The True Nature of the Body

Ajahn Plien

The True Nature of the Body

We all have to understand the nature of the body. And it should play a central feature in our investigation and contemplation of the teachings. The Buddha taught the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the discourse on not-self. This discourse was given to the five ascetics that had attended on the Buddha. On listening to this particular discourse, they were liberated. All of us here are similar to the five ascetics in that we all want to be free, to not have to experience the difficulties that are attendant on having a body and a mind and with being in the world. The body is a helpful foundation for investigation because it is something that is with us, we live in it. We inhabit these bodies, and when we do understand their nature, then they give us an insight into the nature of the world around us.

We’re like a person who has a house, and it’s a bit old, a bit dilapidated, needs repair, and we need to worry about and attend to it. Similarly, we all have bodies that we have to look after and care for, we have to worry if they get sick, cold, tired, and there’s a burden there. The nature of having existence, of being born in the world, for everybody, is that we’re born with bodies and minds. This is what constitutes birth, what constitutes having a life. It’s something that everybody in the world has, and it’s having a body and not understanding it that leads to suffering and confusion.

However, we have to rely on these bodies. We can’t do without them. We can’t not have them. So it’s incumbent on us to try to understand them so they don’t create problems for us. One of the aspects of having a body and mind, but particularly a body, is that there’s a strong focus on the body because it’s tangible. The body being physical and tangible, it’s easier to reflect on and investigate. But it’s a source of our sense of self, the creation of a self, the creation of attachment around an image of who we think we are. Then we compare ourselves to others, look at other people’s bodies, and take them to be selves, take them to be entities that we compare ourselves to and compare them according to the whole realm of ‘I.’ It’s actually quite burdensome and confusing. So today I’d like to give some reflections around these aspects of the teaching according to my own ability and my own understanding.

It’s necessary for all of us to study carefully the nature of the body and to be able to reflect on that nature. It goes across the board in terms of whether we’re male or female, whether we’re young or old, whether we’re monastic or laypeople. One of the things to do is just to take the progression of change in life as a theme in the sense that when somebody is born they’re a tiny little being and they grow and start to be able to move around and talk and do things. They become adolescents then adult and continue to change, continue to mature—it manifests in different ways, this change—all the way to old age and finally to death. Normally for most people there’s not a lot of reflection on these natural changes in life.

This is where the Buddha taught that what obscures or obstructs seeing the truth of change is something called santati, which means continuity—there’s a continuity of change and it’s progressive. It’s not abrupt. This continuity obscures and covers over the reality of impermanence. This makes it necessary to use reflection and investigation because the tendency is not to see it. There’s just this continuity. Everything’s sort of flowing along okay, but in reality change is taking place. If you look, all of a sudden maybe you’ve got to go to the dentist because you’ve got cavities in your teeth, or whatever. Changes happen. Or we’re experiencing some sort of ache or pain or some sort of illness and it creeps up and changes. And you end up having to deal with it. But there’s this continuity that tends to obscure it. We don’t take clear notice of it. We don’t really pay attention. We don’t hone in on it and see: “Ahh…this really is impermanent.”

This is anicca. The Buddha used the word anicca to describe this truth of change. In English we can use the word ‘impermanence’ or ‘inconstancy’ or ‘uncertainty’—those are all words that describe the reality of anicca. In the same way that we look at other people and the world around us and reflect on the nature of change, we should be paying attention to ourselves, turning that attention inwards and recognizing that what is changing is not just other people—those people out there—it’s us as well. We’re in a constant state of change or flux. We need to attend to this so we don’t allow that feeling of continuity or that illusion of santati to obscure things. So bringing the investigation back to ourselves.

Turning it back on ourselves and then seeing—is this as the Buddha taught or not? We have to verify that for ourselves—if what the Buddha taught is actually true. We hear that the body is impermanent and it seems like a fairly direct and easy statement, but the Buddha used it as a basis for teaching and pointing to very basic truths. Like in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, he asked the five ascetics, “Is this body permanent or impermanent?” And of course they have to answer “Well, it’s impermanent.” He says, “Well, if the body is impermanent, then is it pleasant, happiness, or is it suffering?” “Well, yes, it’s suffering; it’s unsatisfactory.” It seems straightforward, but we really have to notice that whatever is impermanent tends to be unsatisfactory because it always changes and becomes otherwise. This is the nature of suffering or unsatisfactoriness. This word suffering is not just about feeling miserable, but more describing the way that something is not capable of completely and fully satisfying us.

Change is a key element that helps us to see that nature, that tendency [to suffer]. Notice this truth of change. Change starts immediately. Even when we’re conceived, change is happening and there is this element of suffering. When we’re conceived and we’re in the mother’s womb, we’re changing and growing all the time. There’s an element of confinement there, being within the mother’s womb. We’re confined and sort of curled up. If anybody’s ever seen in the forests in Thailand in the jungles during the monsoon when the rains come, the monkeys are in the trees trying to protect themselves from rain. They’re all curled up like a baby in the womb. It doesn’t look very comfortable.

Then, of course, we were born. And the first thing people do when they’re born is cry. That’s really what every baby is doing. That’s it’s exclamation of truth: “Wow, this is suffering!” This is just the nature of life. Even little babies understand this: “Wow, this is suffering!” Observe little babies when they’re small. They see their older siblings or adults and they notice them walking and getting up. They’re still quite small and not able to do that. They look and try to mimic that, and there’s this frustration of wanting to move and walk. And they can’t do it. The body’s not working. Then they get frustrated and cry. You can notice that. Or they’re hungry and they want their mother’s milk and they cry. They’re not crying out of happiness and delight; they’re crying out of suffering. Reality is “impinging” on them.

This pattern continues to manifest all through life. There’s all the different illnesses that the body is prey to. We can have illnesses basically anywhere in the body. There’s the capability of illness to manifest anywhere. We get eye diseases, ear diseases, nose diseases, tongue diseases—all those different senses are a venue for our gaining knowledge and experiencing the world, but they can fall apart on us. There are diseases for all the different organs of the body—heart diseases: heart attacks, enlarged hearts. Kidneys: kidney failure, gall stones. Every organ that we depend on for our life and our existence is subject to different kinds of disease. Cancer can manifest just about anywhere in the body.

To be able to just reflect, recollect that this is really the case, that anywhere in the body there can be disease. It isn’t as if there’s some country somewhere where there is no disease. Wherever there are human beings, there’s illness. And it isn’t as if it’s limited to some special class of people who get ill—even doctors get ill. So, when one really investigates this, one can’t help but ask oneself, “Isn’t this suffering?” And one thinks, “Wow, yes, this is suffering.” One recognizes that right from birth to growing up to aging to final death, there are difficulties and disease that we experience within the body. The tendency of human beings is to try to rectify the situation by seeking medical knowledge or some way to alleviate the condition. For as much medical knowledge as we have, there’s still illness.

We want to alleviate disease. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge available about the nature of the body and the illnesses it can have. We’ve searched for medicines from ancient times when we had relied on different plants and natural elements to know where they’re researching in a very refined way, finding the uses of different plants to different types of chemicals and whatnot—extraordinarily extensive.

Bring that up as a perspective of investigation. Take on the perspective that, “Oh yes, the body is impermanent; the body is suffering.” And if you don’t believe the person who’s teaching this, then you can just go take a look at hospitals. They are places where there is much illness. America’s got to be full of hospitals. That’s the nature of having a physical body. We’re going to have to experience illness or “dis-ease” at one point or another. Actually, just having a body is uncomfortable. We experience the discomfort of just having a body. When it’s hot, then it’s uncomfortable. We sit there sweating and feeling uncomfortable.

We think about getting a fan, getting air conditioning, finding water to bathe in just to cool down so that we can escape the discomfort of heat. Of course, it isn’t hot all the time, sometimes it’s cold, and then it’s suffering again. If you live in a place where there’s snow and ice as a part of the seasons, then those places have to have stoves and furnaces and you have to find firewood, oil or coal to be able to heat up the buildings that people live in. We have to find proper clothes, sweaters and jackets. There are many industries that create clothing to stave off the cold. Even right now as we’re sitting here, at Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery, it’s cold [giving a talk at the outside meditation platform in 55 degree weather]. It’s not really comfortable. This is the way of nature.

When we have a body, we experience these different aspects of discomfort. In some countries where it’s cold, they raise sheep for wool. They take the wool and make sweaters and different articles of clothing to keep warm. But think of those poor sheep! They’re pretty cold already so they have this wool. Then humans go and cut the wool off and there are these poor freezing sheep around. We go and take it away from them. That’s not very fair.

Furthermore, we get thirsty and have to find water in different ways either from streams, lakes or wells. We have to filter, strain and soften it. There are all sorts of factories and industries to do this. If we don’t have water, we can’t live for very long at all. We also get hungry. This is a really big problem, having a body that gets hungry and needs to be fed. All of the different crops, and the difficulty of planting and raising all the food that we need in order to eat. People have to go to university to study agriculture just to deal with the human need to appease hunger. Everybody has to find money just to go out and buy food. We have to find an occupation. Whether we’re laborers, casual workers, or professionals—we’re engineers—whatever occupation we have, it’s basically to find the money to be able to eat. We need to feed ourselves all the time.

So, we’re trying to find a sense of comfort, of ease within the physical experience of having a body. All of our efforts at making a living and saving money and paying it out is trying to find a sense of comfort and ease. There’s a certain effort that’s always being put into working to try to find that easeful quality. Everybody experiences that. We get tired from our work. Take taxi drivers. Sometimes they have to put in extraordinarily long hours, and it’s tiring—exhausting. Being an airline pilot, whatever the job is, it’s tiring. We get exhausted trying to find the means to experience comfort and ease within this body. So it’s a rhetorical question: Is this suffering or not? We’re recognizing that all of the things we purchase, all of the commercial elements of an economy are there for trying to find some comfort.

It isn’t just physical. You get all these things when having to look after the body, water and food and whatnot. But then you’ve got to build toilets, too. And they’re just for relieving suffering. Whether it’s in a home or a monastery, you’ve got to provide for these things. You have to take them into account. Isn’t this really a problem for everybody?

This is suffering, but it tends to be obscured in the same way that continuity obscures impermanence. The four postures obscure suffering. We’re changing our postures, moving to alleviate suffering, and as a result we don’t notice it. If we’re walking along and it gets to be a bit difficult, then there is suffering just in walking. So we try to find something more comfortable. But if you’re walking at Abhayagiri Monastery, then if you try to go anywhere, that’s going to be suffering [because of the steep terrain]. So we have the suffering of walking and then we sit down thinking that’s going to make it more comfortable. It’s okay for a while, but after sitting for a time that starts to get uncomfortable as well. Then we decide, “Maybe I’ll lay down and have a rest and that will be pleasant.” Then it’s okay for a while, but that’s suffering too. It doesn’t take all that long, you’re laying and resting and then your back starts to hurt. Some people even if they’re lying down, they’re restless and they toss and turn. Some people even toss and turn and they fall out of bed. That’s suffering.

It’s important to reflect for oneself: “Is it like this or not?” We need to bring it inward as it’s said in the characteristics of the Dhamma. Opanayiko is turning the qualities of Dhamma inward, seeing within our own experience that, “Being born is like this, having a body is like this.” So in order to be practitioners, to be people who are meditators, we need to be able to turn our attention inward, reflect and investigate so that we can see this clearly.

Aging is another aspect of the body that we need to be contemplating. We recognize that as the body ages, things get more difficult. Being an old person—60, 70, 80 years old, even 90 years old, this is difficult. Having to get up and carry the heavy body around starts to be difficult. Walking is difficult. Notice you’re not as limber, and it’s difficult getting around. Sometimes one is not so steady on one’s feet and then one has to start using a cane. Or there are aches and pains in the legs, and then you need to have some support, a walker. You start off with two legs, and you increase to three legs, then to four legs in order to be able to get around. Then after some time as we continue to get older, we’ll need to have people helping us. With people who are older, they’ll sometimes have their grandchildren help them just to be able to get up the stairs, to help them to get around and do things. That’s just the nature of the body. But even after a while as we continue to age, it might not be so easy to get around anymore. We’re not so able to be mobile and we’re left with merely sitting and lying down. You get up and it’s “oyy!” You sit down and it’s “oyy!”

It isn’t as if it’s just affecting the body. The mind and the moods get affected as well. We experience this as a painful mental sensation, a mood of mental discomfort. Take the time to investigate and recognize that it’s just this way. This is just the nature of things. It isn’t any way else, whether we like or don’t like it, whether we approve or disapprove. It’s just this way. That gives a sense of equanimity and strength. This is why it’s so necessary to turn attention to reflection and investigation.

Also recognize that it isn’t just aging with no end in sight. We also have to experience death. And death is suffering. Similarly, it’s helpful to prepare oneself or be able to reflect on a continuous basis because death can turn into something external and way off into the future. It’s not just the body that dies, but throughout life our moods, our thoughts, our thinking is constantly being born and dying. Moods are constantly being born and dying. Thoughts, whatever they are, whether coarse of refined, they’re being born and they’re dying. This is a cycle that is pointing to nature, pointing to just how things are. And to recognize: “Ahh, it’s just like this. This is the way it is.” The Buddha said the body is _anatt_a—why would he bother to point this out? In the Anattalakkhana Sutta the Buddha asks, “Whatever is subject to impermanence, subject to change, can this be self”? Then the five ascetics, of course, have to answer, “No, that’s not appropriate to hold as self, as me. If it’s impermanent and changing, why would one cling to it as oneself?” If it were truly ours and belonged to us, then it would listen to us and that’s not the case. We can’t really order it to follow our commands.

When we’re very young and we like to play, we really want to stay like that. But then change happens. We get older and we’re separated from that quality of youngness. We’re maybe adolescent and we’re growing up and feeling this is a really good time of life, “I really want it to be like this,” but then it changes again. We can’t force ourselves to stay within that condition. Or perhaps when we’re older, 40-ish and we feel the peak of maturity and power and strength of well-being, we want it always to be like this. But we can’t make it stay that way. We don’t want the body to age, but it goes ahead and does it anyway. We don’t want the body to be sick, but it just goes ahead and does it anyway. Again, this isn’t just something that happens here. Wherever there’s a human being, it’s going to be like this.

Anyone who wishes to control the body and make it be according to their wishes is going to find that it’s impossible. Even doctors, they get sick and their bodies change. In the end it’s really that we don’t want to die. That mystery and fear of death is very primal. Parents always want to be with their children. They don’t want to be separated from their children. They don’t want them to die. They want to be with their children all the time. Husband and wife want to be together. They don’t want to be separated, but inevitably somebody has to go before the other. That’s the nature of reality. We’re all the same in this universal condition, which the Buddha described as being anatta. This is all not-self. At no point is the body something that we can say, “This is who I truly am. This is me and its going to be like this, always.”

The teaching of the Buddha points to universal truths for all beings, even animals. They’re all subject to aging, sickness and death. All are subject to impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, not-self. When we reflect on these universal characteristics, it’ will finally dawn on us, “Oh…It’s just like this! It has to be this way.” When we gain that insight, “Oh, this is the true nature of things,” we recognize that we need to look after ourselves, not just trying to make the body comfortable, but looking after ourselves with understanding and wisdom. The most efficacious way of looking after ourselves is seeing that, “Ah, this is not-self. This is anatta.” Whether it’s our perception of our body in the past or future, near or far, coarse or refined, that too has to be anatta. Wisdom is just seeing that this is natural and ordinary.

When we see clearly, quite naturally we begin to let go, to relinquish. We will be able to step back from the passion and desire of wanting to be according to our preferences. Seeing, “This is the way it is” and just letting go is freedom. When we let go, we’re not letting go in a way that there’s nothing to do. But when we let go, that’s when we can truly focus on using our bodies, using our life for that which is good. We can pay attention more completely to that which is wholesome.

What is it that leads to peace? We’ve got the clarity and the space to really turn attention to the development of that which is truly good. It’s like having a house—you need to keep it clean and in good repair. You need to paint it and fix it up so that it’s pleasant to live in. In the same way, attending to the wholesome will help us to not get distracted or deflected by misunderstanding the true nature of things. We really need to see the nature of the body clearly to be able to look after it properly. We should use the body skillfully for seeking wisdom and freedom from suffering.

We’re actually quite like those five ascetics that the Buddha was teaching. The five ascetics wanted to experience freedom from suffering, to be liberated, basically to be happy. If we pay attention and see the same truths that the Buddha taught those five ascetics, then we also can be free. Those truths are just the ordinary truths of the nature of the body. When we see that, we can let go of desire and attachment to the body.

In actuality, it’s not just the body, it’s all of what are called the five khandas, the aggregates of being which, in addition to the body, include the elements of the mind—feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Tonight I’m just focusing on the body. If I taught all five khandas tonight, it would be really extensive and take up a lot of time. Actually, it’s not really necessary because if we see the nature of the body, we’ll also see the nature of the mind. So please reflect and investigate in order to understand this. Really turn attention inward and question yourself, “Is this the way it is or not?” Because when we do see in this way, it truly alleviates the attachment and clinging that tend to obstruct the mind. When we really see clearly, it’s not just desire that is attenuated or falls away, but also anger and aversion. We’ll really be able to live without having to be caught in the conflicts that come from ill will and aversion. We’ll be able to really let go of ahaμkara and mamaμkara, which are the ‘I’-making and ‘mine’-making tendencies. It’s this fabricating of me and mine, of I, that creates a sense of self and other, which in turn leads to all the feelings of separation—which is constructed. We’re fabricating it! Let go of the attachment to all things and see that non-self nature.

The teachings of the Lord Buddha are always available to us because the truths that the Buddha points to are everywhere. They simply point to the nature of things. Whether a Buddha arises in the world or a Buddha doesn’t arise in the world, the nature of things is that there is this anicca—impermanence, there is dukkha—this unsatisfactoriness, there is this anatta—this non- self nature. Reality is just like this. Having offered these teachings for reflection I give my blessings with my wish that you all are able to take them and use them for your own development.

A Dhamma talk given by Luang Por Plien at Abhayagiri in 2007 with translation by Ajahn Pasanno.