The Body’s Measure

3,000 miles in 3 years.
Not strictly by foot — by foot would take a lot less time.

Let’s do the math (very, very roughly):

  • 3,000 miles: 3 years.
  • That’s 1,000 miles per year: really, only 3 miles per day.
  • That’s a pretty leisurely pace.
  • But: taking 12 hours of travel-time to do those 3 miles.
  • What could possibly take that long, and be worth 12 hours of travel time per day, over three years, to complete?
The prostrations of a pilgrim — for three years straight.
The Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim faces Bodh Gaya, the site in India where the Buddha is thought to have achieved his enlightenment. He raises them to the crown of his head, then lowers them to his throat and then his heart, cleansing mind, speech, and body. He sinks to his knees, then all the way down, sliding his hands along the ground till they reach far overhead and his forehead presses into the earth.
Prostration 1

He has to get up from this posture, walk his feet forward two paces, and begin the process again, his hands only somewhat protected by their wooden clogs. After three years of this daily 12-hour practice, he has a bone growth on his wrist and a wound on his forehead that won’t heal. He doesn’t mind.

Few traveled by this method as far or for as long to participate in the Dalai Lama’s 2002 offering of the Kalachakra initiation as this pilgrim, interviewed in Werner Herzog’s documentary Wheels of Time. Yet it’s not uncommon for pilgrims to Robert
prostrate over the full 33 miles that circle the sacred Mount Kailash, a journey that takes two or three weeks.

The prostrations performed in pilgrimages of any length are meditations, focusing the mind through repetition. The site of the meditation is the performer’s own body. Its exhaustion, soreness, even its sores serve as reminders that the believer is not his body, and that the body itself is only an illusion of separateness, a misrepresentation of a deeper, non-dual reality.

Westerners prostrating facing Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet.

Along with both social and spiritual bows, prostrations are of course acts of surrender as well, bringing the head below the heart, sometimes so significantly that one has experiential understanding that one’s head is not the center of the universe. In doing prostrations, one is literally upsetting the head’s seeming dominance.

We could lay this a different way: Prostrations, we could argue, are also ways of knowing. Measuring the earth in four-, five-, or six-foot lengths is a means of coming to knowing it intimately. In the course of becoming a human inchworm, one learns not only the earth’s size, but one’s own.

CubitThe ancient world used human beings as the measure of space. A foot, a nose, an arm, a finger offered the basic length of measure. Remember the cubits used to measure Noah’s ark? They were literally (in Latin) a forearm’s length, going fingertips to elbow. In some cultures, the practice of mapping one’s measure onto the land remains quite alive. In South India, for example, the kalaris, or red clay huts that are used for martial arts practice are built on the measure of the guru’s own foot size: it’s length 42 times the guru’s foot long, it’s width 21 foot-lengths.

A very contemporary example of using the body’s measure as a way of knowing comes up as an elementary-school math exercise. In his book Learning with the Body in Mind, Eric Jensen suggests that kids measure items around the classroom with parts of their body and report the results: “This cabinet is 99 knuckles long.” Kids come back excitedly to share their discoveries, finding that, although each person’s palm’s width is different, the measurements by their bodies take them more into a sense of unity than ultimately of difference — and that the world not only submits to their measure but invites their awe at how much bigger it is than they.