3 – The Body of the Buddha

Bodies are important, our bodies give a shape to the ideas the universe has. In western tradition this thought underlies our long and sometimes disappointed love affair with the mystery of incarnation. Before the universe existed there was nothing; then the universe just appeared—with trees, buildings and people walking their dogs, and people trying to work out what their existence means. When we truly notice what it is to be human it seems vast, beyond scale; galaxies and bacteria are all folded into this one bright perception of life.

The Koan

Question: How is my hand like the Buddha’s hand?
Answer: Playing guitar in the moonlight.

This koan asks us to let the whole of our being fall into it, to love without reservation the experience of being made of flesh.

This koan implies that we have what we need. This is a very radical and satisfying possibility. The human problem is how to move out of suffering and loneliness, and with this koan that is something I can do. I need no one else to be responsible for my experience. It’s not up to someone who can guide me. I can actually do this journey, today everything I have ever wanted is available to me.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci

At the same time a sense of exile is often present, the sorrow of being in a body that changes and ages, a mind that plunges into turmoil. That sorrow is also what we enter when we are inside our lives. Even what looks like resistance is the operation of the koan — “I don’t like something about the koan, I don’t see that my hand is Buddha’s, what about the mess in the world and the problems in my life?”

All that can be said is that when I have fully entered my circumstances this koan appears. Well yes, no one said your hand was a shape that you had planned it to be. But if you look at the shape it is, rather than what it isn’t, you can see its beauty.

The last koan in our course described what appears when you go into difficulty instead of pulling away from it. This koan is next because it describes what you see when that happens.

Here’s a description of the consequences of having a body, an account by Garrison Keillor of his stroke:

The doctor who saw me in the E.R. wrote in her report: “nice 67 y.o. male, flat affect, awake, alert and appropriate.” I had appeared with slurred speech and a balloon in my head, had driven myself to United Hospital in St. Paul, parked in No Parking, walked in and was triaged right in to a neurologist who trundled me into the MRI Space-Time Cyclotron for 50 minutes of banging and whanging that produced a picture of the stroke in the front of my brain, so off to the Mayo Clinic I went and the St. Mary’s Hospital Neurology ICU and was wired up to monitors. A large day in a nice 67 y.o. man’s life.
chicagotribune.com, September 16 2009

In this case happiness is walking out of the clinic. But is it also to be found in the clinic, in all things human including having a stroke.

Any resistance I have to what my mind is producing or what life is giving me, is in the territory of this koan. If my life is Buddha’s life then the problem is still a problem but it exists in the arc of practice—it’s a piece of landscape that has appeared during the journey. The problem is part of living the right life. And so it becomes possible to see that this uncertain life is beautiful. Any scrap of existence is beautiful.

The response to the question is, “Playing guitar in the moonlight.” Hands do things, they pick up a child, haul in a fish, swing a bucket, write, play guitar. hands have rings on them, hands turn us into artists, people who give shape to matter. And the music is happening in the moonlight, there are memories, and surprises; a dreamlike and eternal quality keeps us company. And isn’t everything a dream?

IMG_night light

What I am noticing is my life. Every time I really look at it, the landscape is beautiful and I am part of it. Gerard Manley Hopkins called this quality inscape. Tonight I’m watching the season turn, the wind blow and pile the chestnut leaves large and floppy, yellow and brown, gold, and green. The rain puts sparkling polka dots on the window giving a bright haze to things outside the yellow interior light. This is the Buddha’s hand.

I can’t sleep tonight but that is a happy thing. I sit watching the light, the rain, the night, and being alive is full of a joy that doesn’t end.


  1. Look at your hand for a few minutes. Say something about it. Describe it. What is it like for you to do this?
  2. Do you have heroes? Role models? People whose greatness you could never approach? How is this for you?
  3. What is a “buddha” to you? How is that different from you? The same?
  4. What is “playing guitar in the moonlight” in your life? How does that relate to your work? What is moonlight for you? What is your work in the world?
  5. What other images come to you when you sit with this koan?