Essays

‘May I Also Be the Source of Life’: Embodied Resistance, Existence, and Liberation in Bodymind as It Is

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue


And until they pass away from pain
May I also be the source of life
For all the realms of varied beings
That reach unto the ends of space.
– Shantideva1

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, I have been taught that body and mind are not two separate entities. They are one: bodymind. There are seeming limitations of the specific and located human bodymind I call “myself,” this named entity that comes into being at a certain point; lives a certain span of years, days, and minutes; then goes through the death process of dissolution of form and cessation of bodymind activities. To be embodied in the ordinary, day-to-day sense means that I am subject to sickness, to aging, and to death, which are all forms of anicca/anitya, impermanence. True enough. How is it, then, in accordance with the Bodhisattva vows I took in 1983, that I can become, as Shantideva says, “the source of life / for all the realms of varied beings”? And can I and others who have taken the great vows also become part of the liberation of all beings through working for social justice?

As a practitioner, not a Buddhist scholar, I’d like to share two stories with you that don’t, as far as I know, have equivalents in the sūtras and sūttas that have come to us through the patriarchal Dharma lineages. Thus, in their existence and telling, they are also expressive forms of resistance and renewal. They might point toward additional ways to think about the fulfillment of the impossible Bodhisattva vow as the expansion of the understanding of embodiment, including in and through the female human body, rather than through some theoretical transcendence of the breathing flesh that we are.

Story #1:  The Garden and the Tree

Hidden off of a coastal road near the ocean in Northern California there is a large garden, and in that garden there is a thirty-year-old apple tree. It has been a heavy bearer over the years, its abundant bright yellow fruit distributed to hundreds of schoolchildren and made into apple butter each autumn. Called Spirit of the Valley, from verse 4 of the Dao De Jing, the garden and its sprawling, ranch-style secluded house were originally renovated and redesigned by artist Mayumi Oda, a practicing Zen Buddhist whose vision included the high-ceilinged, light-filled artist’s studio she constructed on one end. Like the Dao De Jing text—which refers in one of its verse 4 translations to “the mysterious female,” a source which is impossible to diminish or deplete—this fertile flood plain surrounded by wild forest is generative and ever-changing.

My own and my son’s DNA, originating in Japan and Korea, are infused into that garden’s soil and that Golden Delicious apple tree, through the part of my body placed below the roots of the tree when it was planted on a spring day in 1989. The placenta through which an unborn human child receives nourishment is a large organ, expelled from the uterus at the end of childbirth, if all goes well. It is, like vaginal mammalian birth itself, large and bloody, messy and meaty. I am reminded of this when I eat my polite slice of toasted sourdough bread, spread with placental apple butter from that tree, in the morning with my tea, after meditation and prayer.

The soil of the garden, the tree, its fruit, my body and blood, my child, the meal which now nourishes me—“all beings, one body,” as we used to chant daily in the Zen temple.

Story #2:  The Drum

The human body is a Dharma drum, resonating deeply with exterior and interior sounds and rhythms, responding to voices even before birth. When I was five months pregnant, in 1988, I sat the Rohatsu sesshin (seven-day intensive meditation retreat) with the Rinzai-ji Zen sangha at Mount Baldy monastery in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles. During the daily chanting sessions in the sutra recitation hall, the vigorous chanting was accompanied by swift and loud drumming and bells, an immersive and percussive environment that was profoundly beautiful. I had participated in a Rohatsu (celebrating the Buddha’s Enlightenment) retreat with the same group in 1985 in New Mexico. But this time, three years later, I experienced the unexpected addition of another “practitioner,” my unborn son, who at that age was perhaps ten inches long. In perfect unison with the large drum of the sutra hall, he kicked from inside my body with swift precision.

In spiritual lineages that have traditionally been stained through and through with patriarchy, I want this true story of being a pregnant human body in a monastic-style Buddhist meditation retreat to be known. In solidarity and in sound with my unborn child, I was literally the drum and he the drummer.

If you haven’t experienced this, I invite you, perhaps after a period of meditation or quiet contemplation, to imagine how this might feel in your own bodymind.

