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A Buddhist Perspective on Body, Health and Diet

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Generally I've noticed that some people really look after their body, some don't even notice they have one, and others try to get rid of it. Through observing his body, the Buddha worked out that there are three characteristics of existence: everything changes, there is suffering, and there is no self in anything anywhere (you are not who you think you are). Many people suffer in relation to their body: it's too small, big, fat, thin; it does not meet the social or cultural norms; it needs to be some other way; we compare our bodies to those of others. Notice how our bodies change. Is your body the same as when you where three months old? Is it the same as it was just one second ago? Then lastly, there is non-self, or the absence of self. Can you see your whole body right now? Can you see your back right now? If you can't, how do you know it exists? The interesting thing about noticing our whole body or the parts we can't see directly is that it is only an image, a memory and is usually clouded by a perception. One viewpoint from a Buddhist perspective is that the body is a mental object, which we rarely experience directly as is.

 

The last historical Buddha who lived some 2550 years ago was once residing at a monastery where he was teaching the monastics a practice called asubha practice in the scriptural language. In English this is usually translated into unpleasantness, ugliness, or foulness. As a meditation practice the Buddha suggested reflecting on the 32 parts of the body. Of course this is not anatomically correct, but it gives you a sense of the body. The 32 parts include things like the brain, mucus, oil of the joints, blood, pus, etc. The monks very unfortunately took this practice to an extreme. They got so disgusted by their bodies that they most of them committed suicide. Such is the power of the mind. This was not what the Buddha was pointing to. Asubha really means the absence of beauty, so we can notice when we see something beautiful and when we see something that is not beautiful – that's all. The 32 parts of the body have been made into a chant as a way of remembering the words and then being able to recollect them in meditation. In the beginning when I did this chant I found it strange how peaceful my mind went (I've also discussed this in my essay about Death).

 

Finding the middle way

 

So Buddhism is about finding a middle way between the two extremes of getting rid of something and not having enough. It does this by using the power of the reflective mind to understand, and it does this by using the body as a central locator to experience. So just notice now that if I say 'left thumb', then that part of the body comes into awareness. There are many parts of the body we don't even touch in the Western world. I found this out in India, when you realise toilet paper is a luxury. Again notice the cultural conditioning of this part of the body and its function: dirty, disgusting. There are also many parts of the body that we don't have conscious control over, like the liver, or kidney, intestine, although I have heard of people being able to have much more direct control over internal organs.

 

The path leading to wanting to get rid of something and/or the feeling of not having enough from a Buddhist perspective happens because of a chain of events. It starts from not understanding the way things are, which produces activity. This is dependent on being conscious, having an identity, and a body with senses. Because the body has senses there are feelings, because of feelings we want them to happen again or we want to get rid of them, and so the cycle of reactions starts again, if we are not aware. It's possible to break this cycle by being aware, and a simple starting point is to be aware of the feelings of the body. It's then possible to 'mind the gap', to notice the way feelings arise and cease, and how they can start again by the involvement of the mind, and how there are spaces between these events.

 

Take puberty for instance. This is not something one does, it is something that happens to us; there is no control of when it starts or finishes. So it's easy to get lost in my body and its problems, rather than seeing it as a natural process that happens to nearly everybody. So we can be humble to the amazing process that takes place during that time. The body is also fragile really: observe how easily it can be cut or broken; how the body gets old but the mind does not, how the birth of the body leads to only one thing for certain and that is the death of the body. These things are not to make one feel sad, but for putting life into perspective.

 

In the Mayahana form of Buddhism they talk about form in spirit, and spirit in form. One uses the body to understand what life is about and once you understand that relationship you use that understanding to share and help other people to understand that relationship. When we know this relationship intimately and are willing to accept and feel the feelings with no sense of attachment, we no longer suffer and we realise total peace. It's not that one does not feel, or that one gets rid of the body, but one accepts or embraces life, the body, feelings and mental states to the fullest. From this point one knows how to respond and how to act with the dilemmas and awe of the world.

 

The questions I leave you with are: what part of your body do you love and what part of your body do you reject, and are you willing to accept your whole body, as it is, all without judgement?

 

Health

Mind precedes all mental states.

Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.

If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts

happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.[1]

Don't sacrifice your own welfare

for that of another,

no matter how great.

Realizing your own true welfare,

be intent on just that.[2]

 

I often recollect the two quotes above, as they remind me that when one looks after one's essences then one finds a true and sustainable happiness not based on conditions, and then one can serve other people without expecting anything from them. There are many ways we use the word 'health'; I think from a Buddhist perspective ultimate health comes from the way we use our mind.

 

The historical Buddha, when noticing a monk was ill and not being cared for, said: 'He who attends to the sick attends to me,'[3] and on another occasion he advised the monks not to get too involved with health, only just enough.[4] In Buddhism we are continually reminded of change: that all that arises ceases, that we are born and we will die. So we try to get physical health in perspective: that we need a healthy body to be able to function in the world and we can do our best to look after it, but knowing that the body eventually stops working.

 

Everything in moderation

 

In monasticism we have this thing about renunciation; I prefer to use the word 'moderation'. One way to promoting good physical health is to understand about moderation: to see how food, diet and exercise affect us. Notice how you feel after a period of physical exertion. Although we may feel tired, after a short rest, we can feel refreshed and our mind is alert. So you can notice, if you moderate your food intake or the type of food you eat, how that affects you. The point of all this is to notice, to investigate how the physical form is affected by various conditions. I've noticed my body responds well to having some attention such as if I speak to my body kindly.

 

One of the reasons we meditate sitting down is to see how not moving the body in any gross ways affect us, and then we can notice more subtle things about the body: like the way the ribcage and hence every bone in your body moves when you breathe. At very subtle levels we can feel an energy moving in the body, and this can lead to a sense of rapture, bliss or wellbeing, not the ultimate freedom that the Buddha pointed to, but a very important part of the journey.

 

Meditation

 

Another reason for sitting meditation is to see the connection between mind and body and how these two things are inextricably linked. Even science talks about this. You can read Bruce Lipton's book called The Biology of Belief or Candice Pert's Molecules of Emotion for more information about this. You can also notice how in our culture mental health is not really much spoken about. We are happy to say 'my body aches', but we are unlikely to say 'my mind hurts'. Some new research has found that if we put our feelings into words it makes us feel better

 

1     Dhammapada 2.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.01.budd.html.

2     Dhammapada 166.
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.12.than.html.

3     http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/desilva/bl132.html.

4     http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.038.than.html.

5    http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=7,4367,0,0,1,0.

   http://www.kenwilber.com.

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