Showing posts with label Body. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Body. Show all posts

24 June 2011

(Re)educating the Body

bodyPHILOSOPHER THOMAS METZINGER is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing he has had a number of out-of-body experiences - spontaneous, waking and vivid - and he takes such experiences seriously. He says that any theory of consciousness must account for such experiences or it is "just not interesting". For Metzinger the sense of being an autonomous self is a consequence of the particular way the brain models its surroundings and interactions with them. In particular the proprioceptive or kinaesthetic sense is important in providing a locus of experience. Proprioception is the felt sense of our body - the sum total of information about muscle and tendon tension throughout the body, as well as information from the inner ear about orientation. It is proprioception that allows us to locate ourselves in space without seeing ourselves. Our sense of self, of being a self, is intimately tied to this internal model of the body.

Even when there is no actual limb to feel -- if one is amputated, or through a congenital defect never develops -- we may still have an image of it in our heads. Metzinger quotes the example of a woman born with no arms or legs who none-the-less experiences four phantom limbs with varying degrees of vividity. Phantom limb pain in amputees is a common problem. And how can something that does not physically exist cause us pain? Only if we have a mental representation of it, and it registers the mismatch between the representation and the reality in terms of pain.

In addition there is a visual map of the body generated in the brain. I've noticed, for example, that in learning Tai Chi I often have to look down at my feet to see where they are. My internal proprioceptive map is a little unreliable at times. So my visual sense helps to correct that - once I visually check where my feet are currently, I can correct their orientation and internally 'see' where they actually are, and feel what that is like, and hopefully learn to keep better track of them. Having to look at one's feet is rather a disadvantage in moving about, but in martial applications is potentially fatal. No doubt this is a modern malfunction, as it is hard to imagine our clumsy footed hunter-gatherer ancestors surviving long enough to breed.

It is possible for one or other of these internal maps to over-ride the other. As is shown by the rubber hand experiment we can integrate inanimate objects into our body image, a case of the visual over-riding the proprioceptive sense; and similarly in Phantom-limb Syndrome it is possible to have a felt sense of a limb where there is none to see (or feel). Sometimes a phantom limb will feel paralysed and V.S. Ramachandran has used mirrors to give a visual illusion of the missing limb moving which allows it to be re-animated in the mental model. Sometimes we can integrate an entire virtual body into our body image as in experiments carried out by Olaf Blanke in association with Metzinger (See Guardian 17.2.11 which likens Blanke's work to the Avatar movie where people 'inhabit' virtual bodies).

Metzinger has plausibly theorised that out-of-body experiences occur when the proprioceptive and visual models of the body lose synchronisation. They are most frequently associated with trauma which may account for the mismatch. The felt sense is of floating, while the visual sense is actually unchanged. Apparently the visual information available during waking out-of-body experiences is still just that of the physical eyes - one doesn't see one's own face for instance. It is not that we are receiving information from some other source, only that we feel our point of view as disconnected from its usual location. In a related phenomena we can feel a sense of presence near us (typically behind). This is the result of a similar process. It is ourselves we sense, but we feel dislocated from our visual sense, and so the felt sense becomes 'other', often interpreted as a 'spirit' for instance. I know several people who've had this kind of experience, and who interpret it as confirmation of the presence of supernatural beings.

I prefer Metzinger's explanation of the phenomena without in any way denying that an experience was had, or felt to be somehow significant at the time. I'm not convinced by explanations involving supernatural phenomenon because it is possible through direct brain stimulation (as sometimes happens in operations for severe epilepsy) or through stimulation of the brain using magnets against the skull, to cause these experiences to happen. An out-of-body experience can be physically induced using electro-magnetism to stimulate brain cells, and this reduces the likelihood of a supernatural cause to almost zero in my view. Recent studies have shown that the drug Ketamine can also induce out-of-body experiences, presumably also by disrupting the synchronisation of the various body maps in the brain. The explanation of the effect is found in the workings of the brain. The interpretation of the experience -- i.e. what it means to the person having it -- seems to depend on the context, and the preconceptions of the person having the experience.

During the late 1980s I became fascinated with F. M. Alexander and his 'technique'. I read all of his books, and all of the then available literature; and I had several dozen lessons in the technique. It is remarkable. Though it can be difficult to communicate what the Alexander Technique is or does, the gist is that Alexander discovered through trial and error that his proprioceptive sense was unreliable, and was able to retrain it by careful observation of his own movements using a mirror. Alexander thought that many ailments and malaises were caused by poor functioning of the body due to a corrupted proprioceptive sense, and indeed many people trained in his technique do enjoy better health generally. For instance your typical Westerner slumps, has rounded shoulders, and carries excess tension in their neck muscles (and doesn't know where his feet are!). This causes postural imbalance, breathing difficulties, back pain, and in the long term contributes to poor functioning, and probably emotional disturbances (though some would point the causal arrow in the opposite direction when it comes to emotions). In an Alexander Technique lesson one learns to retrain the proprioceptive sense through subtle physical interactions with a teacher who has an accurate proprioceptive sense. These interactions are very similar to some of the subtle techniques used in Tai Chi during sticking and push hands to sense the 'root' of a partner. It's something that has to be felt and is very difficult to put into words.

A mismatch between proprioception and vision can, in extremis, cause us to have out-of-body experiences. Most of us do not have such experience, but we do have these everyday minor glitches when we habitually slump or lose track of our feet. There is not enough disturbance to strongly effect our awareness -- no shifting of our point of view for instance -- but there is an effect. It clearly is a problem, and typically it becomes gradually worse over our life time. This suggests that as we try to find the best way to live in the modern world that attention to this problem needs to be considered.

Some kind of physical training which emphasises proprioceptive awareness rather than simply cardiovascular fitness or muscle mass, and in particular refines the accuracy and synchronisation of this sense with other aspects of our internal self model, would seem to be a desirable companion to any mind training techniques we use. We have a number of options from various disciplines. We can use Chinese Tai Chi, or Indian Yoga for instance; but from the West we also have Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method which work more explicitly with proprioception without the more metaphysical and symbolic elements of Asian approaches. This doesn't exhaust the list. All temperaments are catered for.

This is a more prescriptive argument than I would usually make. I usually aim for understanding of a principle, or how to read a text; I'm not usually saying what to do on the basis of that understanding or reading, even if I think it's obvious what everyone should do. But for me there is a stronger sense of imperative about this theme of physical education because it is so clearly the direct cause of a lot of misery, and relatively easily dealt with. We had a subject called "Physical Education" at school, but though it involved being physical, moving around or playing sports, there was little or no education. By contrast many music schools now routinely give their students Alexander Technique lessons to ensure that poor body use does not result in repetitive strain injuries. Prevention is both better and cheaper than cure. And actually the practices are fun. If you aren't currently doing some form of body education along the lines I've been writing about, I would recommend that you start. The benefits are legion.

mens sana in corpore sano
nοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ
आरोग्यवन्मनः आरोग्यवच्छारीरे


See also:

03 June 2011

Body and Mind

Assutavā Sutta
(SN 12.61, PTS S ii.94-95)
THUS HAVE I HEARD. One time the Buddha was staying in Sāvatthi in the Jeta Grove, in the park of Anāthapiṇḍika… [the Bhagavan said] the folks (puthujjana) who are unlearned (assutavā)[1], monks, might become fed-up (nibbindati) with the body composed of four elements, might lose interest (virajjati) in it, and might be freed (vimutti) from it. The reason? The taking up and putting down, the grasping and giving up[2] of this body four elements can be seen. Therefore the unlearned folk might become fed-up, lose interest, and be free.

However that which is called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, or ‘cognition’ is insufficient for the unlearned folk become fed-up, lose interest, and be freed from it. What is the reason? For a long time the unlearned folk have hung on, cherished, and succumbed to the thought ‘this is mine, I am this, this is myself’. Because of this it is insufficient for the unlearned folk to become fed-up, to lose interest in it, and be freed from it.

It would be best, monks, for the unlearned folk to approach the body as their self, rather than thought. What is the reason? The body made from the four elements is seen remaining for 1 season [3], 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, remaining for 100 seasons or more.

And that called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, or ‘cognition’ is night and day arising and ceasing, one after another. [4] Just like, monks, a monkey goes through a forest on the side of a mountain,[5] swinging from branch to branch. [6] So, monks, that which is called ‘thought’, ‘mind’, ‘cognition’ night and day is arising and ceasing, one after another.[7]

Therefore, monks, the learned (sutavā) noble-disciple (ariya-sāvaka)[8] pays close attention[9] to the dependently arisen origins: thus –
There being that, this is; with the arising of that, this arises. When that isn’t there, this isn’t; with the ceasing of that, this ceases: thus when there is ignorance there is volition, from the condition of volition there is cognition and so on, and this is the origin of the whole mass of disappointment. With the remainderless cessation of ignorance there is no volition, with the cessation of volition there is no cognition and so on, and this is the way the whole mass of disappointment ceases.
Seeing it like this the learned noble disciple is fed-up with forms, fed-up with sensations, fed-up with apperception, fed-up with volitions, fed-up with cognition; and being fed up, loses interest, and is free, and knows “birth is cut off, the perfect life is lived, what needed to be done is done; no more becoming here.”


The sutta makes two kinds of comparisons - between bodily and mental experience; and between ordinary people (assutavā puthujjana) and ideal disciples (sutavā ariyasāvaka).

The body does not change very fast and may continue on for a long lifetime changing only gradually, and leaving us with the perception of continuity, and therefore of a lasting identity. However even the ordinary person who has not heard (assutavā) the Buddhadhamma, and who is not making an effort (by definition) might still find the body disappointing, as they age, get ill, and die. They might still, according to this text, come to liberation from the body because of the dissatisfaction associated with the body. The Buddha allows that if you were going to identify with anything as your self, then the body would be a better candidate because it is far more stable. I think this is hyperbole for an audience of people already committed to the path, a point I'll come back to. In talking about getting to liberation the Buddha mentions the sequence of terms nibbindati - virajjhati - vimutti. This is the end of the upanisā sequence (c.f. AN 10.1-5, AN 11.1-5, & SN 12.23; see my blog Progress is Natural) and in suttas which have this sequence nibbindati arises from yathābhūta-ñāṇadassana: knowing & seeing the nature of experience.

However most of us think of 'I' as the thoughts in our mind - we identify ourselves with the content of our minds - cogito ergo sum "I think [about stuff], therefore I am" (sañjānāmi tasmā asmi). The text uses the three main terms associated with 'mind': citta, mano, and viññāṇa. Bhikkhu Bodhi renders them "mind, mentality, and consciousness" in his Saṃyutta translation (p.595) - and notes his struggle to find suitable distinctions as he routinely translates both citta and mano as 'mind' (p.769). I think my translation brings out later differentiations between these words, though I suspect this is overcooking things a little, and perhaps they are simply synonyms here. [c.f. Mind Words]. It is this identification with our thoughts which makes it unlikely that we will become fed-up our mental processes - we don't think of mental processes as 'us', at least not in the conscious way that we think about, e.g. what to have for dinner: to ourselves, we are our thoughts. The sense of being a self is vivid, transparent (i.e. we don't see ourselves making the identification), instantaneous, and persistent.

The mind goes from one mental event to another like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, grasping first this and then that object - and each time generating a cascade of sensations, responses and proliferation - which all happens so fast that it seems to just be the ways things are - this feature is referred to Thomas Metzinger as 'transparency' because we don't 'see' it. This description of the mental process is perhaps the most attractive feature of this text.

And part of what we do in this process is create a virtual point of view, or First Person Perspective - "I, me, mine". I've come to the conclusion, after many years of resistance and argumentation, that what is intended by attā in these cases is the ego, in more or less the same way that Western psychologist speak of it, as opposed to the soul-like ātman of Brahmanical religion which provides continuity between lives. (If I was a UK politician, this would be called a policy U-turn). I don't think Buddhists were cognisant enough with the kinds of ideas about ātman that we meet in the early Upaniṣads to warrant our directly linking the two. This sense of identification with, and ownership over the contents of our minds is what prevents us from becoming liberated. [C.f. First Person Perspective] This includes all the polemical terms like selfishness, egotism, and self-centredness, but I'm not sure it is simply a critique of selfishness - it seems to be about how we identify with experience, and how we therefore generate expectations of experience that it cannot deliver. Selfishness is one little corner of a much larger issue!

The Buddha is outlining the worst case scenario for the monks, before telling them what the ideal disciple would be like. The ideal disciple is sutavā 'education, learned' (literally: 'one who has heard'), and is described as ariya which we would typically associate with someone either liberated or well on their way to liberation (at least a sotapanna 'stream-entrant'). Presumably most of the monks are somewhere in the middle. It's a fine rhetorical strategy to show that they have come a long way from being ordinary lay people, but have some way to go before finishing their task.

The ideal disciple is one who employs yoniso-manasikara. I have explored this term in the Philogical odds and ends II, but would also refer readers to the Theravādin blog where another interpretation can be found which is very useful. However I think my own definition 'thinking about origins' is apposite here. The content which one is paying attention to is paṭicca-samuppāda - the formula imasmiṃ sati idaṃ hoti... and the nidāna sequence. (see also A General Theory of Conditionality for a critical look at the relationship between the two). In this case one is paying attention to how things arise from conditions - to the processes arising (and ceasing) in dependence on conditions. And it is clearly implied here that where one needs to focus this exploration is in the mind. It is the mind that we mostly identify with and which is very hard to see in a way that conduces to liberation. It is relatively straight forward to see the body as conditioned (it is even a truism in the Western intellectual tradition that 'things change'), but it is in seeing the processes of the mind this way that the breakthrough to bodhi comes.

I imagine that this was a tailored discourse. It may not be a general teaching on the relative qualities of mind and body, so much as a teaching for people who were ascetics in the first place. It seems to me that the Buddha assumes that the monks, unlike lay people, do not see the body as their self, and dis-identification with the body is exactly what we would expect of ascetics. And what they would need is a teaching on how to deal with identification with the mind. Note that he almost taunts them by saying - even an untutored ordinary person might become liberated by being fed-up with their body - so if you're a bhikkhu, or possibly an ascetic, who is dis-identified with the body, then why aren't you liberated already? Remember that the Buddha has been down this road of mortification of the flesh and found it wanting. I think this perspective helps to make sense of what he is saying about ordinary people and the body (which is otherwise a bit paradoxical). The text clearly has broader appeal and application, but it is important to be sensitive to context when interpreting a text, especially where it seems natural to generalise the content.

The ideal disciple -- the sutavā ariyasāvako -- becomes fed-up not with the body but with forms, sensations, apperception, volitions, and cognition; that is with the khandhas, what I call (following Sue Hamilton) the 'apparatus of experience'. Whereas these are usually taken in quite a materialistic way by the Buddhist tradition, Hamilton has convincingly shown them to be collectively concerned with experience, they are the processes by which, or through which we have experiences. So the ideal disciple sees this, becomes fed-up with this whole process, and it is through disillusionment with the processes of experience that they are liberated.

A discourse like this one throws some interesting light on the historicity of the Dharma. It seems to make more sense in a specific context, but we can only imply this. If the implication is wrong, and there is every chance that it is, then it leaves us puzzling over the possibility of ordinary people spontaneously becoming liberated, and the Buddha recommending that if we must believe that something is our self then we should opt for the body as it is more likely to disappoint us in the long run. In the end we have to select the option that makes most sense to us, and follow up to see where it leads. The one thing that a detailed study of Buddhists texts does not supply is certainty about the Buddha's message!

I seldom talk in terms of practice here, but in this case I offer the following way to approach meditation on impermanence from my own practice. It's usual when considering impermanence to take a changing object, or to try to get your head around the "fact" that "everything changes" by seeing everything around you changing. I think these are fair places to start. But in fact many things don't change that much. I've had this coffee cup for a couple of years, and it hasn't changed in that time as far as I can see. I have a B.Sc in chemistry so I know it is changing in ways that I cannot see, but the Buddha didn't know this, didn't have electron microscopes, spectroscopy, or magnetic resonance imaging did he? So when reflecting on impermanence chose an object which does not visibly change for the duration of the meditation. I have lump of quartz I brought with me from New Zealand. Beautiful, but quite inert and probably unchanged for millions of years! What can impermanence mean with respect to this from the point of view of an Iron Age person like the Buddha? And yet when looking at and/or thinking about something relatively unchanging, experiences still come and go. Why is that? [Rhetorical questions]

A second level is to then reflect on how we perceive change. If everything is moving at the same speed (say like inside an aeroplane travelling at 500kph) then we don't perceive things to be moving relative to us (this is the Principle of Relativity). The perception of change requires a reference point. For us, most of the time, it is our sense of 'self'. Change around us is perceived with respect to our sense of continuity. Other people change, and I look older, but inside I'm just the same person. Think of the potency of the phrase "you've changed". But consider that your sense of being a self, your First Person Perspective, is just an experience as well. It has all the features of other experiences, including impermanence. Contra Metzinger, I do believe that if we approach things in the Buddhist way we can get glimpses of this process in action, and that it is liberating.

