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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.

The Mahayana Approach: Selfless Body

The Mahayana approach to mindfulness of body is not based on perceiving the body as impure or as pure, or on perceiving its composite nature. At this stage, the practice of mindfulness of body is closely related to the notion of selflessness—the nonexistence of body—rather than to the existence of body.

As far as the Mahayana path is concerned, there is no solid physical body that actually exists outside of our mind. The way we experience the existence of our body is simply mind’s projection. At this stage, we discover a much deeper level of physical presence, and our mindfulness practice consists of seeing the true nature of that experience. As we approach the level of absolute reality, we see more clearly the relative state of mind, body and mindfulness.

At the same time, the Mahayana views the body in the same way as someone who wishes to cross a river views a boat. It is immediately useful and beneficial, if used properly. Shantideva, one of the greatest exponents of the bodhisattva path, who lived in India in the seventh and eight centuries,  says in his classic work the Bodhicharyavatara:

Upon finding the boat of human birth now, cross the great river of suffering.

O fool, there is no time for sleep, for this boat is hard to catch again.



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