Unlike some Indian religions that posit an eternal “self” (atman) that serially inhabits bodies during the course of beginningless lifetimes, Buddhism conceives of sentient beings as psychophysical continuums comprising psychic and material components. Physical processes are connected with mental functioning, and awareness of both physical and mental events is a core component of Buddhist meditation practice. Moreover, the relative beauty and vitality of one’s body (kāya) indicates how successful one has been in cultivating virtue: beautiful, healthy people (particularly males) enjoy their physical endowments as a result of past generosity, ethical behavior, and religious practice. Those who are ugly, deformed, or otherwise physically deficient are reaping the consequences of negative deeds. The Buddha is said to have possessed the most perfect of all bodies, which stood as a testament to his outstanding virtue and the vast store of merit he accumulated during innumerable past lives.
There is no one Indic text solely devoted to discussion of the body, but descriptions of various physiques and differentiations of physical types occur throughout Indian Buddhist literature. In addition, the trope of physical beauty’s link with virtue is found in literary works, philosophical treatises, commentaries, and discourses attributed to the Buddha (Skt. sūtra; Pali sutta). Discussions of the Buddha’s life and deeds devote considerable attention to the connection between his perfect form and his past cultivation of merit. Powers 2009 surveys Indian Buddhist literature on this topic and discusses the ways in which it is presented in Pali texts, in Mahayana sources, and in tantric works. Wilson 2004 is an excellent short overview of Buddhist discourses relating to the body. Radich 2007 examines a range of early Indian sources relating to the body. Faure 1998 is an incisive study of images of sexuality and the body as represented in Indian and East Asian Buddhist literatures that employs theoretical models from Foucault and others. Lopez 2005 discusses some of the controversies relating to depictions of the Buddha’s body. Kasulis, et al. 1992 presents various perspectives on the body across Asian cultures. Wilson 2004 is a short overview of the literature and major themes.
Faure, Bernard. The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
A study of Buddhist discourses on sexuality informed by theoretical models of Foucault and others.
Kasulis, Thomas, Roger Ames, and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
A collection of articles that explores a range of Asian discourses on the body.
Lopez, Donald S. “Buddha.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Edited by Donald S. Lopez, 13–36. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
A discussion of differing opinions regarding the figure of the Buddha and how he should be represented.
Powers, John. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
A study of gender images in Indian Buddhist literature, focusing on normative masculinity.
Radich, Michael. “The Somatics of Liberation: Ideas about Embodiment in Buddhism from Its Origins to the Fifth Century CE.” PhD diss., Harvard University, 2007.
A wide-ranging discussion of somatic tropes in Indian Buddhist literature dating from the time of the Buddha that links these with the broader social context.
Wilson, Liz. “Body, Perspectives on the.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell, 63–66. New York: Macmillan, 2004.
A short overview of Buddhist discourses relating to the body that provides a useful introduction to the topic.
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