What Is Your Body?

It’s less than we think. It’s far more than we know. It’s who we are but it’s not. Contemplate the deeper reality of the body.

Norman Fischer
13 September 2021
Man staring in the mirror.
Photo by Henry Busby.

We think about our bodies all the time. How do they look? What is their state of health? Are they aging? Are they sufficiently strong, attractive, impressive? These questions churn out an almost endless stream of thinking, feeling, and spending. Consider all the clothing, beauty products, food products, accessories, books, equipment, therapists, health products, body workers, and so on that make up such a huge portion of our economy.

Everything depends on the body. Without it, we are literally nothing. Transcendent concepts such as consciousness, soul, higher self, buddhanature—are these meaningful realities or merely hopeful words? And whatever they are, how could they exist independent of a body?

The body matters. Yet what is it?

We take the body completely for granted, just as we do the sky and the Earth. Yet the body, like them, is much more than we know. What we think of as our body—what we feel, imagine, and dream about it, what we unthinkingly assume it to be—isn’t really what the body is.

The body is more than the body, and our feelings about it run deeper than we can know. The body as it actually is is mysterious to us.

We assume we know what the body is. But even a few moments of examination produces more fragmentation and uncertainty than clarity.

What self is there that is not the body? Yet where is the self that possesses a body to call her own? Who, outside the body, utters the words “my body”? Without a tongue, without a brain, I can’t even utter the words.

Ask yourself: from what perspective do you look at your body? From inside, peering out from the body’s eyes? or from the outside, as if you were looking at it in a mirror? But how is it possible for the body to be external to itself? No, that can’t be. The body must be contained in the experience of looking, so what you see and call “my body” must be something else.

Is the body the flow of its sensory experiences—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, tactile sensation? A closer look reveals problems here too. Where does a smell or a taste occur? In the nose, on the tongue? In the things smelled or tasted? In the brain? In all at once?

And what about awareness, the insubstantial, apparently nonphysical process through which anything we experience comes to us? Is awareness inside the body or outside it? If it is inside, how can we say “my” body? There is no one outside to say “mine.” But if awareness is outside the body… no, that can’t be right!

Yet awareness is foundational to our experiencing ourself as a person at all. Without awareness there would be no smelling or tasting—and no body. There can be flesh without awareness, but a living human body, as we understand it, is aware of being a body.

The Buddhist teachings on the workings of mind, called Abhidharma, teach us that there isn’t a body per se, just a variety of momentary mental events. some of them we think of as “physical,” even though they’re not. When I feel an ache in my right leg, the Abhidharma analysis goes, this sensation is a mental event produced in consciousness when an object I call a leg activates inner sensors that awaken awareness in a particular way. Likewise, seeing, hearing, and all sense perceptions are mental events stimulated by apparently physical objects.

Contemporary cognitive science agrees. All experiences arise when consciousness is activated by a sense organ meeting an internal or external object. (Here, the mind itself functions like a sixth sense organ in relation to emotion and thought.) We assume we are “experiencing” the object that gave rise to the event in our consciousness. But the truth is that the only thing we can verify is the experience itself, however we may be misconstruing it. The idea of the body is like this. It is an idea based on unwarranted assumptions about the coherence of our conscious experience.

In Buddhist analysis, then, there is no body. What there is is form (rupa)—some kind of illusory arising that appears to be solid and that forms a basis for experience we call physical. But in actual fact it’s just a continuous flow of momentary conscious events.

Still, our idea that we have a body is powerful. Beyond our misinterpretation of our personal experiences, the idea of the body is reinforced by the social discourse we have all grown up with, which takes as an obvious fact that we “have” bodies. our whole system of language is based on the metaphor of the body (which is more than anything else a metaphor). Most of our feelings and commonplace ideas about our lives are based on the metaphor of the body, a thought so foundational to us we can’t even begin to know how to question it.

On the night of his enlightenment, the story goes, the Buddha was visited by the forces of Mara, the Evil One, who was determined to stop the Buddha from achieving awakening. Most of Mara’s devastating and spectacular display of hopes and fears had to do with the body, either sensual allurements or threats of bodily harm. Declaring that the many threatening minions arrayed behind him were his army, Mara defiantly called out, “Where is your army, oh Buddha?” In response the Buddha touched the ground and said, “The Earth is my witness and support.”

In touching the Earth, the Buddha was not only calling on the Earth goddess to be his protector. He was saying, the Earth is my body. My body expresses Earth, is produced and supported by Earth, is made exclusively of Earth elements. Nothing on Earth, no matter how frightening, can threaten this indestructible Earth body. Even if it is broken up into a million pieces it remains, going home to its Mother who gave birth to it, who embraces it now and always will embrace it.

With this gesture of truth, belonging, and ultimate invulnerability, born of surrender to and identity with the Earth, Buddha expressed his absolute fearlessness, and in doing so defeated Mara. After this, his enlightenment unfolded.

And this is exactly true of all of us. Our bodies too are the Earth. They rise up from her, and are nurtured, fed, and illuminated by her. our bodies are in constant touch with Earth, and return to Earth, from which they have never parted.

