Commentary upon Summary of Faith and Practice (part 6)
with body, speech and mind
This phrase occurs a great many times in Buddhist texts. Clearly it means “in all ways”. “Body” refers to behaviour. The body exists in the material world and moves about doing things. It is with the body that we enact the Dharma. “Speech”, here, includes thought: all conceptual activity. When we do things we hold a conception of what we are doing and why. We have a sense of the context that makes our action make sense. “Mind”, here, is, perhaps, a somewhat unfortunate rendering of the Indian word chitta. “Heart”, “soul” or “spirit” might all have been better, but the rendering “body, speech and mind” has become so universal that I think we have to live with it. So, although we say “body, speech and mind”, “spirit, sense and action” might better convey the meaning of the original expression as Buddha spoke it.
Everything we do is done in a certain spirit, makes sense in a particular way and manifests in some form of action. If we wish to understand another person it is not sufficient to observe his or her actions. We need to know what the sense of those actions is and in what spirit they are performed, otherwise we can easily misunderstand.
There is a story about a Buddhist temple in China where deer would come onto the land and the monks, feeling kindly disposed to the deer, would feed them. When the abbot heard about this he came out, forbade the feeding of deer and attacked the animals with his staff. The animals became frightened and ran away. The disciples were perplexed. “Aren’t we supposed to be kind and compassionate? What sort of an example are you - coming out and attacking defenceless animals?” The abbot said, “There are hunters in these mountains. The only defence these animals have is their fear. As long as they run away as soon as they see a human, they have a good chance of survival. If you take that away from them by taming them, they will soon all be caught and killed.”
What looks like compassion is not always the best kind. Action, concept and spirit must harmonise. Intelligence is needed. The “speech” element is an important link between spirit and action. There is always a danger that one take religious precepts in an overly simplistic manner and this then leads to pretense rather than the genuine thing.
The things we do have consequences. We can make this world better or worse; we can act in ways that are constructive or destructive, but many acts are both constructive and destructive at the same time, so this is not a simple matter. At the moment I am laying a path in the garden. To construct the path I have to dig up some of the lawn. One thing is constructed as another is destroyed. I judge that the overall effect will be an improvement, but there is no way to live that is completely free from the destructive side of all creative activity.
Furthermore, this all forms into a feedback loop. As we act we see what we have done and the sense of it transmutes. We are not omniscient, so we never see the whole project all at once. Only as it becomes reality do we see what we have done more fully and as we do so we are learning, changing and growing.
Buddhist training is a cultivation of body, speech and mind - of spirit, sense and action - and it never stops, never ends. It is not a matter of arrival, it is a matter of endless travel. At the beginning of our journey in Buddhism we take refuge, but do we know what refuge means - do we understand the sense of it, the real spirit of it, the enacting of it? Only vaguely. As we go on we are finding out. Amitabha may be at our elbow from the very beginning, but we do not know it. I do not mean “know” just in an intellectual sense - I mean in the sense that a person who walks a path every day knows that path. Yet even the person who walks the same path every day may still notice new things along the way.
“With body, speech and mind” designates the spirit of Buddhism: the self-entrustment to a wholehearted engagement with the practice, open to everything it brings.