Monday, May 23, 2011

Book Club: "The Body of Truth" by Ajahn Amaro Bhikkhu

It’s with the sequencing of this essay, following mine and Jill Satterfield’s, that I believe Michael Stone’s editorial expertise shines. With Jill, we read a personal account of mindfulness practice directed to the body. With my chapter, there’s the explicit tying in of the Buddha’s teachings to the larger Yoga Tradition and the explication of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Here, in Chapter 12, Ajahn Amaro emphasizes the body as the path of truth – Dharma itself.

First, the Ajahn emphasizes how the body and mind in the Buddha’s teachings are not seen as two radically different phenomena. While they are not generally seen as “identical,” they are seen as completely interdependent (for the most part; traditional Buddhism posits a form of consciousness that can indeed exist independently of the body, and which links one life to another).

In the section “Dimensions of Nature,” Ajahn Amaor explains the concept of namarupa, and its five component khandhas (also known in Sanskrit at skandhas). He then goes on to introduce the other “patterns” or “models” that are used in the Buddhist tradition to describe the human condition: the six senses (ayatana) and the elements (dhatu).

His second section, “Mindfulness of the Body” for the most part, reiterates some of the salient points I make in my essay. What I especially appreciate in Ajahn Amaro’s section is his distinction of the Buddhist emphasis on the body and the ‘mundane’ aspects of life for liberation, in contradistinction to the typically ‘transcendent’ and ‘withdrawal’ understandings of ‘enlightenment.’

In “The Present – Full of Useful Possibilities,” Ajahn Amaro points out how the body is always experienced as ‘present’ while the mind can appear to be caught up in the past and future. It is this very ‘present-oriented’ nature of the body that Buddhist meditation takes as it’s opening to limitless potential for freedom. As he writes, “…since the body is always in the present, the simple recollection of its presence is a surefire method to key the attention into the reality of the way things actually are.” And it is too often forgotten by students seeking some ‘other-worldly’ experience that seeing things as they really are is the door to the wisdom of liberation!

His section on “Walking Meditation,” though short, explains the importance of this practice for the cultivation of mindfulness. By extension, other forms of conscious movement – such as hatha-yoga, Tai Chi and various forms of martial arts and even weight-lifting -- can be developed as forms of mindfulness meditation. This is still something I find many students not fully grasping! They seem to fixate on sitting meditation as the be-all and end-all of meditation practice! Apparently, as the Buddha himself aged, and suffered from various physical ailments, walking meditation became his preferred method of practice.

Finally, for this post, I’ll end with a few words about sila, the ethical teachings of the Buddhist tradition. Ajahn Amaro says about sila that it is the “basis of practice.” I would go as far as saying that sila is the whole of the Dharma. Currently, a group of students I am working with are going through intensive sila study and practice with the ‘goal’ of taking refuge. They are beginning to see sila as real, on-the-ground mindfulness training. They are also seeing sila as more guidelines to freedom than restrictions or prohibitions. As one student said, “When I practice sila, I find myself free of many anxieties, concerns and sufferings I thought were simply part and parcel of life!” Ajahn Amaro refers to the precepts as “rules,” but I think that term misses the living spirit of sila.

I’ll post a concluding post on this chapter later this week, but for now, I’d be happy to hear any comments from those of you who have been reading along. OR, even from those of you who have not read the book, but have been following this blog ‘book club.’


  1. Hello Frank,
    To your list of conscious movement conducive to meditation I would like to add swimming. While swimming one's breath is naturally coordinated with movement (you inhale while your face is out of the water and you exhale while your face is in the water). Swimming also encourages you to be present in your body - keeping your hips high in the water, extending the limbs from finger tips to toes, feeling the pressure of the water on the skin, and noting the buoyancy of the chest cavity. And a good swim often leaves me with the same feeling I have after a good yoga class - a relaxed clarity.

    I look forward to trying the walking meditation, especially since I find sitting to be somewhat uncomfortable, at times.

    Thank you!

  2. Ah, yes indeed. In fact, swimming is one of my wife's favorite forms of mindfulness practice. And something I've never seemed to get the hang of... though I'm thinking of taking lessons along with my daughter (when she begins to take them).

    Thanks for this reminder!