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Hardcore Dharma Week 8: The 3 Yanas, or Cultivating “Healthy Revulsion,” or Buddhist Barf Bags

posted by Stillman Brown
As we sat to practice last night, below the yoga studio the Bowery was teeming with rush hour traffic and every third driver seemed to be leaning on their horn in frustration and hurry. My first thought was, “I’m glad I’m in here.” My second, “what a neat metaphor for the mind.” Excepting these small islands of mindful settling, my mind is usually a jammed New York street at rush hour.

This week’s topic at Hardcore Dharma (Don’t know what Hardcore Dharma is? Check out my introductory post and the run down of Sharon Salzberg’s guest lecture) was on the 3 Yanas, a uniquely Tibetan system of hierarchical classification of the three stages of development one moves through as a Buddhist practitioner.  

One particular aspect of Ethan’s talk really piqued my interest because it has to do with compassion, not for others but for oneself as you learn to tame the mind. Compassion for ourselves seems straightforward enough but my sense is that it’s all to often the first aspect of wisdom to be discarded in our day-to-day. 

The 3 Yanas are a graduated progression for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Broadly speaking, they run from Basic Stuff to Kinda Advanced Stuff to Ok Now You’re Literally A Colorful Enlightened Being stuff. Except that the Basic Stuff is still really difficult and requires years of practice. At least, I think so. I’m still very much in the Basic Stuff stage, so cut me some slack. 

The second stage is Mahayana, not to be confused with the historical/geographic division of Buddhism into Mahayana vs. Theravada, while the third stage is Vajryana – I won’t discuss those here. The first stage is Hinayana, translated as “narrow.” “lesser,” or “precise” path. It consists of teachings like the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness, the 4 Reminders, and the 10 Virtuous & Non-Virtuous Actions. 
The essential thrust of Hinayana, as Ethan pointed out, is to “really begin to contemplate the difference between wholesome and non-wholesome action.” It means bringing honesty to our destructive habits – viewing them clearly and, presumably, trying to change them – and to do this requires mindfulness and restraint. Mindfulness and Restraint can fairly be capitalized here, since they’re two big threads running through the Hinayana stage.
About halfway in to his discussion Ethan mentioned that some teachings sum up Hinayana as, “working to develop a healthy revulsion with samsara.” 
My first thought: Haha. Revulsion to samsara = need for Buddhist barf bags. Cause’ there’s a lot of samsara out there.
My second (and more blog-worthy thought): Revulsion is a strong word. What does healthy revulsion actually look like? As Ethan went on to ask, “how do you practice restraint and a healthy revulsion to confusion and non-wholesome behavior without becoming incredibly judgmental?” 
This is important. I’ve listened to teachers, Pema Chodron among them, say we westerners really like to beat ourselves up and this feels true on an instinctive level. The amount of suffering caused by self-directed negative feelings is outsized and tragic, and it’s possible to use Buddhist teachings on restraint, meant to lead to liberation, to construct an elaborate cage of self-flagellation. 
A slightly silly example: You gossip about someone and realize, “Oh crap, I’m not practicing Right Speech again, I’m such a fuck-up. I’ll never get the hang of this. I’m a bad Buddhist and therefore a bad person and I don’t deserve to be happy and people, rightly, do not love me.” I’ve certainly put myself through the ringer because I haven’t practiced in a few days and, goddamn it, I know I should. 
Where does legitimate self-ass-kicking end and harsh self-judgement begin?
In conclusion, two things. First, as people trying to work compassionately with our minds, it’s a delicate knife’s edge that we walk. That is, unless you have an exceptionally robust sense of self-esteem and sharp critical sensibility. Second, this is something worth thinking about as we try to live by some of these rules on restraint. 
As someone who’s struggled with an evil, vicious little troll-man voice living in the back of my mind, telling me my writing stinks, my shoes are out of style, I’ll never do such and such, it’s a good contemplation to take into each new day. I want to make progress on this path, but not at the expense of being nice to myself.

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posted May 21, 2009 at 11:15 am

such a great post! I love “it’s possible to use Buddhist teachings on restraint, meant to lead to liberation, to construct an elaborate cage of self-flagellation” – or Jewish teachings, or Catholic teachings, or Islamic teachings, or ethical humanist teachings, or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, probably. . . . The only way I have found is to walk a tricky balance between depersonalizing the action and taking responsibility for it.
Like, “that was gossip; that was gross; I feel revulsion for the act I performed”
“I do not feel revulsion for ME”. Cuz that is just another form of self-obsession. I need to see when I am constructing the universe in which “I am the piece of shit that the universe revolves around,” as a friend of mine puts it. Cuz I can do that, all the time.
I am just another suffering human being, like every suffering sentient being. We are all like this. It’s not so special. And I’m not permanent. Thank goodness! Those acts created a selfish being; other acts can create a generous being. I find a bit of freedom and compassion in that.

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posted May 21, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Weekly darmha drawing on three yanas.

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posted May 21, 2009 at 12:57 pm

The Sanskrit word for revulsion is paravritti, whick literally means turning up or turning back, or simply change. Technically, the word refers to spiritual change or transformation, specifically, to follow the Lankavatara sutra, a change that takes place in the Alaya-vijnana, or All-conserving Mind (compare Ultimate Mind), as opposed to what is often called the Relative mind, through which most of us have access to Alaya. In short, the word revulsion is not so much a stomach-turning as a mind-turning.

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posted May 21, 2009 at 11:02 pm

Ellen – as usual, insightful and right on. That is the tricky part, isn’t it – hate the sin but not the sinner, so to speak. Very, very difficult to do if, like me, you’re not used to seeing it in such a nuanced way.
MU – Thanks for the mad scholarship! I really like that – a turning up, turning back, a change. Even just saying it creates a sensation of space.

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posted May 22, 2009 at 10:36 am

MU – nice! I appreciate looking at the Sanskrit; too often I find we look minutely at the English word to tease out the meaning. Revulsion, from the latin revulsio, a tearing or plucking away, has an added visceral rip to it that paravritti doesn’t have, apparently.
And a ?: I am thinking the vritti in paravritti the same as the vritti in the famous yoga sutra, yoga chitta vritti nirodha? or not? let me know! thanks.

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posted May 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Same word, vritti, which means, generally, to whirl, to turn, to revolve, to go on. It is a word that often describes the mind’s incessant movement as it turns from one object of perception to another to another.
Now, the word para is interesting: the meanings of this word cluster around meanings such as transcendental, spiritual, beyond, extreme or supreme, other(ness), and, of course, crossing the river (which we should hear in the word paramita, which, I think, gets a little too conveniently as perfection).

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posted May 23, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Last phrase should read: “gets a little too conveniently translated as perfection).”

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posted May 27, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Thank you MU for the clarification on the translation for revulsion. Mind-turning, or pulling up away/changing… this concept will be helpful for me to prevent that process of mental self-flagellation that we all have a tendency towards when we are trying to awaken and live skillfully, but come up against the reality of our humanity and cycle of old habits. About said process, recently I read some words by Julia Cameron that were really helpful, “we need to get serious about not taking ourselves so seriously”.

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