The Body in Buddhist practice

From a Buddhist perspective the body has a central role in the meditative path to awakening. We can say that the physical aspect of our experience plays an important role, both in our experience of suffering, and in the experience of freedom. Furthermore, without knowing the nature of the body clearly – its advantages and disadvantages, and without understanding the relationship between our mental and physical aspects, the mind cannot be liberated from ignorance and clinging.  Thus, developing wise observation into the nature of the body is imperative to unbinding clinging and the unfolding of awakening.

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In the early Buddhist texts in Pāli the body is considered in few different ways:

First, the body is one of the foundations for establishing mindfulness (satipatthāna). Mindfulness of the body has two intentions: The first is grounding awareness in the present moment, while the second is the development of insight – seeing clearly the impermanent, unreliability and selflessness of the body. In other words, the body is used both as an object for establishing presence and as an object of investigation.

Since the body (like other aspects of human experience) is not a reliable phenomenon to rely on for true satisfaction and happiness, it becomes important to learn to observe the disadvantages of the body in a wise and liberating way. This type of observation is intended to support the letting go of identification, aversion and clinging with reference to the body, and thus, is a gateway to liberation.

Furthermore, in the progression of the meditative process, the body has an important role in liberating the mind. I would suggest that according to the Pāli suttas, a certain type of bodily pleasure signifies deeper levels of release.  This type of bodily pleasure, aids the process of seeing clearly and supports the purification of mind from desire and clinging.  This type of bodily pleasure (and of course mental joy) is not dependent on sensual pleasures, but actually arises from insight and letting go. This type of pleasure plays an important role in relaxing and freeing the mind further, when one learns to tune into it in a wise way.

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In this post, I would like to consider some of these aspects of the body in our practice. I was inspired to write this post by Elizabeth Harris’s paper on the representations of the Body in the Theravāda tradition.[1] I will view the body in Buddhist practice through the three lenses she offered (the third one is different than what Harris has offered):

1. The unreliable nature of the body should be recognized in a wise way.
2. The body as a teacher should be observed and learned from.
3. The importance of the body in freeing the mind from clinging should be recognized and nourished.

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I. The unreliable nature of the body should be recognized in a wise way

We all experience every day the connection between sense pleasures and bodily experiences – they are tightly connected. The experience of sense pleasures is first and foremost, a bodily experience. We feel the gratification of sense pleasure as pleasant sensations in the body. This is the advantage of having body. Without this advantage, that is, the experience of pleasures in the body, we wouldn’t get attached to the body and its pleasant sensations.   

However, although the body has obvious advantages, the body has many disadvantages and drawbacks as well. When we fail to recognize the disadvantages of the body, we do not see clearly the nature of the body and the fragility of human existence. This leads to living a life in various levels of denial. We prefer to repress these basic facts until reality comes knocking on our door, or on the door of someone close to us.

What is more, the modern world we live in actually supports this attitude of avoidance and fear. Beauty and youth are celebrated exaggeratedly, while sickness and old age are being avoided and concealed as much as possible. This attitude conditions delusion and denial, instead of insight and acceptance of the nature of every living body.

Furthermore, the various manifestation of the “anti-aging hope” creates much suffering around body image and natural processes: we identify with the body, hate it when it looks different from what we would like it to be and wish we could change it. And so, we find ourselves surprised when the body doesn’t function as we would like, and angry and scared when it is about to die. Without the willingness to meet the truth about the impermanence of our body, its fragility, and the fact that it is not under our control, we will remain far away from freedom.

To counteract this ignorance which leads to suffering, the Buddha gave us instructions to contemplate the nature of the body in this way:

“This body is the source of much pain and disadvantage; for all sorts of afflictions arise in this body, that is, eye-disease, disease of the inner ear, nose-disease, tongue-disease, body-disease, head-disease, disease of the external ear, mouth-disease, tooth-disease, cough, asthma, catarrh, pyrexia, fever, stomach ache, fainting, dysentery, gripes, cholera, leprosy, boils, eczema, tuberculosis, epilepsy, ringworm, itch, scab, chickenpox, scabies, hemorrhage, diabetes, hemorrhoids, cancer, fistula; illnesses originating from bile, phlegm, wind, or their combination; illnesses produced by change of climate; illnesses produced by careless behavior; illnesses produced by assault; or illnesses produced as the result of kamma; and cold, heat, hunger, thirst, defecation, and urination.’ Thus he dwells contemplating disadvantage of this body. This is called the perception of disadvantage.”
[AN V.110]

Because of cultural conditions in the West, concerning the body, these types of contemplations are quite rare as a practice in the insight tradition in the West. The reason is understandable – in a culture where body image causes much suffering, there is a fear, that these types of contemplations will create more aversion to the body and an unhealthy relation to it. However, we should start rethinking this tendency and consider a wise way to bring it into our practice as well.

First, it is important to understand that this contemplation is not meant to depress us at all or create aversion. It is a practice that develops and cultivates a way of seeing that frees us from the illusion that the body is a reliable phenomenon and dispels unrealistic view of our body and other’s bodies. Thus, it frees us from ignorance and clinging that causes suffering.

For me, this contemplation allows me to reconnect with the reality of having a fragile body. It reminds me to meet a difficult reality with clarity and patience. It allows me to encounter an aching body, with stability, and let go of fearful thoughts about not being able to do something because of bodily pain or illness. 

This contemplation, done with the right attitude (addressed below), directs our attention to a basic human condition: this body will change; it will get ill and it will die. The tendency to avoid and ignore this reality, leads to tremendous suffering, when the inevitable happens.

Thus, the frequent contemplation of the body’s impermanence and fragility can allow this understanding to grow deeper, hopefully releasing our identification with the body in the moments of illness and old age, and maybe even during the process of dying, allowing us the accept reality more peacefully and with a stable and open mind.

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So how can we work wisely with contemplating the disadvantages of the body? How can we practice this contemplation without feeding aversion and hate?

First, we have to remember that the problem is not the body. The problem is our identification and clinging to something that cannot be really controlled in the way we would like to.

The intention of this contemplation is to practice letting go, allowing us to prepare the mind to have an attitude of acceptance and clarity, when reality of our physical experience will become difficult.

Furthermore, a right, or correct contemplation of impermanence and death, supports our appreciation of life. It allows us to see how short life is and remind us to be connected to what is really important to us now, and hence, to be aligned with what we would like to nourish in our life in the present.

In her article, Harris quotes interviews she conducted with Buddhist practitioners from Sri Lanka. One interviewer explains the importance of “mindfulness of death” (marana-sati in Pāli):

“I think this whole practice of marana-sati, reflection of death, is meant to make life now better. It is not about thinking about where you will be going after death. The emphasis is more on the life you live now… The more you reflect on death, that you are not going to be around forever, the better your attitude towards others becomes. You have a kinder attitude, towards others. And you are less avaricious”. (p.116).

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We should bear in mind three things when we take on this type of contemplation:

  1. Our intention for contemplating the impermanence and fragility of the body and its inevitable death.
  2. The attitude with which we approach this practice.
  3. The mental qualities that accompany this contemplation.

Our intention in this practice is to see clearly the nature of the body in order to dispel ignorance that creates suffering. The intention is not to create an attitude of aversion to the body or to life but rather to understand the nature of the body in order to create a healthy relationship with it.

The attitude with which we approach this practice is of curiosity and interest: curiosity to understand the source of our mental suffering regarding the body directly.

The mental qualities that accompany this practice, and enable it to be liberating, are mental stability (upekkha) and compassion (karuna).

So, when you take on this contemplation, check your intention, attitude and the mental qualities present in the mind. If you feel that this contemplation creates aversion, fear and emotional imbalance, it might be that you need to adjust your attitude or shift to a different practice for a while. You might need to bring gentle compassion into your contemplation, if your body is ill or if fear arises from the thought of death. If you encounter strong fear, you may need to let go of the contemplation for a little while, and return to it later, when your mental stability is more established. If you notice aversion coming up during your practice, it is a sign that you need to reestablish your attitude of curiosity and compassion, or that maybe this practice is not right for you at this time.

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2. The body as a teacher to be observed and learned from

This category is already present in our above discussion but here I would like to address the idea that the body is also a reflection of our mind and mental and emotional states.

It seems that many people in the modern world live from the neck upwards; living mainly in their “headspace”, that is their thoughts, while being disconnected from the body and its sensations. Most people start paying close attention to the body only when they experience strong pains. In those situations we often feel astonished by the pain, opposed to it, try to push it away and even become angry at it.

Although certain pains have purely physical origin, some of our aches and sensations reflect our psychological and emotional world. Thus, a steady and accepting attitude towards the physical aspect of our emotional pain can enable us to release mental pain (even if only momentarily). This is one of the reasons why Buddhist practice brings our attention back to bodily experience with the qualities of acceptance and balance. A practice in which we develop acceptance and compassion to the body and its various sensations and aches is a doorway to acceptance and compassion, for all that arises in our mind and heart.

However, attention to the body is not meant only for times of pain but is aimed at developing moment to moment sensitivity to the way bodily experience reflects and affects our moods, emotions, perception and consciousness.  

That is, Buddhist practice directs us to observe the relationship and dependency between the arising of perception, states of mind, emotions and physical sensations and how they affect each other. This is an observation that enables us to develop deep understanding and insight into the dependent nature of two aspects of human existence: body-and mind (nāma-rupa). That is, the body is an important teacher and a meaningful object for direct knowledge, freedom and liberation.

