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Body, Perspectives on the


The path to nirvĀṇa or awakening, for Buddhists, involves the entire human being as a psychophysical complex. Although known to distinguish physical processes from psychic processes for the purpose of analysis, Buddhists do not ascribe to the notion (articulated by other religious traditions originating in India) that within every person there exists an eternal nonphysical self that may be said to "have" or "occupy" a body. For Buddhists, physical processes are dependent upon mental processes and vice versa. Thus, Buddhist traditions utilize the body as an object of contemplation and as a locus of transformation.

Buddhist scriptures and meditation manuals present a wide variety of meditations that focus on the body. Many involve mindful awareness of everyday activity: mindfulness of breathing; mindfulness of modes of deportment, such as standing and sitting; and mindfulness of routine activities, such as walking, eating, and resting. Others meditations are analytic in nature. The body may be broken down into its four material elements: earth or solidity, water or fluidity, fire or heat, and air or movement. Such analytic exercises are particularly helpful for overcoming the illusion of an enduring "self" (ātman; Pāli, attan). In the Majjhimanikāya (Group Discourses of Middle Length; III. 90–1), the analysis of the body into its four material elements is compared to the quartering of an ox; once the ox is so divided, the generic concept of "flesh" diminishes recognition of the individuality of the ox.

Although members of other religious communities in ancient India also practiced such meditations on the physical elements of earth, water, fire, and air in the body, Indian Buddhists developed a uniquely Buddhist form of meditation on the body, which is praised in Buddhist scripture as the sine qua non of salvation. Called "mindfulness of the body," this contemplative technique entails breaking the body down into its thirty-two constituent parts, including internal organs such as the heart, the liver, the spleen, and the kidneys. The anatomical analysis in this cultivation of mindfulness of the body is so detailed that some scholars credit members of the early Buddhist monastic order (saṄgha) with a decisive role in the development of ancient Indian anatomical theory. Kenneth Zysk has argued that concern with ritual impurity limited the extent to which other (namely Brahmanical or proto-Hindu) religious specialists could serve as healers and carry out empirical studies based on dissection. Restrictions concerning the handling of bodily wastes from persons of different social classes and the disposal of dead bodies limited what Brahmanical caregivers could offer in the way of medical care and empirical research. With their relative, but certainly not absolute, indifference to Brahmanical purity strictures, members of the Buddhist saṅgha acquired a great deal of empirical knowledge of bodily processes and led the way in medical advances.

The ambiguity of the body

If Zysk is correct in asserting that Buddhist monastic communities in India were less hindered by constraints concerning the handling of bodily wastes and dead bodies, this is not to say that members of the Buddhist sanṅgha regarded the body as intrinsically valuable, nor that their conceptions of the body were untouched by concerns about bodily purity and pollution. Cultivating distaste for the body by noting with disgust the discharges from various apertures of the body constitutes an initial stage of psychophysical training practiced by monastics of virtually all Buddhist denominations. With its orifices producing mucus, earwax, sweat, excrement, and the like, the body is conventionally imagined as a rot-filled pustule, a boil with many openings leaking pus. For monks and nuns who are afflicted by sensual desire and who view bodily pleasures like eating, bathing, self-adornment, and sexual activity as inherently pleasing, developing a sense of aversion toward the body by visualizing it as a foul pustule or by contemplating corpses in various stages of putrefaction is recommended as an antidote to sensuality.

And if the generic human body is comparable to a leaky bag of filth, the female body is regarded as even more disgusting. This perception is perhaps due to the fact that it has an additional aperture lacking in males, an aperture prone to emitting periodic quantities of blood (Faure, p. 57). In any case, literary representations of meditations of the loathsomeness of the body tend to be overwhelmingly androcentric. Such narratives, embedded in hagiographies of various denominations, are filled with scenes of dying and diseased women observed by male spectators. Female spectators who appear in such narratives are depicted in ways that conform to the andocentric orientation of the genre. Male bodies almost never function as objects of contemplation for women in these narratives. Instead, women contemplating the foulness of the body observe their own aging bodies or those of other women. While Buddhist discourse holds all bodies to be impermanent and subject to disease, such hagiographies suggest there is nothing so effective as a female body to make this basic truth concrete.

As unsettling as many of these accounts may be, one should not assume that Buddhists are phobic about the body. The aversion such accounts induce is not an end in itself but a remedy for pleasure-seeking. Ultimately the outlook meditators seek is neither attraction nor revulsion but indifference. Contemplation of the foulness of the body is sometimes described as a "bitter medicine" that may be terminated once greed for bodily pleasures has been overcome. After having served its purpose as a counteractive practice, disgust for the body should ideally give way to a more neutral attitude. Moreover, in comparison with the bodies of nonhumans, the human body is a blessing. Buddhists across Asia recognize that human birth is rare, and many Buddhists regard human embodiment as an essential prerequisite for achieving awakening. Although human bodies may be of a gross material nature compared to those of divine beings dwelling in heavenly realms, humans enjoy occasions for awakening that gods and goddesses lack by virtue of the very sublime material conditions in which they live. Rebirth as a god or goddess is a worthy goal for laity, who may not be in immediate pursuit of awakening, but it holds little charm for those monks and nuns who do not wish to defer their awakening by hundreds of years. For them, embodiment as a human being is a valuable opportunity not to be wasted.

Thus, much depends on the perspective when evaluating the status of the human body for Buddhists. If treated as an intrinsically valuable thing, the body can obstruct the experience of awakening, preventing one from seeing things as they really are. But when used instrumentally as a locus of meditation and insight, the body has immense value, more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel. Hence the Buddha is reported to have affirmed in the Saṃyuttanikāya (Connected Discourses;1.62) that the body, with its attendant psychic processes, is the locus of salvation, the path to a transcendent, deathless condition.

Subtle bodies, salvific bodies

Thus the body may present the face of a friend or a foe, depending on what goals one wishes to achieve in life and how well one invests the body's resources in achieving those goals. Monastic training, like a regimen of physical training, develops capacities unknown to those without self-discipline. If one dedicates oneself to the disciplined cultivation of Buddhist virtues (i.e., salutary physical, moral, and cognitive states), those virtues will be instantiated in the form and appearance of one's body. Buddhist texts promote the goal of bodily transformation, promising sweet-smelling, beautiful, and healthy bodies to those who cultivate virtue, even while teaching that in their natural condition all bodies are smelly, impermanent havens of disease and death. Given this emphasis on bodily transformation through the cultivation of virtue, it should come as no surprise that Buddhists advocate contact with and contemplation of the bodies of buddhas and saints such as arhats and bodhisattvas. Contact with such beings is salutary not just because such beings are virtuous and helpful, but because their discipline has transformed them to the point where their bodies exude medicinal effects. Like walking apothecaries, Buddhist saints are said to heal disease upon contact with the afflicted just as their words heal the disease (du1ḥhkha) that according to Buddhists afflicts all unawakened beings.

Accounts of the salutary effects of seeing buddhas, arhats, and bodhisattvas—or even formulating the aspiration to have such experiences—are commonplace in many genres of Buddhist literature. Seeing their radiant skin, bright eyes, and decorous deportment engenders serenity and joy; the sight is said to be at once tranquilizing and stimulating. This Buddhist emphasis on the benefits of seeing the body of the Buddha or other religious virtuosi can in part be explained by the South Asian milieu in which Buddhism arose. Many South Asian religious traditions promote the practice of participatory seeing (darsśana) whereby the observer participates in the sacrality of the observed by visual contact. If one cannot gaze upon the bodies of Buddhist saints, one can nevertheless recollect the features of the body of the Buddha. The contemplative practice of recollecting the extraordinary features of the body of the Buddha, with its thirty-two major and eighty minor distinguishing marks, is common to all Buddhist traditions. The Buddha is also embodied in his teachings (dharma). While some Buddhists insist that this body of teaching is the only proper object of reverence and that adoration of the physical form is misguided, Kevin Trainor notes that textual passages warning against attachment to the Buddha's physical form are outnumbered by passages advocating such devotion.

