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
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
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
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.