Logos of the Lived Body:
Remembering the Way Home
By Matthew Segall
Buddhist Philosophical Systems
Prof. Steven Goodman
“Embodiment is: emerging into this world of light and sound…confinement to a body as a constantly changing piece of luggage, always a surprise to look down and it has sprouted hair or breasts, become fat, wrinkled, thin, peeling, saggy…becoming afraid that this will end…frustration of mind-never-still standing square in the way of Mind…wonder of using mind-that-can-grow-quiet to encounter Mind, body-that-can-sit to realize Body…” –Jan Chozen Bays (Being Bodies: Buddhist Women and the Paradox of Embodiment, p. 171-172)
The fact that I exist at all strikes me as unendingly weird (German: werden– ‘to become’; wer– ‘to turn, bend’); but, what at first pass seems like the most stubborn and persistent of facts may, after the careful inquiry and practice of re-turning (i.e., bending back to look again), reveal itself as a fleeting appearance. Perhaps, if my self-query is sufficiently penetrating, the seeming fact of my separate existence will dissolve entirely into the blissful radiance of Śūnyatā. Who and what am I, really? How is it, exactly, that I exist in this wonderfully weird world (W3)? And why should my mysterious existence continue to come into being at all? These questions—the who, what, how, and why of existence—will guide me along this hopefully homeward bound philosophical holzwege (‘wood path’). My walk along this unknown wood path is risky (wagen– ‘to risk’), because I know not from where I came nor when I will end—I simply (and often quite confusedly) find myself thrown here amongst others without memory of my whence and without clear sight of my whither. All I know is that the path I walk is motivated by a heartfelt concern, not for the proper definition of abstract concepts, but for the ultimate significance of my and my fellow’s being-toward-death. I am compelled by this uncanny situation to develop a coherent account of my body-as-lived that is adequate to the task of guiding my journey home (i.e., homing) through such a W3.
The practice of re-turning is also one of remembering, of making the self-body-world complex whole once more through a process of anamnesis: I must call to mind again that in me which is aware of the original universal current of intelligent energy (Logos). The body (Sarx) and its intimate relations are the place of my concern and the mandalic center of significance around which all my existential thoughts will revolve.
“The body,” says Guenther,
“acts as an orientational point in terms of which and around which the surrounding world in all its richness and variety is structured and organized” (Matrix of Mystery, p. 22).
My holzwege will be translated by alphabetic magic into vessels of visible sound, and so must function for the reader as a grammatical walk through tangled webs of English syntax, rather than a bodily sojourn across earthly trails. You cannot literally walk by my side into the invisible landscapes that I seek to traverse, but nonetheless, the written words that mark my movements are originally bodied forth as speech, and speech is the site where my “ethically agitated altruistic intent” (Goodman, 12/7/09) for self and others first fully emerges into the world. As a sentient being of human incarnation, my “authentic utterances” (MoM, p. 67) serve as mediators between the actual and possible worlds that my heart-mind aspires to know and dwell within. As per the demands of discursive investigation, despite my heartfelt concern for concrete matters of life and death, the perspectival power of abstraction and conceptuality must be called upon. I lay down this path in walking home not to outrun the mind’s tendency to grasp-at-in-attempting-to-contain the rich perceptual flow of experiential reality, but to consciously engage these mental tendencies in an attempt to transform them, making of the thinking process a spiritual ally.
As Guenther says,
“Concepts imply selection; that is, some aspects of what we perceive are contrasted with others, some are even suppressed, and the emotions assist in further distorting that which is perceived, because they, too, are denied their scope. In the context of our body this state of affairs is termed the body of sedimented drives and tendencies initiated by and filtered through a system of concepts and discursive ventures” (MoM, p. 25).
In being explicit about the telos of my current task (remembering the way home), I hope to avoid the distortion that might be caused by drives and tendencies that remain sedimented and suppressed. I will select and contrast the perceptions provided by my earthly embodiment, being careful along the way to avoid fruitlessly constructing a castle of systematic thought which in the end serves only to cast an enormous shadow over the nearby shack where I find myself still living. I desire not a new textual representation of the body’s place on the path, but a praxecology applicable to actual life on earth with others.
