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Buddhism, Christianity and Bodies

By Kristin Largen

For most of us in the United States, fall semester is finishing up with final exams and final papers. I gave my final exam at Gettysburg College earlier in the week, and now my grading is done; so, in the past few days, I have been reflecting on that course and the experience with the students. The class is a first your seminar titled “Beauty, Bodies and Blessings;” in the first part of the course, we examine the contradictory messages about bodies—particularly women’s bodies—in both Buddhism and Christianity. 

When it comes to Christianity, in this Christmas season especially we are reminded of the most obvious positive message around bodies in Christian doctrine; that is, the teaching that God really and truly took on a human body, uniting the Divine with all flesh, and binding God in love to the physical world.  Additionally, we have the two creation stories in Genesis that emphasize God’s care in creating all physical bodies, including the physical bodies of humanity, and calling them good. We also read in the New Testament of Jesus’ care for physical bodies, particularly the bodies of those who are marginalized or suffering, and we are told that our bodies are temples, holy to God, and that we should care for our own bodies, as well as the bodies of others.

In Buddhism, we have the Buddha’s own recognition of the importance of the Middle Way when it comes to enlightenment, and his rejection of both over-indulgence in physical pleasures and also extreme physical austerities. A healthy body is necessary for the religious practices required to attain awakening, and so while the body must not be indulged, it also must not mistreated.  In addition, Buddhism teaches of the auspiciousness of being born in the human realm; human beings are the ones most likely to be able to hear and follow the teachings of the Buddha. Finally, we have the beauty of the Buddha’s own body, and the ways in which the physical marks of enlightenment make visible his status as an awakened being.

However, in both religions, this is not the whole story. In Christianity, the dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh, inherited from Greek philosophy, often manifested itself in a denigration of the body, and a belief that the body is not as valuable as the soul or spirit. In the very early monastic communities, it was the physical temptations of gluttony and lust that were seen as the most deadly, and the monks worked hard to discipline their bodies in order to subdue these physical desires. In this context, women’s bodies were seen as epitomizing these temptations; this link between women’s bodies and earthly carnal passions, which of course were antithetical to one’s spiritual development, continued up through the centuries—and one might argue they still continue even into the present day.

Returning to Buddhism, analogously, there were similar antipathies towards bodies, and again, women’s bodies in particular, specifically in early Indian monastic Buddhism.  (Here I recommend the excellent book Charming Cadavers, by Liz Wilson.)  A necessary step toward enlightenment was letting go of attachments to the physical body, and thus it was necessary to see the body as impermanent, and see it through the lens of the inevitability of death. Often these sorts of meditations focused on a woman’s body, inviting the practitioner to see her in her true state as a corpse, rather than a beautiful woman (sexually desirable), beautifully dressed and beautifully adorned.

In both religions then, it is fair to say that there is been a steady line of thinking that has associated women bodies with physical desire, therefore categorizing them as impediments to spiritual enlightenment.  This has sometimes even led to the idea that women themselves have less inherent capacity for spiritual development than men.

Much of this comes as a surprise to my students; most of them know very little about Buddhism, and even those who come out of Christian backgrounds usually have not given this aspect of Christianity much thought.  Our conversations here lay the foundation for interesting discussions about bodies in contemporary United States culture—including issues of disability, sexuality and race.  From this starting point, we also look at ways religious language and ideas permeate secular culture—sometimes subtly.  (For example, here we read a chapter from Starving for Salvation, by Michelle Lelwica).

I guess one of the things I appreciate most about the class is not only the fact that students are learning more about both Buddhism and Christianity, but also that they are seeing some of the concrete ramifications of religious ideas and practices on daily life; and how being a religious person (in this case, a Buddhist or a Christian) might impact one’s views of one’s own body and the bodies of others.

And, I also like how they get to experience how learning about one religious tradition with which they might be unfamiliar helps shed new light on a tradition about which they are more familiar.  One example of that comes when they read about the marks of the Buddha’s body, and then they realize how few concrete descriptors there are of Jesus’ physical body in the Gospels.  Often they simply hadn’t thought about that prior to class.

Mostly, however, I just love teaching, and I love learning with and through my students, and hearing their insights and reflections.  The work is a privilege, and I try not to ever take it for granted.