The gift of the body

In accordance with the principle that the body has no intrinsic value, but gains value through the manner in which it is used, Buddhists extol the practice of offering one's body to others out of compassion. Tales of the former lives of the Buddha narrate many occasions in which the Buddha-to-be offered his flesh to starving animals at the expense of his life. Whereas TheravĀda Buddhists regard such altruistic practices as praiseworthy but not necessarily to be imitated, MahĀyĀna Buddhists regard self-sacrifice as an essential component of the Buddhist path.

In addition to offering their bodies as food for starving beings, followers of the bodhisattva path also gain merit by burning the body as an act of religious devotion. The locus classicus for the practice of selfimmolation is an incident narrated in the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra). In a previous life, the bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyarāja ingested copious amounts of flammable substances and then set fire to his body as an offering to the buddhas. The burning of the entire body or parts of the body, such as an arm or a finger, is highly celebrated in Chinese Buddhist texts composed from the fifth through the tenth centuries. The practice continues today in symbolic form in Chinese Buddhist monastic ordinations: The ordinand's eagerness to make such an offering is signaled by the burning of several places on the head with cones of incense. In preparing the body for immolation, Chinese Buddhists reportedly followed special grain-free diets that drew on Daoist traditions associated with the pursuit of immortality. James Benn has demonstrated that these grain-free diets were also used by Buddhist adepts in preparation for self-mummification, whereby the deceased adept's body would serve an iconic function as an object of worship.

Self-immolation has also been developed in interesting ways in Southeast Asia. During the Vietnam War, Vietnamese monks and nuns used self-immolation as a means of political protest. They attracted considerable attention to their cause by performing public self-immolations in protest against the Diem regime, which had imposed restrictive measures on the practice of Buddhism and the activities of Buddhist monks and nuns.

When its sacrifice for the sake of others is advocated, the body is clearly an essential element of religious practice. However, even putting such heroic measures aside, one cannot embark on the bodhisattva path without regarding the body as an essential means of fulfilling one's bodhisattva vows. One of the central vows of the bodhisattva is a statement that one is eager to undergo billions of repeated embodiments in the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) in order to help others achieve awakening.

In contrast to the Mahāyānist emphasis on postponing final awakening for eons and eons, Buddhist tantra (VajrayĀna) stresses speed of attainment, promising the achievement of buddhahood in one lifetime. The body is said to contain the seeds of buddhahood, the prerequisites for achieving full awakening in this lifetime. Hence the human body as a focus of practice is central to Vajrayāna Buddhism. Practitioners regard the body as a microcosm of the universe, with all its gods, goddesses, and other powerful beings. Such beings are invoked and their powers harnessed for the goal of full awakening by touching various parts of the body using special hand gestures and by chanting mantras or sacred utterances.

See also:Anātman/Āman (No-Self/Self); Buddhahood and Buddha Bodies; Gender; Sexuality


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Das, Veena. "Paradigms of Body Symbolism: An Analysis of Selected Themes in Hindu Culture." In Indian Religion, ed. Richard Burghart and Audrey Canthe. London: Curzon, 1985.

Dissanayake, Wimal. "Self and Body in Theravāda Buddhism." In Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice, ed. Thomas P. Kasulis with Roger T. Ames and Wimal Dissanayake. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Faure, Bernard. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Pye, Michael. "Perceptions of the Body in Japanese Religion." In Religion and the Body, ed. Sara Coakley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Trainor, Kevin. Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravāda Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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Williams, Paul. "Some Mahāyāna Buddhist Perspectives on the Body." In Religion and the Body, ed. Sara Coakley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Zysk, Kenneth. Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Liz Wilson

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