Minding the Body as Treading on Thin Ice

Author: Linmu

Before I understood the simile of the alms bowl in the scriptures, I contemplated how to avoid generating delusions and achieve complete right mindfulness regarding all phenomena at my feet during walking meditation.

At that time, I thought of the phrase "as treading on thin ice." Imagine walking on the fragile surface of a frozen lake. A momentary lapse in concentration, and you could fall through the ice. Thus, you must be extremely cautious, lightly touch the ice with your feet, slowly shift your weight, and only once one foot is steady, do you raise the other foot, move it, and touch the ice again.

Throughout this process, even during moments of standing still, your attention is completely alert to all sensory perceptions underfoot. It's neither lax nor fixated, and certainly not distracted. Upon finding this sensation, I frequently practiced walking meditation in this manner.

On one occasion, with a mind of extraordinary clarity and right mindfulness, I recognized that when the sensation of my foot touching the ground arises, I immediately know that it's touched. At that moment, various feelings arise, all independently arising, unentangled and fleeting. They didn't exist before arising, and they don't persist after ceasing. They have no inherent existence, and they're devoid of substantiality.

When I mindlessly attached to these feelings, the perception of my foot, my movement, my awareness of movement, the intention, and the perceived cause and effect between them would give rise to thoughts. And within those thoughts existed craving and aversion.

Similarly, during movement and standing still, my legs and body experienced various sensations, all of which were discrete and continually vanishing. When I mindlessly attached to these sensations, perceptions of my legs, my bodily movement, and my standing would arise, along with corresponding thoughts rooted in craving and aversion.

I came to realize that the so-called "body" consists solely of diverse feelings originating from contact. These feelings are momentary and ever-changing, vanishing and reappearing. The various perceptions and thoughts that arise from these feelings have no intrinsic reality. They may appear rich and colorful, yet they are ultimately empty illusions.

During this time, I practiced right mindfulness by not attaching to feelings. I didn't cling to the arising perceptions or thoughts related to my body or movement. I refrained from speculative thinking and craving. My mind abided in liberation.

In the past, during my practice of Theravada Buddhism, I once believed that there was an intention for movement, and thus, movement of the legs existed. There was also a knowing mind that recognized this movement. But now, as I directly face the present, I understand that the only true reality is the arising of feelings due to contact. The concepts of "feet," "movement," "awareness of movement," "intention," and the causal relationships between them are simply perceptions and thoughts that arise from a lack of insight into the nature of feelings. When all feelings are mindfully acknowledged without clinging, all these illusory perceptions and thoughts vanish.

This is akin to an old-fashioned television, where the electrical impulses and the flickering of the screen only give rise to momentary flashes. The countless fleeting flashes create the illusion of a continuous image in our minds. It's due to people's thinking and memories about these ever-changing images that various narratives form. Yet, the only true reality within that TV is the instantaneous flickering of the electrons and the screen.

The movement of footsteps is no different. The sensations in the feet and the contact with the ground give rise to momentary feelings. Numerous fleeting feelings create the perception of having feet. It's due to people's thoughts and memories about these changing perceptions that the concept of movement forms. Subsequent analytical thoughts and the conception of intention cause movement. However, in reality, the only true phenomenon in the present moment is the diverse, fleeting feelings due to the contact of the feet.

This understanding applies to all sensory experiences: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and mental phenomena. As the Buddha stated: "Eye and visible form, eye-consciousness, and eye-contact give rise to eye-feeling. The same principle applies to ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, as well as their respective sensory experiences, awareness, and contact, which give rise to feeling. This is what the Buddha termed 'all phenomena.'"

However, because people don't correctly perceive these real phenomena, scriptures can sometimes, as mentioned in a previous article, mistake many illusory phenomena for reality. This confusion can mislead people onto the wrong path to liberation.

So, my friends, do not attempt to observe the body with a mind tainted by wrong views. Cultivate right view. With the similes of the alms bowl and treading on thin ice, consistently keep your mind on the body. Practice right mindfulness and right understanding. This is the contemplation of the body. With much practice in contemplating the body, you'll be able to perceive feelings accurately. By contemplating feelings, you'll be able to perceive the mind accurately. With the contemplation of the mind, you can perceive all true phenomena accurately. And when you perceive them accurately, you'll cease to give rise to craving and aversion, and your mind will attain liberation.