In a topological sense, the universe is a seamless garment of excitatory intelligence whose energy can, through “bending and twisting,” be “stepped down” and worn by an endless variety of sentient beings even while maintaining the “dynamic invariance” of its “formal gestalt” (MoM, p. 27). The universe remains eternally whole even while impermanent particulars are constantly being born and dying as expressions of its “cosmic evolutionary force moving in an optimizing direction” (MoM, p. 33).
“There is a twisting or going astray of the gestalt into the shape of a body,” says Guenther,
“such that a vast expanse is crumbled into a tight sheath and a transparent and open presence is mistaken (misread) as something which, as an isolated or more exactly self-isolating system, now begins to exert its gravitational pull” (MoM, p. 27).
The nature of this misreading is of great concern to me, as the ignorance and isolation it produces are the chief sources of suffering in my life. That the open transparency of the vast expanse is mistaken by a self-isolating system suggests that only I am to blame for the suffering (duḥkha– ‘crowded space’) associated with Samsāric experience. This realization leads not to resignation, but to the insight that Nirvāṇa, too, is potentially my karma (i.e., my responsibility): Through the non-arising (nirodha) of a mistaken reading of reality (and a mistaken identity), dharma can shine through the twisted garment of excitatory intelligence making up my body, thereby revealing the anti-gravitational pull of “pristine cognitiveness” lighting the path home (MoM,p. 10). The body-as-lived Samsārically is like a burdensome piece of luggage dragged along by an alienated ego whose lack of substantial existence necessitates its forever-thwarted attempts to have a life (as if it were not life that always already has it). I do not have a body or a life, but continually become a lived body thrust into and drained out of the intrinsic emptiness of being by the mysterious and intelligent dynamics of our W3. Let us now turn to the task of remembering how this weirdness bodies forth so that the Nirvāṇic impulse, having gone astray, can find again its homeward way.
Bhāvanā: Meditations on the Spirit of Birth and Death
I first entered this world not out of my own desire, but that of my parents. Twenty-four years ago, Eros’ arrow hit its mark and the ancient biological ritual of genetic transfer was successfully accomplished. A seed was fertilized and began to grow within the womb of my mother. I have no conscious recollection of gestating within her for those formative enneadic months, but the warmth and comfort I feel laying in bed beneath blankets each night evokes dim and distant memories. Upon falling asleep, my lungs are once again breathed for me as my waking life in this W3 is submerged into dreams and darkness. The entire sequence of birth, life, and death is fractally enfolded in each and every day-night cycle. Laying in bed while dreaming, I inwardly re-imagine the world—my limp body vegetating as if still afloat in the maternal waters of pre-creation; waking to the light of morning, I am born again into the gravitationally-restrained motility of life on earth; when of my own weight I grow weary in the evening, I retire to pass once more into the cleansing fires of deep sleep, forgetting all that seemed burdensome and heavy beneath the harsh light of day.
“Twilight is intimate,” writes Erwin Strauss,
“because here nature veils the boundaries separating things from one another as well as the distances that divide us from them” (PP, p. 19).
In sleep, the body is lived again as an undivided whole, temporarily escaping the tumult of daily life. I become again an unborn, still nascent consciousness weaning at the teat of the mother matrix. But all things turn, and in time this side of the earth rolls over to face the sun for another round of wakeful life. If the sleep-wake cycle and the life-death cycle are analogous, then life, as an integral whole, is rounded by birth and death. These events represent the horizon surrounding my presence on earth as a lived body. Birth raises my lived body into the light of the world until death decays it, returning it to the dirt out of which it was grown. Unlike the vegetative sentience of plants, however, my animate life as a human being presents me with a most auspicious occasion for fully awakening.
