The Body (I)
A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 30th June 1972
Every one of us is a living body, and most human beings throughout the world take the body for granted. But have we ever really understood, or even begun to understand, the body and its implications? This is really a question of fundamental importance for anyone who tries to live the religious life in the deep sense. In the ordinary way, because of the orthodox teachings on the subject, we are generally supposed to regard the body as something of a snare, something which takes us away from the spiritual life, from God, and so forth. The body is a temptation and in fact in the Buddhist texts which have come down to us the body is regarded as a barb, an impostume, a snare and a delusion and all the rest of it.
Now why this kind of condemnation, not mere depreciation but outright condemnation of the body? It seems to me that this orthodox attitude of the religious texts is due to the fact that they have presented the truth of the matter in a very inadequate form. All difficulties which we experience in life emerge out of the body. By the same token all that is realized of fundamental truth and reality, all that occurs in terms of our purification, the process of our perfecting, also happens because of the body. If the body is not understood, investigated, if the body is not realized for what it actually is, the Temple of the Most High, to use the poetic expression which we also find in the great religious texts, if we don’t do that, then the other aspect comes into play, and it is a temptation, a snare and a delusion and source of trouble.
We have gone into this aspect formerly several times. Because of our animal descent all that applies to the animal, in short the law of the jungle, is in us inborn, it’s there. Our so-called instincts, our conditioned reflexes, the manifestation of aggressiveness, of fear, of possessiveness and violence and all the rest of it, as well as what we call a natural animal tenderness towards the young, the brood, and so forth, all that comes out of our animal heritage. But when this particular animal in the past gradually became Man, new elements entered into this creature called Man, elements whose law is the very reverse of the law of the jungle. We have understood something of the manifestations of the law of the jungle, but what is its fundamental root? Surely, isn’t it, that the animal is wholly and inescapably self-oriented? Through the animal the sense of ego, the sense of being a separate self, is growing, trying to come to fruition. But when this particular animal who was our primordial ancestor become Man, because of his intellectual development which proceeded apace and the development of his physical skills, this self-orientation became rampant egoism and became one of the most powerfully aggressive, disruptive elements in his life. At the same time very slowly this other side began to emerge.
But there is something other than self-orientation which is the root of all the human virtues and the spiritual values, the realization of self, not as a separate individual but as integral part and parcel of a great totality, a whole. In this realization there emerges what we ordinarily call Transcendence, the experiencing, the vision and finally the realization of Transcendence. But all this happens because the body is what it is. It itself is the repository of our animal heritage, our natural heritage as we might call it, through the evolutionary process, and of the other heritage which is the cultural heritage, both that which is given to us from the past and by those around us, our community and our life and so forth, and that which emerges out of our own inner consciousness because we are what we are and capable of vision on our own.
All these factors are at play. Can any of these factors be at play minus the body? This is the important point. They are not. This animal body is capable of being the perfect animal, the good animal, like the well-trained horse, or whatever the animal is, completely co-operative with the owner of the horse or the rider, as the case may be. This body is capable of that. But it is our business so to train and understand the body that it does become the instrument for the divinity within our own self. This is a long and arduous task, it is a continual task. It is inevitably a continual task simply because this body, which lives from birth to death, can never escape its animal origins and that which is inbuilt because of that animal origin, the natural drives as we call them. It is always a question of being alert, awake to this fact. When emotions, intellectual perplexities, confusions, conflicts all emerge into consciousness, he is a wise man who can trace them to the body itself. Everything that happens in our psychophysical life has a physical, a natural root to it. Physical means natural. What is the natural root of all psychological manifestations? The body.
I am talking in these terms because I have to talk in as if the physical body and the psyche were separate but somehow conjoined. They are one reality, a truly one reality, all the separation takes place in my mind only, because of imperfect vision, incomplete understanding and so forth. Hence the separation takes place. But the living process as a process is a whole process in the immediate now. It is that wholeness which is beclouded in my own consciousness. This is one of the fundamental meanings of my state of ignorance. Ignorance in the religious context has nothing to do with intellectual knowledge, nothing at all. All of it is an acquisition. Ignorance in the religious context simply means a state of awareness which is not the whole state, the holy state, the state of natural and perfect communion, timeless through all time while the body lives. That is the way to try to understand the meaning of the word ignorance in the religious context.
I think you will find in one of the old books on the life of the Buddha written by a very great scholar, Dr. Oldenberg, a German scholar in the nineteenth century, some marvellous expositions of the life of the Buddha, the teaching of the Buddha and so on. But when it comes to this question of ignorance and the nature of ignorance, and what this ignorance is, which, according to the Buddha’s teaching, is the origin of all ill, you see that the scholar misses the real ontological reality of ignorance. To him it is still on an intellectual plane. That it is one’s own state of awareness has escaped him somehow. He comes near it but he misses it. In fact he presents it in his book as if ignorance was some basic principle at play throughout the universe, some power, some force, some energy, just like theologians talk about evil as a reality, per se. There is no such thing.
