Right now I’m very absorbed in Reggie Ray’s recent book Touching Enlightenment – Finding Realization in the Body (Sounds True, Boulder, 2008). I find it a bit long winded — I’m not sure it needed to be another thick hardback like Buddhist Saints in India – but what he’s saying is quite brilliant. RR manages to express in detail some of the experiences I’ve been exploring in my own practice over the last decade — material which I’m only now finding ways to communicate about. It relates strongly to the Elements meditation and, even more, to formless approaches to meditation.
He’s exploring the nature of embodiment. The body comes as part of the “deal” of birth into a world. Everyone has some kind of bodily form, but what is a body? We tend to think of it as a thing external to ‘us’ — a bunch of physical tools we can use to further our personal ends. It’s a means for getting what we want. Even Buddhist practitioners might interpret the ‘precious human body’ in that kind of way. But from a real perspective of dharma, embodiment is something very different. Our body is more like the world itself, rather than what we use to get around in it. It is our existence- embodied. It is the main thing. The truth of this can come only on the basis of meditation experience, but Ray articulates it well and with considerable passion. (I think his huge enthusiasm accounts for and probably excuses the book’s verbosity.)
Main points- to me, anyway:
1. The body is the container of all experience. It receives every single experience nakedly, truly and completely, without any intervention from the conscious ego, despite what our conscious mind might want or assume – despite the fact that the vast majority of information received is screened out by the ego so that it can continue to maintain its little world. In terms of the Yogacara, the body is the Alayavijnana. Everything that has ever happened – more, the truth of everything that has ever happened – is enfolded in the experience of body, and is found when the body is experienced (as in Buddhist mindfulness training) as it really is, without the veiling of ego.
2. Then the body is the container of all vipaka, all karma-results whatsoever — all unfinished business going back into beginningless time is somehow stored in the body – in the whole of it, according to the ‘Tibetan yoga’ RR frequently cites – in our bones, cells and blood. Often this takes the form of physical unawareness — frozen, unacknowledged yet highly potent experience which can be reawakened through awareness practice (as in Buddhist mindfulness training — i.e., satipatthana, mahamudra, dzogchen, etc.)
I would have liked some expansion of the frequent referrals to ‘Tibetan yoga’, which he cites as a cloudy authority throughout the book. I understand that he’s no doubt talking about teaching that is only accessible to practice, but just a little more explicitness would have helped.
Ray makes interesting points about our disembodied culture. He maintains that the current spiritual/environmental crisis is essentially one of our being disconnected from nature, and says that, historically, this tendency began with the rise of agriculture. Perhaps this explains why Buddhism is historically not particularly eco-minded (as I think various scholars have now shown, though no doubt Buddhism is in some ways better than some others in its connectedness with nature). The Buddha turned up in an era where agriculture had long started taking over from hunter-gathering, and spiritual teachers were already teaching methods of overcoming and controlling ‘nature’ and the body. (Christianity and the European ‘Crusaders’ who conquered, colonised and plundered the world up to and including post modern times were really just another product of this era.)
According to RR, the Buddha , to counter this ‘transcendentalist’ tendency, taught ways to directly and deeply experience the body and the world it serves as a way of liberation (eg the 4 satipatthanas, the central dharma practice). And for us the body remains as the only real place of wildness, the mysterious place we cannot control, while being the repository both of all our actions and for our liberation from them. ‘This very place the lotus paradise’… The body is the forest. Buddhist practice is what re-embeds us in the body, and the body is our primary medium for gaining enlightenment.