Buddhist Practices for Widening the "I": Taking Other Beings as One's Body

Image of tibetan buddhist praying

Matthew Vale
Boston College

Date: April 17, 2024
Time: 12 - 1pm
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Conference Room

RSVP Required


North Americans have heard much about “mindfulness” practice, and much of it is only indirectly derived from historical Buddhist practices. This talk introduces a quite different style of historical Tibetan Buddhist practice. These practices cultivate compassion by training in extending the scope of how we perceive our “self” beyond my self-identification: Just as I spontaneously identify only this body as “I,” I can train in identifying other beings’ bodies as belonging to my “I.” Just as a mother and nursing infant spontaneously relate to one another as parts of a shared body, and just as we can come to incorporate a tool or prosthetic limb into our felt body schematic, the perception of self can be extended across bodily boundaries. These practices’ premise is that our sense of “I” is not a fixed entity, but a flexible field of appropriation which is skillfully (or unskillfully) generated by our habitual practices.

Headshot of Vale

Matthew Vale is a visiting assistant professor of theology at Boston College, and beginning in Fall 2024 will remain at BC as assistant professor. He works in Comparative Theology, focusing on how Christian theology can learn from the Buddhist traditions of India and Tibet. His interests lie both in how Christian systematic theological thinking can learn from Buddhist and other Indic traditions, and in how Christian contemplative practice can learn from them. Vale holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and World Religions from the University of Notre Dame. Recent publications have ranged over Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Buddhist-Hindu debates over God, and what Christians can learn from Indo-Tibetan Buddhist accounts of nondual awareness.

The New York Times recently interviewed Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist Monk and award-winning author of books on meditation, altruism, and wisdom. The piece titled, “The ‘World’s Happiest Man’ Shares His Three Rules for Life,” offers powerful insights about Buddhist views on suffering, compassion, connection, and meditation. Vale will explore similar themes in his luncheon colloquium about Buddhist spiritual practices and how they can impact our sense of connectedness to those around us.

Alison, James, Scott Cowdell, Mark Heim, Chelsea King, Danielle Nussberger, and Cody Sandschafer. “Response: The Difference Nothing Makes, by Brian Robinette.” Syndicate Network Symposium Response. May 11, 2023.  

Fox, Thomas. “Double Belonging: Buddhism and Christian Faith.” National Catholic Reporter. June 23, 2010.

Makransky, John. “Synergies of Devotion, Compassion, and Wisdom in Śāntideva for Buddhists and Christians.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 41, no. 4 (2021): 169–75.  

_____. “Thoughts on Why, How, and What Buddhists Can Learn from Christian Theologians.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 31, no. 1 (2011): 119–33.  

Medel, Bart. “How to Meditate: Tibetan Buddhism.” Mindworks. April 27, 2018.

Vale, Matthew. “Eckhart’s Systematics: Christ the God‐Human Ground.Modern Theology 38, no. 4 (2022): 754–76.  

Matthew Vale

Matthew Vale gives his luncheon colloquium in the Boisi Center conference room.

Matthew Vale

During the last luncheon colloquium of the school year, Dr. Matthew Vale, a soon-to-be assistant professor in the theology department here at Boston College, presented a lecture entitled, “Buddhist Practices for Widening the ‘I’: Taking Other Beings as One’s Body.” Vale began his presentation by inviting us to reconsider how we think about our “self,” noting that our conceptions of selfhood are less firm than we realize. To make this point, he argued that our concept of self is built purely on habit. He uses everyday examples such as phantom limbs, phantom phone vibrations, and the rubber hand illusion to show how complex our conception of what is included in our body/self truly is. He also referenced rarer examples of somatic experiences wherein an individual reports feeling an unexplained pain or sensation and later realizes their sensation corresponded to the injury/harm of a loved one. He used these examples to suggest that our sense of “self” is much more expansive than just our own physical bodies. 

After complexifying the idea of the self, Vale examined why this matters to Buddhism and the world on a larger scale. He argued that developing a more profound sense of our connectedness to others can play an important role in recognizing and alleviating others’ suffering. Vale connected this to Jesus’ pronouncement in Matthew’s Gospel about recognizing his presence in others and working to alleviate their suffering: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Vale noted how St. Maximilian Kolbe, who gave up his life for a fellow concentration camp prisoner during World War II, profoundly embraced Jesus’ message in this action. The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session about how expanding the self can benefit one’s conception of the Christian faith and how the call to expand our “self” is an ongoing process.