Because I am in this ignorant state, therefore I separate body and psyche, or body and mind, or body-mind-spirit and all the rest of it. All the disruptive processes which go on in this living person, myself, are due to this state of ignorance, this awareness which is incomplete, imperfect.
We will spend a few minutes looking into some of the really obstructive features of the body. From the time we are born the self-preservation instinct, which is our animal heritage, is at play. The world around us is usually experienced as something frightening, something which might hurt me, destroy me and in fact towards the end of the nineteenth century the whole scientific world had such a small knowledge and view of the material universe that they always talked of it as a hostile universe. Lord Kelvin, for instance, one of the great minds of his time, people like him and so many other great physicists and astronomers and others, declared that this universe was a universe that was hostile to man and he had to fight for survival, struggle for survival. So you see the basic ignorance at work which, right from the beginning, puts us into a state of conflict. There is no ending to that conflict, there cannot be an ending to that conflict. How can one individual win out against a universe which is hostile to him, a universe which was before he came on the scene and which will continue to be after he has said goodbye to the scene? The approach was wholly wrong because of the state of ignorance in the religious sense of the term, in the profound sense of the term. So associated with this self-preservative instinct which is a natural function of the living cell and the whole of the body as such, there comes fear. “A hostile universe, what will happen to me?”
The mind is in this state of apprehension, it wants to run away from reality, it wants to find security somehow, and in wanting to find security it is animated by another terrible manifestation of this fundamental ignorance, the passion for personal survival in perpetuity, if not in this world, then in some other world. “The soul of me, the spirit of me will go on for ever and ever and must go on for ever and ever.” This is clinging to the arbitrarily postulated, intellectually conceived or emotionally felt ego, the unreal ego, the thing of the mind which is confused and frightened. The reality of the ego is there, just the living person is the whole ego, a changing pattern which is brought into being by Totality and which will be completely reabsorbed into Totality. But the identity of the pattern which exists only during the lifetime of the pattern will completely disappear after that pattern is over, just as it never existed before he pattern came into being. So there is this passion for personal survival.
If there is a passion for personal survival together with fear and all the rest of it, possessiveness must necessarily come into the story. “If I possessed this and hoard that, it will be for my safety and my continuance and so forth.” If this element comes into play with Man living in society as necessarily he must, in some sort of group, community, nation, whatever it is, inevitably there will be conflicts between man and man. “But I need this for my safety, you can’t have it, and there you are.” All these things may sound trivial, but watch the intensity with which they work in all the little things of everyday life.
One of the definitions given of genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains over all details. If we want to live the religious life we must take infinite pains over every little detail. Watch the reactions, how do they come about? In fact any and every re-action comes about because of this isolatively separated self, self-concept, “I.” The moment you have the self, you raise up the not-self. You are bound to have the state of conflict, and in that state when any stimulus comes, it comes not merely from the separated some thing but from the Totality. It is Totality’s particular manifestation, a rose, a person, a book, a motorcar or whatever it is, that may be the obvious and the most apparently important source from which the stimulus comes, but any and every stimulus comes out of Totality to me, who am part of the Totality. If to start with I, as self, am against Totality, the not-self, then I shall merely re-act towards it instead of responding intelligently, free of fundamental ignorance that Totality and I are separate. They are not. Then you see there is a true response. Then one is free of this ignorance, free of this clouded, imprisoned state of awareness. When one is free of that, then there is nothing to interfere with the living interplay which goes on between the different parts of Totality. This is the great thing. But this preservation of the body, the instinct for self-preservation as we call it, is at the root of all the difficulties and troubles. If this is rightly understood, then we shall find that the process of religious flowering out is a natural growing process. It is not a process of making something, of manufacturing something, of bringing about the desired result. It is this naturalness and the profound and all inclusive deep meaning of naturalness which we have forgotten. We let it happen with respect to the body from the moment we are born because we cannot help it in the states of infancy, and once we have gone through the preliminary stages and the body is growing happily, with the youngster becoming bigger and stronger, and the adult full of vitality and life and energy, one just takes it for granted that it is there.
With this living, growing process of one’s own awareness, of one’s consciousness, the same thing should hold but what interferes is this mind-desire complex. The desires are the intellectually formulated natural drives of the animal aspect of the body. It is true that they are, and we say that this is Nature itself. Of course, and no one need try to decry Nature. Take two of three of the commonest manifestations. The male wants to achieve success as the positive he-man and the female above all perhaps wants to bring forth new life. So the longing for children in the female and the passion for success and self-assertion in the male are what we call natural things. They are there. What happens if they are denied us? We suffer terribly because we are enclosed within that desire. We have not yet seen that whatever happens to this particular animal a human being, is not quite of the same order as what happens to an ordinary animal. The animal just has to live in tune with all the natural forces at work, and more or less it does, it just does naturally, as we say. But with Man the difference is especially here, that Man is a learner. This tremendous flowering out of consciousness which can take place only in Man is a process of learning. And it is a process of learning of such tremendous dimension that it takes him completely out of the sphere of animality. So whatever are the natural and normal experiences of animality and the sort of conditions, which hold good within the confines of animality, they have to be transcended by Man, by humanity. When what is natural to the animal in us is frustrated, our business is to be more watchful than ever and just remain in the state of alertness, of great sensitivity, and that which I myself have to learn will emerge into consciousness. It is in this way that your own individual uniqueness will come to flower. Supposing that I am frustrated in some way or other and if I fight against the forces and the circumstance which produces the frustration, I have lost my opportunity. I am just the slave of my passion to fulfil my desire that I must achieve this, that or the other.
