, since these directly oppose the essential fundamentals of Yogic metaphysics on which the practice of the entire system is based. Indeed, the two systems hold diametrically opposing understandings on certain basic premises pertaining to mind and consciousness. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Buddhism was a significant presence on the Indian subcontinent, so it would be expected, in accordance with normative commentarial conventions, for the metaphysicians of the Sāṅkhya Yoga tradition to establish their perspectives with reference to the primary philosophical alternatives of the day, especially where these encroached on or undermined their own views.
The standard technique for refuting rival views is for a commentator to introduce the view of the opposing school, called the pūrvapakṣa, critique it, and then establish the perspective of his own school, the siddhānta. Naturally, the representation of the pūrvapakṣa, the opponent’s view, was sometimes selective or partial, but the ensuing discussion will provide a flavor of the rich debate and keen dialectical interaction between schools that forced theologians to fine-tune their perspectives and kept the Indic intellectual traditions alive and fertile throughout the centuries. While the present work concerns itself with the commentaries of the Yoga tradition on the sūtras, and thus will be considering their side of the dialectic and debate with Buddhism here and in several later sūtras, it seems fair to point out that Buddhist scholastics participated vigorously in debates with the orthodox schools, particularly the Nyāya school, over the centuries.209
The feature of Buddhism targeted here by Vyāsa is fairly generic and normative, not sect-specific, although the later commentators identify the Vaibhāṣika school of Buddhism as the pūrvapakṣa. Vyāsa himself does not refer to Buddhism by name but uses one of several terms for Buddhist doctrine common in orthodox Hindu philosophical discourse: kṣaṇikavāda, the view that all reality is momentary. What is intended by this, according to all mainstream Buddhist positions, is that nothing in reality has inherent, eternal, independent, and essential existence, that is, nothing has its own durable essence that can be separated from its connection and interdependence with other entities.
Naturally, such a metaphysics is diametrically opposed to the Sāṅkhya Yoga position that both puruṣa and prakṛti are precisely inherent, eternal, independent, and essential durable entities that, at least in the case of puruṣa, do not need to be interconnected or interdependent. Indeed, the extraction and isolation of the eternal and independent puruṣa from its codependence on all other reality is precisely the goal of the entire system. Another term for the Buddhists in orthodox commentaries is thus anātmavāda, the position that does not accept an eternal, separable, conscious entity called ātman (puruṣa). As noted above, while the Yoga commentaries do not occupy themselves as much as some of their contemporary schools with disputation on these issues (since, after all, this would counter the experiential focus of Yoga), the Nyāya school debated the Buddhists on the issue of ātman for centuries, as did the Mīmāṁsā and Vedānta schools.
The need for raising the Buddhist position at this point arises for Vyāsa because Patañjali’s entire system focuses on concentrating the mind on one object, as the present sūtra specifically indicates, eliminating all distractions to this end. The implication of the Buddhist view, says Vyāsa, is that the mind can never be distracted in the first place—it can only ever be focused on one object. This is because Buddhists do not accept a constant substratum of mind—a fixed, durable entity with its own distinct essential nature. Cognition, for them, consists of a collection or flow of momentary perceptions or ideas strung together, each one unique and distinct from its predecessor and successor cognitions and ideas. This mental flow rests on a point, or object, for a moment, then exhausts itself, followed in the next moment by another distinct mental idea that fixes fleetingly on the object, and so on. Since these point moments succeed each other sequentially, they give a semblance of stability, a flow of ideas, like a movie that appears to be a flow of events but is in actuality a rapid sequence of completely distinct individual images. With the partial exception of the Idealist school of Vijñānavāda Buddhism, in most schools of Buddhist psychology there is a series of point moments, each of which exists as both the momentary effect of the previous instant and simultaneously the momentary cause of the succeeding instant, in a flow of cognitive instances, but there is no durable underlying entity called mind underpinning this process as the Yoga school holds. Since the Buddhist view threatens to undermine Patañjali’s entire system, Vyāsa feels bound to challenge it by offering a number of arguments.
