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Attachment to the body

Attachment to the body

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • Attachment to the appearance and health of the body
  • Attachment to food and clothing
  • Looking realistically at the purpose of the body
  • The body eventually dies, and the karma we create in relation to it goes with us to the next life
  • Developing a good relationship with the body

The Essence of a Human Life: Attachment to the body (download)

Think, therefore, upon seeing and hearing of others’ deaths,
“I am no different, death will soon come,
its certainty in no doubt, but no certainty as to when.
I must say farewell to my body, wealth, and friends,
but good and bad deeds will follow like shadows.

Last time we talked about, “I must say farewell to my wealth and friends.” We talked about how we work so hard to have wealth and friends and family, and approval, and reputation, and all of that in this life, and create a lot of harmful karma in the process of doing so. Then at the time we die we separate from all these things, and our karma comes with us, but our possessions stay here, our family and friends stay here. How thinking about that really helps us set our priorities about what’s important in our lives and how to spend our time.

We didn’t get to the third one of those, “I must say farewell to my body.” That’s what I wanted to talk about today.

First of all, wealth, friends and relatives, and our body are probably the three things we’re most attached to. We want possessions and the success and comfort that they represent. We want friends and relatives for the emotional security, again the success, the appreciation, and everything that they represent. And then our body—which has been with us from the time of birth, that we’ve never been separated from, that we adore dearly, and spend so much of our lives taking care of—at the time when we die this body stays here and our consciousness goes on alone with all the karmic seeds that we’ve created with respect to this body.

If we look at our attitude towards our body we may say, “Well, I’m not attached to this body.” You hear people, “I’m not attached to this body. I’m not afraid of death. No problem.” But they scratch themselves, and, “Oh! I scratched myself. It hurts so much. Oh no, what happens if this gets infected?” Really, we have no attachment to this body. Come on.

We’re very attached to this body. We’re attached to its looks, because we get so much of our self-esteem if we have an attractive, young, beautiful, healthy, athletic body. And we get ignored if we have an old body, or a disabled body, or who knows what. Very attached to the way this body looks.

We spend a lot of time dressing this body. Clothes are basically just for the purpose of protecting the body. That’s what the vinaya says. We wear clothes to protect the body from heat, and cold, and bugs, and things like that. But in society we use our dress to indicate a lot, don’t we? All you have to do is just look at the newspapers and all the advertisements about clothing. Look at what they wear during the Academy Awards and Emmy Awards, and all these kinds of things, how the people dress. I look at it and it’s like, oh my goodness, I would be so embarrassed to wear that kind of clothing. Or that kind of NON-clothing. [laughter]

And yet people so attached to their clothing, which also represents social status, because we dress according to our social status, and our self-image, and our occupation.

We spend so much time decorating this body. You have to have jewelry—both men and women have jewelry. We take care of our hair. You let it grow long, or you cut it short, or you try and get some. So much about our hair. Dyeing it, combing it, worrying about it.

I sometimes think, “What would it be like if I could—before I ordained—all the time I spent (especially as a teenager and in my early 20s) thinking about my hair. And doing stuff for my hair. It was an incredible amount of time. And I had to spend hours, many hours, meditating on cutting off my hair before I could get myself to do it. Because I had hair down to here (waist-length) that was beautiful. And it took me so many years to grow this out, and I don’t want to cut it off! So I used to visualize, if I die now and they put me in a casket with my long beautiful hair then people come by and look and say, “Oh, she has such beautiful hair, that corpse.” And the absurdity of that is what got me mentally okay with cutting off my hair. It’s like, what good is this hair going to do me when I’m dead? Zero. And yet so much time and energy.

We think the shape of our body, and our weight. If you’re too thin you want to get fatter. If you’re too fat you want to get thinner. I grew up, my family, my parents, all their friends, one of the biggest topics of conversation was weight, and how to lose it. And I grew up thinking that if you’re an adult you’re overweight and you spend so much time worrying about your weight, trying to lose it, hating yourself for not losing it. That was the image I had of grown-ups because that was the situation with my parents and all their friends. And how much time they spent there.

How much time, when you want to go out to eat. First of all, deciding on what restaurant to go to. That takes at least half an hour. I don’t know if your family’s like my family? But first you have to talk about which restaurant. Do you want Italian food? Do you want Chinese food? Which Chinese restaurant, because this one has this, that one has that. Or maybe you want Thai food. Or maybe we should try the Moroccan food. Or the Israeli food. Or maybe just go to Pizza Hut for something quick and cheap. So much time discussing which restaurant to go to.

