Rediscovering the Body

Chen Yu-Hsi 

(The author’s note: This short article was written for my beloved daughter Annie A. Chen, who is a professional graphic design artist in the United States, and who created this website of Buddhist Psychology by Prof. Chen Yu-Hsi, to share my thoughts on spiritual wisdom derived from an academic conference on the “encounter of religion and disability” sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies, Fu Jen Catholic University, Taipei, Taiwan, in November 2011).

The book entitled I am My Body, which I mentioned to you earlier, is authored by a German theologian, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. I have not had a chance to read the book, but have obtained some ideas about it from an excellent paper written by Tsai Yi-chia (蔡怡佳), who is associate professor of the Department of Religious Studies, Fu Jen Catholic University. Following is my paraphrase of some important points raised in Prof. Tsai’s paper.

People are generally alienated from their bodies, using the body at will to get sensual satisfaction as if it was a machine, or a tool, without knowing that as part of Nature, the body has its own intelligence and rhythm, and that the body connects humans with Mother Nature and society. We are willing to listen to the body only when it can no longer listen to us, but usually too late. The traditional Christian theology also ignores the body while exalting the soul and the spirit. However, the theology of embodiment (身體神學) rediscovers the body. It proclaims that Jesus’ grace of salvation is actualized through the body. For one thing, the spiritual energy of Jesus’ psychic power was emanated from his body to heal the sick bodies of his devout followers. Without the body there is no faith, and no salvation. Moreover, Jesus redeemed the sin of human beings by having his own body nailed on the Cross and shedding his blood. In his Resurrection, Jesus’ divine body still carried the nail wounds—a vivid symbol that Jesus identified himself with the disabled. It is on this ground that the liberation theology of disability (障礙神學) challenges the social discrimination and prejudice against the disabled. In the eyes of God and Christ, a disabled body is as lovable and valuable as a body that is regarded as “normal” and healthy. It is through disability that the love of Christ is revealed. And it is in the strengths and weaknesses of the body that man encounters God. Therefore, the disabled body is no longer a stigma – it is a gift from God, or the “disabled God.” The body is seen as Divinity incarnated, so that the conventional duality of soul and body is transcended. I think this is what “I am my body” is supposed to mean.

Dr. Tsai’s paper enlightens me as to why Mother Teresa said that she experienced the utmost happiness when she embraced the sick bodies of the abandoned old people in India, and why so many mothers and wives care for their loved ones whose bodies are in abhorrently bad shape.

The Oriental traditions have also provided a profound insight into “I am my body.” As the Indian sage Nisargadatta Maharaj says, “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between the two my life flows.” My interpretation follows: Our ego-self ( I ) is actually a mental construct, which misconceives “I” as separate from non-I (i.e., all beings outside me), and as an ego-center. With wisdom the Hindu sage understands that this mental image of “I” is non-existent in reality, hence “I am nothing.” Such egoless enlightenment breaks away the dualistic subject-object discrimnation, dissolving all man-made boundaries, and brings us back to the primordial Unity in which all beings are at one. Hence “I am everything.” With this Self-realization unconditional love and compassion flows spontaneously. The Buddha depicts this as “ in Oneness great love and compassion flows” (tong-ti-da-bei 同體大悲). Once you truly understand “I am everything,” you also understand “I am my body,” “I am your body,” “I am God,” “I am Buddha,” etc.

When a man has enough wisdom and compassion to say “I am your body” to his wife, he can truly love her even if her body becomes hopelessly disabled. When you can say “I am my body,” you can truly love yourself no matter what may happen to your body, or how bad and ugly it may look. At this point, the Oriental wisdom of Oneness meets the liberation theology of disability in the West.

But transpersonal psychologists in the West see “I am my body” from a different perspective. They, like ancient Buddhist and Taoist saints, perceive human suffering and afflictions as largely resulting from a confused propensity to mis-identify “I” with the body, thoughts and feelings. This erroneous self-identification gives rise to the delusion that the ego-self ( “I”) is a real and solid entity while in reality it is a mere mental construct.  “I” am bound to suffer anxiety or afflictions when the body does not go the way “I” like. As a therapeutic design, therefore, transpersonal psychologists counsel their clients to discern in contemplation that “I have a body, but I am not my body.” How can we reconcile this therapeutic concept of “dis-identification” with “I am my body?” The answer, as I see it, is that when you say “I am not my body,” you are pointing to the “true Self” that transcends the body, thoughts and feelings. Once that transcendence is realized, so is the wisdom of “I am nothing” discussed above. At this point, you are “empty” enough to embrace everything and everybody with love and compassion, including your own body. Transcending and embracing are not mutually exclusive, but rather the two sides of a coin, which is the ultimate true nature of our being. Thus the insight of “I am not my body” is to detach oneself from the wrong self-identification that causes suffering, eventually leading to the wisdom, love and compassion that enable one to say, “I am my body.”