From the outside, Buddhist meditation can seem like it is all about the mind, overlooking the body, which remains seated and still. Those looking for body-centered practices are more likely to look to the t’ai chi or hatha yoga traditions. But Buddhism does place the body at the center of its methods for meditative cultivation. (In fact, hatha yoga was first developed by Tantric Buddhists.) This is true across Buddhist traditions, though they approach the realities of the body and its transformative potential in different ways. I spoke to three Buddhist teachers from the Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada traditions to get a sense of where the body fits in Buddhist practice.
Zen is known for its focus on the practice of zazen, in which one “just sits” (Jpn., shikantaza) in a precise physical posture and enacts one’s enlightened nature by resting as non-grasping, spacious awareness of the body-mind. Zen is also known for its precise rituals—formalized ways of walking, kneeling, bowing, eating, drinking, cooking, and cleaning. For Grace Shireson, a Soto Zen teacher and president of the Shogaku Institute who studied in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, these practices are about vivifying our awareness.
“Zazen amplifies the spacious awareness that we already have … by sitting [and] by letting go of thinking,” Shireson explained. “In embodied Zen activities we feel awareness as it moves through the body, which is also what we do in ritual, in samu [work practice]—we let that awareness express itself. In fact, the body is already saturated with awareness, and the activities we do in Zen help us to experience this awareness and let it become more vivid.”
“I tell beginning students,” said Shireson, “that there are three prongs, body, breath and mind. It’s like putting a plug into the wall, and when we do that then that’s where the power surge is. Awareness is circling in the body; the rituals help us connect with that awareness.”
When I asked Judith Simmer-Brown—a long time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University, where she has taught as a founding faculty member since 1978—how the body is used in Vajrayana practice she corrected me: “We don’t ‘use’ the body: mind and body are inseparable,” she said. “In Tibetan Buddhist practice, we learn to relate to the subtle body—the link between body and mind, which is made up of energy channels—by relating to our direct experience of ourselves non-conceptually. There is a distinction between the way we normally think about the objectified body and the sacred view we develop of the body as an energetic flow.”
Simmer-Brown explained that cultivation of the subtle energy body entails both purifying obstacles and shifting the flow of energy—with the goal of attaining “nonconceptual wisdom,” or the direct experience of awakened awareness.The process Simmer-Brown described uses an array of practices: breath, mantra, chant, visualization, ritual, meditation, and sacred movement. Receiving transmission from a teacher also plays an important role. “In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, you wouldn’t do it without transmission, you can mess up your health by not knowing what you’re doing or not having the proper motivation. A teacher needs to assess [your preparation] and help you identify the best set of tools for you.”
Simmer-Brown acknowledged that working with the body can be challenging: “It’s not easy to embrace the body and deal with all the aspects of the body that sometimes make our existence really confusing and difficult.” Nevertheless, she explained, this work is crucial. “Any spirituality that does not embrace every aspect of our existence is not a very powerful one. The relation to the body is embedded in every practice in Tibetan Buddhism.”
“The body plays several roles in meditation,” said Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism and abbot of Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, California. “To begin with, it’s an object of mindfulness with the purpose of giving rise to concentration. In concentration, you develop a sense of pleasure and allow it to fill the body. That gives you an alternative source of well-being, so that you’re not always going for pleasure from the outside in order to escape pain. You’ve got a better escape. The Buddha compares it to food—nourishment for your efforts in the practice.
“Second, to watch feelings and the mind, you need to have a firm post in the present. Otherwise, your desires can pull you in all directions. The body is what provides that post, from which you can begin to understand the mind to the point where you can penetrate to something timeless.”
The body is central to the meditation the Buddha recommended most often—mindfulness of breathing. “In breath meditation, the Buddha recommends developing a full-body awareness that provides the foundation for developing all the factors needed for awakening,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu said.
These practices show a rich spectrum of practices that emphasize attentiveness to our bodies. In Buddhist training, the body may become a source of inner nourishment, stabilize mindfulness, or amplify our innate spacious awareness. The subtle body of energy may be explored and healed in order to attain wisdom, and we may embody awareness in all of our movements and activities with precision to connect to the body’s intelligence. Through the lens of the dharma, the body is revealed to be a precious gift with which we may pursue the great opportunity of awakening.
As Grace Schireson told me, “The only place we get to practice is in this body, we might get to practice after we die, but who knows?”
She then shared an expression spoken during a dharma transmission ceremony, when a longtime student is authorized to teach. It goes, “Save the body; it is the fruit of many lifetimes.”