Then once you arrive at the restaurant, another half an hour discussing what to order. I’m not joking, this is my family. And you sit there. This dish has this, and this one has that. And then calling the waiter or waitress over, “Can you make this one but without this ingredient, and add this other one instead?” So all these things about food to nourish this body, you spend half an hour on that.

It comes. You eat it without paying any attention to it. Except you have to say it’s really good. And then after the meal you say, “Oh, I ate so much, I feel sick. But it was so delicious.” And that’s to nourish the body. And that’s just going out to eat.

What about the time we spend going to the grocery store and cooking the food? And looking at all the ads for who has discount on what food. You cut out all the coupons, you go to this market to save money using these coupons. And then you spend money on gas and pollute the universe more by driving across town to the other supermarket where it has different coupons for other things where you can save another nickle or a dime or maybe a quarter. Right?

If we look, the amount of time just keeping this body alive with food, clothing. Then what about shelter? Talk about building a building. Buying a building. How much time you spend getting shelter for this body. And then, of course, once you have a shelter, complaining that it isn’t adequate. The room is too cold, the room is too hot. You have to walk up too many stairs. The stairs aren’t evenly spaced. The carpet isn’t the right color. The carpet isn’t soft enough for our precious feet. The kitchen isn’t large enough for our precious mouth. And so trying to revise the house.

Keeping this body healthy. How many hours do we have to sleep? They say in lamrim—most people sleep eight hours.That means one-third of our lives is spent unconscious—sleeping. Think about that. One-third. If you live to be 60 you’ve spent 20 years sleeping. That’s outrageous. And what about people who sleep nine, ten, eleven, twelve hours? Not just one-third of the life, more. Sleeping. And you’re not even awake to enjoy how good you feel when you’re asleep.

Sleeping is funny, isn’t it? You go to sleep, you’re unconscious. There’s absolutely no pleasure during all those hours you’re unconscious. Then you wake up and say how good I feel having slept that long. But you were totally out to lunch.

We have to have a bed that is not too soft. Because if it’s too soft our back hurts. Not too hard. Because if it’s too hard our back also hurts. We have to have a bed at the right angle according to what our body likes. If you need to have your feet up because you have swelling. If you need to have your head up because you have GERD. So a lot of time fixing, making our special bed so that we’re comfortable. Then our blankets. “MY blankets that when we change rooms every spring I want to take MY blankets with.” Do you remember that? “I don’t want to use somebody else’s blankets. These are my blankets.” And then, “I have to have a rug right under where i get out of bed. A rug to put my feet on. And just enough blankets. The room has to be a certain temperature. If it’s too cold I don’t want to put on extra blankets, I want to raise the heat. If it’s too hot I don’t want to remove my blankets and open a window because bugs might come in. And, god forbid, germs with the fresh air.” (I have one friend that we go through long discussions about this with.) So, the temperature. That’s when we’re sleeping.

When we’re awake the temperature has to be right. Especially during retreat. Especially during retreat the temperature of the room is of utmost importance. So you get up and open the window because it’s too stuffy, and the person next to you stands up and closes the window because it’s too cold. Then wait until you get hot flashes! You want half of the window open and the other half closed, because half of your body’s warm and half of your body’s cold. And then it switches after 30 seconds. But the temperature’s got to be exactly like I want it. Not too hot, not too cold.

I have to drink perfect water, and have all the food that I like. My body has to be always healthy. And I will do ten back-flips to make sure it’s healthy. I have to have a special room for yoga. Do not ask me to do yoga in a room that has a laminate floor, even (if) I have a yoga mat. No. My body is too precious to do that. So I have to have my right room for yoga, and the right temperature, and my yoga clothes. I can’t do yoga in just any clothes. I have to wear my yoga clothes. Especially if you go to a yoga center.

If you go cycling you have to have your cycling clothes. You can’t just put on jeans and a sweatshirt. You have to have cycling clothes. And a helmet that matches. Helmet has to be the same color as your cycling clothes, right? Or at least blend and offset the subtle colors in your cycling clothes that are brought out with the helmet.

On, and on, and on like this with our bodies. Pampering this body. Then we stub our toe: “Ahhh! This is bordering a national disaster.”

