The body as metaphor

While we’re on the topic of misconstrued meditative metaphors, here’s another chestnut that well and truly deserves roasting: the body. The formula for third jhana mentions that one ‘experiences bliss with the body’. Most interpretations of jhanas say that they are purely mental experiences, based on the unification of mind-consciousness, and that it is impossible to experience anything through the five senses while in such a state.

But then, we can’t just have everybody agreeing on everything, can we, because that would be just so so dull. So others take the word body quite literally here, and say that this shows that we can experience the body (and other physical senses) in jhana.

You’re probably guessing that I’m going to side with the non-literalists here, and you’re quite right. I’ve discussed this in more detail elsewhere, but I just noticed this little sutta that brings out the metaphorical nature of the language used in higher Dhammas quite nicely. Here it is, Anguttara 4.189.

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized. What four?

There are things to be realized with the body, to be realized with mindfulness, to be realized with the eye and to be realized with wisdom.

What should be realized with the body? The eight liberations.

What should be realized with mindfulness? Previous births.

What should be realized with the eye? The passing away and rebirth of beings.

What should be realized with wisdom? The ending of defilements.

Bhikkhus, these four are things to be realized.

Notice especially here the use of ‘body’ and ‘eye’. Now, it is clearly quite impossible that ‘eye’ means a physical eye here; no-one would argue that one can physically see beings getting reborn. In this context of subtle, abstruse, higher Dhammas, the eye is not a physical eye, but a metaphor for a refined inner vision.

And in just the same way, the body is not a physical body, but a metaphor for the wholeness and directness of experience. As if this were not obvious enough from the context, notice that the things to be realized with the body are the eight liberations, which include the four formless attainments. These are by definition beyond any kind of physical reality. Elsewhere, the Buddha says that even Nibbana is to be realized with the body.

The body is not the body, the eye is not the eye, and thought is not thought. These are all words, inadequate, struggling, messy words, creeping up from the evolutionary slime, groping and grasping towards the light. As long as we keep them weighed down by the mundane, we can never speak of higher things. And since these higher things are things of the mind, if we cannot speak of them, we cannot imagine them. And if we cannot imagine them, we cannot realize them. And that is rather a sad state of affairs.

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17 thoughts on “The body as metaphor

  1. Uh… rebirth is just birth, isn’t it? One can see birth with one’s eye.

    I suppose you mean that one cannot see *that* birth is rebirth. It’s not obvious to me that this is what text says, though.

    • Ha! You’ve got me there, very clever… But that’s not what this is referring to. It’s talking about a psychic power of seeing how beings get born according to their kamma.

      • And what could happen if a being is in the process of rebirth and there are interference and projections from other beings with powers?

  2. I’m not sure how you got to the interpretation of “experiences bliss with the body” in the description of third jhana as being “a metaphor for the wholeness and directness of experience.”

    • Yes, I didn’t spell it out here. Perhaps I’ll do a longer post on it one day. I’ve given a number of talks on the topic, perhaps one of them might be helpful.

  3. Bhante,

    Sorry this is off topic, but I didn’t know how to contact you otherwise. If you know of any, can you please recommend a book similar to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s ‘In the Buddhas words’ that is available for free online? Perhaps PDF form?

    Thanks much,

  4. Another unrelated question. Christmas is coming up and every year my Mom, a church organist who is totally fine with my Buddhism and describes herself as “only a stagehand for God”, asks me every year to help full out the choir. Every year, out of gratitude for my very existence, I sing about souls, gods and heaven. I am being disingenuous, and most of the church knows it, but they don’t mind. What are your thoughts? Am I encouraging or developing wrong view? (bear in mind you may become an excuse this year!)

    • Sing! What, do you think when someone sings, “My baby done left me today…” that everyone believes that really happened? Or that John Lennon really is a walrus? If it makes you and your people happy, just enjoy. You can reinterpret things in your head if you want–that’s fun, too. I suspect, however, that singing a few Christmas carols is not going to create a theological crisis for anyone…

  5. …and mindfulness is not mindfulness, or is it? one knows previous births through memory. Special kind of memory, yes, but still the english mindfulness doesn’t capture the non metaphorical meaning of sati here.

    • Yes, indeed, thanks for pointing this out. Sati is yet another vitally important word, which we catch in the middle of a metaphorical arc and try to transpose to a rather different concept, “mindfulness”.

  6. “But then, we can’t just have everybody agreeing on everything, can we, because that would be just so so dull.“

    Are you saying you enjoy samsara? Why would we want to escape it if the alternative is so dull?


  7. Why does the Buddha use such a misleading set of similes then for the jhanas? The main reason why I haven’t yet personally come to decide which jhana interpretation is the correct one (body awareness or purely mental) is mainly due to the four jhana similes and specifically the one for the 4th jhana which does seem to indicate that the physical body is what is intended:

    “And furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure and stress — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress — he enters and remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness, so that there is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.

    “Just as if a man were sitting wrapped from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating his body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness.”

    If you could explain this fourth jhana simile satisfactorily that would be great. One of the reasons why I don’t necessarily subscribe to the body interpretation of jhana though is that I take the anapanasati sutta as a sutta on jhana practice (hence the focus on piti and sukha in the formula as opposed to other feelings like those in the satipatthana formula) but the 3rd step in the 16 steps, while translated as experiencing the whole body may not mean the physical body because the Buddha does say the breath is a body among bodies. It seems to me that the suttas themselves don’t seem to support one conclusion about jhana over the other.

    Also, I wondering if the ‘secluded from sensual desires’ part of the first jhana formula is actually literally translated as secluded from sensory input. So does that part of the sutta explicitly mention seclusion from sensory input or just from sensual desire or just from pleasurable sensory input such as agreeable, pleasing forms cognizable via the eye, pleasing aromas cognizable via the nose etc. because in the forest one is secluded from those sorts of agreeable, pleasing sights… tactile objects. Last question, aren’t tactile objects (or the pali word for them) just referring to external stimuli not the felt sense of the body from within or does it include the just awareness of the body in and of itself?

    These are all the main points of contention so if you could answer them Venerable that would be awesome. Thank you for your time and may you realize Nibbana in this very life!

    • Hi The Philosopher,

      Okay, the body thing I will, I’m afraid, leave for now. I don’t have much more to add that I haven’t already covered. I would merely point to the fact that when we are learning a foreign language, we regularly take things with a degree of literalness that is absurd to native speakers. The flow of meaning in how “body” appears in the Suttas makes, I think, the meaning of the jhana similes transparent.

      Re your second point: Yes, the jhana formula clearly implies that one is separated from sensory input. There is an apparent ambiguity because the word involved, kāma, is used in both an inner sense (sensual desire) and an external (objects of the sense). However, it is easy to determine what is meant here as it is in plural. When the Suttas speak of sensual desire (kāmaccchanda, etc.) they use the singular, whereas sense objects are plural: the five kinds of sense objects. So “secluded from the senses” means that there is no sense input; “secluded from unskillful qualities” means that there are no hindrances (including sensual desire as the first hindrance).

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