The Three Pathways of Awakening - Class 2 Rough Notes
By Al Tesshin Billings
I am continuing to take Hokai Sobol’s online course, The Three Pathways of Awakening through Buddhist Geeks. This class is early Sunday mornings. I blogged my notes for the first session last weekend and I am continuing with the second session below.
Three Pathways of Awakening
Class 2 - The Body
May 8, 2011
This session begins the actual content of the course. The subject of this first practical session is the body or the body as pathway of awakening.
Before introducing several aspects of the body as a pathway of awakening, Hokai reads from an allegorical writing to do with the body from chapter 26 of “The Monkey Grammarian” by Octavio Paz.
We move into the exploration of the body as the dimension wherein by deepening our awareness, we are awakening from the moment of beginning to pay attention. People are admonished to pay attention to posture, not just external posture of the body, but the inner posture of being present as the body. This allows us to make this session a body-based practice where we pay attention, listen carefully, hear what is said, and think about it but we do all of this rooted in the body.
Hokai goes back to the example of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, and his discovery of the middle path. Usually when we speak of the middle path, it is a philosophical position (or non-position). A position that avoids extremes of eternalism and annihilation, a position that is based on unfixed approach to experience and lived reality. However, the beginnings of the Buddha’s discovery of the middle path have to do with the Buddha’s relationship to his own body. If you remember the story of his life, he spent his youth surrounded by servants, luxuries, with things available at any given moment. If a difficulty arose, effort would be made to remove it.
After he left his home at court and the luxuries of princely life, he led a very difficult life as a rununciate. He exposed his body to the natural elements. In the beginning it was a somewhat moderate discipline when he followed his initial two meditation teachers. However he embarked on a journey of severe and then extreme austerities. This is the period when he was followed by five companions, fellow ascetics. In this period, he fully explored the opposite of what he experienced living as a prince in the palace. He systematically deprived his body of basic needs, day in and day out. The need for warmth in the night, the need for shelter, the need for food, the need for water, the need for sleep, etc. By following this extreme discipline of asceticism, he brought himself to the brink of death and almost died. By reaching this point, he came to the realization that he would die and lose the opportunity for spiritual realization but also the more important conclusion that when the body is wasted, mind becomes less and less precise, numb, and prone to imbalances, such as hallucinations and loss of clarity. He came to a new strategy of working with the body.
The story tells us that he took food again to gain strength, washed, etc. and abandoned that path. We’ll leave the story at this point but we can see that before forming a philosophical middle path, the Buddha discovered a physical middle path. This physical middle path was a middle path beyond self-mortification and self-indulgence as extremes. He found a path of treating the body in a balanced way, which has proved to be a successful path.
When we think of the Buddha, we think of a statue of a human in a seated lotus position, which has become a symbol of Buddhism throughout the world. That body is, apart from some exceptions, is depicted in a harmonious way with no marks of self-indulgence or self-mortification. This is a powerful symbol of a human being, a symbol of a well rounded or balanced human body. The only exception that we may have at this time is that a female body may work just as well.
Let us do a short exercise for working with the body.
The bell will ring to begin and end the exercise.
The following exercise is resting the body in its natural state. Take a good seated position Sway your body gently forward and backwards, sideways and left and right Relax the midsection of the upper body Plant your feet into the ground (if you’re sitting in a chair, flat on the ground) Make sure your knees are pushing into the ground or that you are comfortable and balanced Make sure your back is straight without straining or rigidity Rest your hands on your thighs comfortably or rest your palms upwards with your left palm under your right with the tips of your thumbs touching Gently extend your neck by slightly pulling the chin inward while gently opening or extending the chest bone without pushing your chest forward Relax your shoulders by taking a deep breath
Now take a second breath, feel the whole body tighten as your breathe in, slightly Feel your body as you hold your breath for a second Feel your body relax a little as you breathe out Maintain the posture
As you breathe in and out for the third time, seek to find balance between holding the posture and relaxing
The basic practice of meditating with the body and sitting with the body consists of just this. Very simply and naturally balancing effort and relaxation as we maintain a body posture that is neither absolutely immovable, but at the same, that is relaxed, that is without unnecessary movement.
