Taking the mirror of Dhamma
For the seeing and knowing of the self,
I examined this whole body
Both inside and out.
Both inside and outside,
I saw this body to be empty.
The Therigatha, verses 171–172. Translation by Andy Olendzki
It seems natural for people the world over to distinguish some nonmaterial aspect of themselves—commonly mind or spirit, soul, Self or consciousness—to identify this aspect as special and often the seat of their unique individuality, and set it off as something other than their body. This is one way the word embodiment is used—an abstract noun meaning the state or quality of something being in a body. Though the view is ubiquitous, it is a view which—according to the teachings of Sakyamuni—is thoroughly mistaken.
The proto-Hindus of the Buddha’s day said the self (atman) was in the body as your body (presumably) is in a set of clothes right now, which can be cast off for a new set tomorrow without much affecting your identity. The Jains of the age said that there was a soul (jiva), a discreet unit of consciousness glommed on to a unit of matter (your body), yearning to get free of the encumbrance. The Samkya philosophy underlying ancient yoga spoke of a spirit or intelligence (purusa) bound up with nature (prakrti); liberation occurs when one is able to get free of the other. Lots of other theorists of those days had lots of other explanations of how “we” are “in” our bodies in various ways and all seemed to have the notion that liberation entailed getting “ourselves” free from the encumbrance of matter. (The same theme is of course almost universal in Western world views as well.)
The Buddha was quite unimpressed with all the subtleties of presentation, and lumped them all together (in the Brahmajala Sutta, for example) as “soul-theorists”—all equally wrong. Even among his own monks, Sati was quite sure that one and the same “consciousness” (vinnana) somehow was in one body after another, accounting for the efficacy of karma and the continuity of personality over repeated rebirths. Again, the Buddha was very clear about setting this misconception straight: “You, foolish man, not only misrepresent me because of your own wrong grasp, but you also injure yourself and give rise to much demerit which will contribute to your woe and sorrow for a long time.” (Maha-Tanhasankhaya Sutta)
When asked, “Is the self in material form?” those among his followers who “got it” answered in unison: “Certainly not, sir.” When asked, “Is the self in feelings, in perceptions, in mental formations or in consciousness?” or when asked in numerous other ways if any sort of self can be found in anything, the same chorus echoed, “Certainly not.”
Nothing is “in” anything else, because it all arises together—interdependently. So everything is in everything or nothing is in anything (you can look at it either way) or the whole notion of “in” doesn’t make any sense at all. This is the unique (if unsettling) thrust of the Buddha’s teaching.
But there is one way Sakyamuni did talk about being in the body—the practice of deliberately turning one’s attention to the sensations that arise in connection with the body. This is the basis of the technique taught and practiced at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, and anywhere else insight meditation occurs.
It’s really quite simple (I didn’t say easy!). In the straightforward words of the Buddha’s instruction on the subject:
A person, who has gone to a forest, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty place, sits down—crossing the legs, putting the body upright, and establishing the presence of mindfulness.
Mindfully one breathes in; mindfully one breathes out. Breathing in (or out) a long (or a short) breath, one is aware that one is breathing in (or out) a long (or a short) breath. One trains oneself: “I will breathe in (or out), experiencing the whole body;” and “I will breathe in (or out) calming the processes of the body.”
Also, when walking, one is aware “I am walking;” when standing, one is aware “I am standing;” when sitting one is aware “I am sitting;” when reclining one is aware “I am reclining.” Whatever position the body is in, one is aware of that.
Also, whether going forward or back; whether looking forward or behind; whether bending or stretching; whether carrying a bowl or wearing one’s clothing; whether eating or drinking or chewing or savoring; whether urinating or excreting; whether walking, standing or sitting, falling asleep or waking up, speaking or staying silent—one is in each case clearly aware of what one is doing.
Thus one dwells aware of the body being the body, both inwardly and outwardly; aware of things both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness is continually re-established, enough for one to know and be aware: “There is body.”
And one dwells unattached, clinging to nothing in the world.
Satipatthana Sutta, translated by Andy Olendzki