We were once self-luminous beings who fed on joy, lived in a state of bliss, were made of attention, and could go wherever we wished. But according to the Buddhist story of creation in the Mahavastu, one of us ate a mouthful of the “essence of earth,” and other beings, seeing his pleasure, followed suit. So began our descent. As the beings ate more of this ordinary food, their bodies became heavy, rough, and hard, and all of the luminous qualities were lost.

Where do we find ourselves now? According to the Mahavastu, violence and suffering arise from our appetites, our desire, our greed to feed the impulses of pleasure that have their source in the heavy bodies that cover up our original nature. We live in bodies of desire. But if I catch a glimpse of myself at some random moment during the day, the chances are good that I will find myself in my mind. I will discover that I am daydreaming, or rehearsing a conversation I am about to have or have just finished, or planning my escape from work. I might even be concentrating on some problem that needs my attention, like organizing a lecture or figuring out how to make the month’s mortgage payment. Whatever the source of my musings, this much is true: like so many people, I am living in my head.

In the movie version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Robin Williams plays the King of the Moon, and through his role he throws into comic relief the illusory life of modern men and women living under a lunar influence. The King of the Moon appears as a disembodied head, floating and spinning in space. He is arrogant, self-congratulatory, cocky, taking his limitless freedom for granted as he coldly and condescendingly imparts his wisdom to everyone below. But there is one problem: he has forgotten his body.

Throughout most of the movie, the king’s body remains offscreen. When the body does appear, it exposes most embarrassingly the illusion of his autonomy: the body, it would seem, has a mind of its own. And the moon, like a kite on an invisible string, is suddenly subject to the powerful tug of the flesh. His body is suffering independently through its own desires and interests, distracted mainly by the pleasures of eating and the body of the queen. The king is split in two—a mind and a body—and out of that split all the inconvenient questions of self-identity, freedom, and unity arise. The king’s unresolved and cyclical suffering speaks for humanity; with him we can say (in St. Augustine’s words):

“I have become a problem to myself.”

Our dismay at the rude realization that the body is not our ready servant is similar to the king’s distress. Quickly, we avert our heads, treating the body as an object, as the source of all our problems and suffering. Our separate body is, at the very least, an unpredictable, unreliable, and unknown companion with which we are very uncomfortable. Some of that discomfort comes from desire, from our sense of needs both real and imaginary.

In Buddhism, the cyclical suffering of samsara is fueled by one’s desire-nature. Craving depends on an automatic arising of feelings of like or dislike, of pleasure or pain, and some early practitioners sought release with ritualistic asceticism and self-denial. But through our alienation from our own bodies, we drive ourselves ever farther away from ourselves. We become dis-embodied.

Experiencing the world dualistically is a habit of mind that Buddhism and other traditions have addressed throughout the ages. However, through Buddhism, and especially through the practice of meditation, we discover that the sense of self—the subject—is changing all the time, just as the object—that which is seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted by the subject-self—changes. But we begin to see that the cause of samsaric existence is not dualism per se; rather, it is the emotional impulses that result from conceptualization, such as liking and disliking, that give rise to samsara.

Ultimately, our overidentification with the head—with what we think, with the thoughts and dreams that arise from our worrying, imagining, heavy heads—is a habit reinforced by our modern material and cultural conditions. We have withdrawn into our heads more and more as the conditions of contemporary life have become progressively less balanced. Today, as we move through the postindustrial information age, the body that concurrently thinks and works is rapidly disappearing; physical work is limited more and more to our fingers, pushing buttons on everything from computer keyboards and cell phones to Palm Pilots and Game Boys. We are losing not only our heads but our bodies as well.

Our culture is arriving at the point where “embodied thought” is an oxymoron; our estrangement from our embodied selves is so complete it renders the body largely invisible. As we withdraw into the thought-world, we develop the belief that the body is an extension of the self and that it will serve the self, that it will serve me. Ignorant of dependent origination and the unfolding processes of life’s influences and action, when anything happens we habitually claim, “I did it,” blindly unaware of the contingent forces, fears, and attractions that actually led to that result. But despite the dominant cultural myth that the head controls the body, the connection between the two is far more complex. Consider a study done several years ago on the habits of smokers: researchers found that movement of the body—the arm reaching for a cigarette—preceded the thought I want a cigarette. Who is leading whom? Where does the origin of action reside?

This way of thinking about the body and head is not at all foreign to modern thinkers. So-called “Freudian slips” demonstrate in their often salacious puns the ungrounded body, blurting out its King-of-the-Moon urges. When our real situation dawns on us, when we begin to feel the palpable realities of being embodied, the body appears as a problem, and the training of asceticism may begin. The body and the material world are seen as impure, corrupt, ephemeral, shadowed, transient, and dominated by the principle of death. For the Buddha, perhaps there was also an element of fear when he began the journey toward liberation. Without knowing the body in depth, we recoil from the confusion and persistence of impulses that drive us, despite our intentions. We begin to see the body as the enemy, and images of heaven, liberation, and deathlessness take on a transcendental quality—that the body and the world are to be escaped from, and we flee the world and embodiment.

But before we reject this ascetic mode entirely, we need to consider the countless stories—from Buddha to Milarepa to Bodhidharma—of self-initiated struggle, and of teachers who made extraordinary demands on their disciples. These teachers worked with the connections between physical and intellectual practices to energize and inspire the spiritual path of their students.

When he was twenty-seven, the great Dzogchen master Longchen Rabjam met his guru, Rigdzin Kumaradza. While studying with his teacher, Longchen Rabjam lived under conditions of severe deprivation, with meager food and hardly any protection against the Tibetan winter. Like the other disciples, Longchen Rabjam lived in a tent or a makeshift lean-to. As Tulku Thondup notes in The Practice of Dzogchen: “To combat the development of attachment, it was the Lama’s teaching to move the camp from one no-man’s-land to another. During one spring alone, they moved camp nine times, and that caused great hardship to Longchen Rabjam. Just as he got settled, the time would come to move again.” The hardships that Longchen Rabjam experienced on these moves were not a rejection or devaluation of the body; they were conditions that revealed the conflict between his wish for liberation and the desires of his body.

Great yogis and yoginis see and experience the depth and breadth of their attachment, their slavery to likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain. The struggle is not easy, and a real conflict exists between one’s intentions: one’s wish to become free (bodhicitta) and the desires of the body and mind. Does one want comfort or truth? Would one choose pleasure or freedom? In a moment of real struggle not to give in to the body’s desire, a new awareness can appear—an awareness that is neither attracted nor repulsed, that is separate and free from the forces of like and dislike. One begins to value this new awareness (and the quality of freedom that arises with it) more than the avoidance of pain or the indulgence of pleasure. As the ordinary body and mind experience the friction of conflict, they become more subtle, available to more refined qualities of consciousness, feeling, and awareness.

A realization story repeated by the late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in As It Is reflects a movement toward agendaless awareness. It concerns the first Sabchu Rinpoche:

Before he died, a horrible disease struck him; his stomach became one big, open sore. Finally, all his intestines were lying out in his lap. The pus, liquids, and blood ran out onto the floor, all the way out to the door. There were definitely bodily sensations, and he wanted to scratch at it all the time, so he asked to have his hands tied. They were tied with a white scarf to stop him from scratching. His disciples said, “Oh Rinpoche! This must be so difficult; it must be really painful for you.” He said, “I’m not sick at all; there is nothing wrong with me.” They said, “How terrible, all the pus and blood is flowing down the floor.” He answered, “There is an old monk sitting on this bed; he seems to be moving around quite uncomfortably. He wants to scratch his belly, but for me there is nothing wrong at all. I am not sick at all. However, there is someone who looks like me sitting right here. He seems to be suffering quite a bit, but I am fine.”

As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche comments: “If you are stable in practice, it is like that.” There may be suffering, but one is no longer identified with it.

Still, the body is not only a source of suffering, but also the potential source of a mysterious wisdom; as we are transformed through struggle and practice, the awakening body reveals what has been concealed. We read in the Sambhuti:

The great wisdom dwells in the body, Fully away from all thoughts. It dwells in the body but is not produced by the body.

One’s being is revealed in materiality, in embodiment. Sri Anirvan, a great Baul—a member of an ancient order of singers in northern India—wrote, “All spiritual experiences are sensations in the body. They are simply a graded series of sensations, beginning with the solidity of earth and passing gradually, in full consciousness, through liquidness and the emanation of heat to that of a total vibration before reaching the Void.”

The body appears as the witness of one’s being, a matrix in which awareness is reflected in the arising, release, ordering, and circulation of energies. The awakened body of meditation and discipline is experienced energetically, and Buddhist tradition establishes a language, often symbolic, that reveals the exact nature of the more subtle structures of our embodied nature and the patterns of energy that appear. For the great yogi Milarepa, years of solitary meditation under extreme conditions—and with little regard for his body’s comforts or needs—culminated in a decisive moment when, after eating and drinking more substantially, he felt his progress had stopped utterly, and he was unable to meditate. The moment had been anticipated by his guru, Marpa, who had given him a scroll to be opened at this time. The scroll gave Milarepa essential advice on improving his practice, telling him specifically to take good food at this time. Upon taking Marpa’s advice, Milarepa recognized a mysterious transformation that was taking place in his body:

I understood that, through the force of my former perseverance in meditation, my nerves had absorbed creative energy. Due to my inferior food, the energy remained inactive. . .  Following the directions on the scroll, I worked hard on the vital exercises recommended for body, breathing, and meditation. As a result, the obstructions in the smaller nerves as well as those in the median nerves were cleared away. I attained an experience of joy, lucidity, and pure awareness similar to what I had known about in theory.