The place and time of my bodily birth was karmic, the fruit of the conditions surrounding past parental action. Guenther suggests that it is through my body that I “actively [engage] in and with [the] world”—through my body that I am “in touch with” both touching (noesis) and touchable (noema) (MoM, p. 115).By right of birth, my lived body, despite its apparent spatial and temporal limitations, shares in the mysterious indestructible intelligence of the seamless garment of ever-excitable pluripotentiality constituting Being itself (MoM, p. 114).The self-organizing “ensemble” of my body, speech, and mind functions as a unique expression of this universal source, free to participate in but also to seemingly stray from the vast flowering continuity of our cosmogenesis. Seemingly losing our way through the forests of the formal gestalt is possible because of the self-isolating nature of ignorance (avidyā) and our “inveterate human tendency to lose touch and forget, err and stray, stumble and fall” (Levin, p. 257). Losing touch is the result of an overly rigid embodiment leading to a loss of responsive motility and sensitivity.
What is required is a “transition from rigidity to fluidity,” according to Guenther, wherein
“the body as me-as-embodied is experienced as a process of embodying which, in the last analysis, turns out to be the spiritual richness that pervades the whole of Being…Thus every individual is an intentional structure in which the inseparability of mentation, speaking, and embodying occurs as an undivided and indivisible totality” (MoM, p. 196).
Though it may at times appear as if my mind and body, thoughts and speech, lose contact and become fragmented, it remains the case that underlying my personhood is a process of embodiment whose intrinsic motivation is for growth toward wholeness. The garment of excitatory intelligence seems to become tangled and restrictive only superficially, if viewed through occluded eyes or approached with an attitude of ungrateful resignation. The seamless fabric of reality cannot tear, nor can knots in its fibers remain for long before their tension unravels back into the void.
Guenther writes in relation to this inevitability of our awakening that,
“Our internally constituted sense of reality (comprising our embodiment, speaking, and mentation) and our externally constituted sense of reality (comprising the totality of phenomena) are felt as a phantom-like fabric, emerging out of nothing, yet unfolding as something—this ‘something’ being attested by the fact that there is a coming-into-presence, and the ‘nothing’ by the fact that this coming-into-presence never occurs as a reifiable domain” (MoM, p. 79).
No body that has been born can avoid returning to the emptiness from which it came. Death is part of the bargain of embodiment, the energetic payment for life’s temporary far-from-equilibrium adventure as a self-isolating space-time event (or sentient autopoietic being). All forms are empty of substantial existence, even while emptiness remains itself overflowing with an infinite variety of potential forms, each one awaiting its chance to participate in the choreography of cosmic coexistence (tToK, p. 248).
I am born into this W3 again each morning refreshed, having sloughed off the cellular sacrifices whose living offspring continue to generously body forth an organic dwelling place for that in me which is aware and was so even before my mother and father crossed the chromosomes that unfolded into my spatiotemporal form of becoming. Physical reality offers no stable ground for my lived body, but “experience-as-such, having no root, is the root of all that is (MoM, p. 79).
What am I?
What is my body? It appears that all the myriad forms of intentionality that I experience in daily life and dreaming, including my own flesh, are impermanent: grasper and graspable arise together, neither able to sustain objective stability independent of its shifting relation to the other. I thrive as my body not by clinging to an illusory stasis, but by passing away gracefully. Enlightened life as a particular body (Nirmaṇakāya) is the art of decaying willfully while radiating love to others (as the sun consumes itself to warm the earth). My body’s purpose in life is to suffer for the love of others. In this case, my bodily telos is sacrificial service—my body a vessel to be filled-until-overflowing with compassion (Mahākaruṇā).
What is my speech? It seems that all the melodic sounds that I hear or utter, while intrinsically meaningful, nevertheless recede as quickly as they emerge. Meaning cannot remain the same for long, because it emerges from the ongoing dance of differences, the rhythmic call and response of intelligent dynamism. Dogmatic doctrines that once conveyed truth become fossilize with time. Only images evoked with living words and symbols manage to communicate the timeless joys of creative play underlying the manifest universe (Sambhogakāya). The topology of Being is like a text, a logos, always open to fresh interpretation (Levin, p. 260). My speech’s purpose in life is to sing with others in poetic praise of our “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn), that common body in which each contains all (Being Bodies, p. 9).
What is my mind? It appears that all ideas and emotions mentally conceived are but clouds floating through an open sky of“ceaseless pristine cognitiveness” (MoM, p. 79). Through all this conceptuo-emotive commotion, experience transparent to the open expanse of Śūnyatā endures unbroken, undisturbed. The mind is the “directedness of awareness” that, when purified of the desire to possess its intended objects, provides the spiritual momentum underlying the continuous authentic voicing of signifiers relevant to the unfolding character of the encompassing “meaning-saturated gestalt” (MoM, p. 196). An enlightened mind unveils the absolute reality of complete, ever-present emptiness (Dharmakāya) underlying all form. Not a mere heap of thoughts and emotions, the mind is the guiding thread unifying the autopoietic processes linking speech, body, and world.
What am I? I am not a thing, physical or mental, but an
“action of resonating concern…embodied [as a] locus of experience…installed in a world with respect to which I…can engage in various ‘world’-related endeavors” (MoM, p. 195).
In body, speech, and mind, I engage the world because I care. I care because I know the eternal presence of Being can be so easily misread and ignorantly experienced as a dualistic realm of subjects/beings over and against objects/environments. I cannot be separated from my body, my voice, or my mind—nor from the phenomenal world these open me toward; I am aware of but not contained by any of these.
It seems I am not a what—I am a who. As a who, as opposed to a what, I cannot be chained to any particular substance, quality, or idea. As is written in the gSang-ba snying-po:
“…there is [nothing] that could be called a fetter;
Nor is there anyone to be fettered!
Fettering is done by the divisic notion which holds to a self
Tying and untying knots in the open sky” (MoM, p. 31).
A who is not an immutable essence, but a mandalic concentration of energy representable as a cross-cap (2-D), sphere, (3-D), or toroidal vortex (4-D) that forms an extensionless point of origin attended by an appreciative surrounding audience.
“In this manifestation of the point,” says Guenther,
“a departure from its source is indicated, and this departure expresses itself in the experienced (relished) relationship of the central (‘original’) point and the peripheral (‘moving’) point becoming an arc which, as it closes on itself, becomes the circle of (‘encircling’) attendants. Thus, it appears as an enlivening geometrical configuration imbued with the experience of beauty [see title page for visual representations]” (MoM, p. 43).
I am the site of mutual concern where self and other arise together as conspirators in the intrinsically ordered and marvelously coherent unfolding of the universe. I am Dasein, the cosmos as it happens “here” (Goodman, 11/30/09). But here is also “there”; I cannot be without you. In the dependent co-arising of our being-with one another, we participate in the further development of “an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century). As a who, I am the experiential event horizon created by the folding of the garment of Being back upon itself. Each who emerges as a center attended by a surrounding audience of others with their own unique perspectives (“…center is everywhere…”). This twisting of the universe into multiple centers of perspective prevents any final closure on the identity of a particular being. I remain always open to reinterpretation or even reinvention depending on the company I find myself sharing. The universal contains all particulars (there is no outside to a universe whose “circumference is nowhere”—all things share in unbounded oneness), even while each particular represents a unique once-occurant emergence onto the world stage.
If I truly am a who of such infinite significance, it must be possible to fully embody the deathless state in this life. The section to follow records my recollection of the home I’ve never left.
Nirvāṇa is the deathless state that naturally arises with the extinction of Samsāric existence as a being-toward-death. It is the realization of the unfettered bliss of eternal life. Opening to the possibility of deathlessness requires confronting the end (i.e., telos) of my embodiment: death. An embodied life lived awakened (as a Buddha) or asleep (as a sentient being) ends all the same with old age, sickness, and death. What attains deathlessness is not the body, but a pure awareness of and as Śūnyatā that, while alive, may or may not have become transparent to itself despite the apparent restraints of embodiment.
The analogy between sleep and death provides a conceptual aid to support a deeper understanding of the wholeness underlying the life-death cycle. While my body has not yet perished on the physical plane, I have fallen asleep to its presence here/there many times.
“If authentic being-toward-death dwells in angst,” says Corey Anton,
“authentic being-toward-sleep opens humanity to the abiding joy of a more inclusive ground of being. It takes courage to endure the angst of authentically reckoning with death, but we take blissful comfort when we understand that, as alive, existence is always already less than the whole of who we are. To fall asleep is to give up momentarily on the individuated project of resolute existence; it is to let all cares fall to oblivion” (Anton, p. 194).
But individuation is not so easily escaped. The analogy between death and sleep is stressed by the temporary duration of the sleeping state. We lay our bodies down at night only to rest for the coming of a new dawn. The death of the body would appear at first glace to be permanent; however, with the realization of the deathless state beyond the body, reincarnation becomes not a return to bodily entrapment, but an awakening to the responsibility of compassionate coexistence. This is so because, as Nāgārjuna has written, emptiness is not other than form, nor Nirvāṇa other than Samsāra. The truly enlightened (those awake to the pristine cognitiveness underlying their bodily incarnation) do not choose heaven over earth, but forego eternal bliss for the sake of the holier work of easing the suffering of others. Full realization of the emptiness of the deathless state is immediately followed by an outpouring of compassion for all who live and die upon the earth (all sentient beings). Buddhahood reaches its apex not with Nirvāṇa, but with the boddhisatvic vow of willful service to others.
The difference between an arhat and a boddhisatva might be clarified by examining their spatial and temporal backgrounds. Space as the unconditioned openness underlying all apparently material existence provides every body with an opportunity for awakening to the freedom of its intrinsic emptiness. The arhat has realized this spatiousness by letting go of all attachments to the realm of ever-changing forms. But the time dimension is not overshadowed by space; if emptiness is not other than form, the unfinished evolution of the manifest cosmos from origin to Omega calls the enlightened back into human history to participate in the eventual redemption of the world. The boddhisatva hears this calling and responds wholeheartedly. No longer identified merely with the physical body, with its self-centered concerns of pleasure and pain, of having and getting, the boddhisatva is motivated instead by the project of midwiving awakening in all sentient beings through loving kindness and skillfully compassionate action. Embodying deathlessness is not an end in itself, but a catalyst for self- and other-transformation in a life no longer defined in opposition to death. Death, like sleep, is integral with the spiritual purpose of life: only by reckoning ourselves with the temporal destiny of our lived body can the blissful eternal presence of spaciousness be brought forth into the earthly realm in service of all who still suffer through the tangled confusions of Samsāra.
The body can seem at times a chore and a burden. But the seed of unfettered existence lies hidden even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances. Never truly isolated, the body remains always arrayed within the “formal gestalt” of a universal coherence. This gestalt is not fixed, but evolutive, and so the body’s seeming instability and excitatory inclination is a “stepped down” expression of the universe’s seamless current of intelligent energy. Returning home is making of this bodily incarnation a temple to the intelligence at work within all things. Through all my earthly travels and ordeals, I remain attuned to the intrinsic wholeness and beauty of our shared adventure of cosmogenesis. My bodily form is a gift, a house where Being is granted a clearing through which it can become present to itself and others.
My holzwege has not been straight or exhaustive; much has been left unexplored, and perhaps some of the discursive trails I’ve traced end only in thickets. I end only where I began, with the awareness that the only home I’ll ever know is already here. But a home without the company of others lacks warmth and good conversation. I’d rather continue my eternal wanderings through this W3 in search of those friends whose heart burns with the same passionate flame that has brought light to my path. Perhaps together we can work to make a home expansive and transparent enough for all to dwell. The earth awaits this most marvelous of divine deeds.
1) Anton, Corey. Human Studies. Volume 29 (2006). ‘Dreamless Sleep and the Whole of Human Life: An Ontological Exposition’
2) Grof, Stan. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. 2000.
3) Guenther, Herbert. Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective. 1989Matrix of Mystery. 1984.
4) Levin, David Michael. Ed. by Graham Parkes. Heidegger and Eastern Thought. ‘Mudra as Thinking: Developing our Wisdom-of-Being in Gesture and Movement.’ 1987.
5) Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Cognition. 1988.
6) Straus, Erwin. Phenomenological Psychology. 1980.