Notice the way that the body just is. There is no effort required from the side of your conscious awareness or intention to sit. The body just is. As long we’re here, alive and well. As long as we’re capable of taking a seated position, just able to sit. The body is effortless, available, and open.
The only object of intentions, it is the only place of awareness that we don’t have to look for. Even as a beginner, we find our bodies in a natural way. We just sit and pay attention. We may wander, we may be distracted, we may fall asleep, many things may happen but returning to the body is a natural thing. We do it every morning and it is the basic starting point of the place of awareness.
If there wasn’t this place of awareness, it would be very difficult to decide whether we were conscious or not, whether we are aware or not.
There is a very deep stream of awareness connected to the body that stays bound to the body as long as we live. Even in deep sleep, our body is alert. There is a supple constancy that remains with the body. No matter how deep we sleep, if there is a loud enough sound or a bright light, we will wake up. There is a supple and basic alertness that comes with the body. This alertness is given and requires no effort to maintain.
Recognize this and by taking a deep breath, bring this exercise to conclusion.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a spectrum of attitudes concerning our physical existence, the body as such, the senses, the sensual life. This spectrum of attitudes is biased towards the cautious attitude towards the body. This is in part reflected by the prevailing spiritual culture of the Buddha’s time in India. In part, it is also in connection to the fact of during a significant part of its history, Buddhism spread and maintained its transmission mostly as a monastic spiritual tradition. As we know, monastic people have a specific relationship to the body. Also, finally, this attitude is informed by the fact that Buddhism was very much a male spiritual tradition. Without getting into what that means in detail, there is a strong impulse to conquer the body in the male psychology and take that kind of victory as a measurement of some sort of emancipation from the base or more instinctual urges. As well as the social isolation pursued by some yogis had an effect.
However, even with these historically strong influences, the actual Buddhist practice in regards to meditation is a type of spiritual tradition that cannot function without the body. Meditation cannot be done in a disembodied state. Meditation can not be done properly in a disembodied state, at least! If we bring together all the positive discoveries and qualifications of the body in the shared Buddhist tradition, we can say that the body is recognized as a precious, impermanent human body that has the dharma written all over it. To put it another way, the body is recognized as a precious opportunity that we need to take care of and take advantage of. We have also come to find during modernity, that the body is a product of evolution that took place over billions of years, physically, biologically over millions of years, and culturally over thousands of years. All three of these are, in a way, written all over our bodies. When we begin to become intimate with our embodied state, we meet all of these writings and states and, if we read carefully, we can learn a lot about ourselves and the world we are in.
The important point is that we practice as a body, not just with a body. The body is not just a instrument, vehicle or tool on the path (though we can think of it instrumentally). The body is who we are at a very simple and immediate level. Not who we truly are but also not who we are not. The body stands in the middle between who we are and who we are not. It is a pathway between something we imagine to be and what really is. The body is the tissue that connects these two spheres of reality and unreality.
The main challenge of working with the body in a post-traditional context is to appreciate this body. To appreciate it in its precious dimension as well as its impermanent dimension.
To bring this home, let us venture into the next exercise, another guided reflection. We will ring bell to begin and end.
Let us appreciate this body first. As you sit, take a deep breath, relax, and close your eyes. Bring your attention internally to fill the body.
From the top of the head, fill the body with attention moving downward To the face The belly Legs And finally feet
Let the body fill itself and let it register in your awareness
Now remember the fact that you were actually born. On a certain day, a certain hour, 20, 40, 60 or more years ago. You were born. You had your first breath. You were born from a mother with whom you shared a body for nine months before birth.
You were born mortal. Remember this.
