Friday, July 31, 2009
While perusing blogs this morning, I came across the following comments from Brad Warner at Hardcore Zen:
"In spite of all the foregoing cautionary material, I still believe zazen can be a very good thing for survivors of traumatic experiences. Maybe even the best thing. It can put you directly in contact with the source of the trauma itself. By slowly and carefully removing the psychological barriers you’ve erected to protect yourself from these memories you can finally become aware that the memories themselves are just thoughts in your head. No matter what the content of your thoughts are, they are all just thoughts. This is easy to say but very difficult to truly understand because we’ve been taught since birth to believe in our own thoughts."
Now, I agree with Brad that zazen can be a "good thing" for trauma survivors, but there is something in his comments that needs to be addressed. Specifically, where is the body?
I have noticed that some male Buddhist teachers and students don't talk all that much about the body. In fact, some seem to ignore it all together. Buddhism is reduced to working with thoughts, being rid of thoughts, moving beyond thoughts. But what about the body? How can anyone address trauma without also focusing on the real impact such trauma has on the body?
When you speak of rape survivors, abuse survivors, survivors of war - the body is just as important a point of focus as the mind. Maybe even more so in some cases. Saying that memories of violence lodged inside of someone are "just thoughts" is horribly dismissive, and creates a barrier to healing and awakening for those who believe such ideas. I'm not interested in slamming Brad here, because Brad's words are fairly common in parts of the Buddhist world, both in convert communities and traditional Asian communities. And although I'm reluctant to make gender generalizations, and for the most part believe the way gender plays out is as along a continuum, in the case of addressing the body and dharma, I've seen more women teachers and students doing so than men.
Some of this disparity may be due to cultural conditioning. Men being taught that how they think is more important that what they look like. Although at least in the U.S., there is an awful lot of emphasis on the superficial, physical looks of everyone, so it's maybe a bit more complicated than that.
When I reflect on some of the older teachings I can recall concerning the body, what I remember is the body in the negative. The body as a source of affliction, of transient pleasure, of causes of suffering.(Forgive my lack of specific citations; I'm going to work from impressions today.) These impressions make me wonder if there has been a bit of dualism playing out throughout the history of Buddhism. And maybe some of us are continuing this today by emphasizing the mind over all else.
Here are some lines from Dogen's Fukanzazengi:
"At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.
Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen."
Notice how much emphasis Dogen places on the body, where to place limbs, what to do with the body in zazen. Body posture, body movement or non-movement is part of the path to enlightenment. See, some men get it :)
Going back to trauma, in my own experience, returning to those places in the body where physical pain is lodged again and again - that is the path toward freedom. In fact, even after my thinking has cleared, and distorted patterns have broken up, there has still been physical manifestations of things that happened long ago. I can sit in zazen and breath into those places. I can do yoga poses to help shift the energy blockages, and strengthen my body in a healthy way. Or I can get a massage, or take herbal medicines, among other things, to address the physical issues. But the main point I'm trying to get at is that we have to stop splitting the body from the mind. And I'm especially speaking to all the men out there who were taught, either directly or indirectly, that the body is secondary, or a source only of pleasure and pain, or just a troublesome place in need of control by the mind.
This splitting is killing us, and it's creating a lot of bad dharma teaching!
And we all should continue to dig into the history of Buddhist teachings with a critical eye to places where the body is overly de-emphasized, or treated in a way that places it far below the mind in terms of value or importance. I'm grateful to some of the feminist Buddhist scholars out there, such as Rita Gross and Jan Willis, who have dug into some of these issues in recent years. And to men like Jon Kabit-Zinn, who do focus on the body as an integral part of practice.
Maybe you know of others, or simply disagree with me. I'd enjoy hearing what others think about all this.
BTW: The dog in the photo is barking at you! Do you know why? Be wary of easy answers.
Posted by Nathan at 8:15 AM