Embodied Buddhism – in an on-screen world

As I sit here, I have a body. That’s perhaps self evident, but when most of our communication happens on screens, it might be easy to forget. I’m on both sides of that equation: I make a living online, which means I meet my colleagues on the online water coolers of Facebook and forums. On the other hand, when sciatica kicks in as it did last week, my body can not be ignored. Don’t worry: it seems under control, but it does reinforce the limitations of on screen living. Unless I ‘share’ those troubles, no one can see them.

In my community of online publishers Kathy McGraw recently noticed that it is hard to keep track of online friends when they go off the radar. We make these connections online, but our line to them is thin as spider silk: when they go offline for whatever reason, we have no way of knowing what happened to them and if they’re ok. Take the online world at face value and we’re all just bits and online conversations. And mostly filtered to share only the positive. When the real world interferes – when our embodiment forces itself on us – our online friends have no way of knowing what happened.

As a culture we’re coming to grips with the effects of living through screens. As concerned father Steve Almond writes in the New York Times. Will his daughter remember that actual cardinal that appeared on their porch railing in a flash of impossible red? 

The fact is: kids or adults, for many of us real-life-sensory experiences are no longer our primary access to the world. And I wonder what that does to our spiritual development and emotional health.

‘Just Sit’, as a Zen Buddhist instruction is probably a great way to get people to pay attention to themselves and develop some self-awareness and self knowledge. They will experience the body through the aches and pains of trying to sit in an unfamiliar position for an hour. But will it help people reconnect with the world through the senses?

One of my Tibetan Buddhism teachers Ondy Wilson often stresses how the Buddhist path is in moving from head to heart. That is, I think, moving from cerebral to fully felt and integrated emotionally. This is relevant for us Westerners because our education stresses the cerebral a lot.

Sitting still and studying Buddhism – however valuable those practices are – will not help much towards activating the heart chakra. Meditations like the ‘Nectar Rain’ meditation (*) do work very well, however I think there is a reason many of the so called ‘preliminary practices’ are physical.

The preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism include:

  • Prostrations
  • Making images of buddha’s and spiritual teachers
  • Creating mandala offerings out of rice and other substances
  • Offering water bowls
  • Prayers, sutra and mantra recitations

In Tibetan Buddhism there is much talk of body, speech and mind of the Buddha. In our path to becoming Buddha’s ourselves we need to develop all three: body, speech and mind. Prayers and mantra recitation purifies our speech while prostrations purify body (and depending on our motive) mind as well.

That’s a reasonably traditional interpretation. However – I wonder, in a modern context, whether what we’re doing is not very simply about getting ‘centred’ or finding our balance in our body.

Of the preliminary practices, I’ve gravitated towards the second: making Buddha images.

It’s wonderful to have Buddhas on my altar that I made myself. In fact, my altar is now almost completely home made. See above.

As you can see in my (Dutch) explanation of the process, making your own Buddha statues is quite a process. It starts with making a drawing, then turning that into 3D with clay or something similar (paper clay is traditional), then baking it and finally decorating it. Shown here are further steps in the process.

boeddha hoofd 2

This is my second Buddha-head in clay. It broke in the oven and later when we create a mold for making tsa-tsa’s it broke even more. The result (which we forgot to photograph) was scarily fragmented.

The aura in particular was in pieces.Fortunately my teacher in this art form Lies Gronheid knows her way around the craft and had stuff available to repair the image. All the cracks turned GREEN though. This is why only the face and shoulders of this Buddha are in the original color of the clay, while the rest is painted over.

The colors here are reasonably traditional, though the aura around the head ought to be green and there are quite a few details I simply didn’t add in.

2013-04-06 17.09.46 I wanted to give my teacher a Buddha image, so I asked if we could make a tsa-tsa (cast image) of my Buddha head. Shown here is the process of making that mold.
2013-04-20 18.13.222013-05-22 12.46.40

This is the result: a casting of the Buddha image in plaster. As in all traditional tsa-tsa’s we said (or tried to say) mantras as we were pouring the plaster in the mold. Traditionally blessed substances are included in the creation of tsa-tsa’s. In this case: rice blessed by a lama.Since I’m new to all this, saying mantras isn’t yet routine. Doing something you haven’t done very often, like pouring plaster, while saying mantras is not easy. Fortunately you can’t tell by the result and a few Tara mantras did get said.

At the same time we made a few other tsa-tsa’s. At the back of this one you can see the traditional red colored back. The irregularities are the rice grains embedded in the plaster.

boeddha tsa-tsa 1

My finished tsa-tsa. I’m afraid it isn’t quite traditional in its decoration. I did paint the eyes in a color blue that’s close to the traditional color and the lips and ears have the traditional red. Otherwise this is too original to please a traditional teacher, but then I always do things my own way. I do like the result a lot.

Somehow ‘he’ turned into a ‘she’ though. I think it’s the lips.

Paradoxically, if you made it to here, you are seeing this on a screen. I can only tell you in words what it’s like to hold statues like this. The solidness of it, the texture, the way they look in 3D, the way they change in the light.

Similarly, there’s nothing like the feeling of having made the flower piece decorating a gompa, having filled those water bowls, arranged those offerings. The texture of the rice as one makes a mandala, or even of forming the mandala-mudra with a rosary…

Like everything including meditation, such experiences change when they become routine. What doesn’t change is that they involve the body more than looking at a screen does. And I think that’s a good thing.


*) Unfortunately the nectar rain meditation is not taught online. While I may end up doing something about that at some future point, in the mean time I recommend How to Meditate: A Practical Guide by Kathleen McDonald.

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Katinka Hesselink

Having studied Buddhism and other religions and spiritual traditions since 1995, Katinka Hesselink became a Buddhist formally in 2011. She has studied world religions at Leiden University where she focused on religious anthropology, philosophy and psychology. She has written online since 1999 and started this blog to share her Buddhist knowledge, insight and opinions. Katinka is best known for her common sense approach to Buddhism.

3 thoughts on “Embodied Buddhism – in an on-screen world”

  1. This was a very interesting read. Although I know nothing of Buddhism, it seems it is similar to a course I signed up for that teaches steps to a contemplative life. Being one with oneself.
    I also found your work making your Buddha images fascinating. My particular belief has more natural icons, things from nature with meaning, but I learned something from yours. Thank you!

  2. I like your buddha rendition. Did I miss the post that explains how you were called to do this? I’m interested in knowing if this was a calling or a deeper stirring within. Your buddha looks peaceful and full of sincerity. Nice.

    1. I didn’t do a post about that. It was pretty simple really. As a child I worked with my hands a lot and one day a few years ago I decided to take a pottery class. It turned out I was pretty good. When I was bored with making pots (and had made enough to house my plants) I decided to follow the course on making Buddhas on offer at the local Buddhist center I’m a member of.

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