The Conscious Body: Notes on the Garment of the Buddha


In the National Museum of New Delhi there exists a life-sized statue of the Buddha, the Awakened One, draped in a clinging, transparent robe. With its fine radiance of curved, geometrically spaced folds, the robe delicately reveals every swelling and contour of the Buddha’s graceful, masculine body. Known simply as the Standing Buddha of Mathura, it is an outstanding example of Buddhist representational sculpture typical of the Gupta period in India during the fourth to the sixth century A.D.

What may be startling about the sculpture to the average Western viewer is the sensuous depiction of the founder of one of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Why this clinging garment? Since nothing is accidental in such sacred art, the question is bound to arise as to what meaning we are supposed to take from it. For, like many representations of the Buddha or Buddhist saints, the overall posture represents both deep inner contemplation and the act of compassionate spiritual instruction. This is, therefore, not only the representation of a high inner state of human being, but also a depiction of the action of the entire spiritual tradition—of the hope and the demand it offers to mankind in the face of all human suffering and evil and in the face of death itself: the hope and demand, in the case of Buddhism, that resides in the work of freeing the mind of its egoistic illusions, freeing the heart of its fears and cravings, and freeing the mortal body of its obsessions.

For most Westerners, and perhaps for many other modernized people as well, the perception of the sensuous in sacred art is an indigestible impression that takes the form of a deep, but fleeting intuition immediately covered over by puritanical judgments, intellectual labels or naïve translations rooted in familiar associations of the release of untrammeled physical pleasure.


This deep, but fleeting intuition informs us that there is a meaning and a purpose of the human body, our human body, for which we have no names and of which we have only misunderstood glimpses in the course of our lives. Such glimpses of the finer life within the body are also indigestible; there is little or nothing in our conventional psychological, scientific or religious categories that helps us to interpret them in relation to the great possibilities and ideals of human life—such as the ideal of moral power.

Consider, for example, certain states of deep wonder that may occur when one is in the midst of the greatness of nature or in the quiet intensity of mutual, compassionate love. Or consider the state of all-embracing grief and sorrow that may follow immediately upon the death of a loved one. Or consider the awesomely instantaneous response of our being to an imminent life-threatening danger to oneself or to a companion. In such states one may observe that the body is temporarily transformed and permeated with a fine energy, a subtle quality of sensation unlike anything we experience in the ordinary course of our lives, not even in the most intense and sought-after satisfactions of our desires or cravings for pleasure.

Almost everyone has experienced this quality of sensation on relatively rare occasions, but very few of us know what it may signify. Nor are we aware that an intentional cultivation of its appearance in our lives is possible and necessary for the growth of our being, including the possible development of our power of moral action. Our contemporary understanding does not and cannot separate this transitory experience of subtle sensation from the emotions that invariably accompany it or result from it, and which in fact generally carry an entirely different, coarser quality of energy. The real sense of wonder—as, for example, in front of the greatness of nature– may be quickly overlaid by the craving to explain, or by the passionate urge to make sudden changes in one’s own life or in the life of the world. Similarly, the profundity of inconsolable sorrow in the face of death sooner or later may give way to overwhelming emotions of personal fear or painful guilt. As for the experience of total human presence and instinctive altruistic action in the moment of imminent danger, the reaction to it, when the danger is passed, is often simply the puzzlement of a swift return to one’s ordinary state of consciousness with its usual sense of time, anxiety or ego.

Countless examples rooted in many and various kinds of circumstances could be cited of this phenomenon of the appearance within oneself of what we could call an inner, subtle sensation of the body. And if we recall what we are like during such experiences, we will see that that during those periods we are much, much closer to being the kind of man or woman that conscience tells us we ought to be. In the state of grief or of profound wonder, for example, the kind of events or actions by others that might ordinarily disturb us, anger us, seduce us or irritate us have absolutely no power over us. And in the response to immediate danger, our usual concern for our own well-being, or even for our lives, often yields instantly to the seemingly “instinctive” impulse to save or protect the other.

In a word, in such states we become good. And we become good or moral not directly due to the ideas we hold about right and wrong or due to our philosophical views about the meaning of human life or due to our religious beliefs about love and sacrifice. No. We know all too well that such ideas and beliefs often have little or no direct power to determine our actions in the flow and momentum of the choices that make up our lives. It is precisely this fact that is at the center of this whole inquiry—the fact that, though we “know” what is good—according to our moral beliefs—we do not do what is good; along with the corollary fact that that which we do is, with painful frequency, the very opposite of what we “know” to be good.

