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Buddhism and the body

Buddhism and the body

The Buddha and his enlightenment

Guatama Buddha was born between 563 and c.450 bce in present-day Nepal. Named Siddhartha, ‘he who has accomplished the goal’, after a sage predicted success for him, of either a worldly or spiritual nature, the future Buddha was groomed by his father to take a prominent role in public life. He nevertheless rejected worldly privilege, leaving wife and son to fulfil instead the latter option of the fate predicted at his birth.

The Buddha began his spiritual career during a time of social change, with urban and artisan classes gradually displacing the agrarian order in which the Brahmanic system was entrenched. A mendicant teacher during what was later termed the ‘Age of Wanderers’, he travelled, meditated, and followed, only to reject, extreme asceticism. At the age of 35, he sat beneath a tree contemplating the mysteries of death and rebirth through the night, attaining enlightenment at dawn.

His insight was that the world, samsara, is characterized by suffering; its endless cycle of death and rebirth perpetuated by ignorance. Only prajna, wisdom, can overcome ignorance: to this end, the Buddha wandered and taught, bringing into being the sangha, community. His teachings were preserved in the oral tradition, and written down as sutras within around three centuries of his death. The basic tenets of Buddhism are traditionally ascribed to the first sermon following the Buddha's enlightenment.

The first sermon: the middle way

The Buddhist goal is to realize the true nature of the world, to ‘see things as they really are’, and to respond with neither repulsion nor attachment, but equanimity. Enlightenment leads to nirvana, in which the cycle of death and rebirth (driven by karma, an impersonal, universal law of action and reaction) is broken. In his first sermon, the Buddha rejected extremes of sensual indulgence on the one hand, and rigid asceticism on the other, declaring his teaching to be the ‘Middle Way’. He also rejected two philosophical extremes: nihilism, with its concept of absolute non-existence; and the opposing concept of atman, which posits an essential, continuous self. The Buddha called his philosophy anatman, no-self, holding that while there is no absolute non-existence, neither does anything exist which is not subject to change.

The first sermon also contained the teachings of the three laksanas, which are descriptive, and the Eightfold Path, or eight angas, which are prescriptive. The laksanas describe the world as anitya, impermanent; duhka, painful; and anatman, devoid of essence. Duhka is the basis for the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, expressed according to an ancient medical formulation (the Buddha is often likened to a doctor). First, the existence of the disease is stated: the first Noble Truth is the existence of suffering. Next are stated the causes, then the prognosis of the disease. Finally is stated the path to the cure. This last consists of the Eightfold Path, which prescribes: Right Understanding, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Together, the angas form a system of psychology, ethics, and mind/body cultivation through meditation.

The spread of Buddhism

Joining the sangha, community, at first involved direct contact with the Buddha. This soon became formalized as ‘taking refuge’ in the Three Jewels: the Buddha as exemplar; the Dharma, his teaching; and the sangha, the spiritual community, centered around monks and (to a lesser degree) nuns.

The most important new school began around the turn of the first century ce. The Mahayana (‘greater way’) school dubbed previous schools ‘Hinayana’ (‘lesser way’). Of these, Theravada (‘the teaching of the elders’) survives. Centred in Sri Lanka, it spread to Southeast Asia (except Mahayanist Vietnam) from about the eighth century. Central to Mahayana is its aim to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all, rather than as an individualistic goal. Bodhisattvas attain full enlightenment, but, motivated by compassion, choose to suffer countless rebirths in the quest to save all sentient beings. Mahayana Buddhism spread to China in the first century ce, then to Korea (fourth century), Japan (sixth century), Tibet (seventh century), and Mongolia (sixteenth century).

Buddhism often took on a local stamp as it spread. The arrival of Buddhist missionaries in China sparked off a dialogue between the philosophical traditions of India and China. Chinese philosophy, particularly Taoism, arguably influenced the Ch'an (from Sanskrit dhyana, meditation) school. This iconoclastic movement within Chinese Buddhism underwent yet more variation upon its export to Japan, where it came to fruition as Zen. Tibetan Buddhism blends Chinese and Indian schools with elements of indigenous religion.

By the time the Muslim invasions of the twelfth century effectively completed its decline in India, Buddhism had irreversibly altered the religious landscape of its birthplace, and was set on its course to become a world religion. The twentieth century saw the increasing popularity of Buddhism in Euro-America; the politicization on the world stage and survival in exile of Tibetan Buddhism following its repression by the Chinese communist government; and lay revivals in historically Buddhist areas.

Attitudes to the body

Buddhism recognizes neither the mind/body dualism that characterizes much of Western philosophy, nor the concept of an essential self, such as the Hindu atman. For the Buddhist, mind and body are both subject to inevitable processes of change. The body is viewed ambivalently: attachment to physical pleasure and repulsion from pain are obstacles to enlightenment; yet enlightenment is of the human realm — even gods must be reborn in human bodies to reach this goal. The discipline of meditation presupposes and aims to enhance mind/body unity. The body can serve spiritual ends. In Tantra — an esoteric Indian school which forms a current of Tibetan Buddhism — powerful energy channels in the body are accessed through meditation and yoga. And in Zen, physical gesture is used to cut through discursive thinking and promote the spontaneity characteristic of enlightenment.

Kirsten Dwight


Skilton, A. (1994). A concise history of Buddhism. Windhorse, Birmingham, England.
Yuasa, Y. (1987). The body: toward an Eastern mind–body theory. State University of New York Press, Albany, New York.

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