Subtle Bodies, a book review.

L0043615 Acupuncture points and meridians. The arm. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Acupuncture points and meridians. The arm taken from I-tsung chiu-chien, 'The Golden Mirror of Medicine' a compendium of medical works edited by Wu Chien and first published in 1742 19th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Acupuncture points and meridians: the arm.  I-tsung chiu-chien, ‘The Golden Mirror of Medicine’, edited by Wu Chien, 1742.  Wellcome Library, Creative Commons

Although my occasional full bodied roars drew complaints from accountants in the office upstairs, my acupuncturist agreed that it was a good way to release energy.  I found the needles quite helpful, though sometimes difficult (they tend to be more uncomfortable when you need them most).  But however warm the welcome, I felt a slight sense of disjuncture going into a setting shaped by a cosmology and symbol system from the other side of the world.  As an astrologer I worked with four elements, not five, and had a different model of seasonal/energetic change.  That said, I’m generally drawn to eclectic, syncretic, and plural approaches (up to a point), rather than narrowly singular traditions.  Even the Western medical herbalist I went to used to read my pulses in the Chinese style.

It seems that Eastern cosmologies, and associated therapeutic, meditation, and magical practices involving variously conceived subtle bodies, were enthusiastically adopted on the margins of Western culture during the ‘early Modernist period’ (1880-1930).  The term ‘subtle body’ was introduced by the Theosophists, initially as a translation of suksmasarira, a key concept in Vedanta philosophy.  In the work of Samkara (who lived aound 800 CE) it formed part of a series of three bodies -the material or physical, subtle, and causal bodies.  Various Theosophists went on to proposed a series of ‘higher’ bodies including astral, mental, causal, and etheric, corresponding to ‘higher planes’ of existence and progressively finer materiality.

Despite scholarly discomfort with its Theosophical origins, and subsequent popularisation in the West, Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, editors of Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, Between mind and body find ‘subtle body’ a useful generic term.  Their book works well as a resource on the genealogy of related concepts, covering Daoist, Indian, Tibetan, Shamanic, and Buddhist traditions, before moving on to Sufism, Neoplatonism, neo-shamanism/magical consciousnesss (Susan Greenwood), and a multitude of Western borrowings in art and culture.  The editors’ argument that subtle-body concepts ‘assume a quasi-material level of human functioning … intermediate between conventional concepts of body and mind’ is picked up by several authors who consider them as a way of overcoming Cartesian dualism.  This, and Samuel and Johnston’s claim that ‘subtle body language can open up our picture of the individual to include relationship with others’, suggests that subtle bodies may be a missing conceptual link in current debates around ‘new’ animism?

Crystal Addey discusses the neoplatonic concept of ‘vehicle of the soul’, ochema pneuma, as a bridge between soul and body.  The practice of theurgy -‘god work’-  combining ethical behaviour with contemplative and meditative practices (purification of powers of perception and ‘imagination’ to facilitate visions of, and from, the gods) were designed to enable the adept to become godlike.  Although religion and ritual was about ‘a lifelong endeavour of moral development’ and active involvement in the world, Neoplatonism has a strongly transcendental orientation.  Over identification with matter was said (by Hierocles) to weigh the soul down with ‘material stains and pollution’.  Nevertheless some of the neoplatonic material on divination is interesting.

Angela Sumegi juxtaposes a shamanic sense that other worlds are real, and accessible by means of soul or spirit journeys, with the Buddhist doctrine of no-soul or no-self, anatman.  She defines shamanism as ‘grounded in an animistic world view and involving distinctive practices that focus on the ability of certain individuals to … [mediate] between culturally accepted dimensions of the world in response to the needs of a particular group’.  It thrives where there is a belief that the world and its beings are constituted of visible and invisible dimensions.

Communication with unseen aspects depends on assistance from spirit persons, and takes place primarily through alternate states of consciousness including trance, possession, and dream or waking visions.  Deceased Mongolian shamans, or ongons, and other spirits, are said to travel along well defined pathways with rest stops along the way, often by a special tree or mountain pass. Mongolian death rituals apparently include a ‘bone carrying person’ who wears his clothes and hat inside out or back to front, and sprinkles offerings at crossroads or streams.

‘From a shamanic perspective, the spirit or soul of a thing signifies its most fundamental mode of existence, its being in relation’.  Thus, Sumegi sees shamanic soul theory as a way of personalising every aspect of human existence (rather than as an acknowledgement that other-than-human beings are persons).  By contrast, Buddhist practitioners aim to realise the essencelessness or illusory nature of persons and things, though Tibetan Buddhist subtle body concepts, including the dream body, illusory body, and rainbow body (purified from dualistic habit patterns), and the Mahayana theory of the three bodies of the Buddha, ‘express the primordial personhood of the most sublime state of liberation’.

Janet Chawla’s chapter on The life-bearing body in dais’ birth imagery considers the ethno-medical knowledge, body imagery, cosmological understandings, and practices of India’s traditional midwives or dais.  These lower caste or out-caste women ‘serve the poorest of the poor -and have always been concerned with embodiment not enlightenment’. Their birth work is often regarded by privileged Indians with ‘an exaggerated colonial disdain’.  One of their practices involves retaining the umbilical cord, partly so that it can be heated in order to revive an apparently lifeless baby.  The cord is considered to contain channels/naari through which jee or life-force flows.

Chawla discusses the ‘geo-mysticism’ associated with the female ‘deity/demon’ Bemata, who lives deep within the earth narak -commonly translated as ‘hell’.  As ruler of that domain she’s repsonsible for the conception, birth, and growth, of humans as well as all vegetation and animal life.  Reclaiming the work of the dais involves re-valuing the underground, unseen, cthonic realm – lowest of the three realms in both textual Hinduism and folk culture (below the mundane/earthly/visible, and the celestial).  Their conception of narak allows for the mapping of the unseen, inner world of the body … and also facilitates negotiation with the spirit world’.

Geoffrey Samuel concludes the book with an attempt to model subtle body concepts in universal terms, suggesting they may be about ‘barely conscious drives and desires … the impulses below or beyond individuals’ conscious awareness’, and how to control these.  They may also relate to our social and ecological context.  He attempts to steer between naive materialism and naive idealism, treating the subtle body as relational, constructed, but nevertheless real and ‘capable of being grounded in our best current sense of neurophysiology’.  This still sounds like materialism to me, so I like it less than his inclusive curiosity and acknowledgment of the importance of openness to the experiences of those who have, or claim to have, worked with subtle body processes.  Susan Greenwood, in a reworking of material about her shamanic journeying in the form of an owl, is the only contributor writing from direct subjective experience.

There’s a lot more, but this is quite an expensive hardback (to date), and my copy, obtained through inter-library loans (use public libraries or lose them!) is due back tomorrow, so I’ll have to close there with a recommendation to read some of this for yourself.

B.T. 1/7/15

Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston, eds. Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, between mind and body, Routledge, 2013.

Note excerpts can be browsed online using Google Books.

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2 thoughts on “Subtle Bodies, a book review.

  1. Sounds like an interesting anthology. I think I’d enjoy the essay on geo-mysticism and re-valuing the underworld. What does ‘dais’ mean?

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