02 January 2009

The Body in Buddhism

The body in buddhism
While on my ordination retreat we studied the Bodhicāryāvatara by Śantideva. This is a core text for the Western Buddhist Order, and also a favourite of the Dalai Lama. It is a Mahāyāna work from probably the 8th century, written according to legend at the great monastery at Nalanda. The theme is the path or conduct (carya) of the bodhisattva and the text is structured around the six perfections. The text is celebrated for the anuttara pūja incorporated into the first few chapters which contains beautiful and elaborate evocations and offerings, but also for the relentless deconstructive arguments of Śantideva. In many ways it is the epitome of late Indian Mahāyāna.

At the same time as studying the Bodhicāryāvatara we were reciting verses from it in our evening puja, and during those pujas we had readings from the text as translated by Andrew Skilton (aka Dharmacari Sthiramati) and Kate Crosby. The readings were very evocative. However at one point I was struck by a series of images which seemed quite out of place. In the chapter on Meditation we find a number of references to the body, and particularly to the bodies of women (the audience for the text having been monastic men). It goes on at some length, and the translators assure us that the language is quite as coarse as they portray it in the translation. Let me quote you a few passages to give an idea:
50. Taking no pleasure from silky pillows stuffed with cotton because they do not ooze a dreadful stench, those in love are entranced by filth.

52. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, a cage of bones bound by sinew, smeared with slime and flesh

53. You have plenty of filth of your own. Satisfy yourself with that! Glutton for crap! Forget her that pouch of filth!

59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth?

60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount.

61 Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!

(pages 92-93 of Skilton and Crosby)
Hearing these words I found myself reeling. My first reaction was that this kind of sentiment did not belong in our puja, that this kind of language did not belong in our devotions; that in fact this was not the kind of Buddhism I signed up for. Several years have done nothing to change this opinion. In fact I have become more clear that hatred of this type, hatred towards the body, has nothing to do with the Buddhism I practice.

Sue Hamilton follows the development of Buddhist attitudes to the body in his book Identity and Experience. The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. She shows that the earliest texts were in fact quite neutral towards the body. The attitude was analytical - one examined the experience of being embodied dispassionately to see that this was a conditioned experience like any other. There is none of the harping on impurity that we find later. Hamilton associates the subject of purity with Buddhaghosa, but I don't think the great commentator could have been an influence on Śantideva. It had to have been a more general movement.

I have already written about my concerns over ritual purity manifesting as superstition in Buddhism. Where these ideas operate in Buddhism I think we have to see them as having infiltrated from surrounding Hindu culture. In a paper I've had accepted for publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics I argue that the Buddha rejects notions of ritual purity and substitutes instead the idea of ethical purity. Concern with ritual purity was quite general during the Buddha's time with Brahmins and Jains finding it a concern. Everyone has technical terms indicating a 'return to purity' for instance - pratikramana, paṭikaroti etc. It is therefore possible to see Buddhism as a path of purity (visuddhimagga) but only in the ethical sense. Brahminical purity was intrinsic to people by birth, and to actions and substances by their nature. Ethical purity on the other hand depends largely on intention (cetana) - the motivation behind actions of body, speech, and mind are what make an action pure or impure. However it would be unusual to find this particular distinction - the usual one would be kusala/akusala i.e. competent/incompetent.

So there is no justification for seeing the body or it's substances as intrinsically impure or foul. Śantideva describes the body as for instance a "pouch of filth", or as "born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth". The fact is that the religion in which human bodily fluids (including here even mother's milk! ) are seen as polluting is Hinduism. I think the contrast here between western attitudes and caste Hindu Indian attitudes is made very stark by the reference to milk. In Indian the milk of the cow, even bovine shit and piss, are seen by caste Hindus as intrinsically pure and holy, whereas the milk of a woman is foul. If there was ever a traditional idea that we needed to reject this is it. Shit is a disease vector and we rightly avoid handling it, but mother's milk? We see mother's milk as a highly beneficial substance because it bestows health and vitality on the infant. There is no better nutriment for a human infant than its own mother's milk. Mother's milk is a symbol of virtue and vitality in the West. The full breasts of a lactating woman are ancient symbols for fertility and prosperity in our culture.

So on the retreat I took a little stand and made my point to everyone there. I don't think I argued the case well back then, it was a heartfelt reaction rather than a thought out position. I'm hoping that this more thought out essay will make the point more effectively. It's important in the WBO because we have a large number of people from backgrounds in Indian which are these days called Dalit (perhaps a third of our order). I can understand why they want to distance themselves from the former label applied to them and their peers. Fifty years ago they would have been called untouchable because caste Hindu considered their mere touch to be ritually pollutting. People were untouchable on the whole because of the family/community they were born into. Widows also became untouchable on the death of their husbands as is poignantly portrayed in the film Water by Deepa Mehta.

The practice of untouchability was outlawed when India became independent largely due to the efforts of the great leader Dr B R Ambedkar, although it has not disappeared from India where Dalits are regularly persecuted and sometimes killed. Dr Ambedkar along with hundreds of thousands of his followers became Buddhists, and these people make up the bulk of the Indian wing of the WBO (although I think the WBO is quite a small part of the greater Ambedkarite movement). As such I think we contemporary Buddhists, especially we FWBO Buddhists, have a special duty to identify and root out ancient prejudices, and especially any notions of ritual impurity.

A person and their body is as only pure or impure as their actions, they cannot be born impure, nor be made impure by contact with supposedly impure substances. There is no reason for describing the body as impure: it runs counter not only to the spirit of Buddhism, but to the politics of fighting oppression in India. I hope that this essay generates some interest and discussion amongst my colleagues.


Further reading:
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