It is interesting that we Western teachers pass over this teaching. I have never heard a talk by a Western teacher on the ‘Mind-Made Body.’ My earliest experiences with meditation, back in 1967, immediately connected me with the fact that the way I experienced my body – at that time, in terms of size, space and light – was a dependent arising. (I wouldn’t have used that phrase then, but that’s what I was recognising, just the same.) It was a dependent arising that depended on ‘coming in there,’ so to speak. That is, it depended on my doing something to break the habits of waking mind’s version of the body-mind. That something was to sit the body down somewhere and stay put for a while. In my early days the sittings were confined to about twenty minutes, twenty minutes sitting in one spot. But the kind of body I had/was, in that twenty minutes, went through some very dramatic variations. I was stunned to realise that the body was so variable.
I think this was the beginning of the realisation that it might be possible to cultivate a subtle body. The Buddha’s practice (as presented in the Pali Nikayas) clearly states that mastery of the mind-made body is an important stage of the inner work. In later teachings (e.g. the Lankavatara Sutra) it is referred to as the Will-body. An example in the Pali Nikayas is in the Digha Nikaya – in the Samaññaphala Sutta (the ‘Fruits of Reclusehood’). (See Maurice Walshe’s translation, for example, or Thanissaro’s at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html.)
I think too much is made about the supernatural feats that are supposed to come for one who has mastered this part of the contemplative life. I think the promise for me is in the integration (after the split) – or the holism (in the reality) – of emptiness with form, spirit with a worldly life, citta with a ‘worldly’ body. It also involves seeing that we have created our body out of our explorations of our contact with the environment (more on dependent arising), and that the body is not fixed, but in constant flux with the environment (continually dependently arising). So, it’s important for me that the ‘mind-made body’ is not about escaping embodiment, but about making embodiment more real.