In one of his sermons, the Buddha refused to answer the question of whether the body and the mind are distinct or identical.

It is not so much the philosophical, but the practical aspect of this question that is of interest to us here. In meditation, Buddhism places great emphasis on the body, not only to show its ephemeral or impure nature but also as the privileged locus of presence, a presence in the unity of body and mind.

The Satipatthana Sutta invites the meditator to be aware of each position, of each movement of the body. When a meditator is standing, she is aware that she is standing; when she walks, when she stretches or folds her arm, she is aware; when she eats or drinks, she is aware. The Sutra enumerates all kinds of movements and activities.

Munindra, a twentieth-century Indian teacher from Bengal, taught that if a meditator is sitting and he knows that he is sitting, then he is meditating.

But the term knowing is problematic. It is difficult to imagine that a person can sit without knowing it. It may be better to say that a person is aware of sitting, aware of stretching an arm, of turning the head, and so on, or that a person is present in the movement. When a person knows that she is sitting, even if other experiences emerge, she does not lose this knowledge. But when a meditator is aware of sitting, if thoughts do emerge, at this very moment, the awareness of sitting disappears.

Knowledge is as lifeless as things of the past—awareness, or presence, is life in its totality.

But what does it mean to be present in a movement? It is not that we should observe the movement or the sensations; this would lead to knowing. Here we need to be, not to do, to be this presence in movement. Being this movement of the arm, but being as a totality, gets the person in the game. It is being standing, not holding oneself up.  

Some dancers speak of “a body of presence” in order to avoid this body/mind dualism.

Even though it is impersonal, this body of presence is individual. The notion of I would bring the bodily presence back to the opacity and limitation of a concept. Position and movement are ways of being, if they are not subjected to a goal, or recorded by the mind. This does not stop them from being useful, but it takes away the predominance of utilitarianism.

The Bhagavad Gita expresses it this way:

He who sees the inaction that is in action, and the action that is in inaction, is wise indeed. Even when he is engaged in action he remains poised in the tranquility of the absolute.

During walking meditation, one walks forth and back without going anywhere. By taking away all goals, all usefulness, the discovery of being in every movement is enhanced. But this can also be experienced in a useful activity if the agent does not lose himself in the goal.

As dance or theater become disengaged from the critical gaze of the audience, their art comes very close to certain aspects of meditation. They can shed light on essential aspects of meditation in movement through the originality of their research and language.

Mircea Eliade, philosopher and historian of religion, affirmed that the sacred is the place of the densest presence. Therefore, the quest of a dancer or an actor partakes of the spiritual.

Acclaimed theater director Jerzy Grotowski tells his actors:

When I say that the action must engage the whole personality of the actor if his reaction is not to be lifeless, I am not talking of something “external” such as exaggerated gestures or tricks.

This act of the total unveiling of one’s being becomes a gift of the self which borders on the transgression of barriers and love. I call this a total act. 

Grotowski sheds light on the notions of vulnerability and sincerity that are rarely evoked in texts on meditation.

He would challenge his actors about what they wanted from their lives—whether they wanted to hide or to reveal themselves. For him, if a person learns how to do something, she does not reveal herself, she reveals only her skill.

Jerzy Grotowski:

We arm ourselves in order to conceal ourselves; sincerity begins where we are defenseless.

Not to hide simply means to be whole.

The status of the body is ambiguous. Unlike the eye, which does not see itself, and the ear which does not hear itself, the body perceives itself. It is simultaneously the organ of perception and its main perceived object. It is at the same time the subject for me and also an object for me and others. The gaze that I can cast on my body, this way of making it an object, distances myself from it. With respect to my body I adopt a point of view of others, the same values criteria where appearance prevails over being.

A Buddhist text says that when he experiences a bodily sensation, the Buddha does not create an object to be felt, or a subject that feels: while perceiving, there is only perceiving.

From the Kalaka Sutta:

Thus, monks, the Tathagata, when seeing what is to be seen, doesn’t construe an [object as] seen. He doesn’t construe an unseen. He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-seen. He doesn’t construe a seer.

When feeling the body, he doesn’t construe a body sensed, a body to be sensed, he doesn’t construe an experiencer.

When cognizing what is to be cognized, he doesn’t construe an [object as] cognized. He doesn’t construe an uncognized. 

He doesn’t construe an [object] to-be-cognized. He doesn’t construe a cognizer.

The sensation is not what is to be experienced, but the experience itself. It is surprising that there is so much disagreement on the subject of consciousness, because its unveiling is the human experience that presents the highest degree of evidence. This evidence comes from the fact that it does not depend on anything—not on the environment, or an object, or a sensory organ. Consciousness is not something that I have or something that I can know—it is what I am, though in an impersonal way. In order to realize this, we need to free ourselves from the compulsion to know and consent to be.

To meditate in order to realize the nature of the mind is, in itself, simple, but it takes a lot of practice.

Mahamudra teacher Lama Genden Rinpoche instructs:

In meditation, we simply allow our mind to rest in the present moment, to be present in the ungraspable now that is neither the past nor the future. This present moment cannot be grasped by the intellect. It is not an object of intellectual understanding and cannot be described. Trying to hint at it, we may say that it is the awareness of the direct experience of the present—beyond time and space.

Consciousness cannot be grasped. To take a realization of an unchanging nature of consciousness as the end of the spiritual path is a mistake for most Buddhist thinkers.

This pure presence, or pure knowing, as some people call it, this naked awareness held as existing, is the original confusion from which the illusory world of samsara is created.

From Beyond Tranquility: Buddhist Meditations in Essay and Verse by Charles Genoud. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.

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