In the latest New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar writes about about how a Buddhist monk’s is facing the culture of suicide in Japan. She describe the monk’s Zen training:
When a monk wakes in the morning, he must not move until a bell is rung. When the bell rings, he must move very fast. He has about four minutes (until the next bell rings) to put up his futon, open a window, run to the toilet, gargle with salt water, wash his face, put on his robes, and run to the meditation hall. At first, it is very hard to do all those things in four minutes, but gradually he develops techniques for increasing his speed. Because he is forced to develop these techniques…he is intensely aware of everything he is doing.
Several times each year, the monks spend eight days walking long distances to beg for food; in the winter, they walk in sandals through snow. When they go begging, they wear broad conical straw hats to cover their faces. they do not talk to anyone, and, if someone asks, they may not say their names. When someone gives them food, they are obliged to eat everything they are given. This forced overeating can be the most physically painful part of the training.
Every day, each monk has an audience with his teacher about a koan that he is pondering. These audiences are a few minutes at the most, sometimes a few seconds. Occasionally, the teacher will make a comment; usually he says nothing at all. The koan is a mental version of the bodily brutalities of training: resistant, frustrating, impossible to assimilate, it is meant to shock the monk into sudden insight.
The article suggests it is this Zen-style embodied training that provide this monk (Ittetsu Nemoto) the resources needed to holistically confront and counsel people battling depression and suicide. It makes sense, right? Guiding people through the challenges of life – spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical – requires knowledge, wisdom, experience and training in all these areas. It requires embracing our bodies and the role our bodies play in our spiritual formation, healing, and redemption.
Christian theology and ministerial formation has avoided the importance of our physicality, diminishing our understanding of what it means to be human and hindering the holistic healing our world needs. Instead of embracing our bodies as a part of a “very good, tragically broken, beautifully redeemable” creation, we’ve developed theologies and practices distancing us from the very skin that holds us together.
Paul writes that “while physical training has some value, training in holy living is useful for everything. It has promise for this life now and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8). Sorry, Paul, I disagree! Or, more nuanced and less catchy, I disagree with how Christians have read and translated this text (and texts like this) into 21st century Christian practice. No real “training in holy living” can ignore the body, and I think Paul actually understands this – holy living, he says should not just affect the “life to come” but holds “promise for this life now.” There’s no “life now” without the body.
If our world has a future, it must embrace both the limits and endless possibilities of the human body.
If theological education has a future, it must broaden its scope to include not just shaping the mind but also the body.
If the church has a future, it must celebrate that to be human is to have a body. Spiritual formation cannot be separated from physical, bodily practice.
We must recognize that Christian hope is not an escape of the soul but the resurrection of the body.