Mind Is What the Body Does

Each of us, I’m sure, has at least one fond recollection of something that a teacher showed us or said to us that tweaked our way of approaching meditation just enough to allow everything to fall into place with a great big “ahhh!” Maybe it was a gentle nudge that guided you into your perfect posture, or a simple turn of a phrase related to some issue that you were wrestling with. Maybe it was the first time you ever saw your teacher settle into zazen with the sense of great purpose that she did – because all of the other times you’d been facing the wall! For me it was when my teacher, Rosan Yoshida, said to us: “We become enlightened with the body – not with the mind.”

Yes, we’re all pretty focused on the mind, aren’t we? And perhaps that is to be expected given the lengths that we go to in describing its nature: Mind is like a wild ox in the forest that we need to seek out and tame. Mind is like pure, still water. Mind is like a monkey chattering and swinging from branch to branch. Mind is the entire world. Mind is like a puppy that we need to keep picking up and putting back on the newspaper. Mind is like a mirror reflecting everything. Of course, all of these descriptions are useful depending upon the context, but apparently what I needed to hear most of all at the time was something that would pluck me from my ‘all mind, all the time’ cloud and place me back firmly on the ground. “We become enlightened with the body,” Rosan said, “not with the mind.”

Now, some of you are probably way ahead of me right now and thinking to yourself: “Wait a minute. Mind and body aren’t even separate from each other in the first place, are they?” Indeed, that reality is readily accepted in Buddhist circles, but it is true from a strictly scientific perspective, as well. You simply have to follow the chain of causation. “Mind is what the brain does” is a phrase often used by neuroscientists in describing the relationship between the mind and the brain. But the brain doesn’t just do what’s inside of the cranium in which it is housed. The brain is connected by nerves and blood vessels to all other parts of the body, checking their orientation in space, and sampling whatever biochemical information they might have to convey. It would seem then that the mind is not just what the brain does; the mind is what the body does. But why stop there? The brain, via the various senses organs connected to it, monitors everything that the body comes into contact with. For example, the sun (93 million miles away) and the eye (right here and now) combine to create sight – processed within the brain and subsequently wondered about by the mind. Thus, the statement “mind is the entire world” would not seem to be a nonsensical contention even from a Western scientific perspective. For now, though, let’s simply focus on the fact that the mind and the body are not separate at all. Let’s just try to remember that the mind is what the body does.

The traditional physical posture of zazen – seated meditation – is specifically designed to bring about stillness of mind. I will go into this in much greater detail in my next post, but I’ll touch on the highlights here. The stability of the tripod made by our knees on the ground and our buttocks on the cushion is like the stability of a tripod on which a camera might sit. The cushion raises our buttocks to an appropriate height above the knees such that the angle between our thighs and our torso is open enough to allow for smooth and unhindered abdominal breathing – the type of breathing that doesn’t require any heaving of the chest or movement of the shoulders and ribcage. The mudra that we make with our hands in our lap allows for a minimum of strain to be placed on the forearms, shoulders, and neck. Having our eyes slightly open and cast downward helps to keep us alert and helps to minimize the tendency to slip into prolonged episodes of thinking. Yes, everything about this physical posture leads the mind deeper and deeper into stillness. To use an analogy that Rosan often uses: the mind is like water sitting in the bowl of the body. When the bowl (the body) is still, the water (the mind) becomes still – thereby allowing its clear nature to arise.

If you’d like another analogy, perhaps you can think of your entire body as being a system of lenses that, with proper adjustment, allow you to bring the true nature of your mind into clear focus. Or maybe you’d like to think of your body as a “stillness machine” that generates stillness of mind as long as you have all of the proper settings “dialed in.”  However you prefer to think about it, it is essentially a matter of setting up the appropriate physical conditions for stillness of mind to occur. So, take full advantage of the physical posture of zazen. Actualize its potential completely. And always remember, we become enlightened with the body – not with the mind.  

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Buddha Under Construction photoraph courtesy of Kongsky via:


  1. I really enjoyed this post. I've always wanted to learn more about meditation. I guess the best way to learn is to practice, right? I also like the links you've been posting (translations, etc.) - I'll check some more of those out! I forgot to tell you that the translation I quoted comes from John Daido Loori and the Zen Mountain Monastery. Maybe you've heard of him/them? Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Ah, John Daido Loori is probably one of the most respected of American Zen teachers. Unfortunately, he recently passed away. I'm glad you've discovered his writings/teachings. I'll spend a post or two on the zazen posture for anybody who is insired to try it for the first time after reading something here. Thanks K!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Six Types of Happiness in Hesse's 'Journey to the East'

The Heart Sutra and the Five Aggregates (Part 2 of 5)

Beginning Anew