Control of the Body

Now we have a body, a mind and the Dharma.

No longer is it difficult to teach others.

If you want to teach others, you must first learn yourself.

— Control of the Body Sutra

Confucius once said, “If a person has good control over himself, others will follow him without being ordered to do so. If a person has no control over himself, others will not follow him even if ordered to do so.”

Karma is generated through body, speech and mind. Wise introspection must illuminate each of these three. They must be raised together toward higher awareness and greater self-control. One of the best places to begin getting control of yourself is through your body. The mind is subtle and fickle and more difficult to control than the body. Each of us should strive to achieve basic physical standards for our bodies; we should all try to keep them as fit, as clean and as well-controlled as possible. We should all strive to gain some measure of control over our basic muscle movements and bodily functions; fidgeting, nail biting, scratching, yawning and other nervous habits should eventually come under the control of our minds. Exercise, sleeping and eating habits should be reasonable and conducive to physical health and social harmony.

When one takes reasonable care of the body, one will find that the basic precepts of Buddhism are easier to keep. Physical training and self-control need not be over-emphasized. However, basic care and control of the body can be an important starting point for the successful practice of Buddhism.

If one’s sleeping habits are as regular and reasonable as possible, one will probably find that many other good habits will fall into line almost of themselves. Laziness, or an unwillingness to participate in life may give way to a more positive and productive attitude once one begins to control one’s sleeping habits. Sensuality and self-indulgence may begin to disappear once one begins to get control over one’s food intake. The intake of food is closely related to the intake of drugs or alcohol, both of which were prohibited by the Buddha. One’s ability to be of service to others may increase once one begins to get regular exercise and sufficient fresh air. The body is only one part of our being, but it is a fundamental and very important part. Without it we would not be able to learn or practice the Dharma.

The body should be controlled in a relaxed and reasonable manner. The following are some basic guidelines that should be considered by all of us:

  1. Proper rest: Proper rest is very important. People all have different sleep needs and all of us will have different needs at different times in our lives. Each of us should wisely decide how much sleep is right for us. Some people have a tendency to sleep too much while others have a tendency not to sleep enough. Both of these extremes should be avoided.

  2. Proper exercise: All of us should get some exercise every day. A minimum amount for a healthy adult is twenty or more minutes of walking every day while forty or forty-five minutes is optimum. Younger people should engage in more strenuous exercise than walking if they are able.

  3. Proper eating: The Buddha taught his followers to be balanced in everything they do, and this certainly includes eating. Since each person is different from all others, each person must decide for himself the best foods for his body. Generally, processed foods, processed sugars and artificial ingredients are not good for human health though they can be tolerated in moderation. Eating meat should be avoided if possible or at least kept to a minimum. Fresh vegetables and fresh fruits will almost always be beneficial to one’s health. Both over-eating and under-eating should be avoided.

The above recommendations are offered as suggestions for minimal maintenance of good health. Once good health has been achieved, it should be treasured and used for learning the Dharma and helping other sentient beings. Good health is not an end in itself, but a means to spiritual growth. The health of our bodies should not become a preoccupation. Vanity about the body and fussiness about what foods may or may not be eaten are sensual indulgences just as much as sloth or gluttony are.

The body should be used to help other sentient beings. The Buddha spoke often of the three aspects of human life—body, speech, and mind. Normally, all three of these function together. When we focus our attention on the body, however, we can see that the body is the last step in most acts wherein the precepts are broken. Killing, stealing, sensual indulgence, lying and the use of drugs or alcohol all are transgressions that normally are committed with our bodies. If our bodies are well-controlled, there is a very good chance that we will be able to stop ourselves from breaking the precepts at the last moment, even when our minds have become weak or our speech has provided us with false rationalizations.

Anyone who practices Buddhism for long will learn that physical and mental control are intimately interrelated. If the mind can be controlled, so can the body. Likewise, if the body can be controlled so can the mind. The practices of chanting and meditation are two basic Buddhist practices wherein mind and body very clearly come together to act as one. Together they pursue the same goal and together they learn that, in truth, there is no separation between them. One cannot exist without the other.

The samadhi states achieved in chanting or in meditation can only be achieved after the body and mind have learned to act in perfect harmony. A fidgeting body cannot achieve samadhi and a dancing mind cannot achieve samadhi. Once both have been controlled, samadhi can be achieved. The basis of all meditation is physical stillness. Wonders can be attained once one has learned simply to sit still. The stillness of perfect concentration or perfect mindfulness is the baseline of all mental functions. Once this stillness has been experienced the flaring of thoughts and illusions which flame out of it will never appear the same again. The Buddhist understanding of equanimity and emptiness are based on the stillness discovered in deep meditation. Access to this understanding is gained first through control of the body and secondly through control of the mind. Once both have been controlled, samadhi occurs naturally. Once samadhi has been achieved, emptiness and equanimity will be understood.

The Dharmapada says, “Victory over a thousand thousand enemies is not as valuable as victory over oneself.”

Controlled in body, controlled in mind, seated cross-legged in meditation, without other thoughts, focused perfectly on the present, one contemplates truth with all the mind. Beyond all greed and attachment, beyond the defilements of the world, desire has nowhere to rise.

— Ekottarika Agama