“Knowledge” and Knowledge

The word “know” is in quotation marks, because the kind of knowledge that we usually have regarding our moral obligations and duties is not knowledge in the full sense of the word. When it comes to morality, the kind of knowledge we need is of an entirely different order than knowledge that exists only in the intellect. As Socrates would tell us, we genuinely know what is good only when the whole of ourselves knows it—when it is known not only in the mind, but in the body and in the heart. We may understand intellectually what is good, while yet desiring and choosing to do something entirely different—and vice versa. And the body, our body such as it is in our ordinary existence, either creates the desires that lead us around in the course of our lives or else it submits grudgingly to our conditioned likes and dislikes, often at the ultimate cost of our physical health and well-being.

And since it is the body, just the material body with its bones and muscles, that actually is the instrument of movement and action in the world, on this earth, it follows that the deep and direct understanding of the meaning of the body and its possible states is all-important to a man or woman who wishes to pass from ethical ideals to concrete ethical action—a man or woman, that is, who seeks to step out of the theater of the mind into the streets of our real life in the real world around us: the world called samsara by the Buddhists, the carousel of illusion riding on reality; reality seated in the arms of illusion—the world which our one-legged man was told about in the first lines of the Mosaic law: “and the Earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. . .” “Without form and void” translates the Hebrew, tohu v’bohu, literally confused and bewildered.

Here we stand, then, at the threshold that forms the boundary between the theater of the mind and the streets of the real world. And here at this Socratic threshold we are met not by the angel of the Lord with his flaming sword, who guards the gate leading back to the paradise of Eden, but by the Awakened One, with his radiant human body, who offers to guide us forward and out through the confused and bewildered streets and crossroads of our exiled lives.

Standing at this threshold, however, we need to pause. We need to remember by what means we—we modern men and women—could have been granted to arrive at just this point, this genuine and rare privilege of beginning in fact and not in imagination the work of putting into practice the great ideals that have called to mankind throughout the millennia. And we need as well to recall to our mind the experiential glimpses of something like moral power that we have had in our lives, however preliminary and artificially induced such instances may have been. The experiment of listening to another under the protected conditions of philosophical dialogue and “sacred dispute” is but one such example of artificially induced special conditions. The full creation of such special conditions no doubt requires the practical wisdom of a Socrates. But even we who are so far removed from the practical wisdom that created this kind of spiritual form may with profit imitate it if only we really understand that the hidden aim of Socratic dialogue is the study of the moral power of conscious attention in the act of thinking together and listening, one human being to another. Such listening, which requires the mind to step back from itself in order to make room for the other’s thoughts, thereby allows in itself the process of the development of ideas and the evolution of a new understanding. This new mental understanding, which is accompanied by a new quality of feeling for truth and for the humanity of one’s neighbor, is precisely the threshold of the theater of the mind—that is to say, it is this stage of philosophical understanding and moral sentiment that represents, with relatively few radiant exceptions, the ethical limit of a man or woman whose mind has not yet come into a stable harmonious relationship to the body—the body considered as the instrument of action in the world. Such understanding is at the threshold of virtue, but it is not yet the power of virtue. It is not yet the power to be good. And it is just on the other side of this threshold that Plato has Socrates fall silent. It is just on the other side of this threshold that the “oral tradition” begins, the “hidden tradition” of special conditions that cannot be written down because what is involved is energy rather than ideas. What is involved is the practical study of a human energy which is only glimpsed—albeit powerfully—in the work of listening, one human being to another. At its higher levels, this energy is rightly called love.

It is in the body and through the body that all the energies of man move and live and communicate with each other, and it is in the body that all the energies of human life can be studied, discriminated and eventually, as a result of inner struggle, come into harmonious relationship, thereby allowing the entry into human life and action of a spiritual force of great power and moral efficacy.

So, pausing at the threshold of the real world of our lives, we recognize that for most of us modern men and women, whose education has been mainly in the mind alone, true ideas are necessary in order to strengthen the understanding of our moral and metaphysical aims. And for this study we need companions. The work of studying great ideas with others is a fundamental ongoing support along the way, not only leading us to the taste of understanding, but also offering us, in the work of listening, a genuine foretaste of the moral power that in our ordinary lives is no more than a distant ideal.

Ideas, therefore, are necessary.

But they are not enough.

A New Kind of Body

Now we step across the threshold. We move into “the street.” We move into our lives.

What happens?

We are gone.

We have forgotten.

Do not speak here of the good, of love and justice, of acting rightly according to truth. On this side of the threshold, where men and women ignore or forget the meaning of their uniquely human power of conscious attention, do not speak of ought and must and right and wrong. Do not regale us with your deep understanding of metaphysical truth, of spiritual tradition; do not speak of ethics, of the need to love our neighbor, to care for mankind, to do what is right to our friend or our family. Do not tell us to answer the call of duty out of our free will, rather than out of habit or fear or self-pride. Do not speak of Christian love, or humanistic love, or rational ethics. Do not speak of the latest formulations about living in the present moment, of the “power of now” or “mindfulness,” do not tell us to wake up or merge with reality or with God—no.