I have done it myself in my lifetime with my music, and the little success I finally achieved I saw was petty, paltry, not worth anything really, just a waste of effort. When the real thing came, it just sort of came by itself, as if the Lord God sent Dame Fortune dressed in her most charming robes with a silver salver and she handed it out to me on a platter, and just by chance I happened to take it! And so life just became completely different. All frustrations, all regrets and nostalgia and everything just vanished! That’s all. The conflict is over and has been for many years. But this way your individual uniqueness comes to flower, and it comes to flower without your desiring or without your trying to prefigure what is my individual uniqueness. It is Totality manifesting a new marvel through you, and Totality is everlastingly fresh. Every creation by Totality is a new creation, there is no end to the variety and the marvel of the world and life itself.
All we have to do then really is to be in a constant state of learning all the time. And you cannot learn if your attention wanders. You have to see, “Now this has happened to me, now why did it happen to me?” That is to say, do not ask the question in the sense of “I wish it didn’t.” That is the wrong approach altogether. This has happened. “How did it happen? Oh, I see.” And you learn that way, and in that learning it is Totality which is coming to flower through you. Nature, as far as our present scientific knowledge goes, which started with what we call the inanimate world, the different chemical elements and the combination of atoms to form molecules and molecules becoming cells and so forth, Nature, having formed the inanimate, brought the inanimate into being, came to organise life in terms of the cell, and then grew mind and consciousness in terms of the animal. In terms of Man Nature is realizing its own Transcendence through us as the instruments for such a realization.
Why ask what is the purpose of my existence? There it is, absolutely marvellous, wonderful, every single moment! So we have to learn, we have to be awake to it all. In the learning we become more and more physical, natural, because Nature is the whole reality. This is where practically all the theologies have gone astray. They have separated Nature from God. All those statements indicate is that I who make those statements am ignorant and foolish. They do not convey the truth at all. But Nature is the whole thing, God is the whole thing, the Absolute is the whole thing, the Relative is the whole thing! All the trouble and all that goes wrong is inside myself, not merely due to some sort of inherent horrid wickedness or something, but just because I am ignorant and incapable. So I have to learn all the time, and this process of learning is a bodily process, a physical process.
If you really get the feel of this, certain things will happen. A real sense of Transcendence will begin to emerge through your own living being, in your own consciousness, a sense of Transcendence all the time. That is one of the things that will happen. Another thing that will happen is that you will realize the inner, living, tremendous meaning hidden in the Buddha’s words, “He who lives not harming himself, not harming others, lives with a self become Brahman.” It is a titanic assertion. This little self, an insignificant little manifestation in space-time, becomes identical with the Absolute, the Infinite, free of the limitations of ego-conception which are almost always, in fact they always are, egoistic misconceptions. And in that is the flowering of Man here and now, Man in the ordinary sense of the word, as individual men and women in the world. This is the root of your joy, of your real joy, your real happiness. Through the years I have always said that happiness is the crown of our physical existence. (I am using the word physical now in the ordinary limited sense of our bodily existence.) Happiness is the crown of this. Pure intelligence is the crown of our psychological growth and fruition. Freedom is the crown of our spiritual blossoming.
So you see how all these are interrelated, not as separate particulars interrelated. The way we talk about it gives the impression of separation. But the whole thing is a one thing, that is all. Although we are compelled to talk as if it were separate, and we are compelled to think as if it were separate, because this mechanism of speech and thought is of the nature of analysis and separating out, we are aware inwardly only in terms of the wholeness. And this wholeness is the complete meaning of holiness and holy living, and holy living is right in the body itself, the Temple of the Lord.
And then you will find that happiness just pervades your being, true happiness all the time. Although one goes through stress and strain because of circumstance, because of the conditions around us, the conditions of Nature, maybe flood, earthquake and so on, somehow right within oneself that happiness is always there. You know how beautiful the English countryside is, it is a miracle of beauty, and it is always there. If you are standing looking at it today when it is clear and sunny you will see it and be lifted to the heavens, you will feel that the benediction of God is upon it when you look at it like that. But on other days when it is foggy you will not see it. But you know it is there because your living being has experienced the truth of it. It is the same with this happiness. Once realized inwardly in the inner deeps of consciousness, then in the midst of storms and stress in life, although there will be hurt, naturally because you cannot avoid it, (if you are in a pea soup fog the whole body feels ill with it, unquestionably, however healthy you are), still that peace and that happiness will remain with you always. To me this is so important because in my own life I have realized that there is no such thing as real goodness without happiness, and there is no such thing as real happiness without goodness. The harmony of the two is the fulfilment of living in the body, and the body is no longer an obstruction but has become the Temple of the Most High.