Friday, February 11, 2005

the compatibility of fat and enlightenment

Lorianne's kong-an and my failed response to it got me thinking about a topic that's been burbling just beneath the surface of my mind: can fat people (like yours truly) ever demonstrate enlightenment in their thoughts, words, and deeds?

This isn't meant to be a hardcore metaphysical question about "true nature." The general Buddhist conviction (perhaps stronger in Mahayana Buddhism) is that we already are enlightened-- or, at the very least, that we all possess buddha-nature. While Buddhists might speak of "attaining" or "getting" enlightenment, this is a dualistic formulation that only hints at the nondualistic truth. Enlightenment can't be put in words, and Buddhists are fully aware of this, even when they offer explanations of what enlightenment is.

But here, in the realm of Nagarjunaic "conventional truth," distinctions can be made between enlightened and unenlightened thought, speech, and action. If fat is an outward sign of our attachments-- attachment to food, to ease, to the sedentary life, to laziness, to selfishness, to set ways of thinking, etc.-- then can fat people ever truly act in an enlightened manner?

In Korea, it's exceedingly rare to see fat monks. If they're fat, it's largely because they're old. Compare this to Christian clergy in the West, where plumpness is practically a requirement for ordination (yes, I'm exaggerating, but I'd challenge anyone to make the case that Western clergy are bony). Why is this?

Part of the reason may have something to do with the Buddhist attitude that mind and body are not-two. Health, it could be said, is a moral issue.* This is what makes me wonder whether a fat dude can or should receive inka (certification of enlightenment) without first practicing hard and losing weight along the way. After all, what does inka represent if I, the blob, receive my certificate and then go back to a life of gobbling whatever I want and allowing my blubber to increase while I tap away at a keyboard? What's enlightened about that? Doesn't obesity imply something about compulsions, self-centeredness, and so on?

So maybe I'm also taking a dim view of inka, if inka is given to fat folks.**

Let me anticipate a rebuttal: "Inka doesn't guarantee anything. Practice is something we have to engage in every day; there's no sense of arrival, no sense that I can rest on my laurels because I've 'achieved' something. No; the attainment of enlightenment says nothing about backsliding." To which I'd reply: Yes, but my question isn't about what happens after inka; it's about the state of mind of the hypothetical fat person*** who receives inka.

Can a person who so obviously wears his lack of enlightenment on his sleeve (and, well, everywhere else on his body) legitimately be certified as enlightened?

Color me curious.

*This is arguably true from a Christian perspective as well, but the empirical evidence seems to indicate that most sermons contain little in the way of "take care of your body!"-type messages, and if we food-loving American Presbyterians are any indication, abundant food is a major component of worship and congregational life. This is in contrast with the explicitly vegetarian regime found at Buddhist temples, and the fact that culinary excess in Buddhism is permissible only on certain important liturgical occasions (e.g., the Buddha's birthday). Even on those days of the Buddhist year, monks aren't encouraged to indulge, and laypersons are enjoined to eat mindfully, not wasting a single crumb of food. Whenever I eat at a temple, I make sure my rice bowl is absolutely empty-- no stray grains. It's not only a way to prevent waste: it also makes the temple refectory staff's bowl-cleaning job easier! Consider such thoroughness a form of compassionate action.

**For all I know, inka isn't given to fat people. I can't say I've researched the subject.

***It's a commonplace to see fat monks in Buddhist art. Keep in mind that the fat is often a symbol of something, not necessarily an accurate depiction of what the monk in question actually looked like. Something comparable in the West might be those depictions of Saint Peter wearing glasses.


No comments: