Soul as the Third Body of the Buddha

Soul as the Third Body of the Buddha February 26, 2021



Wuzu said Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?

Gateless Gate, Case 45

This koan is a simple as pie.

And as complicated.

Wuzu, who has a fondness for this sort of brief, and yet endlessly haunting question, tells the assembly that the Buddha and the Buddha to come both are servants to another. And then he asks the question. Who is that other?

One of the foundations of Buddhist thought is that there is no abiding self. That thing many of us in the West as soul, something that occupies the body, but is not the body, does not exist. Rather more to the point, thinking we have souls that are separate from this world is a primary cognitive error, and the source of suffering for ourselves and the world around us.

So, in at least one sense there is no other.

That said, I’ve been thinking about “soul,” of late. And in particular whether the term soul continues to have meaning even if there is no little part of the person that is unconnected to the body and is just passing through to some place better. Or, for some, worse.

I believe the answer is yes. Our English word seems to derive from Old English, and seems to mean an immortal principal. The only cool thing about this, is the earliest attestation to its use is in Beowulf. But it is quickly picked up and used in the Vespassian Psalter. It becomes the English word to translate words like the Hebrew Nephesh and the Greek psyche. Etymologically these all seem to touch on the mysteries of breath.

And then there’s a boatload of words meaning breath in the world’s religions.

What I like about the biblical words is that they don’t automatically mean an immortal thing. That seems to enter Judaism with and it seems evolving after the Babylonian exile.

Kind of a bottom line in this is that soul and souls do not have to be immortal.

And for me that’s important. Because, well, everything dies.

What we can be talking about when using soul is something vastly more useful than an escape hatch from life. I suggest there’s a way through the hurt and confusion of our lives, to something more healthful and beautiful and healing. Soul.

I have on occasion referred to myself as a pseudo-Jungian, I’ve never in fact had much of a taste for Carl Jung. I think while he was some kind of artist of the heart, he liked to pretend his work was science. And that just annoyed me. Close to endlessly…

But, his disciple James Hillman, well, he’s another deal, entirely. He opens perspectives I find endlessly useful. And no less so than with this koan, who is that other even the Buddha serves?

As I reflect on that koan, as I think of the complexities of grasping which is not just what we do, but what we are, and the promise vaguely told within the depths of my heart, that we are not trapped, that we need not always continue the way we have, I recall that old song about how you can’t go over it, you can’t go around it, you can’t go under it; you have to go through it.

You may have noticed how spirit and self, and sometimes mind are, in practice, in our times, all taken as synonyms for soul. Actually this is a problem. Hillman suggested this represents a reductionism within our current culture leading to a simple Cartesian divide “between outer tangible reality and inner states of mind, or between body and a fuzzy conglomerate of mind, psyche, and spirit.”

Hillman goes on to suggest our more natural “threefold division has collapsed into two, because soul has become identified with spirit. This happens because we are materialists, so that everything that is not physical and bodily is one undifferentiated cloud…”

For Hillman spirit is “arrow straight, knife sharp, powder dry…” For him it is yang to the yin of the soul, which is found in “natural urges, memories, fantasies, and fears.” Soul is about “the realm of experience and (of) reflections within experience.” I find this is a key to another tradition important to me, and it’s teaching of the “three bodies of the Buddha,” which are the world of form, the world of unity, and a third. Let’s run through them, quickly.

The first body is that of form, of history. We usually get this part. It’s what we live with all our lives, with all its aches and pains. Think of this ordinary sense of the way things are with everything separate and unique, as the part of the iceberg above the water. Another part of what we are, the second body, floating in the depths beneath the surface, is that place where all things collapse into one. In many ways that place is the realm of spirit. Here spirit is the great intuition of our ultimate unity.

But, we can’t leave it there. This binary view of separate bodies and one body isn’t quite right. Traditionally the third body is the place of rule breaking, of magic and related mysteries. I suggest we can encounter this place of imagination run wild, of fantasy, of dream, as the realm of soul. It is dark and rich and fertile, it is the seedbed of possibilities.

In Buddhism and in Zen the great error is grasping. People sometimes think that means instead of grasping we need to renounce, to give up. Many Buddhists think this is the answer. Absent oneself. Give up. Don’t care. Certainly don’t want.

But, we are talking about ourselves and the stuff of our being. How do we reject ourselves, where the only way to really not care is to die.

So, perhaps the yes comes another way. It is the very other that Gautama and Maitreya serve. And the solution is not difficult at all. We find it in how we engage what cannot be avoided. The way through is loosening up, is holding lightly. Freedom is found in how we live open handed, and open hearted.

Soulfulness. The third body of the Buddha is soul. The practice is soulfulness…

Holding the reality of our lives lightly, the power that is greed becomes generosity. (And those other demons change, as well: hatred becomes clarity, and certainty becomes curiosity…) We are powerful, and we are dangerous, but as we loosen up, as we hold lightly, we begin to see the connections, and we begin to see beyond our skins.

Who is the other?

She. He. It is here, right here, found as we are, and as we can be.

And here we discover what bodhisattva action is, what the awakened life in the world is. Here where the cries of the world are our cries, and the healing of the world is in our hands.

Open handed. Open hearted.

Soulfulness is the koan realized.

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