Health In The Buddhist Tradition

Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin

Naropa Institute, Boulder Colorado

Talk One: July 27, 1981


In this course of study we are using the term "health" to mean an intrinsic capacity of all beings rather than as a thing or a condition to be acquired. "Health in the Buddhist Tradition" means that this intrinsic capacity has a particular description and involves a particular journey, or path. The fundamental quality of health is a sense of being: relating to the earth, feeling solidly here, being grounded. The opposite of being grounded could be described as a sense of floating above the earth. That quality of floating comes from our confusion about the relationship between body and mind. That confusion is continuously fueled by conceptual preoccupations that produce an unhealthy state of being. The journey of discovering genuine health begins by learning to be simple, settled, and relating to the earth. To do so we must realize that body and mind are synchronized; that is, they are not separate.

 The conventional notion of health is based on the belief that we must nurture our existence, cherish it, and preserve it in some way. Believing that health is something we can possess, we also believe it must be guarded and maintained. Genuine health is based on trust and confidence in our basic state of mind, which also involves trust and confidence in our environment. We can learn to trust in what is happening in a simple, straightforward way. Generally, we rely on the continuous production of thoughts and emotions to fortify our existence, to stabilize our sense of healthiness. But the reverse happens: our preoccupation with thoughts, emotions, fantasies and expectations produces a constantly unsettled situation.

 To overcome this unsettled situation, we need to be practical. We need to be interested in what actually happens. As human beings we have an instinct to survive. The body survives because we breathe. If we have a problem with breathing, we try to get more air. If we are in danger, we look for a way out. The instinct to survive is not alien to ourexistence or foreign to our state of being; but we twist that instinct into a concept. The result of that twist is that we try to survive either mentally or bodily, but the two never meet at one point. Generally speaking, we have a mental instinct to survive. In other words, our concepts and expectations seem to rule our state of being. When that occurs, our state of being is full of struggle, tension and anxiety. That struggle and tension produces a further conflict between mind and body, and we experience our existence as chaotic. We don't know which way to go or what to pursue. However, survival can be understood as part of a total experience of being  grounded, being here. Surviving does not depend on our constant conceptual elaborations. We are here, at this very moment. We don't need to tell ourselves, "Be healthy, survive, exist." We are simply here. Nevertheless, in our day to day, moment-to-moment experience, we constantly flip-flop back and forth between the real experience of being here-simply and without elaboration-and our interpretation and concept of being here, of being alive.

 To realize that body and mind are not separate, it is important to feel one's body in the environment. You might ask, "Isn't that just more conceptualization, more thought process, more emotion?" Yes, it is; but there is a slight difference. If you direct your thought process, your emotions, and your sense of feeling the environment simply to being where you are on the spot, then the separation between body and mind becomes fuzzy, indistinct. When it becomes indistinct, there's a possibility of touching on this moment as the ground of healthiness, the ground of existence. There is a possibility of being part of the total situation. When we separate ourselves from the environment through conceptual mind, then we encourage unhealthiness because we don't take part in the total power and strength of the environment. Our discursive thoughts, will all their motives and implications, create an atmosphere of constant complaint, dissatisfaction and resentment, which leads to all kinds of illnesses.

 Genuine health means being totally grounded in our body-our sense of existence-and in the environment. We should explore how to synchronize body and mind. We can discover how both the instinct to survive and the experience of being part of the environment can be one expression. It boils down to this: clinging to the notion of health only drains you of health. Clinging to life through experience, whether it's exciting or depressing or painful or pleasurable, drains you of real healthiness. The discovery of true health comes from allowing yourself to be with the process of living each moment as it is.

 In the Buddhist tradition the technique for uncovering your own healthiness is simply allowing yourself to be as you are. That is a very simple approach, but at the same time it is very profound and deep. It is deep in the sense that there is no bottom, no limit to the notion of being as you are. It is profound in the sense that when you are as you are, then you're not looking for something else.

 Practically speaking, without a discipline, it would be very difficult to understand and experience genuine healthiness. The discipline of being as you are is the discipline of meditation as taught in the Buddhist tradition. Meditation means acknowledging one's groundedness, one's being on the earth, simply and straightforwardly, without complication. It means being with yourself as you are moment by moment, without the complications of having to go somewhere, having been somewhere, having to get healthy, or having to cure yourself. Meditation practice is the straightforward proclamation of genuine health. Simply be as you are, without complication.


Question: Does the Buddhist approach to health disregard, for example, the use of herbs? Is it just  based on working with the mind through the practice of meditation?

Vajra Regent: We are not talking about disregarding anything. Generally speaking, it is when we disregard some aspect of our existence that we become unhealthy. The problem is one of carelessness. When we are careless we produce all kinds of diseases, not only on a personal level, but also in terms of society as  a whole.

Q: I understand that meditation is helpful, but don't things like herbs keep your body healthy while you're practicing?

VR: We have to look at our notion of body altogether. There seem to be two aspects to our experience of physical existence. We could call one "mind-body" and the other "body-body." "Mind-body" is our conceptual interpretation of the actual body. We have an idea about our body, a concept of what it should be, and so we put things into it, rub things on it, or take things out of it. "Body-body" refers to the direct experience of the body without interpretation. In the practice of meditation, the concept of body and the direct experience of body come together and then we begin to experience intrinsic health.

Q: So we know that we have a body, and sometimes it gets sick..

VR: Are you sick?

Q: I don't feel sick now, but in the past I have been ill.

 VR: What did you do about that?

Q: I gargled hot salt water. It's supposed to be good. [Laughter.]

VR: Gargling with hot salt water is precisely working with your mind. The primary way of healing anything is by working with your mind. What's your impulse to gargle with hot salt water?

Q: To cure my sore throat.

VR: The hot salt water didn't come out of your body; it came out of your thought process.

Q: Well, my mother told me about it.

VR: Exactly, and you thought about it when you got a sore throat, and you remembered it. Two things happened: first, you got a sore throat, and then you remembered, you had a thought about it. The question is how to combine those together to uncover basic health. There's no fundamental problem with the salt water, or with herbs or with any of those physical remedies.

 Q: Then is it my mind that causes my sore throat? Do I get a sore throat because I am thinking that I need one?

VR: No; it's because of trying to preserve your existence that something like that happens.

Q: Is trying to preserve your existence linked to the knowledge that you are going to die?

VR: Yes, very much so. When you begin to cut yourself off from the real source of health then your survival instinct turns toward death rather than health. When you are not willing to be part of the whole environment, it's like cutting a beautiful flower from the rest of the plant and putting it in water, thinking that it will stay that way for a long time. Then it begins to wither and die. This is what happens when you separate yourself from the totality of the basic healthiness of situations. When you are not willing to take part in the complete experience of each moment, you begin to feel panicked and unwilling to be sick. There's a definite resistance and resentment toward being who you are in the moment. You even resent the fact that you have a body at all, because the body can cause all these problems.

Q: You said that being as you are is the basis of health. Does being as you are include your neurosis?

VR: It certainly does. It includes everything.

Q: How can you work with that? I got the impression that there is a problem with over-conceptualizing.

VR: We don't have to try to capture health, to make it a prisoner of any particular concept. Rather, you can expand your view. You can let down the walls of your conceptual mind. Then you begin to see that you are part of the healthiness of the whole atmosphere. You become part of it. Otherwise you are trying to take care of your personal existence by taking your daily vitamins or herbs, and so on. You think, "I'm going to become healthy and continue to be healthy, and therefore I won't ever have to worry about not being healthy, which means I don't ever have to worry about this existence coming to an end." If you try to be healthy in that way, you become a slave to death.

When I lived in Los Angeles in 1968, we bought all our vegetables from a farm that grew only organic produce. After doing this for a year, we came across an article in the newspaper that said they had been lying: they had been spraying everything. [Laughter.] All that time we thought we had these great organic vegetables, and we felt healthy because we ate them.  [Laughter.] So the joke is on us. It is absurd to try to maintain health by identifying with a concept.

Q: The Buddha taught that human existence is full of suffering. Doesn't that contradict the idea of  intrinsic health?

VR: The fact that we are here is itself a powerful statement of health. The first noble truth, the truth of suffering, is a statement that we are awake. That's a very important point. When everything looks completely empty, painful and without any substance whatsoever, then you actually give up the notion of surviving. Then you see what is. That is healthy. You can't discover it unless you have the discipline to let things be as they are. That is the practice of meditation, purely and simply: let things be as they are.

Thank you very much for your kindness and your patience and your basic healthiness.

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