If each point moment of this process is fully fixed on its object for the instant of its existence, says Vyāsa, Patañjali’s reference to a distracted mind, or the practice of concentration by fixing the mind on one object, should be meaningless for Buddhists. If there is no enduring underlying substratum of mind in the first place that can concentrate on an object one minute but be distracted the next, there can be no such thing as a distracted mind: Distraction requires a permanent entity that can waver from one thing to another. In Buddhism there is no permanent mind, simply individual cognitions that arise and fade away instantaneously but are fully fixed for
“heir momentary life span on their objects. These cognitions do not take place within a fixed substratum called citta as yogīs hold (except, as noted, in the partial case of Vijñānavāda). Thought is just a flow of distinct moments in the Buddhist system, and the individual point moments of this flow, the series of thoughts, are each fully and intrinsically concentrated by nature; they do not survive long enough to be distracted. In the absence of a substratum, an individual thought does not last long enough to think of one thing and then get distracted and think of another, so what does it mean to speak of a distracted mind that needs to be concentrated? In short, if each point moment of the mental flow is fully concentrated on its object during the brief instant it occurs, then why do the Buddhists promote concentration? posit the commentators. The very notion of concentration, from the perspective of the Yoga school, presupposes an enduring entity that can either concentrate or be distracted, not a flow of cognitive moments that exhaust themselves as soon as they arise as Buddhism holds.
The Buddhist, Vyāsa supposes, will respond that there is a flow of identical cognitions, each one succeeding the other, and thus the Buddhist concept of concentration should be understood as keeping this mental flow of point moments sequencing on the same thought, that is, prolonging the flow of momentary cognitions centered on one object. Distraction therefore entails the interrupting of this flow. Vācaspati Miśra and Vijñānabhikṣu step in here. If the Buddhist notion of concentration entails keeping the flow of mental moments fixed on the same object, then what is it that connects this flow of momentary cognitive moments together? Since each thought lasts only an instant, it has no past and future. This means that there can be no overlap between thoughts. What, then, connects each moment of thought to the previous and succeeding moments such that a flow of concentrated thought can occur? Vyāsa’s thrust is to establish that there must be something that endures, underpins, and connects the individual cognitions and images—something like the citta animated by the consciousness of the puruṣa as posited by the Yoga school, that is, a nonmomentary but permanent mind that can think of one thing or focus on one image one minute and then get distracted and think of another thing the next. The momentary slides or stills of a movie require the reel to connect them. Only if the mind is a permanent entity that endures from one moment to the next does the notion of a distracted mind, and hence the viability of a practice of concentration to focus it, become meaningful.
A Buddhist response to this, as Śaṅkara notes, is that before extinguishing itself, a thought leaves a trace or imprint of itself on its succeeding thought, which does the same for the thought succeeding it, and so on, in a sequence of cause and effect, and thus a flow of thought manifests (like a line of red ants, he says). The problem here, says Śaṅkara, is that these thoughts are arising and perishing at different times: When one thought arises in the present as effect, its predecessor, causal thought, has already expired in the past—they are not overlapping. A thought would need to overlap with the previous thought in order to receive such an imprint or influence, and then overlap with the following thought to leave its trace on that, which, in turn, would have to undergo the same process … and this overlapping of the individual thoughts might then provide the continuity of thought that we all experience. But such a process would involve at least two moments or instances for each thought: a moment of overlap with the previous thought and a moment of overlap with the subsequent thought (with perhaps an intervening moment in its own right), which conflicts with the Buddhist premise of single momentariness. How does a momentary object as cause connect or come into contact with another momentary object as effect occurring in the next moment? Since it itself endures only one moment, there is no room for overlap. In the absence of a substratum such as mind, as the Yoga school posits, what is it that binds them together into a continuum?