Our human bodies are expressions of the Earth’s creative force. Everything that makes human life—breathing, eating, elimination, perception, feeling, language—occurs only in concert with Earth. no thought would ever take place without the prior existence of Earth. No thought would be thinkable without air, water, fire, space, dirt. Even our most abstract ideas, like freedom, justice, and happiness, are nothing more or less than Earth’s urge, the thought of wind, sky, water, and light. Nothing we think or do could ever be more profound or true than these natural elements, which are literally nothing more or less than our own bodies.

Mahayana Buddhism was a philosophical and emotional reaction to Buddhism’s earlier, more sober teachings, which often characterized the body as repulsive and a source of attachment. In Mahayana thought, the body as such is asserted and celebrated. It is transfigured, through art and faith, into the bodhisattva body, the buddha body, the perfect eternal beautiful body hidden in the earthly body of impermanence and decay.

The Buddha of the Mahayana sutras has three bodies: the dharmakaya, or truth body, measureless, all-encompassing and perfect, beyond perception and concept; the sambhogakaya, or enjoyment body, the purified perceived body of perfect meditation and teaching; and finally the nirmanakaya, the transient historical body that appears in our world for the purpose of teaching worldly beings. In Zen teaching, it is axiomatic that the ordinary human body that can be accessed in meditation practice is itself beyond the human body as normally conceived. The “True Body,” as Dogen says, “is far beyond the world’s dusts.” or, as Hakuin puts it in his Song of Zazen, “This very body is the Body of Buddha.”

The actual biological human body really is (as we discover more and more every day) a marvelous and endlessly complex occurrence. Three hundred years of medical science has still only scratched the surface of its immense functioning. The brain, for instance: how does it regulate everything so perfectly, adjusting to any and all sorts of contingencies, producing thoughts, literary works, skyscrapers, cities, social systems, and so on? The heart, the lungs. Cells, DNA. The enormous knowledge and complex communication and movement that seems to occur effortlessly within every human body: walking, running, jumping, shouting, singing, playing the piano. There are 25,000 miles of blood vessels in the human body. Stretched out end to end they’d reach the moon. Blood flows through them ceaselessly, nurturing every organ in the body. The actual functioning human body is a marvel. No one manufactured it. No patents exist for it. No one knows where it comes from or exactly how it is produced. And the consciousness associated with it, the consciousness capable of knowing itself? About this we haven’t a clue.

Woman lying in bed.
Photo by Charles Klein, Millennium Images UK.

In the body scan meditation made popular in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction meditation course, practitioners lie on the floor while an instructor walks them through forty-five minutes of detailed mindfulness exercises designed to bring awareness to various parts of the body, from head to toe. Simply applying awareness to the body in detail has a healing effect. No one knows why.

Zen meditation, especially as practiced in the Soto school, is a body practice, a process of paying attention to the body’s detail. When you are taught Zen meditation, the lesson typically begins with instruction about how to walk into the hall to take your seat: you are to walk carefully, paying attention to each footfall, with your hands in a particular position, your body erect. You are then instructed to bow carefully to the meditation cushion (the form for bowing is also detailed for you), sit down, and arrange your posture carefully. Your spine should be erect, your chin tucked in, your hands folded delicately into a mudra—thumb tips just touching, palms curved. Breath should be smooth, natural, and deep in the belly.

All this physical detail is the focus for the sitting—not a teaching or a spiritual theme. Simply the experience of body itself is the focus of meditation. When the awareness wanders, as it will, this is fine as long as the practitioner is fully committed to coming back to the feeling of the body sitting and the breath moving. As with the body scan, there is an uncanny magic in this simple practice. Returning awareness to the body and the breath over and over again—over the course of one sitting, or many sittings, for years, decades, a lifetime—interrupts the usual flow of thinking profoundly based on the assumption of a discrete self inhabiting a unitary body. Once that flow is interrupted, and awareness is returned to the flow of lived experience in the present moment of being alive (a moment in which everything arises and disappears at once and seems to be both there and not there), life feels different. The body no longer appears to be the body per se. Somehow, within awareness of the process of living, the body becomes more than it is. It becomes identical with the awareness, and there isn’t a beginning or an end to it.

After sitting practice, normal daily life in the body returns. But there’s a lightness and ease that comes with the feeling of having been relieved, at least temporarily, of the confinement of your small life lived in a vulnerable body. You might feel “calmer,” but the feeling is more than calm. It’s the feeling of reality—of having left, for at least a little while, the stressful unreality of daily living and entering a larger space. This is calming. And if you practice for a lifetime, this temporary relief becomes more than temporary. The sense that the body is more than the body, and that your life is more than your life, becomes a conviction and a calm confidence in the body itself, and therefore also in the mind.

One of the deepest themes in Western philosophy, beginning with Plato, is that the world of appearance isn’t real. So the job of the intellect, its spiritual assignment, was to carry us beyond this corrupt physical world to a perfected world of nonmaterial form, purely mental or spiritual. This was seen as the task of philosophy and religion until the twentieth century, when phenomenology, perhaps in part under the influence of Buddhism, which never did have a mind/body split, began to break it down. In our Earth- threatened time, when we must think and care about the future well-being of the planet, it is fitting that we begin to learn and enact the truth that has always been engraved on our very skins: that body, mind, spirit, and Earth are one expression, one concern, and one delight.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.