So we now tread into some deeper territory with regards to mindfulness of death. These practices are often mistakenly put aside as “for monastics/not for lay persons” but I hesitate to agree with such statements. It is a matter of if you are ready to accept this teaching and practice, not the clothing you wear and vows you follow. I practiced these contemplations as a lay person and know the benefit they can bring.
That being said these practices are not necessarily right for everyone “at this moment”, which is why for some it may be best to stick to daily practice of the 5 subjects of contemplation for now. You will know if these practices are right for you by analyzing your mind and body while doing the practice.
What does the picture above illicit in you? Is it an uncomfortable, queasy feeling? Or a feeling so strong it creates much anxiety and repulsion and in the end is just not beneficial, but possibly harmful to you, causing much physical distress? If it is the latter, no worries, continue your practice and come back to it later.
While the practice requires grit and toughness to stick with uncomfortable experiences, there is a balance to that. The Noble Eightfold Path is called “The Middle Way” for a reason. We are not trying to be self-mortifying and abusive to our mind and body. This is not an iron man contest, in fact it’s not a contest at all, it’s your path of practice towards freedom and a happiness not conditioned by external forces. Do not fall into judging yourself, it will only spiral into aversion.
Now let us get into the practice. We will be covering two practices in this article, Charnel-Ground contemplation(corpse decomposition) and 32 Parts of the Body. For both of these we go to Digha Nikaya #22 Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness(http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.22.0.than.html) under mindfulness of body.
THE NINE CHARNEL-GROUND CONTEMPLATIONS
The picture above gives a good graphic of this practice. The charnel ground was a place where bodies were left out to decompose or to be cremated. It was a place where monks during the Buddha’s time would go to contemplate death and meditate. It was also a practice to take the patches of cloth from long decomposed corpses and sew them together to make a robe to wear.
The Buddha in this practice is imploring us to compare our body to the various stages of a decomposed body, as one day these bodies that we attach to and hold dear, will be strewn upon the ground, devoid of life. This is not to make us feel scared or disgusted, but to slowly come to equanimity with regards to the impermanence of this body, to break our illusions.
‘Again, a monk, as if he were to (1) see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel-ground, one, two or three days dead, bloated, discoloured, festering, compares this body with that, thinking: “This body is of the same nature, it will become like that, it is not exempt from that fate.” ‘So he abides contemplating body as body internally, externally, and both internally and externally. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. And that, monks, is how a monk abides contemplating body as body.
8. ‘Again, a monk, as if he were to (2) see a corpse in a charnel-ground, thrown aside, eaten by crows, hawks or vultures, by dogs or jackals, or various other creatures, compares this body with that, thinking: “This body is of the same nature, it will become like that, it is not exempt from that fate.”
9. ‘Again, a monk, as if he were to (3) see a corpse in a charnel-ground, thrown aside, a skeleton with flesh and blood, connected by sinews,… (4) a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected by sinews,… (5) a skeleton detached from the flesh and blood, connected by sinews,… (6) randomly connected bones, scattered in all directions, a hand-bone here, a foot-bone there, a shin-bone here, a thigh-bone there, a hip-bone here, a spine here, a skull there, compares this body with that… ‘Again, a monk, as if he were to (7) see a corpse in a charnel-ground, thrown aside, the bones whitened, looking like shells … , _(8) the bones piled up, a year old…(9) the bones rotted away to a powder**, compares this body with that, thinking : “This body is of the same nature, will become like that, is not exempt from that fate.“
REFLECTION ON THE REPULSIVE: PARTS OF THE BODY
This reflection is most often prescribed as a counter to a mind infested by lustful thoughts. If you find yourself overcome with attraction towards a person you are to contemplate the parts of that body that we seem to be infatuated with. It can also be a good practice to go along with corpse contemplation in developing equanimity towards your body and other’s bodies.
A word on this practice and the translation “repulsiveness”. The pali word “Asubha” is the negation of the word Subha, which means beautiful. So “not beautiful” would be a valid and better translation. This practice is not meant to bring you into the depths of aversion, disgust, and hatred for the body.
To repulse is to push back or resist. We do this practice to push back the illusions we uphold and to resist being overcome by them. There is the rather amusing and interesting story in the Vinaya, the book of rules for monastics, where the Buddha taught a group of monks this practice then went into seclusion. When he came out of seclusion a month later he was told that dozens of monks had become so averse to their bodies they either killed themselves or had others kill them.
So remember this, there is nothing to be attracted to or repelled by with the human body. It is simply a biological machine that does what it does. We add on the extra layer, our attachments and aversions, our likes and dislikes. This practice goes a long way in moving us towards that equanimity, away from our attachments and aversions, to see the body as it really is, not as we wish it to be.
‘Again, a monk reviews this very body from the soles of the feet upwards and from the scalp downwards, enclosed by the skin and full of manifold impurities: “In this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, mesentery, bowels, stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, tallow, saliva, snot, synovic fluid, urine.′
Just as if there were a bag, open at both ends, full of various kinds of grain such as hill-rice, paddy, green gram, kidney-beans, sesame, husked rice, and a man with good eyesight were to open the bag and examine them, saying: “This is hill-rice, this is paddy, this is green gram, these are kidney-beans, this is sesame, this is husked rice”, so too a monk reviews this very body: “In this body there are head-hairs,… urine.” ‘So he abides contemplating body as body internally, externally, and both internally and externally… And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. And that, monks, is how a monk abides contemplating body as body.’
As you can see in the simile to go along with the teaching, we are to know the parts as they are, without attachment or aversion. As this pile of rice has such and such different types, this body has such and such different parts, all of which are impermanent, subject to illness and decay.
Both of these practices are given by the Buddha in a pretty straight forward manner. You can practice these directly as the Buddha taught. I use both of these in my daily practice that I will explain in the final part of this series. I’ll be back next week for part 4, which may or may not be the final part, I haven’t decided just yet.
This is the Third in a five part series. Here are the links to all parts: