Health in the Buddhist Tradition

Vajra Regent Ösel Tendzin

Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado

Talk Three: August 3, 1981


The practice of mindfulness is in no way medicinal. If we approach

mindfulness with the view of either trying to cure or prevent disease, we

will subtly pervert the practice. What is needed is to recognize our basic

state of being as intrinsically pure. Generally speaking, we have a sense

of separation: me and my body, me and my world, me and my environment, me

and my problem, me and my disease. We feel that something foreign,

something alien is happening to us. If there is something alien it follows

that we need to get rid of it and get back to being pure. This is a

universal concept of disease: whether we look at disease as a physical,

religious, political, or scientific phenomenon, it is always pervaded by

that need.


In pure mindfulness practice we don't fall into the extremes of trying to

ward off disease or get back to a pure state. This approach leads us to a

neutral position. For the psychosomatic body, that neutral position is the

most beneficial, sane and healthy one we could find ourselves in. Because

we are always dealing with the psychosomatic version of body, the discovery

of the neutrality of mindfulness loosens and dissolves our projections.

Sensations of the body, whether pleasurable or painful, can be seen from

within the experience of mindfulness. When something hurts, we usually

approach it from the point of view of interpretation. When something is

pleasurable--that is, it doesn't hurt--still we approach it from the point

of view of interpretation. Through the practice of mindfulness, pleasure

and pain can be seen clearly, directly and precisely, without

interpretation. We can remain in a state of neutrality: not taking sides,

so to speak, with regard to pleasure and pain, for and against, prevention

and cure.


When we practice and live in this way, we experience life as it is

happening, moment by moment. Therefore, our instinct to survive is not

separate from our life. When we practice mindfulness, surviving becomes

inseparable from the flow, the force, the energy of our life. The survival

instinct is often considered unintelligent--if you have the instinct to

survive it means that you are operating on automatic: you're not thinking.

At the same time this instinct to survive, when not complicated by

expectations or projections, is totally sane and healthy. We are not

constantly in the process of trying to ward off disease, nor are we

constantly seeking a cure. Whether we experience pleasure or experience

pain, it simply is what it is.


At this point we have no cause to lay blame anywhere. When we're not laying

blame then we are simply being as we are. You might say, "If that's the

case, then anyone who is sick should just be sick; there's no point in

doing anything about illness. And those who are healthy are healthy by

coincidence and there's no point in doing anything about that either."

That's not quite the point. The problem comes from thinking that something

is outside; whether it's health or disease is not important. Altogether,

that sense of something being external, separate from who we are, from our

being, from our instinct to survive, creates the uneasiness and anxiety

that we all experience. It also creates a tremendous mental rat race in

which we try to become something or someone other than who we are.


In creating illness, there is an underlying mechanism constantly at work.

According to the Buddhist teachings, that underlying mechanism is the law

of karma, or cause and effect. The basic cause of our existence is mental

activity. On the ocean of mind a wave appears: in other words, from a sense

of being a thought arises. When a thought arises it creates its own effect.

S o, strictly speaking, cause and effect is mental activity and its

result. The practice of mindfulness is the examination of mental activity

and its result. When you examine the process of cause and effect, you see

that particular thoughts produce particular reactions in the body and in

the environment. Pleasurable thoughts, as well as painful or aggressive or

lustful or jealous thoughts, produce particular reactions--they all have

their own accompaniment, shall we say.


The practice of mindfulness--that neutrality we spoke of earlier--allows

one to see, moment by moment, the generation of a thought and its result in

terms of body, speech, and mind. A thought motivated by anxiety about

survival produces another thought; that thought produces bodily responses

as well as verbal activity. Mindfulness is the practice of seeing that

process and not interfering with it. It is the practice of no elaboration.

When you do not elaborate on the process, you can be very precise and

clear about looking at the nature of thoughts and their resultant activity.

If you practice well and do so continuously, you begin to see the constant

formation of the patterns that shape our body, speech, and mind and our



To practice intrinsic health it is necessary to allow everything to exist

within the atmosphere of mindfulness. In such an atmosphere we begin to

understand strength. Generally speaking, our strength comes from aggression

or passion. If we want something very badly, we pump ourselves up--we might

grab every new health food as soon as it appears. As well, if we are afraid

of something we pump up energy to repel what is coming at us. Precision,

clarity, being in the moment--that state of neutrality--brings real

strength, because we are not separating ourselves from things as they are

and therefore we are not fighting anything.


You might ask, "How is anything going to ge t accomplished? What if we're

really sick? If we simply take a neutral attitude we might die." From the

teachings that have been passed down and from my own experience that is not

the case. When one is accurate--that is, when the environment is accurately

reflected in one's own mind, free from projecting and manipulating--the

question of sickness and health resolves by itself. Being accurate, in tune

with the environment, and synchronized in body, speech, and mind requires

two key qualities. Those qualities make the difference between being

healthy and being obsessed with being alive. The first is a sense of being

in touch with the precise feelings and sensations of our body; the second

is not hanging on to those feelings. You actually feel your thoughts in

your psychosomatic body. Having felt them, let them go. Don't hang on to

them and don't try to manipulate, strategize, or interpret them. Feel as

you feel and then let go very lightly, gently. In this case, nothing is

left out and nothing is added. This is a pure and simple way of working

with what we call a sense of being.


Question: You said that when one is accurate, the environment is

accurately reflected in one's mind. If the accuracy has to do with the

development of neutrality, when that neutrality is present-


Vajra Regent: There's no mistake.


Q: Then what is experienced in your mind is a reflection of the world

around you at that point.


VROT: Exactly as it is.


Q: Then are you, as you think of yourself, not present?


VROT: No. You, as you think of yourself, are precisely present that way.

You don't develop a sudden loss of memory of how you think of yourself.

Rather, the memory of how you think of yourself becomes very vivid--so

vivid you can see that you have been thinking about yourself for a very

long time.


Q: I'm not sure I understand what you mean by psychosomatic body. In our

discussion group we came up with two explanations. One was negative in the

sense of it being unnecessary interpretation and elaboration, and the other

was that it was inherent.


VROT: It's definitely inherent and sometimes unnecessary. Basically, it's

the thought of the body. It's inherent--it doesn't exist simply because we

pretend it exists. It's much more than that. It's very powerful and very

real and it is the key to health. At the same time it is also the cause of

disease. When one thinks of the body from the point of view of expectation

and fantasy, then that is perverted body. When one thinks of the body

without elaboration, then that becomes purely a vehicle, shall we say, a

way of touching experience as it is and letting go.


Q: Would you equate the psychosomatic body with ego?


VROT: When it is concerned with itself, certainly. When you live in the

psychosomatic body, that's ego. When you realize that the psychosomatic

body is simply what you might call a bridge between mind and body, then it

becomes transparent. It's just something you walk across rather than

something that makes a big deal out of "Who am I?"


Q: Do you reach a point where you don't need a bridge?


VROT: As long as you have a river and two shores you always need a bridge.

If you don't have this and that you have no water and no shores, and then

you don't need a bridge, you don't need either side, and you don't need the

river. As long as you have a body, you have thought. As long as you have

thought you have speech and action and so on. Let that be as it is. That's

the point--health is to let it be as it is.


Q: Why does meditation work at all?


VROT: It's very simple: it works because it doesn't have any axe to grind.

It's not for or against. If you look at your experience it's always for and

against, health and disease, good and bad, pain and pleasure. We bounce

back and forth all the time. Mindfulness means simply being there without



VROT: When you say, "release it," what do you mean?


Q: I mean just come back to being as I am.


VROT: That's an excellent point. I hope everyone understands that you don't

actively release anything. All you have to do is touch experience; it lets

go by itself. If you practice mindfulness properly there's no active

letting go. That's a mistaken view. That's why, when we're trying to get

healthy, we panic.


I'd like to encourage you to be mindful. Even one moment of mindfulness

overcomes years of forgetfulness. The practice of mindfulness is very

simple and does not require expertise, which makes it immediately and

gently available. Please take advantage of it if you can. When you wake up

in the morning, be mindful of how you feel. Don't judge it. Whether you

feel sick or feel wonderful, either way, as you wake up, take note of that,

be mindful of that. It's a very interesting point.


© Copyright Irene Rich. All rights reserved.