Let your birth and your mortality register in your body. Your body knows the fact of birth and the fact of mortality. It knows them in every cell, in every breath or heartbeat.
In the space between these two facts of birth and death, acknowledge the potential that is available to you as a living body. This potential may be personal, it may be impersonal, but it is a very rich potential. Basically, according to the Buddhadharma, the core of this potential is wakefulness. In the Vajrayana traditions, it is the threefold decision of body speech and mind, the body stands as the fact of wakefulness, not just the potential.
Now, as you acknowledge the potential available to you as a living body, secular or sacred, acknowledge that the body IS this potential on a deeper level. Not just on ordinary level of the flesh but on the extraordinary level in which the body is the pathway without which there would be no potential at all. By acknowledging this potential , allow a sense of gratefulness and humility to arise. Gratefulness to the mother and to all the mothers that have come before her. In this way, we are connected to many and gratefulness should arise and a sense of this and humility to arise to take advantage of this opportunity and to make a decision to not squander this living body. Only a living body is a body. Without life, it is just a corpse.
By breathing in fully and breathing out, allow this acknowledging effort to dissolve and bring this exercise to a close.
This is at the second exercise intended to bring up some of the emotional and conceptual resistances that are often shared by whole societies and cultures. These are most often dealt with in preliminary stages of any serious spiritual path. In this case, a little modified to include the fact that we now see and understand the body, in the 21st century, significantly differently. Not to say we understand the body more but our view of the body has been changed by scientific advances. The body still appears mysterious to us, possibly more mysterious as we know more.
It is important to say that treating the body at the beginning is very useful and constructive for spiritual practice.
At least three dangers are avoided by having a good grasp of the body as a spiritual pathway:
- The first danger to be avoided is to cut off the tendency to use the spiritual path to bypass the body. To transform spirituality to some kind of seeking for spiritual transcendence of the body.
- The second pitfall that is avoided by treating the body totally at the beginning of the spiritual journey is to avoid being unconsciously angered by the body or the instincts, which are just a part of bodily nature.
- The third danger that can be avoided is the dualistic approach that sees the body as a useful instrument but sees the mind as the actual active part of the spiritual journey. There is no mind without a body, just as there is no body without a mind (it is a corpse).
The combination of body/mind is our relative identity. When we are ask “Who does the spiritual journey?”, we can answer that it is the body/mind that does the spiritual journey. The image of the body that we have is not the body/mind, nor is what we see in the mirror. It is not the way we look. It is not our gender or ethnicity. It is not our age or our relative health. The body that we speak of is the actual and immediate lived feeling of being here. It is not the power of now. It is the power of here. It is the power of being here and receiving whatever comes up. This is the body that we are discussing.
This consideration creates a huge contrast between being embedded in this reality and embodied in this physical world. In the Vajrayana tradition, the body is seen as the synonym of our fundamental intentionality or purpose. Especially in the more ritualized versions of tantric practice, most often called “sadhana,” body gestures (known as “mudras”) are used to seal the words we pronounce in the ritual and also to seal the realized part of the practice, or the intentionality that is mental action or emotional tone. The gestures are used as a mudra as a sort of seal of intentionality. The body is used as a sort of confirmation that we really mean what we mean. We need to “walk the talk” in that the body and verbal or mental action should be congruent.
The body is very important and serves as a bridge between the secular and sacred. As long as this division exists in ourselves or our society, the contemplative body serves as a bridge.
Let us look at the way the four seals of the view work with this.
All conditioned things are impermanent
When we say all things are impermanent, we mean that the body is a river. It is never the same body twice, moment to moment, but there is also a continuity there. Without continuity, there is no experience or knowledge of impermanence.
All phenomena are empty without inherent existence
This requires a certain depth of spiritual experience where we can feel that the body is hollow or empty. In intense spiritual practice where there is a physical component included, such as mantra recitation, our senses will open and we will experience the body as a sort of huge sense organ in which all sense expressions simply enter our experience without a division between inner and outer. We can also approach this line through reason or logical means. To see how the body is an example of this line is to realize that our body is not one but it is composed of many individual parts. We can even live without many of these parts, such as a finger or an eye, without feeling that we are gone. The body is also not many things because we would have many bodies. We recognize that the body is not one or many. This allows us to enter a way of thinking about the body without entering into the normal conceptual frameworks. We can directly experience the nature the body without entering the concepts of the body.
All dualistic experience is inherently painful
Who we really are is not the body yet we live as this body. This is a paradox that serves as a pathway in itself. If we think we have this body, we think we really really are born, we really really live, and we really really die. We are this physical experience and then we’re gone. There is obviously a problem with this view that is apparent to us. There is a problem with the opposite of this view. If we decide we aren’t this body, then this experience is intrinsically painful. It is painful to live, to be born, to die. It is unacceptable. Whether we choose to resolve this dualism that we are this body or that we are not this body, it doesn’t work either way. Either choice results in unnecessary painful experience and this proliferates into pain emotions, painful relationships, and painful spirituality. Our spirituality becomes an attempt to run away from the body or deals with the body as something that needs to be “fixed.” We tell ourselves myths that with awakening, we will literally achieve another body. We need to recognize that the body is a treasure trove to which treasure we need to awaken.
Nirvana is peace and without concept
Body, speech, and mind leads to awakening by neither craving or rejecting the body in this world. Even this fourth line is to be realized as we embody our pathway by neither craving nor rejecting the body or the world. This leads to awakening.
These are the four seals. Let us move onto the concluding exercise.
Make sure you are seated conformably with a good posture Sitting straight up and yet relaxed Move forward and backward and left and right if you need to Allow your hands to rest on your thighs or in your lap
Now, as you elevate your neck a little bit, touch the palate with the tup of your tongue Elevate your gaze a little, keep your eyes open for this exercise. Allow your chest to open a bit without pushing your upper body
Breathe in and breath out as you allow the body to feel itself and to register in your awareness
Recognize that posture is a statement of a certain life purpose Allow the posture that you hold to be such a statement Allow this posture to be the seal of what this is about Allow this posture to be still as you breathe in and relaxed as you breathe out
As you sit, you sit as who you really are.
Feel this body that is the statement of awareness Feel the contact with the ground or chair Feel the air on your face Feel the mixture and bend of sensations of heaviness, solidity, warmth, softness and spaciousness that is this body Feel it all at once
Feel the breathing Feel the heartbeat in the background and the buzz in your nerves
Now without moving the focus of your awareness away from the tactic sensations, allow your awareness to expand to simultaneously register sounds You can hear other sounds but also the space of silence around or between sounds, even within sounds
Feel the tactile sensations Feel the auditory sensations
Allow your awareness to expand to visual sensations Allow your gaze to be unfocused and relaxed
If your gaze is a little downwards, you can lift it now a little forward
Now you are not just aware of your body but you are also aware of your immediate environment
Allow the tactile, auditory, and visual sensations to appear simultaneously as one field of awareness Trust in your body
No special skill is required for this. If you get lost, just return to the tactile sensations and then expand to sound and then to light. Expand and come back to it.
Now gently return to the posture at the center of awareness With a deep breath, bring this exercise to a conclusion.
Some of us are new to this sort of practice but even experienced practitioners need to come back to basic technique and simple and elegant awareness and skills. We need to develop the skills here again and again no matter what our practice is like.
Now to conclude this exploration of the body as a pathway, there are a few remarks.
It is important how we treat the body and the bodied of others. Not just how we regard them but how we treat them. The nature of the attention that we pay to the body is important. The prevailing popular culture says that we pay attention to how the body appears but we need to balance this with actually taking care of the body. We need to give the body good nutrition and sufficient movement or exercise, especially if we are in situations that do not normally do this. It is important to recognize that there is the social dimension of the body. The body in general is treated in extreme ways. It is either seen obsessively or it is basically neglected. This is not just the physical body but also the physical body as a symbol or seal of our spirituality, as the confirmation that we are here. The body is rarely appreciated in a way in line with this, the power of here.
