Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche - The Wisdom of the Body & the Search for the Self

A great article from Shambhala Sun - they are making older articles freely available (which they always have been) in their RSS feed. Very fluffy. This is great article on how Buddhism deals with the body in its various schools.

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.

The Hinayana Approach: Reversing Attachment to Self

From the Hinayana point of view, the body is the basis for the self-clinging that is said to be the cause of suffering. At the same time, the body is viewed as the main basis for the path that leads to the transcendence, or cessation, of suffering. Thus, the body is both a fundamental cause of suffering as well as that which suffers; in addition, it is a fundamental cause of liberation because it is that which engages in the path of transcendence.

In a basic way, the mindfulness of body relates to our fundamental sense of existence. Due to our samsaric tendencies, our existence is normally not very stable or grounded; it is very wild, like a mad elephant. For that reason, at the first stage of mindfulness practice, we work with the existence of form. In particular, we work with three different levels of form: the outer form of our physical existence, the inner form of our perceptions, and the innermost form, which is related to the Mahayana understanding of the selflessness of body.

We work with the outer form of our physical existence by bringing our complete attention to the physical body, which is the primary basis for our clinging. When we work with mindfulness of body, we work with the basic root of emotions, which is attachment. The method of practice is to feel the body within the state of calmness, or shamatha. We simply experience the skandha of form without adding anything to it—without adding any labels, judgments or thoughts, such as, “This is my body,” “This is a good body,” “This is a beautiful body,” “It is so healthy,” “It is so unhealthy,” and so forth. The instruction here is just to drop it all. At this point, we are simply being open. By bringing body into the present, we come into contact with what body actually is, rather than continuing to think about what it actually is.

What we are working toward is seeing the actual nature of the outer form of our body, without concern for speculations, such as, “Is the body mind or matter? Is the body a projection of mind or not?” At this level, we should forget about such philosophical or theoretical divisions. The Buddha teaches this basic approach in the sutras when he says such things as, “When you see, just see. When you smell, just smell. When you touch, just touch. When you feel, just feel.”

Once we are able to simply sit and be with our body, then it is possible for us to have a sense of the profound nature of our physical existence. That experience takes us to the inner state of physical existence, allowing us to see the true nature of our body, the reality of the relative existence of self. At this stage, we experience the impermanent nature of our body, which is the subtle experience of the mindfulness of body. It is said that as a result of this technique, we begin to feel our body in a way that is completely different from our ordinary experience. We actually begin to feel the empty nature of the body. The body naturally leads us to the experience of shunyata, or emptiness. Usually, we experience only the labels we impose on our body. When we look at ourselves in a mirror, we see nothing more than our conceptual mask. What is the problem with putting on this mask? We forget that we are wearing a mask and we scare ourselves. Practicing mindfulness of body is a way to experience the true self—the true body—without any barrier.

Reversing Attachment to Body

In the Hinayana tradition, mindfulness of body is also practiced using the method known as the “meditation on ugliness,” or the “meditation on that which is repulsive.” The object of one’s meditation, in this case, includes both one’s own body and the bodies of others. Traditionally, one reflects on how our bodies are impure or unclean, to counteract the perception of our bodies as pure, and the five skandhas are viewed as “aggregates of filth.” This meditation engenders a sense of disgust toward the body and strengthens our sense of renunciation, of wishing to be free of samsara.

This attitude of revulsion is generated in stages by means of the “ten perceptions of the body.” The first of these is the perception of the body as mortal, the recognition that death could occur at any time. The next meditation works with the perception of the body as being ugly or gross by reflecting on all of the unpleasant things that are inside our body, such as blood, lymph, phlegm and other foul and revolting things. The remaining eight perceptions are based on considering what happens to a body after death.

Although we are very attached to our bodies right now, if we think about these a great deal, then our perception of our bodies will change. Essentially, we are attempting to divest ourselves of whatever it is that we are fixating on as “I” or as a self through contemplating the dissolution of the body, until finally we realize that there is no basis in the body for the concept “I.” This meditation should only be done under the guidance of a qualified Buddhist teacher.

Contemplating impermanence is another method for reversing our attachment to the body and inspiring us to take advantage of the precious opportunity of this life that allows us to cut attachment. When we reflect on death and impermanence, we reflect on the certainty of death as well as the uncertainty of the moment of death. We also contemplate the kinds of experiences we will have at the time of death, and what will truly help us through them. We consider what we are leaving behind—our physical body, our family and friends, all our possessions and power, and even our teachers.

When we reflect in this way, we see that this reality is not frozen—it is flowing like a river. Every moment is new, fresh and profoundly awakening. We can take full advantage of this moment or let it slip from our hands, just as each moment in the past has slipped away. That is seeing impermanence: seeing the transitory nature of our lives and the fragile nature of our existence.
Go read the whole article.

1 comment:

Ashin said...

I wonder why the Venerable would compare two living traditions, Mahayana and Vajrayana, with a tradition that no longer exists, Hinayana, which as most people know died out with the last of the eighteen schools hundreds of years ago and of which Theravada was never a part!

If he was referring to Theravada as Hinayana, putting aside the misnomer, he doesn't give a very complete picture. He is correct in saying the Theravadans use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the meditation technique, but seems to stop at only the body as meditation object. Body is the START of mindfulness meditation, followed by feelings, mind and lastly ultimate realities (dhamma), the irreducible components of "reality". While I have never heard the term "nature of relative reality" especially as a goal of "Theravadan meditation", one typically tries to "see things as they really are" (are these terms synonymous?) which means to see all conditioned things as impermanent and unsatisfactory and that all things, including Nibbana/Nirvana, are without self. These would be the "absolute truth", or "noble truth (ariyasacca)" taught by the Buddha to be experienced by the practitioner.

Hope this doesn't come across as "Angry Theravada Monk", it's not supposed to :) It is curious to no end though that a tradition that tries to see non-duality in all things maintains this lesser/greater duality on the one hand, and on the other subliminally invalidates the achievements of all those who have attained various measures of liberation, including Nibbana, over the millenia.