Sleeping Next to My Coffin

Representations of the body in Theravada Buddhism


  • Elizabeth J. Harris Liverpool Hope University



Theravada Buddhism, the body, impermanence, death


Theravada Buddhism can be stereotyped as having a negative view of the body. This paper argues that this stereotype is a distortion. Recognizing that representations of the body in Theravada text and tradition are plural, the paper draws on the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali texts and the Visuddhimagga, together with interviews with lay Buddhists in Sri Lanka, to argue that an internally consistent and meaningful picture can be reached, suitable particularly to those teaching Buddhism, if these representations are categorised under three headings and differentiated according to function: the body as problem (to be seen and transcended); the body as teacher (to be observed and learnt from); the liberated body (to be developed). It also examines two realizations that accompany the development of a liberated body: realizing purity of body in meditation; realizing compassion. It concludes that compassion for self all embodied beings is the most truly Theravada Buddhist response to embodiment, not pride or fear, disgust or repression.

Author Biography

Elizabeth J. Harris, Liverpool Hope University

Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, Department and Theology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, specializing in Buddhist Studies


Bateson, J.H. 1908, ‘Body (Buddhist)’. In Encylopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by John Hastings, vol. 2, 758–760. New York: Schribner’s.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu. 2011. ‘What does Mindfulness really mean?’. Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1): 19–39.

Collins, S. 1997. ‘The body in Theravada Buddhist monasticism’. In Religion and the Body, edited by S. Coakley, 185–204, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Copleston, R.S. 1892. Buddhism Primitive and Present in Magadha and in Ceylon. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Harris, E.J. 1997. Detachment and Compassion in Early Buddhism, Bodhi Leaf 141, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. Also at:

———. 1999. ‘The Female in Buddhism’. In Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations, edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 49–65. Albany: State University of New York Press.

———. 2006. Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in nineteenth century Sri Lanka. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kariyawasam, A.G. S.1995. Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka.The Wheel Publications No. 402/404. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society. Also:

Kelly, J. 2011. ‘The Buddha’s Teaching to Lay People’. Buddhist Studies Review 28 (1): 3–78.

Malalgoda, K.1997. ‘Concepts and Confrontations: A Case Study of agama’. In Sri Lanka: Collective Identities Revisited, Vol. I, edited by M. Roberts, 55–77. Colombo: Marga Institute.

Ohnuma, Reiko. 2007. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Paul, Diana. 1979. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.

Samuels, Jeffrey. 2010. Attracting the Heart: Social Relations and the Aesthetics of Emotion in Sri Lankan Monastic Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Spiro, M.1982. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and its Burmese Vicissitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sudharma, M.K. 2003. ‘The day I bought my coffin’. Yasodhara: Newsletter on International Buddhist Women’s Activities (Thailand), 20 no. 75.

Shaw, S. 2006. Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon. London: Routledge.

Williams, Paul. 1997. ‘Some Mahayana Buddhist perspectives on the body’. In Religion and the Body, edited by S. Coakley, 205–230, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.




How to Cite

Harris, E. J. (2012). Sleeping Next to My Coffin: Representations of the body in Theravada Buddhism. Buddhist Studies Review, 29(1), 105–120.