It doesn’t matter if it is my body, my partner’s body, my child’s body, or even my enemy’s body. The body is a universal part of experience.
Questions and Answers
Question: What is meant by inner posture versus external posture?
Answer: External posture means that posture that others can see. Even without looking at ourselves, we can normally feel the posture we are in, especially with a little movement to refresh sensation. There is an inner posture that is the inner experience of sitting that may feel very different in how the body feels. This can even change between sittings in a given day, such as on retreat, even if the outer posture is identical. The internal posture is not just how the body feels. It also has something to do with subtle intentionality. How the body feels on the inside is part of inner posture and is affected by our intentions when we seat. Our attitudes subtly shift the experience of sitting. There are even tantric approaches to do with channels and energy that will shift this as well. The inner posture consists of the interior feeling of sitting and the quality behind our intention of sitting.
Question: You said “Who does the spiritual journey?” and you said “The body/mind.” Can you elaborate on this?
Answer: This is best answered by doing the journey but the theoretical basis for the answer may come from different places. At the risk of being vague or non-specific, there is more than one way to answer this question. The strictly early strata of Buddhist teachings preserved in the Pali Canon or often preserved in the Theravadan school would say that the answer of “who does the journeying?” they would say “No one does but the journeying occurs.” The questions asked in other strata lead to different answers and the questions themselves become a journey or a practice. The Mahayana basically answers this question that from the relative point of view, it is the individual that does the journey. From the absolute point of view, “What journey?” The journey only occurs because of the relative experience of the person. The beginning and end points of the journey are not divided but are simply hidden by the veils of experience of human beings as unawakened beings. This is part of the difference between relative and absolute views. The later Mahayana teachings known as the Buddha Nature teachings basically say that the journey is the process of Buddha Nature discovering itself through human experience. This Buddha Nature approach attempts to explain how the relative and ultimate are resolved into non-separation in our lives. The relative and the ultimate are two sides of the path that are resolved through our journey. I, Hokai, say that someone does this journey but, on investigation, the empty nature of the self becomes clear through the journey.
Comment from Larry: Mindfulness in body practices usually is applied in yoga, martial arts, or sports.
Hokai: Mindfulness as a notion in the Buddhist teaching is spoken of in four stages
- mindfulness of the body
- mindfulness of feelings or feeling tone
- mindfulness of mind states
- mindfulness of phenomena or inclusive mindfulness
The fourth category embraces the previous three categories and to recognize the four marks of existence. The division of body, speech, and mind can be fit into this scheme with the body being mapped to mindfulness of the body. The speech division is mapped onto the next two divisions. The mind division is then mapped to the mindfulness of phenomena or inclusive mindfulness. Dividing the spectrum into three categories of body, speech and mind maps the body to more coarse phenomena, speech to subtle phenomena, and mind to the most subtle. This is common in the later Vajrayana teachings. In early teachings, these visions of coarse, subtle, and very subtle are mapped each to body, speech, and mind and mindfulness is applied to them in each division.
In the context of sports or other activities, mindfulness is meant of bringing awareness to these things. In a Buddhist context, mindfulness means paying attention to the nature of things and not forgetting the nature. Mindfulness is always a strategy for developing insight, not just of being aware. This means it is a means of penetrating the veils and seeing the true nature of things and to experience the four seals directly.
We conclude with refuge and dedication.
I take refuge in the wakefulness: vast, blissful, and emanating. I take refuge in the truth: ever-present, open, and changing. I take refuge in the congregation of all conscious beings. Through this practice I realize my true nature, and bring benefit to all.
Next sunday, we will cover the speech section of the course.