In the past many religions and teachers often pushed the physical body away as though it were a hindrance to the higher paths trying be understood, accepted and achieved.
The body is at the heart of the Buddhist path. It is our guide within the experience of the present moment and an important vehicle for our awakening. One might think at times that the body is an obstacle, that we need to push it away, ignore it, or deny what it tells us, but the teachings and our practice clearly demonstrate the opposite. In the Pali canon, mindfulness of the body is at the center and is seen as an essential practice. In the Kayagatasati Sutta, the Buddha says that mindfulness of the body, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and great benefit. In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha repeatedly states the importance of the body as a frame of reference – that true happiness, the end to suffering, is right here in this very body. We could say that the Buddha was one of the first therapists and was inviting all to live an embodied life.
To understand Buddhism through the body is to understand the three characteristics. As we investigate the body and anchor our attention in its presence, seeing the arising and passing of sensations, there is a clear understanding of anicca, the impermanence of all phenomena. In this way, there is a clear knowing of dukkha, the unreliability and unsatisfactoriness of the body. Embodying with presence each moment, we also see the fluid and impersonal nature of the body. This is a direct understanding of anatta, not-self. The body is nature; it’s a living, organic, changing system that cannot bring happiness but is a tool for deepening wisdom.
Our body teaches interdependence; body teaches impermanence. There’s an odd paradox in the fact that my body is both the seat of my sense of individual identity and the portal through which I relate with all matter. The yogurt I had for breakfast – along with all the beings who made, packaged, and transported it, becomes “me.” Through my body, I recognize there is no isolated “me,” only a continuous flow of nourishment and release. As I have often written about and experienced – Where is the “me” within this dynamic inhale and exhale of daily life?
My body teaches me intimacy with all things. That sweet tanginess of raspberry on my tongue; cool fingertips across my cheek. Could I love all the world? Could I open to the radiance of bodhicitta, the awakened heart? My body reaches out, extends to the sharp edges of contact, stands warrior-like in the face of fear. My body retracts, returns to the warmth of belly, the tender touch of a loved one. Either way, my body shows me that I am moved by all things, that I too can move and have impact, in action and in stillness. Like the awakened heart–mind that is our very nature, the body shows up in this moment, and this next moment too. The body teaches me I cannot escape. In this courageous presence, I tap mahasukha, great bliss. It is the bliss beyond pleasure and pain, the bliss of intimacy, of being awake to the totality of all things.
Body teaches difference and particularity; it teaches that there is no absolute without relative. There is no ultimate ground elsewhere; no truth “out there.” The absolute reaches its tentacles up and through our bodies. Body is not generic. You and I show up in a very particular body, with specific shape, size, color. Difference is how absolute reality manifests. And we know – difference matters. Life and death can depend on the color of your skin. To inhabit my body means to take responsibility for the intricate network of interrelationships that I am necessarily a part of. Sacred world means I must stand awake and aware within this body of power, privilege, pain, oppression. There is no way out. Awakening isn’t an exit strategy. It’s a radical invitation to inhabit fully this permeable, impermanent, and particular, embodied form in its incontrovertible relationality with all others.
Body teaches me truth beyond words. Prajnaparamita, transcendent wisdom, is ineffable, indescribable. Beyond idea or concept or articulation.
What do your bones know? What whisper runs through your veins? What awakens in the touch of your skin – just now, in this moment?
Peace and Love, Jim