—Lhalungpa, The Life of Milarepa

The struggle begins to reveal an openness. My wish to struggle with myself is no longer a wish to be free from pain (and certainly not a wish to be free from my body), but a wish to be free. The body is no longer a suspicious enemy. I enter into it, I wish to become familiar with it, and this happens from the inside. I know a new openness toward the body, an asceticism of consciousness, of awareness. We are told that while meditating and practicing his extreme austerities, the Buddha suddenly remembered that as a child, sitting under a tree, he had become aware of breathing, and following his breathing, he had naturally and effortlessly watched without distraction as he passed through the four states of consciousness and concentration. Remembering this natural realization, the Buddha gave up his breathing exercises, fasting, and other extreme demands on his body. His practice shifted from forceful effort and doing to recognition of a nondistracted awareness and a fearless, relaxed, more conscious meditation. The Buddha’s shift seems to suggest that there is a tremendous support hidden in our bodies: an organic, instinctual support.

Can we find that support as we are, in our rough and heavy bodies, driven by attractions to pleasure and the avoidance of pain? Between indulgence and renunciation, something magical begins to happen, a new attitude and new attention toward the body appears—a searching awareness, without agenda, to see what is. The body becomes less fearful, less self-protective, and begins to reveal its mysteries, gradually becoming an ally in the search for reality and freedom. Here we are reminded of the many images of the serpent Muchalinda, representing the reptilian brain, which controls the body’s most basic drives, instinctual activities, and impulses of survival— sex, eating, breathing. Suggesting the transformation of these energies, Muchalinda rises up, spreading his hood over the meditating Buddha to protect him, now willingly and mysteriously serving the search for liberation.

In becoming aware of the body and establishing a living and immediate connection between the body and the mind, I begin to see the force of like and dislike that Buddhism insists is the fundamental slavery of sleeping men and women. Here again a strange thing happens. As I enter into my body, I not only see more clearly the force of my automatic judgments but also become more aware of my seeing and the freedom it brings. There is a kind of emptiness and fluidity in this awareness; that which is seen is transformed, revealing an energetic quality. In this light, the embodiment of a Buddha, the physical manifestation of enlightened reality in a body, is an extraordinary accomplishment. In Tibetan Buddhism the appearance of the nirmanakaya, the physical body of the Buddha, is sometimes referred to as the “Great Movement”—a movement of incarnation and formless reality into form.

The magic of emptiness, of changing qualities and forms of embodiment appearing and disappearing, is at the heart of the more advanced Tantric practices. Rechungpa, one of Milarepa’s two main disciples, said:

The lineage I hold is the lineage of meditation instructions that benefit the mind. If these meditation instructions were taken away by the mouth of reasoning, it would be a great loss.

If we look at the body externally, it is an illusory body. It has no longevity, but in fact it is the body from which the body of the Buddha arises. Since it is the foundation from which the body of the Buddha arises, we shouldn’t just see it as an ordinary body. We should meditate on it as the body of a deity. To see our body as the body of a deity is very important.

—Thrangu Rinpoche, Rechungpa: A Biography of Milarepa’s Disciple

Deity yoga is a meditative form that calls for visualizing oneself in the body of Buddha, in a special mode called “taking imagination as the spiritual path.” In this form, one realizes that one is imperfect, but cultivates the divine body. It is meant to be a difficult but swift path. The Dalai Lama reports how he was touched by the “flesh” of the gods:

When I was a young boy, Tantra was just a matter of blind faith. At age twenty-four, I lost my own country, and then after coming to India, I really started reading Tsongkhapa’s [renowned reformer and founder of the Gelugpa school] explanations on emptiness. Then, after moving to Dharamsala, I put more effort into the study and practice of the stages of the path, emptiness, and Tantra. So it was only in my late twenties, after gaining some experience of emptiness, that deity yoga made sense. One time in the main temple in Dharamsala, I was performing the ritual of imagining myself as a deity, Highest Yoga Tantra, called Guhyasamaja. My mind continuously remained on the recitation of the ritual text, and when the words “I myself” came, I completely forgot about my usual self in relation to my combination of mind and body. Instead, I had a very clear sense of “I” in relation to the new, pure combination of mind and body of Guhyasamaja that I was imagining. Since this is the type of self-identification that is at the heart of Tantric yoga, the experience confirmed for me that with enough time, I could definitely achieve the extraordinary, deep states mentioned in the scripture.

—How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life

As Buddhism has been introduced to the West, we have heard and read extraordinary things about the mind, but the body has been less emphasized. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche once said that awareness without form is like a man without legs, and the body without awareness is like a blind man. Consciousness, awareness, and form must meet—like a lame man riding on the back of a blind man, they need each other. Consciousness needs to manifest, and manifestation needs consciousness.

We often hear, from the Buddhist point of view, that we live in the dark ages. That is a paradox for us as we consider the body. Certainly, recent advances in medicine and health are extraordinary. But at the same time, our advances seem to have hidden costs. We also live in a culture that invented advertising and the consumer society. The mission of Madison Avenue is to make us feel that we need to have things for happiness, ratcheting up the desire nature, lighting fires wherever possible. But of course, we also know that the teachings state that when things get really bad, the antidote becomes clear. For some, the indulgence and consumption of our heavy bodies (and the work and conflict to feed our appetites) have become increasingly unbearable at the same time that extraordinary new and old teachings make their appearance in the West. Maybe there is still time to find our self-luminous natures that feed on joy. 

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