I remember when I was in maybe, 2nd or 3rd grade there was one girl who, in the yard, she sprained her ankle. She got so much attention. Everybody rushed around her. All the boys wanted to help her and she was hanging off of their shoulders (this was in 3rd grade), getting all the attention from the boys walking. Then the teacher gives you so much attention. So after I saw how much attention she got spraining her ankle, I tried to sprain my ankle. Seriously! I tried to sprain my ankle. But I’m such a klutz I could never do it! [laughter] So I never got the same attention as this other girl got by spraining her ankle.

Everything that happens to our bodies…. Do you remember when you play softball and you got hit in the stomach? [makes face] “Oh, I want some attention, this is terrible, look how sick I am!” You catch a cold and then all of a sudden you wear all your Alaska gear. You’re bundled up like this is terrible. It’s just a cold. You have your everything on and then five or ten masks. Because the thin ones don’t do anymore. Now, I just recently discovered with the smoke, they have thicker masks. The 9.5 and 10 mask. Next time I get a cold I’d better wear one of those. Not one of those thin ones. Then I need the medicine. I need to see the doctor. I get the sniffles….

I remember in Singapore, I start coughing, immediately they want to take you to the doctor. What’s the doctor going to do if you have a common cold? He’s going to say, “Go to bed and sleep.” But, got to go to the doctor.

It’s just amazing. We fuss so much about this body, don’t we? And worry. And then when it has really severe sicknesses, we go really nuts. You get kidney disease, you get cancer, you get heart condition. Or you get severely injured. Then we totally go ballistic. “My life is falling apart. How could this happen to me?” And our whole world gets condensed down into this body, and that’s all that’s important. Our Dharma is out the window, and worry and anxiety are the air we breathe.

And then at the end of this day what does this body do? Dies. We’ve taken so much good care of it for how many years? And then it completely betrays us and dies. It doesn’t tell us when it’s going to die, or how it’s going to die. We can’t schedule it. It would be really convenient to schedule, wouldn’t it? You could finish all of your projects and then have your visualization of your dream death. Plan it. Have everything you want in front of you. Get free of everything you don’t want. Make sure the beds very comfortable. Then you lie down….

You have to look beautiful when you die. Remember there was this movie star recently who had a face-lift or something? After she died. Remember reading about it? She was some famous person. Because she wanted to look beautiful in her casket.

How much time and energy we spend, and worry, and attachment to this body. And anxiety over this body. When in actual fact the body—from a Dharma viewpoint—is simply the basis for having a precious human life. So we need to keep it clean and take care of it so we can practice the Dharma. That’s all. We don’t need to pamper it. We don’t need to do ascetic trips. Just clean, take care of it, so we can practice. And use it to practice the Dharma. And then when it’s time to die, “Bye.” Lama Yeshe used to say you want to be like a bird taking off from a ship in the middle of the ocean. The bird just goes. The bird doesn’t [look back] “Oh god, can I fly off this ship?” And then starts to flap and looks back and, “Oh, this precious ship…. Where am I going?” The bird just goes. That’s the way we want to be.

We have some work to do on cutting the attachment to this body if we’re going to die in a peaceful way.

There I was just talking about the time we take to take care of our bodies. What about the karma we create in protecting this body? The karma we create in pleasing this body. The karma created out of attachment. We kill others to protect this body. We steal from others to protect this body. Have unwise and unkind sexual relationships to give pleasure to the body. Lie to protect the body. Talk behind other people’s backs, speak harshly, all these things. Solely to give this body pleasure and protect it from harm. And then at the end of the day the body stays here. it becomes some rotten, stinking corpse that nobody wants to go near. And our consciousness goes on alone with all the karma that we created.

I think there’s something quite important to meditate on here. If we can have a good relationship with our body then we can free ourselves from creating so much destructive karma and have a whole lot more time to practice, and have a mind that’s much more relaxed.

[In response to audience] I said we spend a lot of time taking care of this body. What I meant by “taking care” was “giving this body pleasure and protecting it from harm.” But you’re absolutely right, in another way we don’t treat this body very well because in our pursuit of pleasure we don’t eat well, we take all sorts of substances that harm our body (alcohol, recreational drugs, and so on). So we don’t actually take care of the health of this body because we spend so much time just seeking its pleasure. We eat too much, we eat the wrong stuff, we don’t exercise (because who wants to get off of the couch?) So actually, in a Dharma way, if we’re going to keep this body clean and healthy to practice then we really have to watch our diet, watch what we consume, make sure we exercise, go to the doctor when we need to.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.