• • •

There is a both/and here. While contemplative practices in all spiritual traditions promise what might be described as the expansion of the limited and suffering self in the direction of the infinite and universal Self, and in Buddhism the specific liberatory insight revealing “no fixed or permanent self,” we are also social and meaning-making creatures. When I teach Buddhism, I remind students who are enamored of their idea of “no self” that the Internal Revenue Service does not care about how enlightened they may be—they’ll most likely still have to file taxes when mid-April rolls around. The teachings of nonduality apply to nonduality itself.

Buddhist mindfulness, sati, literally means “to remember” or “to remind oneself.” I am mindful that, like all illusory dualities, although it can be said that “we” (all life forms) are “One,” there is also a complex and clearly manifest relationship between and among individually defined animal and plant and insect and microbial bodies, the eaters and the eaten. And there are dynamic relationships among all constructed and mentally defined bodies—governmental and decision-making bodies, bodies of truth, bodies of water, bodies of evidence. While in ultimate Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, form is emptiness (śūnyatā) and emptiness is form, we also create karma through our actions, and we are impacted moment by moment by the karma that is generated within systems. In my Dharma practice and teaching and in my Sangha (Buddhist community), we fully acknowledge the interwoven histories of gendered and racialized politics and policies. Buddhists can easily understand the intersectionality of multiple systems of oppression as illustrations of dependent origination (Pali: paticcasamuppāda; Sanskrit: pratītyasamutpāda). The impact of these systems is not theoretical. It is physical and medical, emotional, social, spiritual, and multi-generational. The toll and karma of misogyny and racism are huge; it is a toll enacted on bodies and a karma that has included the sale and exploitative disposal of human bodies.

Embodiment and issues of embodiment not only affect every part of our lives, they are every part of our lives. Recently, for those of us in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement and the broader Movement for Black Lives in the past decade have highlighted the traumatic oppressions experienced daily by Black bodies. None of us can simply shed our bodies. Differences in appearance—judged to signify “same as ‘us’ and therefore safe,” or “different than ‘us’ and therefore threatening”—when combined with social differences in power and unexamined privilege, create the toxic conditions of racial “Othering.” And these realities have pointed fiercely to structural changes that are needed in how U.S. Buddhist communities are able (or not) to address politicized forms of suffering in multiculturally sensitive ways; this includes the honest and vulnerable self-examination of demographics on our boards of directors, staff, and within our wider Sanghas.

Much has been written about how underrepresented communities in the U.S. need “safe spaces” that are identity-based, in order to create the conditions of inclusion and self-acceptance. Most people in meditation-based communities need to feel at a minimum “that I belong here when I look around the room,” in order to soften their body armor and let down their psychic shields enough to focus inwardly through one or more meditative techniques.

And while “I” am not a disembodied entity or “soul,” it is also true that fully and consciously inhabiting the interrelated systems that are called “my body” is a developing process and a practice of both spiritual liberation and social justice. I speak as a Buddhist practitioner, both monastic and lay, for over thirty-five years, as a mother who breastfed for three years, and as a person of color who has witnessed and been part of political, identity-based liberation movements in the United States since my birth in 1954. These movements have included the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Black Power movement, the Gay Pride movement, the Asian American movement and more. Among other identities, I speak as a third generation Japanese American (sansei), and as a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland, California, which is an urban Buddhist- and mindfulness-based meditation center with a mission that centers on diversity and social justice.

The very concept that there can be a Cartesian split between body and mind—a perceived gap between physicality as we experience it and the idea of a “pure” consciousness that transcends and negates the specifics of bodies—is odd to me. I’ve always appreciated that my entry into Buddhism was through Korean Zen practice in North America and in South Korea, beginning in 1982, and that the word in English used by my original Zen teacher and his senior practice leaders was always “bodymind”—one word, not two. This went beyond abstract talk. Our everyday practices were rigorously and sometimes painfully embodied: long hours of sitting meditation; manual work such as cooking, cleaning, and gardening; prostrations (standing in place in front of the altar, bending the knees and lowering oneself to a kneeling position, bending forward and placing the entire body on the floor, gently turning the hands palms upward, and returning to an upright position, then repeating hundreds of times); and chanting, producing what might be called sacred sound through the instrument of the body vessel.

