Embodied Practice and the Warm Sun of Friendship

The Buddha’s practice is an embodied practice. Every one of us is a product of the union of our parent’s bodies—we are miraculously borne in our mother’s body and then suddenly delivered into this world as a tender, embodied expression of that union. We learn to navigate our lives with a body and as a body until it ultimately drops and we make space for new life. Being human is a shaky, embodied experience, and the Buddha’s teachings emerged from his determination to understand what it means to live in such a body that is simultaneously shockingly vulnerable and amazingly resilient.

The Buddha’s teachings rests on the realization of “emptiness,” the profound apprehension that all of life is one, inconceivable, interdependent event unfolding continuously and impersonally. The only way to experience being alive is by fully inhabiting a body. This fullness of embodied life is empty of separation; empty of independence; full of the inevitable, ever-changing, relentless unfolding. Here is a clarifying quotation from Steven Batchelor’s new book, After Buddhism, in which we hear the echo of the early teachings on emptiness being a call to embodiment—not philosophy or theology.

“The Shorter Discourse on Emptiness concludes with this insight: to dwell in emptiness means to inhabit fully the embodied space of one’s sensory experience, but in a way that is no longer determined by one’s habitual reactivity. To dwell in such emptiness does not mean that one will no longer suffer. As long as one has a body and senses, one will be “prone to anxiety” that comes with being a conscious, feeling creature made of flesh, bones, and blood. And this would have been just as true for Gotama as it is for us today.
Here, emptiness is not a truth—let alone an ultimate truth—that is to be understood correctly as a means to dispel ignorance and thereby attain enlightenment. For Gotama, the point is not to understand emptiness but to dwell in it. To dwell in emptiness brings us firmly down to earth and back into our bodies.” (p. 9)

To dwell in emptiness is to live in an animal body that can think, imagine, and act in ways that are, in some ways, unlike any other animal on this planet. Because we are a certain kind of animal—a member of the remarkably adaptive and intelligent Class Mammalia—we require each other in order to survive. Our bodies are made to seek out, touch, be warmed by, groomed, and loved by others like ourselves. These requirements are our gifts as Mammals, but these gifts come with complications and difficulties. The Buddha sought to understand the nature of the struggles and inevitable suffering of ordinary, embodied humans, and in doing so he came to understand the importance of friendship as a central feature of spiritual practice. This is a large and important topic which we cannot exhaust in this small post, but here is another statement from Batchelor’s book regarding kalyanamitta—true spiritual friendship.

“Throughout his life, the Buddha was known as the Friend of the Sun (adiccacitta) or Kinsman of the Sun (adiccabandhu). He likewise compared any true friend (kalyanamitta) to the first light of dawn, for in the same way as the dawn is the precursor of the rising sun, a true friend preceded one’s cultivation of the noble eightfold path, the route to self-reliance in the practice of the dharma. Through both example and teaching, the true friend encourages the sun to arise in another’s life. The sun, in this case, is nirvana, which is beheld as soon as the dark cloud’s of habitual reactivity are momentarily dispelled from an individual’s mind. Such moments open up the possibility of leading a life that is no longer conditioned by impulses of greed, hatred, and confusion.” (p. 36)

In the Inquiry recording (found below if you are reading this on my blog) you will hear the story about the final morning of the retreat above Lake Chapala near Guadalajara this Fall. On this morning as I was packing to leave and looking over my preparations for our last sitting together, I heard knock on my door. I was invited to join the entire group outside under an outdoor pavilion where we had been doing walking meditation. It was a clear, chilly morning, soft in the early morning light. One of the leaders began to reflect on what the retreat had meant, how we had come together in such a loving and generous way, and what this might mean to the community. As she spoke, the sun broke through the clouds hanging over the lake, streaming over the mountainous landscape and into the pavilion, flooding our bodies with warm light. We engaged in several embodied ceremonies of gratitude and completion, honoring each other and the practices that had bought us to this moment together in the morning sun. I read the quote above as my translator worked wholeheartedly to transmit the teachings clearly and lovingly in Spanish.

“Through both example and teaching, the true friend encourages the sun to arise in another’s life.” As we stood together in our circle of care that morning, showered with both morning sunlight and flower petals, we knew this to be true. We were embodying the teachings of the Buddha: “To dwell in emptiness brings us firmly down to earth and back into our bodies.” We were home—together.

Inquiry recording: