Shizentai: the natural body

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Author: Liam O'Brien
Date: May 1, 2014
From: Middle Way(Vol. 89, Issue 1.)
Publisher: The Buddhist Society
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,507 words

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Traditional Japanese culture is based on two main guiding concepts: impermanence and michi a path of cultivation.

Impermanence is the transience of life and although supported by the influence of Buddhist thought, it is also fundamentally animistic, relating to the forces of the natural world. In Buddhism and also animism, there is no separation between the world of form and the formless. Change and impermanence are the manifestations of this non-dualistic view. Contradiction is required to keep this dynamic. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form--they are not separate. For the conceptual mind, this is ambiguous; and the subtle play of opposites is a constant theme in traditional practices in Japan. At the temple of Kingakuji, as part of the dry landscape (karesansui), there is a cone called the 'moon viewing platform' (kogetsudai). At first glance it seems to be a solid structure, until we realize it is made from sand. It requires continual attention to keep the form which can disintegrate with the forces around it.

Change is unfixed and constant. There is no perfection or fixed state. In Buddhism impermanence is one of the Three Signs of Being, the others being dissatisfaction and non-Self. If things are constantly in flux and interdependent, then no separate 'self' can be found and an 'unsatisfactoriness', a lack of perfection, is seen in the world. Denial of these gives suffering and insight into them gives transcendence.

Wabi-Sabi is the Japanese aesthetic term for the beauty generated from impermanence and imperfection, always falling out of balance against the background of perfect balance. Wabi is originally a term to express the loneliness of living in nature but is used to express rustic simplicity and sabi is the ageing and patina of things. It is a beauty that comes from melancholy, a reluctant acceptance of transience and the imperfection of things, especially our own mortality which is like the petals of the cherry blossom coming briefly to bloom and then taken away by the spring breeze.

Michi is the path of self-cultivation and brings us to an understanding of the traditional Japanese relationship to the body. The Zen master Eisai is accredited with bringing the Rinzai Zen lineage and the practice of drinking Tea to Japan but he also established the concept of shinshin ichinyo, body-mind oneness.

In Western culture, based on Christian thinking, the body or soma is inanimate and requires pneuma, spirit to animate it. The division of mind and body is already there. Western medicine and sport follow this division, as does our culture. Mind operates the body, the biological machine. In Western sports, the enhancement of physical performance is the objective of training and we use our thinking mind to train the body gradually into a natural process.

In Japan, it is the opposite. The use of shugyo, cultivation of the mind and personality is done with the body because the body and mind are one. And because they are one, training the body means to train emotional and feeling states of awareness, shin, gi, tar. Feeling awareness, technique and the body. In the deepest sense, the oneness of body-mind is also felt as learning through the body alone, but this is body inseparable from mind.

The kyudo master Kenzo Awa, who taught Eugen Herrigel, the author of Zen in the Art of Archery, taught 'the technique of no technique'. By expressing it in a paradoxical way, he pointed up that there is no technique by mind only, or body only.

It is technique expressed by the body-mind, as opposed to the usual understanding that technique is learnt under the guidance of the conceptual mind. Bodily realization (taitoku) uses the whole body and not just the brain. In nature, animals that learn behaviour from their parents do so through observation rather than explanation; and because they are animals, this observational learning is intuitive and learnt through the body-mind. This is also possible for humans, once the obstacle of conceptualization is set aside.

Michi is part of this setting aside of the conceptual mind. The training is to face the psychological and emotional reactions and their source and to look into this and discover the reality of what we are.

This of course brings us to personality and its transcendence. The sense of identity and the awareness of a distinct personality are soon discovered to be transient and only relevant conditions of the mind. In traditional Japanese budo (martial arts) disciplines as well as other art forms, the condition of mushin is desired. Mushin is the transcendence of the conceptual mind. It is awareness or consciousness without thinking or emotions. Thinking and emotions come from and enforce the separate self sense and divide the body and mind. So the practitioner of michi (self-cultivation) is faced with the reality that the cherished personality is not our natural personality.

I was deeply impressed by Zen Master Soko Morinaga Roshi, who mentioned that he did not see the individual personalities of the audience he was speaking to. He saw their Buddha personality, that is their natural and universal Energy rather than the individual expression of each character. Budo practices and art forms have at their core the spiritual purpose of michi rather than the achievement and perfection of the practice. You do not do kyudo to just hit the target or make Japanese tea to just perfect the ritual. The development of practice is not possible without the development of spiritual training. This training is through removal of the unnecessary, taking away the obstacles and delusions of what we think we are and allowing our 'Buddha personality' to be expressed.

The term shizentai means simply 'the natural body posture'. As much as we have mental habits, our personalities tend to be made up of habits; we have body habits. Once we get used to our own posture, we find it difficult to change because our habitual posture feels 'right' and any change feels 'wrong'. The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich coined the term 'body armour', and indeed our habits are strongly defended. Our biological tendency is towards defending both our bodies and our personalities. By working on our shizentai, we are working on our personalities. We are cultivating michi.

In my own traditional practice of kyudo, the way of the Japanese bow, shizentai is essential. It means learning how to remove unnecessary physical power from the body through the correct use of the skeletal alignment and correct posture. In learning how to listen to our body and how to allow it to work 'naturally', we must also listen to the bow, and use its power in the most natural and economic way. By 'economic,' we mean 'right'. In Japanese, tadashi, the word for right, also means right in nature (not right as opposed to wrong). Wrong posture is misunderstanding or misreading of our bodies and the world around us. For example, Herrigel's teacher Awa Hanshi had learnt the English word 'relax' to try and get Herrigel to remove unnecessary physical power in drawing the bow. But the body is not relaxed: it is in a dynamic tension, a very complex play of balance between the muscles of our body. When shizentai is achieved, we do not feel tension in one place, as we feel in our own habitual use of the body. Because shizentai operates within the oneness of body-mind, it is not knowable. A master of the art will have practice 'melted into the blood'; but for even very experienced practitioners, continuous appraisal and shngyo (cultivation of mind and body) is required. This respect for things and conditions 'outside' ourselves is a very important spiritual practice.

For Buddhists and those who meditate, this is very familiar territory. To open up the mind and find our shizentai, we must work with the body posture and our habits; and for this cultivation of the tanden the centre of awareness in the lower abdomen is required. Our normal way to breath is in the abdomen but our habit is to breath in the upper chest. Our self-awareness is expressed through the hands and especially our face and head. Our emotional reactions are expressed in our hands and face. When we are separated between body and mind, it is seen in the face. By shifting the centre of attention to the tanden, we not only centre ourselves physically but spiritually too. Using the tanden, we become body-mind awareness; and without the separate conception of body and mind, we can follow Master Dogen's advice to 'drop (separate) body and mind'.

In our own culture, the dominance of mind over body is very strong as is the separation into the body as unclean or gross and the mind and spirit as elevated and of a higher order. Or we have in Western and some Eastern thinking a hierarchy from the gross to the subtle. But in the mind and body as oneness, there is no hierarchy or conceptual distinctions. To live in the natural world, we must first of all learn to live in the shizentai of our body-mind.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
O'Brien, Liam. "Shizentai: the natural body." Middle Way, May 2014, p. 19+. Gale General OneFile, Accessed 23 Aug. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A371971615