Monday, August 9, 2010

Is the Body Beautiful

Predictably, but nonetheless sadly, the ‘debate’ sparked by Judith Lasater’s letter to Yoga Journal in the September issue regarding certain ads featuring nude or semi-nude women has degenerated (mainly) into a discussion about nudity. On one hand, there are those yogis who are questioning the values implicit in advertising per se, and the use of the nudity of – let’s call it as it is – white, thin women to sell product. These yogis, and I am one, feel that the true transformative power of Yoga is in it’s critique of appearance over substance and of its criticism of the assumption of status-quo values in contemporary hatha-yoga, and in Yoga’s primary purpose of waking us up from conditioning. As the Buddha said, Yoga “goes against the stream.” Yet, unthinkingly, the purveyors of such ads – and their defenders – simply adopt and accept mainstream, status-quo values and then think they are being ‘progressive’ while those of us questioning this are ‘prudes’ or repressed!

I say this is predictable, because for years Yoga in this culture has been reduced to the movements and postures of hatha-yoga. As the 10th century Garuda-Purana warned, “if the postures of hatha are practiced outside the meditation of raja, the postures become an obstacle to liberation.” Today’s contemporary sell-out glorification of ‘the body’ only proves this. Yoga teaches us not to identify body or mind as 'self.' The physical-oriented approach to hatha-yoga so prevalent in the contemporary hatha-yoga movement all too often strengthens practitioners' identification with body. One problem with this, of course, is that whether from age, injury, or illness (not to mention death!) one day you will not be able to practice the postures you may have taken pride in achieving. What happens then?

Elsewhere I, and others such as Roseanne Harvey and Charlotte Bell, have tried to get the debate back on track by pointing out that the original letter and subsequent interview with Judith Lasater, were not about any particular ad or model, nor about nudity. As she says on her Facebook page, “‘Yes’ to nudity and the gorgeous human body; ‘no’ to using it to sell yoga!”

But here, I’d like to take a tangent and address this notion of ‘the body beautiful’ that even Lasater seems to accept, at least based upon the above quote. Is the body beautiful? Really? Is it only beautiful? What yogis like the Buddha point out is that such concepts themselves are conditioned and empty of any inherent nature or essence. For all those who think they are being progressive and perhaps even transgressive in arguing that these ads are beautiful because they portray the ‘beauty of the human body,’ I ask, “Really? Then why not portray a 64 year-old man with a bit of a belly-roll?” How about a nice nude shot of the character George Constanza from Seinfeld? Would you then argue for the ‘beauty of the human body? As much as I would like to think one would, why is it that I doubt it? Because our ideals of “beauty” are culturally and biologically conditioned. Folks somewhat facilely use abstract concepts and fail to see that they are caught in them.

And, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that they do see beauty in a 64 year old, round man (or even in George!), let’s analyze their position more clearly. They say the body is beautiful. I don’t argue that, but I do say we need to also remember (be mindful – the word sati, which we translate as ‘mindfulness’ actually means to remember) that it isn’t only beautiful and is often gross! This body they celebrate takes quite a bit of maintenance. Just go a week or two without bathing, and tell me how ‘beautiful’ you think the body is.

As everyone seems to be harping on Kathryn Budig, the model in an ad for a ridiculous product called “Toesox,” let’s look a bit more closely. Say you think she has lovely hair. What if you found even just one of her hairs in your soup? Would you feel the same about that hair? Considering that she is naked, how about if it were one of her pubic hairs? Still celebrating the ‘beauty of the human body?’

See, what Yoga offers us is a clearer, more complete understanding of reality. The surface and general form of the body we feel is beautiful because of our biological conditioning. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, most images of beauty presented by mainstream media are white, thin and female. This is cultural conditioning. But the great yogis point out that the body is inherently neither beautiful nor disgusting. As the Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra declares about reality, it is “Neither produced nor destroyed; neither pure nor impure; neither increasing nor decreasing.” Get that? Not pure; not impure. It’s the coming together of many causes and conditions that create what we think of as ‘beauty.’ And the coming together of other causes and conditions that create what we think of as ‘ugliness.’

