What does it mean to understand Buddhism through the body?

Roxanne Dault, Meido Moore, and Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam discuss what it means to understand Buddhism through the body — the heart of the Buddhist path.

By Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam

Meido Moore, Roxanne Dault
Photo by Luis Dalvan.

Question: These days, people talk a lot about “somatic practice” and “embodied experience.” What does it mean to understand Buddhism through the body?

Roxanne Dault: 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.

“The body shows the path by slowly allowing, befriending, and opening to what is there to be felt.”

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 somatic therapists and was inviting all to live an embodied life.

The great Thai meditation master Ajahn Mun said this:

In your investigation of the world, never allow the mind to desert the body. Examine its nature, see the elements that comprise it, kindly see the impermanence, the suffering, the selflessness of the body while sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Then its true nature is seen fully and lucidly by the mind/heart; the wonders of the world become clear.

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.

As we contemplate the body internally, externally, and both—as suggested in the Satipatthana Sutta—we discover who we are in a profound and transformative way. The body is a great teacher and guides us to the subtlest discoveries, thus providing a wise understanding of the complexity of this world. It reveals our mind, our emotions, and our world. In the somatic practices found in Buddhism, the body shows the path by slowly allowing, befriending, and opening to what is there to be felt and seen so we can learn the language to ground ourselves, heal, release, and let go of clinging. In this way, we come to see all phenomena as they really are.

Meido Moore: Understanding Buddhism “through the body” simply means to correctly understand what Buddhist practice is, and what it is for.

Practice is essentially a yogic undertaking, engaging and harnessing the whole body–mind (body, mind, breath, and subtle energy) rather than the mind alone. This is why we commonly say in Zen that the path is only accomplished through the body. It is also why we have the Zen saying, “You cannot wash off blood with blood.” That is, you cannot change your mind—your way of seeing—with the mind alone.

Why is this so? It is because fundamental delusion is not something purely psychological with which we are afflicted only after birth. In fact, our entire existence—including the body—has arisen entwined with it from the beginning. It is therefore not only in the mind, but within the fiber of the body that practice is most effectively and decisively accomplished.

“Awakening must penetrate and be revealed within the fiber of our bodies.”

Though it is true there is more talk recently of somatic practice and embodied experience, it remains common in the West for the fruition of Buddhist practice to be conceived of as a primarily psychological revolution. The intent of practice is often described as attainment of a kind of acceptance of one’s life—a short-term (that is, for the duration of one’s life-span) emotional resilience in the face of life’s inevitable suffering—rather than liberation from samsaric existence as classically understood: the dispelling of delusion and the dissolving of karmic traces with which we have been afflicted for endless lives and eons.

Of course, a psychologized, secularized approach like this fits the modern tendency toward a materialist view of the mind as a purely brain-based phenomenon, arising with the birth of one’s body and ceasing utterly with its death. It also fulfills the desire for something advantageous (and marketable) for becoming seemingly more content in the increasingly stressful, fragmented environments of modern life.

Whatever the reasons for this modern approach, this at least must be stated: in the Zen view, a purely psychological realization is inevitably shallow—a mirage, and lacking sufficient power to cut the roots of ignorance in a lasting manner. More bluntly, it is not genuine awakening and is unworthy of comparison with the profound attainment for which the great masters labored so exhaustively.

Awakening must penetrate and be revealed within the fiber of our bodies, even to the bones. In Rinzai Zen, oral instruction transmits practices to this end such as tanden soku, the foundational breathing method that gathers energetic currents at the navel center. Also transmitted is knowledge regarding the signs of fruition, actual bodily changes, to be observed when realization is present. The extraordinary power of integrated, whole-being practice—a yogic undertaking—is required to arrive at such fruition. It is one of the reasons we say Zen is a direct path. In the Zen view, such “embodied experience” is a hallmark of all genuine practice.

Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam: I love the Vajrayana for its focus on cultivating a view of sacred world—the world of embodied beings, sound and sight, taste and touch. I’m invited to enter the richness of phenomenal existence as the expression of the ground of being, to know my true nature within the grittiness of lived experience. The intimacy of my body with all things becomes the path of practice.

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. Where is the “me” within this dynamic inhale and exhale?

“Body teaches me truth beyond words.”

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?

Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam

Lopön Charlotte Z. Rotterdam

Lopön Charlotte Rotterdam is a Senior Teacher at Tara Mandala Buddhist Retreat Center and a long-time student of Lama Tsultrim Allione. She is the Director of the Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education at Naropa University and an instructor in Naropa’s Core College and Graduate School of Psychology. She co-developed and co-teaches Naropa’s Mindful Compassion Training, a secular program to cultivate compassion in personal, professional and societal contexts. www.skymind.us
Meido Moore

Meido Moore

Meido Moore is abbot of Korinji, a Rinzai Zen monastery in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.
Roxanne Dault

Roxanne Dault

Roxanne Dault is a guiding teacher at True North Insight (Voie Boréale) in Canada.