The Buddha is very clear that we are not our bodies. This isn’t a one-off teaching that people have twisted into seeming more important. It’s a core teaching that gets repeated over and over in the suttas. It’s one of those teachings that is easy to say, but actually very deep and hard to fully grok. And guess what: you already know it’s true.
Imagine a scientist took a scan of your body: every atom, every neuronal connection. Would you then say, “Well, I guess there are two of me. That guy over there is me. I guess he can sleep with my wife, since he’s me.” Of course not. There’s something more going on that just atoms and neuronal connections.
For one thing, it flies in the face of modern, scientific, atheistic thinking that dominates intelligent discourse these days. In this way of thinking, everything that is important about what we “are” is explainable by our physical bodies. Our preferences, thoughts, and even moral center are now understood in terms of the brain and neuroscience. Isn’t that what we “are”? For the Buddha, none of these things are our true self.
More on that next time. For the moment let’s get back to the body. The Buddha comes at the idea of our bodies from multiple angles. For one thing, he points out that we really don’t have much control over our bodies. Bodies age, get sick, and die all without our permission. How could our true self not really even be under our control? For another, it’s impermanent. Since our body is in constant flux, how could it be our true self?
None of this is to say that the body isn’t important. This human life is dependent on a body. We have to take care of the body to live and accomplish the holy life. But life is also dependent on oxygen. I don’t start believing that I am oxygen. Or carbon or water or any of the other long list of things that I depend on to stay alive. Life depends on these things, but it doesn’t mean that it is these things.
So how exactly should we think about the body? It’s not the self, but neither is it just a lump of flesh. First, recall how the Buddha taught that we are to think of all things: as experience. Having a body is just another kind of experience. We shouldn’t treat it as either real or unreal. We shouldn’t expect the body to be a source of lasting happiness. In other words, it has the same status as all experience. As everything we can or will ever know.