Our relationship with our body, in general, is unhealthy as our outlook on it tends to be not only flawed, but even negative in ways that can be harsh and mean. Many organized religions have the reputation of being âanti-bodyâ. In his book Walking words, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) clearly understood this problem and summed it up in a poem that highlighted those unnatural and unhealthy attitudes towards the body that prevail in religious and secular society:
The church says: the body is sin.
Science says: the body is a machine.
The ad says: the body is business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
There is a deeply rooted misconception that our bodies are worldly and unclean, while our souls are pure and the essence of who we are trapped in a prison of flesh and bone. Many spiritual traditions have introduced ascetic practices which appear to abuse the body. Even today there are ascetics in India who indulge in observances that neglect the body as meaningless, transient, or unimportant.
In a way, it’s quite understandable that people have developed such negative opinions. The human body can appear as a bulky baggage that suffers from many problems and ailments: pain, aging, disease and other unpleasant things affect it every day. We can imagine that there would be no more complications due to carnal lust or primitive impulses if we simply existed as some kind of pure soul.
The Buddha himself tried extreme asceticism early in his search for the truth of existence. He later concluded that such practices were ultimately futile and instead taught the Middle Way, a way of life free from the excesses of sensual indulgence and asceticism. This is the path that monks and nuns are supposed to follow.
These days, at least, it feels like we no longer have to worry about teaching Buddhists not to practice asceticism – that doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore! On the other hand, there are still religious practices that involve hitting one’s body, extreme fasting, and all kinds of unhealthy forms of abstinence that are a means of self-inflicted denial or punishment.
The modern secular world is no longer enlightened when it comes to the body, which it treats as an object that can be used to satisfy all kinds of desires. We study the body as a kind of mechanical object, like an engineer studies a machine. When our car breaks down, we take it to a mechanic, where he or she will study it, component by component, to try to find what is wrong.
If the mechanic is very good at understanding the whole system that makes up an automobile, he will know how it is supposed to work and what can go wrong. They can have a huge vocabulary describing the systems and parts of a car. Many of us, even after decades of driving, may be familiar with the names of a few, if any, of the components that make up our vehicle. With the hood open, a lot of things happen that are hidden from our sight or understanding.
Likewise, when we do get sick, we often visit a doctor, many of whom tend to treat the body like a soulless machine that can simply be watched in parts to determine what went wrong and then attempt. to solve the problem. As a result, people find hospitals to be among the most sterile and colorless of environments, reflecting our soulless attitude to the body as a machine. Instead, hospitals should be uplifting and welcoming, to give patients a sense of comfort and safety. Pleasant feelings of solace and enchantment can enhance and speed up the healing process.
Why don’t governments, individuals or hospitals themselves provide the means to bring aesthetic beauty to our modern hospitals? As medical science advances, we are increasingly able to replace many parts of the body that are not functioning with artificial substitutes. Such practices may even encourage the idea that the body is nothing more than a machine whose real purpose is to keep functioning incessantly.
Many wise people of the past understood this misconception and came up with more enlightened and informed perspectives on the human body. Tantric Buddhists observe samaya (Tib. à½à½à¼ à½à½²à½) âcommitments or vows which include not to abuse one’s own body, which is considered one of the 14 fundamental falls. They also have the attitude of understanding that the body is a mandala, a holy and naturally sacred temple. When they eat, they often devote the food as a ganachakra or sacred feast. Eating himself becomes a ceremony of offering the feast to his body as a divine abode. This practice is described in a verse from one of Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887) dohas:
When great meditators consume,
Bless food and drink like a ganachakra,
The body is an assembly of peaceful and wrathful deities.
Consume without being distracted from the nature of the mind.
People also often use the body as a pleasure center. Not only do we enjoy the myriad of pleasurable sensations that arise in the body through our brain and nervous system, but we often use these sensual experiences as distractions to numb our own psychological pain, ranging from loneliness to anxiety. Likewise, food is increasingly used as an opioid rather than a sacred feast that sustains the body with an offer of pleasure and nourishment. This habit drives many people to food addiction, which in turn can cause huge problems, including obesity and other physical and mental health issues. Science has yet to fully address the psychological and physiological factors behind such problems, beyond identifying simple facts such as the connection between leptin and sugar.
It is time for us to bring the Tantric point of view to the fore and develop a sacred attitude towards the human body. It will help us overcome any unnecessary guilt and shame we may feel towards our bodies no matter how much they may be judged by society. One challenge we face is how to bring this concept into a world where the very concept of the sacred is either rejected or has become twisted and distorted. If we don’t start with an understanding of the sacredness of the body, then embracing the world or something sacred will not come easily.