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The Wisdom of the Body & the Search for the Self

From the impermanent to the heroic to the sacred—The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on how the view of body changes and evolves in the three vehicles of Buddhism.

From the Buddhist perspective, our spiritual journey begins here—with this very body and mind. Who we are now consists of these two, body and mind, and who we might become will also be expressed through body and mind. Yet what is the true nature of these two?

Our present experience of life can be viewed as a long dream, arising from our lack of understanding about who we truly are and the actual nature of our world. What we usually refer to as a “dream” is only a short-term fantasy that we wake up from every morning. The real dream we are having is our “waking life,” a delusion that continues on and on. When we are in this dream and do not recognize that we are dreaming, then everything we see appears as solid and real, and we do not see any possibilities for transforming our painful experiences. However, when we recognize that we are dreaming, then everything becomes spacious, transparent and free, and all of our confusion and suffering can be easily transformed.

All the teachings of the Buddha are taught for the purpose of developing the penetrating knowledge that sees through this illusion and wakes us up. It is important to realize that these teachings do not constitute a religion in the conventional sense. Rather, they represent a genuine science of mind, a science of insight that uncovers the pure nature of the mind and world that we experience. They also portray a philosophy of life—an approach to life that deals with its meaning and helps us understand how we can overcome the suffering of the world.

When we say that Buddhism is a “science,” we are talking about going into the depths of our inner world using the methods of the path to explore the two basic states of confusion and wisdom. Our resulting understanding of mind brings us greater clarity about how to lead our lives effectively and meaningfully. The spiritual journey is nothing more and nothing less than his.

We may not accept the view that we are “dreaming.” However, most of us recognize a personal sense of self, a familiar face, so to speak, that looks out on the world and reacts habitually to each experience. This sense of self, of “I,” pervades each moment, each interaction, perpetuating itself infinitely. Yet how often or how closely do we look at it?

The two aspects of this self are always together: body is the ground for mind, the stabilizing element that brings mind to the present. The embodied mind can settle, be tamed and be trained, whereas mind without body can go anywhere in an instant. It is when we work with our mind that we overcome whatever we experience physically or mentally as negative or disturbing. So when we discover the actual nature of the body, we are on a genuine path to experiencing the pure nature of mind and its world.

The Body in the Three Yanas

The Buddhist path is divided into three yanas, or vehicles, which represent levels or progressive stages of Buddhist teachings. The Hinayana focuses on individual liberation and the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and dependent origination. The Mahayana focuses on the teachings of emptiness, compassion and buddhanature, and introduces the ideal of the bodhisattva, who is dedicated to the liberation of all sentient beings. The Vajrayana (also called Tantrayana or Mantrayana) is known as the “diamond vehicle,” and also the “path of skillful means.” By taking the state of fruition as the path, this “rapid vehicle” can result in liberation in one lifetime.

Each of the yanas presents a specific view of the body and corresponding methods for investigating and discovering its essence.

The Hinayana view of body focuses on the relative existence of one’s own body as a product of karma and as an impure and impermanent collection of aggregates. The body is taken as an object of meditation to induce the state of renunciation and spur the renunciate to the full state of cessation.

The Mahayana view of body, from the absolute point of view, focuses on the nonexistence of both the body itself and the mind that fixates on the body as a self. From the perspective of relative truth, the Mahayana views the body as inseparable appearance and emptiness. This illusion-like body becomes the basis for understanding the suffering of samsara more deeply and the ground for cultivating a genuine heart of love and compassion for all sentient beings. Moreover, the Mahayana meditation practices take not only one’s own body as an object of consideration, but also the bodies of all sentient beings.

The Vajrayana view of body is that the state of enlightenment is present within one’s physical form at this very moment. Body, speech and mind are regarded as sacred and are seen as the three kayas, or bodies, of buddha—primordially pure expressions of wisdom and compassion.

By looking at the view of the body from the perspective of the three yanas, beginning with the Hinayana, we can see how, through the application of methods of investigation such as the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness and analytical meditation, we can expose this “self” further and further—the self that is pure fabrication, the no-self that is appearance-emptiness, and the state of primordial purity manifesting as the three buddha kayas.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are meditations that cultivate a correct knowledge of the natures of four specific objects: the body, feeling or sensation, the mind and phenomena. (Phenomena here refers to the six objects of our six sensory perceptions: forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touch and mental objects.) In this context, knowledge is primarily that which correctly recognizes relative truth, or the relative characteristics of these four things. However, on the basis of this, there is a gradual development of the higher knowledge that recognizes absolute truth. The Hinayana emphasizes these four mindfulness practices as meditations upon the nature of relative reality, while the Mahayana approach makes use of these practices as a way of realizing the absolute truth.

These four meditations work with the five collections of physical and mental components (known as the five skandhas, or aggregates) that comprise sentient beings: physical forms, sensations, perception, concept or mental formations, and consciousnesses. Among these five, the form skandha relates to the body and the next four are all related to mind. In short, we can say that there are two observed objects of self-clinging: body and mind.

Essentially, the practice of mindfulness consists of investigating these individual objects of meditation in order to discriminate between or distinguish the actual characteristics of the things themselves from the abstractions we create in dependence upon them. For example, the abstraction or concept of “my body” can be distinguished from the aggregate of body itself. The actual body is a physical thing composed of various elements, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with my name for it, my image of it, and so on. 

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