At this point a word of caution: observing body sensations can be unskillful when we have a history of trauma. If this is the case, observation of the body should be done with an aid of a skilled teacher who can allow us to approach the body – who stores our trauma as well – in a way that will not trigger the trauma again. This might be a slow process that needs to be approached patiently, compassionately and wisely.

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3. The importance of the body in freeing the mind from clinging

Mindfulness of the body enables us to ground awareness in the present and to understand human reality more clearly. It also enables the mind to become more stable, clear and free:

“Monks, whoever develops & pursues mindfulness immersed in the body encompasses whatever skillful qualities are on the side of clear knowing. Just as whoever pervades the great ocean with his awareness encompasses whatever rivulets flow down into the ocean, in the same way, whoever develops & pursues mindfulness immersed in the body encompasses whatever skillful qualities are on the side of clear knowing.”
(MN 119; M iii 88. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

Here I would like to emphasize the importance of specific pleasantness and pleasure when working with the body, an aspect of practice which seems to be missing from most meditation instructions today. This oversight of practice joins the tendency of practitioners to focus mainly on the unpleasant sensations of the body. However, there is a type of bodily pleasure (and mental joy) that support liberating the mind from clinging and expresses a more open and clear mind. This type of pleasure and joy should be cultivated and nourished.

Unlike various Hindu traditions that consider any type of bodily pleasure as a danger and obstacle in the spiritual path (an idea that one can find in Muslim and Christian ways of thought as well) the Buddha’s teaching was radical:  he claimed that certain bodily pleasure – pleasure that does not arise from sensual pleasure but from insight and letting go – has a role in freeing the mind.

The Buddha declared clearly, that one needs “to know how to define pleasure, and knowing that, one should pursue pleasure within oneself” [MN III.234].  In other words, there are different types of physical pleasure and mental joy, and one should know clearly how to differentiate between them.

Physical pleasure and mental joy that arise from insight and letting go, support liberation. They enable the mind to let go even further; they are pleasure and joy that operate as tools for purification.

The Buddha explains in one of his discourses that:
“When someone feels a certain kind of pleasant feeling, unwholesome states increase and wholesome states diminish; but when someone feels another kind of pleasant feeling, unwholesome states diminish and wholesome states increase”.  After this statement, the Buddha encourages his disciples to “enter upon and abide in such a kind of pleasant feeling (sukha vedanā)” [MN I 475-6].

These wholesome pleasure and joy are the pleasure and joy experienced in the four jhānas. They should be cultivated for releasing the mind further [M III 233–4 M I 454; D III 131–2].

It is important to notice that the Buddha speaks of bodily pleasure and mental joy not only as the fruit of practice, but as a central part of practice itself; as a way to freedom and awakening.

To understand this point, we can reflect that a mind entangled in clinging, anger, jealousy and so on is usually accompanied by bodily experience such as tension, density, and even pain. On the other hand, a relaxed and peaceful body reflects a relaxed and peaceful mind. A relaxed body supports a peaceful mind, and both, allow insight into the nature of experience to deepen. When one does not experience bodily pain, perception is less and less hindered by reactivity to unpleasant sensations, while this type of bodily pleasure allows the mind to become more steady and clear for seeing phenomena clearly:

“Which nine states [of mind and body] greatly help? Nine conditions rooted in wise attention: When a monk practices wise attention, gladness arises in him; being glad, joy arises. From joy, the body is satisfied; as a result of his appeased body he feels pleasure. From his feeling pleasure, his mind becomes steadied; with his mind thus steadied, he knows he sees [things] as they really are. With his thus knowing and seeing [things] as they really are, he becomes disenchanted; with disenchantment he becomes dispassionate, and by dispassion he is liberated” [DN III.288].

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Thus, the Buddha instructs us to learn to incline the mind into this pleasantness of the body (and the mind); pleasantness which arises from insight and letting go. Then we learn how to allow this pleasure to nourish and support the wholesome mind, thus, deepening our insight into the nature of experience.

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For those who would like to read more about the role of jhānic pleasure and joy in the path to liberation and the relation between the four jhānas with the practice of insight, you might consider reading my book Early Buddhist Meditation: The Four Jhānas as the Actualization of Insight (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) .

The book offers a new perspective on the phenomenology and role of the four jhànas. It proposes that what we call vipassanā and the four jhānas are integral dimensions of a single process that leads to awakening.
You can read the Introduction of the book for free here: https://www.amazon.com/Early-Buddhist-Meditation-Actualization-Routledge/dp/1138937924

I am sorry to say that the hard copy of the book is very expensive (not my choice but the publisher’s), but the Kindle & EBook versions are more affordable).

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I will end this post with one of Ajahn Buddhadas’s simple (but not easy) instruction:

“Don’t do anything that takes you out of your body”

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[1] Elizabeth J . Harris. “Sleeping Next to My Coffin: Representations of the body in Theravada Buddhism”, Buddhist Studies Review 29.1 (2012), p. 105-120.

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