2021-04-20 Harmony of Zen and Vipassana (2 of 5) The Dharma's Body
2:56PM Apr 20, 2021
other people's bodies
One of the surprises and treasures of practicing Buddhism, for me, has been a growing, and still growing, delighting in or valuing the body, the experience of the body. There is a difference between the body and the experience of the body. At the heart of what is most significant for Dharma practitioners, is the experience of the body, more than the body itself.
It is hard to separate these two things, the body and the experience of it. But this is at the center of the tremendous appreciation that the Buddha – and much of Buddhism – has with being centered in or connected to one's body. It is not the body as a physical object, as a physical thing, but rather, the experience the body has of itself.
We see in the ancient teachings of the Buddha, that he used, at times, different words if he was referring to the physical body in and of itself, or the experienced body, the body that we can experience. One of the words for physical body, in ancient languages "sarīra" (Pali) – in Sanskrit it is "śharīra" – is often translated into English as "a relic" – a relic of someone who has died – bone or something leftover from the cremation. It is long a custom in different schools of Buddhism to save these relics and maybe put them on the altar. Sometimes the word "sarīra" is used actually to refer to a corpse. What it refers to for a living person is the pure physical body itself.
The word used – especially in meditation practice – for body is "kāya." People who do Zen practice know this word, because it is often chanted Nirmāṇakāya, Saṃbhogakāya and the Dharmakāya. The word "kāya," in the earliest teachings, when it is talking about the meditator, it refers to the body as it is experienced. How we experience the body is partly dependent on the state of our mind.
The fascinating part of being a meditator is to feel how the state of the mind changes and the experience of the body changes. Sometimes even the posture will change, depending on how concentrated the mind becomes – how focused, still and quiet.
If the mind stops becoming claustrophobic and caught up in its thinking, and becomes more spacious, open, quiet and soft, this can have a huge transformation in how we experience the body. The experienced body can often become soft and transparent, or with very soft boundaries, or no boundaries at all. Sometimes the feeling of the body can even disappear entirely in meditation. I have actually opened my eyes in meditation to see if the physical body was still there. With the eyes closed, there was no evidence of it – the mind was so still and quiet.
This interplay between the mind and the body is so intimate, that in Buddhism, there is a tendency to not make a strong duality between the mind and the body, but to see them as a unified whole. One of the places this unified whole plays out is with the emphasis on being present for the body's experience of itself. It is not exactly right to say it that way, but our experience is conditioned by the quality and state of the mind.
Of course, it goes in the other direction as well. The state of the body affects the mind. If we are in a lot of pain, that can have a big impact on the mind. We can get contracted. We can get caught up in certain thoughts, judgments, fears, and projections of all kinds.
But it is not necessarily so. One of the great lessons I had was from sitting zozen, at the Zen Center, where I was not supposed to move. I would have a lot of knee pain. I noticed after a while the pain actually got worse, if I had self-pity. I think what was happening was that these little micro muscles would tighten up when I had that self-pity. The only way I could manage with the pain was if I let go of my self-pity. Then these micro muscles would relax, and the pain was manageable.
I found that the less I got caught up in my thoughts – my reactivity in the mind, my projections into the future of what this all meant – the pain in and of itself got simpler and simpler. To have the simplicity of physical pain, without the add-on of reactivity, showed me how much the experience of pain was a product of the quality, the state, the activity of my mind. Not all of it, of course.
The Buddha himself said that when there is extreme pain, this is the pain of the "sarīra," the pain of the corpse, of the pure physical body. But many times the mind and the body have a big interplay with what we experience as pain, discomfort, and all kinds of things in the body.
One of the things we do in vipassana practice is learn to center ourselves in the body – to allow ourselves to experience the body's experience of itself. As we do so, this has an impact back on the mind, because these two are so closely related. In fact, the conditioning, shifting and changing of the bodily experience is a reconditioning of the neurotic mind, or the fearful mind, or even the traumatized mind.
To begin to soften and relax – the Buddha was very explicit about this. He talked about cultivating mindfulness of the whole body. Opening up, becoming aware of the whole body. Not just the body that is breathing, but the whole body – a global experience of this body's experience of itself. A global experience is one where the mind is not contracting or fixating on any particular thing, or creating a boundary to the body, but just open to experience it all.
The Buddha also talked about – as the mind does get settled and concentrated – if there are any feelings of well-being that well up, feelings of joy and happiness – to take and spread them throughout the body. Allow those feelings to spread. The experience around this begins shifting dramatically.
I think this is partly, in Mahāyāna, what is being referred to in the three bodies of the Buddha. There are three different ways of experiencing the body, depending on what is happening in the mind – the mind state that we have. It becomes such a delight, such a joy, to rest and experience these kinds of bodies – the body becomes freer and freer, a liberated body.
There is an ancient Mahāyāna sutra that emphasizes that liberation does not happen in the mind. It happens in the body. Awakening is an embodied experience, more than a mental experience. But in fact, what we know now is that you can not really separate these two – the mind and the body.
In vipassanā practice there are many ways in which mindfulness of the body is practiced. One of the ways is to bring the kind of attention – as I suggested to you in that exercise with the hand – to whatever is the compelling physical experience of the moment. If there is some predominant, compelling experience in the body, either pleasant or unpleasant, which is more compelling than the breathing, then it is fine to let go of the breathing and not keep that focus. Bring the same kind of careful attention – careful sensing and feeling – into that part of the body that has the strong sensations.
Over time, different parts of the body will speak up and show themselves. It is like doing body work over months and years. By bringing this careful attention, opening the attention, allowing the sensations to be there. Not reacting, not forcing them, not spending too much time relaxing around it either. Just feeling and sensing. Slowly the body begins to wake up and become more aware and more sensate – a sentient body, as opposed to a conceived body – a body that we are thinking about.
So much of our physical self-consciousness has to do with ideas and images about what the body should be like, or can be like, or comparison of my body with other people's bodies. So much pain goes on in our society around body, skin colour, and all kinds of things having to do with the body.
Meditation is one of the ways to free ourselves, at least personally, from all these ideas, comparative thinking, and concepts. Allowing the awareness of body to arise from the inside out. We find out the body is much happier than often we are, much more content, when it flows and we have the experience from the inside out.
Mindfulness of the body, awareness of the body, is the body's awareness. One of the things in meditation practice is to learn to abide or rest in that experience of the body. When the breathing is the most compelling part, or the center of our experience, we can stay with the breathing. It is an embodied experience to breathe. Breathe with all things. Breathe with the body, all of the body.
I hope this made some sense. I hope it also points to some of the places where Zen and vipassana overlap: the emphasis on body, and the importance of the body in the practice. In the kāya. And maybe in what we can call our own Dharmakāya.