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Mindfulness of the Body

by Bhante Pemaratana
Pittsburgh Buddhist Center

The body is a very important tool in Buddhist meditation. Although meditation is primarily a mind-training, the body has not been ignored or considered a burden in Buddhism. In fact, the practice of Buddhist meditation starts with developing the mindfulness of the body. The body is viewed as an anchor to keep the mind in the present moment. Reflecting on the current posture of the body can bring our mind into the present moment automatically. Mindfulness on the postures (iriyāpatha) is practiced widely as a way to live in the present moment.

Focusing on the body in meditation has a greater purpose too. It is to help practitioners to overcome common misunderstanding or perversion with regard to the body and develop a deeper realization of the true nature of the body. Most of our defilements have their origin in our perverted views of the body. In the Buddhist discourses, we find three main perverted views that we generally maintain with regard to our bodies. First, we tend to view our body as a solid entity. Secondly, we tend to see our own body and other bodies as objects of desire. In other words, we take bodies to be attractive and worth clinging to. Thirdly, we look at our body as something that belongs to us. We think that we own our body.

These viewpoints are seen in Buddhism as very natural but not accurate. Based on these distorted views, we develop mental tendencies that bring conflict and suffering to our lives. With the first perverted view, we can develop pride and arrogance when our bodies are youthful and healthy. The Buddha pointed out the possibility of getting intoxicated based on our bodily conditions. Three of such intoxications have been recognized: intoxication with youth, intoxication with health and intoxication with (long) life (Anguttara Nikaya 3.38). These forms of intoxication can lead a person to exalt himself and disparage others. Second perverted view can mislead us to believe that human bodies as a source of enjoyment. Of course, human bodies provide temporary gratifications and we enjoy tactile sensations. However, the body cannot be regarded as an enduring base for our happiness. The true nature of the body does not support such a continuous enjoyment. It is mainly a living organism with so many parts and functions. Its goal is not necessarily to function as a source of enjoyment. Viewing bodies in this perverted way not only deceives us but also lead us to engage in bodily and verbal misconduct. The last perverted view is the basis for our grief, sorrow and lamentation when our bodies are growing old and getting sick. When we cannot keep the body the way we would like it to be, we experience different levels of disappointments and frustrations.

Reflection on the true nature of the body is recommended by the Buddha as a way of overcoming these perversions. Various techniques of developing mindfulness of the body aim to correct these distortions and make us realize the true nature of the body. One key method of developing mindfulness of the body is to contemplate on the major parts of the body. This is to look at the body not as a single whole but as a composite of a different yet interrelated parts. This is done both briefly and elaborately. In brief method, the most basic and visible body parts are contemplated by reciting “head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, and skin.” These five parts of the body are recited forward and backward repeatedly. During the ordination ceremonies, the new novice monks are instructed to do this meditation at the spot. This is the first instruction for meditation a monk receives. In the extended method, the 32 major parts of the body are contemplated. This is done by reciting these 32 parts one by one in a particular order. The standard recitation for this meditation is as follows:
In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine (Kāyagatāsati Sutta, M iii 88).

When such a contemplation is done on regular basis, one begins to understand the body as a natural organism consisting of various parts and systems. One comes to realize that it not a solid entity but a fragile system. It is not an attractive object to be consumed or enjoyed but a live organism to be respected. When one understands the body as a community of various parts and systems, he or she can look at the body impersonally as a natural process. No one can claim ownership to the body.

The Buddha taught that realization of the true nature of the body is essential for one’s spiritual development. He states,
whoever develops & pursues mindfulness immersed in the body encompasses whatever skillful qualities are on the side of clear knowing. Just as whoever pervades the great ocean with his awareness encompasses whatever rivulets flow down into the ocean, in the same way, whoever develops & pursues mindfulness immersed in the body encompasses whatever skillful qualities are on the side of clear knowing.

The lack of this deeper understanding of the body provides a room for defilements to grow and to engage in unwholesome karma. One loses one’s ability purify one’s mind. The Buddha says, “In whomever mindfulness immersed in the body is not developed, not pursued, Mara gains entry, Mara gains a foothold.” This means that we become victims to our own defilements.

The mindfulness of the body can also develop a higher level of resilience to unfavorable conditions we face in our lives. In the Kayagatasati Sutta, the Buddha teaches that one who develops mindfulness of the body “conquers displeasure & delight, and displeasure does not conquer him. He remains victorious over any displeasure that has arisen.” Moreover, one can also be resilient to cold, heat, hunger, thirst, the touch of gadflies & mosquitoes, wind & sun & creeping things.” (Majjhima Nikaya iii 78).

Mindfulness of the body is a central practice of Buddhist meditation. A deeper understanding of the body is the key to develop our mind. While the body can be a source of distortions and defilements, the very body can also be used as a tool to overcome them. The proper way of looking at the body opens the possibility to overcoming our bondages and suffering. Hence, the Buddha said that those who taste mindfulness of the body taste the Deathless (Anguttara Nikaya i 235).