Coming Home:

Body Practice and True Human Form

Dharma Discourse by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei
Book of Serenity, Case 8
Dongshan's "Always Close"

Featured in Mountain Record 25.4, Summer 2007

The Pointer

Jiufeng, cutting off his tongue, made a sequel to Shishuang;
Caoshan, cutting off his head, didn’t turn away from Dongshan.
The ancients’ sayings were so subtle—where is the technique to help people?


The Main Case

A monastic asked Master Dongshan, “Among the three buddha-bodies, which one does not fall into any category?” Dongshan said, “I am always close to this.”


Hongzhi's Verse

Not entering the world, not following conditions;
In the emptiness of the pot of ages there is a family tradition.
White duckweeds, breeze gentle—evening on an autumn river;
An ancient embankment, the boat returns— a single stretch of haze.

Body practice is one of the eight gates of training that we engage in the Mountains and Rivers Order. Daido Roshi has spoken of body practice as the “miracle of aliveness,” which I’ve always found very compelling. We are sentient—sensing, feeling—beings. The world around us and inside of us is constantly flowing into and through our senses. This world that we experience is one of sounds and textures, colors and shapes, tastes and fragrances—a vast, boundless banquet of food for the senses. We experience all of this through our senses which are located within our physical body. Yet this is also how we experience the world of pain and distress, sorrow and injustice. When we first enter into Buddhist practice and zazen, we can easily conclude that practice is very mental. We hear a lot of talk about the mind; we sit on a meditation cushion, allowing the body to become perfectly still—not seeming to use the body at all. We may conclude that zazen does not have anything to do with physicality. With time, the practice of zazen itself may dispel that false belief, but even though the evidence is right in front of us, we can still ignore it.

To study the buddhadharma is to study the nature of mind, but we have to understand what is meant by “mind.” “Mind” in Buddhism is not our brain, not something lodged in our skull. In zazen, we intentionally drop our awarenesss that is usually so fixed in our heads, down into the hara to help us break away from that rigid way of understanding “mind” and from putting all our energy into our head which stimulates thought. “Mind” is what we awaken to. A student asked Master Mazu, “What is buddha?” Mazu answered, “Mind is buddha.” The nature of mind reaches everywhere, and yet it cannot be found. It includes everything, but you can’t grasp it. To realize the self is to realize mind, and this mind is everything. If it includes trees, rocks, space and time, it must certainly include our physical body.


photo by Rodolfo Clix


That notion of dividing who we are into different categories is like believing we are a chest of drawers—in one drawer is our physicality and in another is our spirituality, in yet another drawer are our emotions and in another is our intellect. When we go to the gym, we are in the physical drawer and the other drawers are closed. We go to the temple, and we’re in the spiritual drawer; we’ve left our physicality at home. Naturally, this is not who we are nor is it an effective way of learning how to be a true person, a whole human being. This is not the way reality is, therefore we cannot practice this way if we hope to directly perceive and live in accord with reality. What happens in practice is we begin to see all those drawers as one thing. When we begin to realize this, we can begin to practice the entirety of our lives as one truth, one body.