A continuation of this argument, alluded to by Śaṅkara, in his commentary here and elsewhere,216 is that without a binding receptacle or agent like the citta, and if thoughts cannot last long enough to overlap with and leave their imprint on each other, why shouldn’t the thought of one moment be completely different from the thought of another? Why shouldn’t the thought of an apple, say, arise one instant, followed by the random thought of an orange in the next instant, and then perhaps a cow, followed in turn by the thought of a clay pot for an instant, or anything else in existence, in an eternal whirlpool of incoherent, unconnected momentary images? If all thoughts cannot overlap as cause and effect for the reasons noted above, and last only an atemporal instant, what serves as the cohesive mental factor such that a person can retain sanity and functionality by thinking of the same object for a prolonged period of time, focusing on the same apple from one moment to the next such that one can eat it and a coherent picture of reality can be perpetuated?
“The next two objections raised by Vyāsa against the Buddhist position have a well-known history in the orthodox Hindu schools and concern memory and the transferral of karma.217 If each thought comes into being on its own, unconnected with the substratum of a mind, then how would the thought of one instant remember the experience of a previous thought in an earlier instant? In other words, how is memory accounted for? In the Hindu view, an experience is recorded on the mind, citta, as a saṁskāra, and when this saṁskāra is activated, memory occurs. The point is, this all takes place within the receptacle of the mind—the saṁskāra needs to be lodged somewhere, in a permanent substratum, such as the citta posited by the Yoga school, in order to be retrievable and remembered and, one might add, the saṁskāra itself needs to have permanency and not be momentary. But if such an enduring receptacle is done away with, and each thought arises and extinguishes in an instant to be followed by a distinct subsequent thought in the next instant, how can the first thought be retrieved and remembered if it is not deposited somewhere (leaving aside the problem that it does not even exist for long enough to be deposited anywhere in the first place)?
Moreover, in the Buddhist system, one thought would be the experiencer of the karmic reactions of a completely different thought. In other words, if there were no eternal ātman and no enduring mind, as the Buddhists hold, then how is karma preserved and transferred from one life to the next, or even from one moment to the next? And even if one allows that it were transferred, somehow, the entity experiencing it would be a completely different entity from the one who earned it, since everything is momentary and there are no enduring entities. In other words, since, in Buddhism, individuals are just conglomerates of momentary phenomena that exist for only one instant and are then succeeded by a new set of momentary phenomena and so on in every instant of existence, activities performed by an individual in one moment of this flux would bear fruit that would be experienced by a completely different individual at
Where would be the moral justice in such a view? As Vācaspati Miśra puts it: The thought experienced by the person Maitra is not remembered by some different person such as Chaitra, nor is the karma accrued by the former experienced by the latter (an unborn son does not receive the karma of the father, says Śaṅkara). However the problem might be explained away, says Vyāsa, it rests on faulty logic, like deciding that since milk comes from a cow, and milk is a palatable substance, cow dung, which also comes from the cow, must also be a palatable substance.
Vyāsa’s final argument is that the Buddhist view denies one’s very own experience of existence. How can one think “I touch what I saw, and I see what I touched,” where the enduring idea of “I” survives without changing, if each idea is distinct from every other? In other words, why is the thought or idea of “I” not momentary, if all ideas are momentary? Why does it endure in everyone’s experience such that the “I” that does one act, like seeing something one day, is the same as the “I” that touches the same thing another day? The same and continued notion of “I” endures. How could it do so if all notions were momentary?
Thus, the very notion of a distracted mind and, as a consequence, the concept of concentration, is incompatible with Buddhist teachings for Vyāsa and the Yoga school and, for that matter, all schools of Hindu philosophy, who all oppose the Buddhist notion of momentariness when it comes to consciousness. For the Yoga commentators, the mind as a product of the eternal guṇas is not momentary. It is one and constant. The same mind grasps and then relinquishes objects of thought; there may be a continual flow or sequencing of vṛttis, but these take place within the stable receptacle of a durable mind (durable in the sense of being composed of the eternal guṇas, even as these are always in motion when manifest, as will be discussed later). Therefore, the mind can indeed become concentrated when distractions are eliminated. In Patañjali’s teachings there must be one durable mind that either settles on different objects when distracted, or, during concentration, that serves as a substratum that binds together the flow of thought allowing focus on one and the same object. Hence the need to address the Buddhist challenge on this score.