A reader in North Carolina asks:
Could you please comment on this quote, which Tom Petty attributes to George Harrison: "Look, we're not these bodies, let's not get hung up on that."
I'd be glad to! Because George Harrison is one of the key people in getting me into this whole Buddhist mess that I'm now inextricably mired in. I was a total Beatle geek by the time I was 15 years old and remain one to this very day. And since I'm a perverse weirdo sort of individual, many of my favorite Beatle tracks were the ones nobody else liked. I particularly dug the Indian-inspired tunes George contributed like Within You Without You , Love You To, The Inner Light and even Blue Jay Way. Hearing these songs and reading interviews with George really got me wanting to study Eastern mysticism in a serious way. Man, I even got into George's post-Beatle Krishna Consciousness nuttiness like Living in the Material World and one of my all time fave Hari albums, Dark Horse, which nobody else likes except my friend Lesa. Another all-time great George Harrison record is his production of the Radha Krishna Temple album on Apple Records.
In fact, when I signed up for Tim McCarthy's class on Zen Buddhism at Kent State University way back when, I'd actually been looking for something more like the kind of Hindu mysticism George was into. I settled for Zen Buddhism because it was the closest I could get.
By the time I started taking that class I was already well familiar with the oft-repeated phrase in Hindu mysticism, "we are not these bodies." It was even on the back of some Santana album I saw once as a quotation from Sri Chimnoy. His version went, "We are not these bodies, we are the spirit-soul that flies within."
I expected Buddhism would further elucidate this notion. But instead I clearly recall Tim saying once that it was closer to the truth to say "We are these bodies." That was a bit of a shock. He didn't say that was the truth, just that it was closer.
To say we are these bodies is wrong. But saying we are not these bodies is also wrong. It's like when you're arguing with someone and that person gets you into some hypothetical scenario that has nothing to do with the point you were trying to make. Then you find yourself arguing about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with what you wanted to say. The question does not fit the case. We're given a set of two exclusive options and asked to pick one or the other. Either we are these bodies or we're not. Philosophers and religious people have been going over and over and over with this debate for centuries. But Buddhism takes the stance that neither option is correct.
One time I was sitting listening to Nishijima Roshi give a lecture. I thought I'd figured his whole trip out. With his staunch denial of reincarnation and his very nuts and bolts approach about "the world as it is in front of us" I figured he was a pure materialist. I didn't like him much anyhow. But I went because it was a convenient place to practice zazen with a group. I was dozing off during one of his talks when he said, "The material world is an illusion."
To me that sounded like the whole Hindu notion of "we are not these bodies." The Hiundus have a lot of mythology about how the material world is maya, or illusion, and the true substance of reality is pure spirit. But I already knew Buddhism rejected that idea. So here I was presented with the notion that the material world is illusion, and so is the spiritual world. What's left?
The answer is that no category or definition we can create to try and box up the real world we live in can suffice.
We are these bodies in the sense that what we are manifests as our bodily existence. We are our minds/souls in the sense that the mind's reality is the only one we ever really know. But neither is really us.
In the chapter titled Inmo in Shobogenzo Dogen said it like this: "We ourselves are tools that it (inmo, the ineffable) possesses within this universe in ten directions. How do we know that it exists? We know it is so because the body and the mind both appear in the universe, yet neither is our self. The body, already, is not 'I'. Its life moves on through days and months, and we cannot stop it even for an instant. Where have the red faces [of our youth] gone? When we look for them, they have vanished without a trace. When we reflect carefully, there are many things in the past that we will never meet again. The sincere (or pure) mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment."
So in a sense George was right. We're not these bodies. So let's not get hung up on that. But then again we are these bodies so it's impossible not to be hung up on that.
Take it away, George!