No, tell it to the body, for it is the body that is the instrument of action. But the body does not understand our words, our ideas. It does what we wish only when we brutalize it or bribe it—when we whip it or give it its sugar, in so-called “self-control” or self-indulgence. Our bodies are far from being the radiant garment of the awakened human being.

And what we are seeking is a body, a life on earth, in which our actions and behavior serve the higher impulses and intentions, the higher feelings, that constitute the heart of true human virtue. We are not searching simply for an improved version of moralist automatism nor for childish self-assertion masquerading as freedom. In a breathtakingly real sense, we are searching for a new kind of body, a body that has a new aim, a new purpose: voluntarily to serve the Good. And, to compound the mystery, in the search for a new kind of body within ourselves, there exists the possibility of discovering a new heart, a source of love within ourselves that we have perhaps glimpsed in our lives, as in the legends where the seeker or the hunter has but one fleeting glimpse of a serenely beautiful face or a great winged being—a glimpse which, when understood, has the power to change entirely the direction of one’s life.

Intermediate Morality

Here, on the far side of the Socratic threshold, we need to stop and stand in front of this question before we take even one step forward into the realities of our everyday life.

In fact, we need to take a step backward and look once again at how we wish to live. And, stepping further back, we need to look at how we actually do live our lives. We need once again to ask ourselves what we are and what we ought to be. Yet we cannot really answer these questions while remaining in the protective conditions of the “classroom” or its equivalent.

And so, we need to ask these questions in a new way, taking into account the glimpses of hope that have already appeared—the help that is offered by the intensive study of real ideas (as with our one-legged man) and the opening of the heart through the effort of conscious listening to another person’s thought (as in the encounter with Socrates).

Above all, we will need to discover how actually to communicate our understanding and our ideals to the body. We need to study the possibility of establishing an enduring and intentional relationship to the body, the physical instrument of our life and action in the world. That will be the next stage of our work toward becoming a full human being, that is to say, a good human being, a real human being—in whom the body with its immense energies of life willingly obeys the real man or woman of conscience who calls to us from within ourselves. Not the body beaten into submission like a dog or pampered like a spoiled child or ignored like a sullen orphan of the streets only waiting to take out its vengeance upon us.

Yes, we need now to step across the Socratic threshold, but how to do it without being swallowed by the delusional influences of ordinary life? How to step across the Socratic threshold without losing our selves? The answer is clear: we need to make use of ways and means to be outwardly “in the street” in our actual lives, while somehow, or to some extent, remaining inwardly in the theater of the mind—that protected space where the ideals of truth, justice and morality are remembered, studied and respected. We need to be in two places at once, simultaneously on both sides of the Socratic threshold: simultaneously in the street and in the classroom. We need something that is fundamentally unknown to ourselves: to question our lives without inwardly or outwardly holding back from whatever life offers and asks of us; to step back from ourselves while whole-heartedly, even passionately, engaging in our lives and answering to its obligations. Only then can we hope to find the means and direction for changing our lives.

A new morality will emerge within this seemingly self-contradictory effort. This new morality would not hypnotize us with delusions of moral power nor dispirit us with the ethical cynicism and relativism that is characteristic of our culture—a culture that has tried in vain to guide itself under the authority of the isolated intellect, disconnected from the consciousness in the body, which is the obvious instrument of action in our life, and from the voice of conscience crying and whispering in the heart. But what shall we call this new morality? We need to take great care naming it.

What shall we call a morality whose aim is to bring about within ourselves an attunement between our ethical ideals and the energies of life and action in our physical, mortal body? We are speaking of a hitherto unrecognized stepping stone in between moral impotence and moral will, what we might call an intermediate morality that can guide us toward moral power in the full sense of the word. Perhaps it would be best to speak of this new kind of morality as “the ethics of the threshold,” since what we are speaking of is a way of living our actual lives without abandoning the principles and protections of traditional morality, while at the same time questioning to what extent they really apply to us as we are—that is, to what extent, within ourselves, we are, so to say, pre-ethical. We are far from speaking, as did Nietzsche, of going “beyond good and evil,” but simply and honestly of stepping toward good and evil.

We do not wish to be fooled either by moral absolutism or by moral relativism. Perhaps in the end we will think of this new kind of morality as a reconciling morality that offers a bridge stretched between what we are and what we yearn to be in the light of the ethical and religious commandments that have formed the basis of our own and of every other civilization of the world. But what shall we call it now? To name it rightly will be the first step toward understanding it rightly.

Excerpt from Why Can’t We Be Good? pp 100 – 109

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