My Buddhist training in North America and in Asia emphasized the elimination of a lot of discursive thinking, not through an act of will and repression (which most meditators find to be pretty much impossible anyway), but through physical activities that are repetitive in nature (thus eliminating the need to think about various choices) and that require enough awareness and concentration to prevent the practitioner from going on autopilot. Because of these experiences, my guess is that Buddhist meditation was never meant to be a cerebral, pleasurable, floating-feeling, disembodied experience, as it has sometimes been taught and practiced in the West. Yet it is quite true that what might be called deeper levels of meditative concentration (samadhi) dramatically alter the practitioner’s perception of bodily sensations, including what is usually called pain. Quite a bit has been written about samadhi and jhāna states, and except for the addition of information from recent neuroscientific research, this is nothing new, at least not in my experience and study.

In these times of climate emergency and political chaos, what will help all of us regularly “unplug” and simply be in our bodies, aware of our own physicality? What will help us to show up in person in community with others?  Significantly, I’ve been reading that smart phones, screens, and the often harried, multi-stressor pace of life has contributed to what’s being called a “loneliness epidemic.”2 Meeting face to face, and looking at one another eye to eye, eating together, working together, telling our stories, engaging in silent or vocal spiritual disciplines and study together—these are what we yearn for in order to become not lonely, to fulfill the need to belong.

How, amidst mass extinctions of species, can we become “the source of life” for ourselves and for one another? Is it possible to collectively heal the wounds of historical harms? I am not daunted by these huge questions; my initial Zen Buddhist training was learning to respond to big and burning questions with a wholehearted “I don’t know.” This is not the “I don’t know” of resignation, of inner collapse. It is the “I don’t know and I want to find out” through which vulnerability and humility and a sort of outrageous determination to discover what is possible collide within us and propel us along the spiritual journey.

I don’t have “final” answers. I do have some notes on process:

Transformative racial justice is experienced through the body and through embodied processes.

Because the trauma of racism is embedded in our bodies, people of color need to see bodies, cultures, and positive images like us in our Buddhist communities, in media in general, and in leadership in all our spheres of activity.

Speaking as a person of color resident of the United States, the nation of my birth, and as a staff member and core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland, California, we have found over the thirteen years that EBMC has had its doors open to underserved communities one powerful and continuously validated truth: People from non-dominant cultures want to see people who they feel physically resemble them and their family members, and who have had similar cultural experiences, in positions of both peer relationships and leadership positions within any spiritual organization. This extends beyond racial identity and ethnicity. We call it valuing “radical inclusivity.” People with disabilities want to see people with disabilities. Younger people want to see younger teachers and Sangha members. Fat-positive people want to see large-bodied, fat-positive people. Parents and guardians of young children want to be with one another in a spiritual center where the children can play and sing and squirm and move. Our embodied lives, what we do with our bodies in living, loving, working, and playing, in grieving, rage, pleasure, birthing, and dying, is more important than intellectual discourse, no matter how politically astute in analysis or how visionary in scope. When oppression tries to shame, diminish, negate our bodies, it is an act of political and spiritual resistance to embrace what transformative thought leader Sonya Renee Taylor has said: “The body is not an apology.”3

Transformative racial justice in Buddhist groups means our teachers need to renounce “hanging out in the Emptiness Zone” and to model how they hold their own power and unearned privilege. They need to be aware, constantly, of their own positionality and be honest about it.  Because, as far as I can see, there is no such thing as an individual human being who exists outside of historical circumstances. There is no individual human being who exists apart from ongoing conditioning resulting from slavery, internment, genocide, exclusion, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other institutionalized systems of inequitable treatment that affect every aspect of human life from birth to death. Spiritual practices such as meditation do not erase social realities and systems that privilege and normalize some bodies and identities over others.

And we can do better than this social ranking of bodies according to ethnicity and age and gender-assigned-at-birth and abilities and other constructed categories. Just as exclusion and discrimination are passed on through social conditioning, inclusivity and openness to people showing up as they are can be practiced. With such practice, over time, communities build up new cultural forms in which the conditions for physical and emotional relaxation, enjoyment, trust, and consent are present. In these communities, including my own here in Oakland, California, we try to fully acknowledge that “the body”—exactly as it is in this moment, with “its” desires and sexuality and aches and pains and petty murmurs and itches and rhythmic extensions and contractions—is not an apology. It is the ground of being and doing, the rich and fertile mud and water that are environmental requisites for awakening, represented in Buddhist iconography by the blooming of the lotus.