Yes, people, places and things change, the world changes; but then again we've known this forever. Heraclitus was a contemporary of the Buddha! We need to get beyond this banal observation and see the process of changing experience and our responses to the changing of experience -- to see that mental experience is a feedback loop, where the output immediately becomes input, and generates complexity like the Mandlebrot set. It really does help to have experience of samādhi when trying this, but one can get glimpses without it. So go ahead and consider impermanence in the light of an unchanging object. Let me know if you get enlightened.


[1] nominative of assutavant: opposite of sutavant ‘one who has heard; i.e. ‘one who has been taught the Dhamma’, ‘learned’.

[2]ācaya ‘piling up, accumulating’, i.e. accumulating the actions the fruit of which are rebirth; apacaya – opposite of ācaya, i.e. decrease in the possibility of rebirth; ādānaṃ - grasping; nikkhepanaṃ - getting rid of the load.

[3] vassaṃ - literally ‘rain’, i.e. the rainy season. More or less equivalent to a year. Monks counted years of ordination by the number of rainy season retreats they had completed.

[4] aññadeva… aññaṃ. ‘another and another’.

[5] Such as one still finds around the Vulture’s Peak in Rājagaha where I have seen monkeys doing just this! There aren’t any mountains nearby Sāvatthī.

[6] lit: “grasping a branch, having released it grasping another, having released that grasping another” (sākhaṃ gaṇhati, taṃ muñcitvā aññaṃ gaṇhati, taṃ muñcitvā aññaṃ gaṇhati)

[7] Cf AN i.10. “No other single thing can I perceive, monks, that is so changeable as the mind (citta). So much so, monks, that there is no simple simile for how changeable the mind is.” (Nāhaṃ, bhikkhave, aññaṃ ekadhammampi samanupassāmi yaṃ evaṃ lahuparivattaṃ yathayidaṃ cittaṃ. Yāvañcidaṃ, bhikkhave, upamāpina sukarā yāva lahuparivattaṃ cittan’ti.)

[8] ariyasāvako ariya ‘noble’, sāvaka ‘a hearer, someone who has listened to the Dhamma’ synonymous with sutavant.

[9] yoniso manasi karoti cf yoniso-manasikara sometimes ‘wise attention’ but yoniso means ‘according to the origin’ [yoni ‘origin, womb’ with the distributive suffix –so] so the phrase implies paying attention to how things arise, to dependent arising. Yoniso manasi karoti cf yoniso-manasikara sometimes ‘wise attention’ but yoniso means ‘according to the origin’ [yoni ‘origin, womb’ with the distributive suffix –so] so the phrase implies paying attention to how things arise, to dependent arising. See also Yoniso manasi karotha on the Theravādin Blog.

02 January 2009

The Body in Buddhism

The body in buddhism
While on my ordination retreat we studied the Bodhicāryāvatara by Śantideva. This is a core text for the Western Buddhist Order, and also a favourite of the Dalai Lama. It is a Mahāyāna work from probably the 8th century, written according to legend at the great monastery at Nalanda. The theme is the path or conduct (carya) of the bodhisattva and the text is structured around the six perfections. The text is celebrated for the anuttara pūja incorporated into the first few chapters which contains beautiful and elaborate evocations and offerings, but also for the relentless deconstructive arguments of Śantideva. In many ways it is the epitome of late Indian Mahāyāna.

At the same time as studying the Bodhicāryāvatara we were reciting verses from it in our evening puja, and during those pujas we had readings from the text as translated by Andrew Skilton (aka Dharmacari Sthiramati) and Kate Crosby. The readings were very evocative. However at one point I was struck by a series of images which seemed quite out of place. In the chapter on Meditation we find a number of references to the body, and particularly to the bodies of women (the audience for the text having been monastic men). It goes on at some length, and the translators assure us that the language is quite as coarse as they portray it in the translation. Let me quote you a few passages to give an idea:
50. Taking no pleasure from silky pillows stuffed with cotton because they do not ooze a dreadful stench, those in love are entranced by filth.

52. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, a cage of bones bound by sinew, smeared with slime and flesh

53. You have plenty of filth of your own. Satisfy yourself with that! Glutton for crap! Forget her that pouch of filth!

59. If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth?

60. Is it that you do not like a dirty worm because it's only tiny? It must be that you desire a body likewise born in filth, because it is formed from such a large amount.

61 Not only are you disgusted at your own foulness, you glutton for crap, you yearn for other vats of filth!

(pages 92-93 of Skilton and Crosby)
Hearing these words I found myself reeling. My first reaction was that this kind of sentiment did not belong in our puja, that this kind of language did not belong in our devotions; that in fact this was not the kind of Buddhism I signed up for. Several years have done nothing to change this opinion. In fact I have become more clear that hatred of this type, hatred towards the body, has nothing to do with the Buddhism I practice.

Sue Hamilton follows the development of Buddhist attitudes to the body in his book Identity and Experience. The Constitution of the Human Being According to Early Buddhism. She shows that the earliest texts were in fact quite neutral towards the body. The attitude was analytical - one examined the experience of being embodied dispassionately to see that this was a conditioned experience like any other. There is none of the harping on impurity that we find later. Hamilton associates the subject of purity with Buddhaghosa, but I don't think the great commentator could have been an influence on Śantideva. It had to have been a more general movement.

I have already written about my concerns over ritual purity manifesting as superstition in Buddhism. Where these ideas operate in Buddhism I think we have to see them as having infiltrated from surrounding Hindu culture. In a paper I've had accepted for publication in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics I argue that the Buddha rejects notions of ritual purity and substitutes instead the idea of ethical purity. Concern with ritual purity was quite general during the Buddha's time with Brahmins and Jains finding it a concern. Everyone has technical terms indicating a 'return to purity' for instance - pratikramana, paṭikaroti etc. It is therefore possible to see Buddhism as a path of purity (visuddhimagga) but only in the ethical sense. Brahminical purity was intrinsic to people by birth, and to actions and substances by their nature. Ethical purity on the other hand depends largely on intention (cetana) - the motivation behind actions of body, speech, and mind are what make an action pure or impure. However it would be unusual to find this particular distinction - the usual one would be kusala/akusala i.e. competent/incompetent.

So there is no justification for seeing the body or it's substances as intrinsically impure or foul. Śantideva describes the body as for instance a "pouch of filth", or as "born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth". The fact is that the religion in which human bodily fluids (including here even mother's milk! ) are seen as polluting is Hinduism. I think the contrast here between western attitudes and caste Hindu Indian attitudes is made very stark by the reference to milk. In Indian the milk of the cow, even bovine shit and piss, are seen by caste Hindus as intrinsically pure and holy, whereas the milk of a woman is foul. If there was ever a traditional idea that we needed to reject this is it. Shit is a disease vector and we rightly avoid handling it, but mother's milk? We see mother's milk as a highly beneficial substance because it bestows health and vitality on the infant. There is no better nutriment for a human infant than its own mother's milk. Mother's milk is a symbol of virtue and vitality in the West. The full breasts of a lactating woman are ancient symbols for fertility and prosperity in our culture.

So on the retreat I took a little stand and made my point to everyone there. I don't think I argued the case well back then, it was a heartfelt reaction rather than a thought out position. I'm hoping that this more thought out essay will make the point more effectively. It's important in the WBO because we have a large number of people from backgrounds in Indian which are these days called Dalit (perhaps a third of our order). I can understand why they want to distance themselves from the former label applied to them and their peers. Fifty years ago they would have been called untouchable because caste Hindu considered their mere touch to be ritually pollutting. People were untouchable on the whole because of the family/community they were born into. Widows also became untouchable on the death of their husbands as is poignantly portrayed in the film Water by Deepa Mehta.

The practice of untouchability was outlawed when India became independent largely due to the efforts of the great leader Dr B R Ambedkar, although it has not disappeared from India where Dalits are regularly persecuted and sometimes killed. Dr Ambedkar along with hundreds of thousands of his followers became Buddhists, and these people make up the bulk of the Indian wing of the WBO (although I think the WBO is quite a small part of the greater Ambedkarite movement). As such I think we contemporary Buddhists, especially we FWBO Buddhists, have a special duty to identify and root out ancient prejudices, and especially any notions of ritual impurity.

A person and their body is as only pure or impure as their actions, they cannot be born impure, nor be made impure by contact with supposedly impure substances. There is no reason for describing the body as impure: it runs counter not only to the spirit of Buddhism, but to the politics of fighting oppression in India. I hope that this essay generates some interest and discussion amongst my colleagues.


Further reading: