First we need to understand a little bit about this student’s question—“Among the three buddha-bodies, which one does not fall into any category?” In Mahayana Buddhism, we speak of the bodies of the Buddha—kaya means body. One of those bodies is the dharmakaya—the body of reality—the true body, which is free of all characteristics, free of all distinctions. It has no abode, it has no aspect. It is not contained within nor defined by our skin. There is no inside and outside to this body, it reaches everywhere. A student’s first insight into the nature of the self is insight into the dharmakaya—the true body of the Buddha. The sambogakaya refers to the body of bliss or the reward body. It is the body of the enlightened experience—the body that bears the fruit of spiritual practice, and bears the marks of an enlightened being. Finally, the nirmanakaya is the transformation body, the body of the Buddha that appears in the world. Shakyamuni was a nirmanakaya buddha—a buddha appearing in the world to teach, to serve, to help others awaken. At the same time, these three bodies of the Buddha are one body, and every single person possesses all these bodies. So this student is asking, which one has no characteristics, can’t be defined, has no inherent existence? Which one does not fall into our ordinary way of seeing things, is not fixed, and does not fall into any conditioned existence?
The physical body is the place of our deepest, strongest sense of personal identification. It seems so obvious that if we are anything, we are our bodies, right? From the very beginning when we are born, what happens? We count fingers and toes. We “coo” and delight over this precious, exquisite body—this new person—and we begin the process of discrimination: is it attractive, strong, small or large? At birth we perceive the body as the creation of something new, something that has not existed before. It has eyes and skin, hands and toes and hair. And as we grow, we begin to turn more and more of our attention and energy to this body, to watching and studying it, to laud its positive aspects and criticize the negative ones. We have mirrors all around and we become fixated on this body, because we believe that’s who we are.
Everyday we experience ourselves and the world around us through this physical body. While this is not wrong, it is not entirely right. We take this body as the person, and therefore become attached to it—not only attached to our own, but attached to the bodies of others. It’s what we can see, smell, taste, touch, experience in a visceral way. It is not only how we experience another, but it’s how we express our experience.
We identify completely with the body and so too evaluate it: Is it good? Is it not good? Is it valued? Is it praised or criticized? That evaluation begins to have an increasingly important role in our sense of ourselves and others. If we are male or female, if we are light-skinned or dark-skinned, if we are tall or short, thin or large, all of these things become very important in terms of determining selfness. And although that evaluation is present for everyone, for some it is the primary fixation of their lives—sometimes because they love it so much, sometimes because they have so much aversion to that body.
Years ago when I was a teenager I read a book by the naturalist and writer Annie Dillard. She talked about finding a spider one day—a spider that was missing some of its legs. She reflected on the imagined life of this spider, how it clearly lived a real life, had been through challenging events to have lost its precious legs. Rather than seeing this as loss and diminishment, she saw it as a tribute or testimony to having lived fully. Unfortunately, we don’t see our bodies the same way. We see the aging process as a diminishment of value, and culturally that is precisely what happens. As the body becomes less valued, the person becomes less valued.
When we take up the question of life and death as a spiritual question and we begin to face the certainty of our own mortality, we may encounter a certain degree of anxiety about our bodies because we equate their loss as the loss of our selves. This belief is precisely what keeps us trapped, not only in our bodies, but in this very small way of seeing things. That is why zazen is so essential—letting go of that small, confined way of understanding who we are, so that we can experience the dharmakaya. Yet we cannot experience this through the senses; the senses cannot perceive that true body. Thus, we quiet the mind and let go of grasping at the senses so we can leap free of them and experience this true body of reality directly. We discover that there is an experience of life that transcends what we can touch, taste, think, see, and hear; and yet, at the same time, is not in conflict with our senses.
This is one of the reasons we discipline ourselves to sit in stillness. It is not just for the sake of discipline, but because of the way we identify with the body as self. As long as the body is moving, we recreate the illusion that “I am here,” and more to the point, “I am.” It is only in that deep, perfect, complete stillness that we can actually begin to let go of that self-awareness of the body. It’s not negating the body; it’s providing the space through which we can move beyond grasping to experience one’s true body. Why? So that we can inhabit our physical body freely, without any restriction.