The next time you catch yourself thinking someone has beautiful eyes, contemplate briefly if the beauty is really inherent in their eyes. Would you think they were beautiful if s/he plucked them out and handed them to you? Or is beauty created (conditioned or constructed) because they are in their ‘proper’ place, they are balanced and relatively symmetrical, and the rest of her face is pleasing etc. All phenomena arise interdependently. This is what is meant by 'form being empty.' We need to ask, “empty of what?” And the answer is “empty of an inherent self-essence.”

If we merely stop and proclaim the beauty of the human body, we fail to go deeper; we fail to see reality and so we get caught in grasping and clinging. Freedom – the purpose of Yoga practice, remember? – is to go beyond conditioning. This does not mean we stop appreciating the human form. What is changed is the quality of our relationship to the body, and to all beings. Going beyond the surface, we reach a much deeper intimacy. My wife told me of a dream she had years ago, before we had really made any commitment to each other. She dreamt her guts were spilling out, and she was experiencing some mortification that I was seeing them. And she felt an upswelling of love and gratitude as, with no sign of repulsion, I helped her to put her guts back in place. I share this only to offer a vivid image of the kind of unconditional love Yoga offers us. When she shared this dream image with me, I knew her intuitive mind had revealed a truth about my love for her. But in order to open to this kind of love, we need ‘to see things as it is,’ as Suzuki Roshi would often say. And advertising NEVER shows us things as it is!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed this article Frank. And I'm continuing to enjoy reading some of the other, older posts. The tenor is just so refreshing.

Which has had me thinking recently: are you paying any attention to what Sam Harris is doing with mindfulness meditation, presenting it as secular spirituality? I think he's doing a reasonable job of it. If you haven't seen any of it, have a look. I think he's got a new book, and there's an excellent talk + q & a that you can watch re: the book for just a few bucks online (

It seems to me that Zen Naturalism is the philosophical attitude particularly well suited to engaging with the discourse on secular spirituality. This follows because whether we want to call ourselves scientific materialists or not, Zen Naturalism offers us the opportunity to engage with secular (i.e. scientific) spirituality, without having to ascribe to any necessary claim to 'truth'. This is because, as I understand it, Zen Naturalism, and it's interpretation on Buddhism, isn't offering us dogma. It's wisdom, but it's just from good old fashioned observation of our experience (good old science!). In this way, Zen Naturalism isn't offering us truth - it's offering us a perspective through which we can pursue the spiritual path, without abandoning the idea that scientific inquiry, or any variety of its modalities, is something we should want to be doing more of! (Live to learn, right?)

The problem with wanting a secular spirituality as a yogi, it seems to me, is that too often we aren't allowed to even engage in good discussion on yoga, meditation, etc. (i.e. by many yogis, yoga scholars, yoga 'figures', journals, etc. - even sometimes by those who nonetheless agree with some level of modern science, or the scientific attitude), if we take a scientific view on reality, nature, or the mind. It seems like I'm told in popular yogic discourse, and in some yoga scholarship that I've read (which is admittedly not much), that the scientific perspective on life in our world has to be accompanied by a subscription to Materialism - which I don't think is true, but which immediately ends the discussion on science and spirituality, since most who say this are usually trying to talk you into buying a different metaphysical picture about the world that they've propped up - usually just as dogmatically - beside Materialism. And I think that for spiritual people, that's a short sighted way of looking at things (should we need for metaphysics or dogma when it comes to spirituality?). In other words, as spiritual people seeking to make the world a better, more peaceful place, I think it's safe to say we should generally seek to avoid dogmatic thinking.

To that end, I believe Zen Naturalism is something people should be talking about more, in these same sorts of (academic or non-academic) discussions on spirituality. Not because Zen Naturalism is a secular 'way', per se - it's not, and that's why it's not dogma (remember Laozi - "A Way that can be followed, is not a constant Way"); but because it gives us a view - a scientific view: one according to which we need cling to no metaphysics or dogma in order to enjoy, and understand fully, our environment, and our all too human life. What more could we want of our path - at least, at the philosophical level? (And as many of us already know, it suffices at the spiritual level, too!)

What do you think?