And because community arises from communing with one another, the opportunity for tender and extraordinary and lasting spiritual connections and friendships arises from a strong collective commitment to ahimsa, non-harm. What this means, speaking plainly, is that we need to commit to ethical and consensual forms of interacting with one another on a daily basis. We need to create conditions of transparency and equity in which abuse resulting from “power-over-other” relationships is lessened and eventually eradicated. Just as the Dharma teaches that the idea of an individual “self” can be dismantled and deconstructed, we can dismantle hierarchies and traditional structures of teacher–student relationships and other forms of relating within our spiritual communities; we may need to do so in order to create new forms and to prefigure what an awakened multicultural society might look and feel like, perhaps for the first time.

“May I Also Be the Source of Life”: Embodied Resistance, Existence, and Liberation in Bodymind as It Is

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says: “May I also be the source of life / For all the realms of varied beings / That reach unto the ends of space.”4

If you are willing to play, for just a few moments, I invite you to use your amazing human consciousness to imagine yourself as the source of life for all living beings. If this were the case, what might you do differently on a day-to-day basis? How might you think, feel, and act?

I received the Bodhisattva vows and precepts in 1983, in Toronto, Canada, and along with them I received the Heart Sūtra name Mushim (literally, “no heartmind”). When I heard “my” Dharma name first called out in the Buddha Hall I remember, distinctly, thinking, “Well, this is going to be a lot of work.” The Heart Sūtra is both famous and famously perplexing among practitioners of the Mahāyāna, declaring that “form is emptiness (boundlessness) and emptiness is form.” This pithy challenge to binary thinking, sometimes called the Nondual Gate, is our entry into considering that body and mind are not two but one: bodymind, and that heart and mind are not two but one: heartmind. And that as soon as we form those concepts—bodymind, heartmind—they, too, begin to resist hard-edged ways of knowing, and to instead reveal themselves as organic process, more verb than noun.

I, Mushim, retake the Bodhisattva vows each morning when I am fortunate enough to wake after sleeping. I renew my commitment to justice and life for communities of color. In addition to being a literal conveyor of life to my biological child, in this lifetime I have also embraced Shantideva’s expansive, liberatory, and thoroughly terrifying vow: “May I also be the source of life.” On a moment-to-moment basis, what this means to me is this: In whatever ways you and I are interacting in this moment, may I be a source of life and liberation for you, and may you be a source of life and liberation for me. In some cases, this might literally mean life and death; in most daily interactions, the meaning of this is less dramatic and yet subtly pervasive—like walking in a mist and eventually realizing that our clothing is soaking wet, to use an old Zen Buddhist story about how we absorb the Buddhadharma.

The ability to show up fully, exactly as we are—“heartmind” one word, “bodymind” one word—and to create spaces for others to do the same in awareness of our interdependence with all life forms—these are intrinsically acts of political resistance. We show up in resistance, in complete embodiment, to every slow or fast death-dealing regime that aims to erase us, our cultural heritages, and our fluid, multiply-conditioned ways of being.

In my world, it can be as quiet as drinking my morning tea, eating my morning toast, in gratitude and in awe, knowing that what I call “my body” is unknowably vast and uncompromisingly present.


Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a socially engaged Buddhist teacher; community activist; diversity, equity and inclusion consultant; parent; and author based in Oakland, California, where she helped to found the East Bay Meditation Center, a diversity- and social-justice-centered urban meditation center. She is the recipient of a Global Diversity Leadership award and an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from the Starr King School of Ministry, and she was named one of Colorlines’s 20 transformative racial justice leaders in 2018. More information on her teaching, writing, and work can be found at www.mushimikeda.com.


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Notes

  1. Acharya Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavatara), trans. Stephen Batchlor (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1979), III.22.
  2. Jena McGregor, “This former surgeon general says there’s a ‘loneliness epidemic’ and work is partly to blame,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2017/10/04/this-former-surgeon-general-says-theres-a-loneliness-epidemic-and-work-is-partly-to-blame/.
  3. Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018). See also: https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/about-tbinaa/history-mission-and-vision/.
  4. Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, III.22.