Sunday, January 25, 2004

Transcending the Body

Transcending the Body

The Buddhist Abhidhamma text is a highly technical one, expounding the psychological and metaphysical aspects of the religion. It is certainly not your average bedtime reading. However I managed to read an introductory text to it 18 years ago when I was marooned at home with a serious bout of chicken pox.

Feeling weak and uncomfortable with itchy blisters covering all over my body, the mind became a means of escape from that loathsome physical state. An Introduction to the Abhidhamma by a Dr W. F. Jayasuriya became my faithful companion during the time.

Buddhism is a religion that can be appreciated on many different levels. For children, there are beautiful parables called Jataka stories that can be read to understand some of the basic teachings of the religion. Abhidhamma or "higher teaching" of Buddhism would appeal to people who are scientifically or philosophically minded.

I was and still am the scientific-minded type. So I felt a sense of satisfaction when the Abhidhamma says that there are 89 classes of thoughts and that thoughts arise in a stream of succession...Each thought unit consists of a cognitive element and some mental factors (there are 52 mental factors)...the mind operates and performs its various functions with those elements, as well as with the unit as a whole, without any over-riding doer or self...the book continues in that dull and dry fashion for over 200 pages.

For someone who was covered completely by ugly-looking chicken pox blisters, and being completely quarantined from the world, the contemplation of such obscure concepts seemed rather appealing and even sublime. It was through such exalted thoughts that the foulness of the body could be transcended.

Luckily I survived that terrible bout of chicken pox rather unscathed but it was probably the most uncomfortable illness I've had in my life. My whole body felt as if it was being consumed by some malignant alien spores. But those weeks spent waiting for the blisters and sores to heal made me understand some of the basic teachings of Buddhism about the impermanence of physical beauty. Being enamoured with the human body and its external appearances is an attachment that would ultimate cause enormous pain. The body will ultimately breakdown--youth and beauty are but transient joys.

There have been many other texts from different religions that brought great intellectual and spiritual satisfaction to me since then. But I'll always remember those painful weeks when I was stricken with chicken pox and the Abidhamma became my means of mentally escaping from that terrible state of physical foulness that I was trapped in. It was then that I realised where the real key to salvation really lay.

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