Composition of the Body

POSTCARD#458: I remember when I was about eleven years old watching a television program on my parents’ black-and-white set that showed in gory detail major surgical operations common at that time. My parents and my brother had to leave the room, but they let me watch after I argued that the program was educational. I found it fascinating to see the innards of a body.

Many years later as a Buddhist monk I was eager to observe autopsies in Thailand and Australia. What fascinates me now is why some persons are repelled by the very thought of watching an autopsy, and often faint when they attend one. Even though we have all been taught biology at school, most of us are still in denial about the nature of our bodies. Why else would we faint or groan when seeing guts exposed?

We have a huge amount of attachment to this body, a delusion that causes us much suffering. By focusing superpower mindfulness on the composition of your body, you can penetrate the barrier of denial and fear and see the body as it truly is. It is just a body. Bits and pieces strung together and falling apart, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither strong nor weak. It is simply a thing of nature, not something of yours. Can you keep it fit and healthy forever? Can you stop it from dying? So who owns your body? Surely it must be obvious that nature owns your body, not you.

The sign that you have penetrated the truth of the body is the complete lack of fear about your own death. Another test of your insight is your response when a loved relative or close friend dies. If you receive a phone call telling you they have just been killed in a road accident and you reply, “Yes, that’s to be expected,” then you are free of attachment to the body.

The Corpse Meditations

Meditation on a corpse combines the contemplations of what a body is and what a body does. It produces revulsion at the beginning, insight in the middle, and liberation in the end. It’s powerful and effective.

A corpse from a road accident is quickly covered and sent to a funeral home, where it is embalmed and made up with cosmetics. The embalmer’s skill makes Uncle George look like he is happily sleeping rather than stone dead. We do not want to see a corpse as it truly is. We are more content to have the fantasy. Unfortunately, delusion demands a heavy price. The longer we delay understanding death, the more we will have to suffer from it.

When superpower mindfulness is focused on a corpse or on the clear memory of one, the dead body opens up like a thousand-petaled lotus and reveals the truth hidden deep beneath the surface. The corpse is teaching you that this is what your body does—it gets old, falls apart, and dies. This is the destiny of your body and all others. Such insight produces dispassion with regard to this body and disinterest in getting another body. Seeing a corpse disintegrate and return to its natural state proves once again who the real owner is—nature. No longer will you be attached to your body, take delight in your partner’s body, or fear death. And if the insight reaches to the core, then you will never again come to birth in another body.

Feeling Contemplation

The second focus of mindfulness is feeling (vedanā). This term needs explanation because “feeling” is not quite accurate as a translation. In English “feeling” has a wide range of meanings. It can mean both emotional states and physical sensations in the body. The Pāli word vedanā means that quality of every conscious experience—whether through sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or mind—that is pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in between.

In English we use different words to convey pleasantness or unpleasantness in each of the six senses. If we’re relating to a sight, we call vedanā “beautiful,” “ugly,” or “average.” If we are talking about sound, vedanā is “sonorous,” “grating,” or “uninteresting.” If we’re describing bodily sensations, vedanā is “pain,” “pleasure,” or “dullness.” That agreeable quality which is common to beauty, melody, and physical pleasure is called sukha vedanā, or “pleasant feeling.” That disagreeable quality common to ugliness, discordance, and physical pain is called dukkha vedanā, or “unpleasant feeling.” That which is neither agreeable nor disagreeable is called “neutral feeling.”

It is to be remembered that the qualities that we perceive as beautiful, ugly, sonorous, pleasurable, and so on do not reside in the object. Otherwise we would all agree on what was beautiful or pleasurable. The agreeable, disagreeable, and neutral qualities are values that we add to reality through our conditioned mind. Again, vedanā means that quality accompanying every conscious experience that you feel as pleasant, unpleasant, or somewhere in between.

When mindfulness is strong and stable, you can investigate vedanā, present and past, without complicating the matter with desire and aversion. When the mind is weak in samādhi and the five hindrances are present, the mind reacts to unpleasant vedanā with aversion and responds to agreeable vedanā with desire. Such reactions stir the mind and distort the truth, in much the same way that winds stir up waves on a lake and distort the images of fish swimming below the surface. This demonstrates yet again the importance of jhāna experience prior to satipaṭṭhāna in order to suppress the five hindrances, especially desire and ill will, in order to have the capability to view the vedanā with complete dispassion.

The Rise and Fall of Vedanā

When the mind is still and free from both desire and aversion, it sees that sukha vedanā (pleasant feeling) is no more than a pause between two moments of dukkha vedanā (unpleasant feeling). Indeed, you can also discern that the intensity of the pleasure in sukha vedanā is directly proportional to the degree of unpleasantness that went just before, and the intensity of the pain in dukkha vedanā is measured by the amount of happiness that you have just lost.

In a chilling book describing imprisonment and torture as a political prisoner in Argentina during the 1970s, an author relates that his most painful experience was not the beatings or the sessions on “Susan” (the name the guards gave to the electric shock torture machine). The worst moment, after endless months of imprisonment, was when his persecutors handed him a letter from his wife. He had blotted out from his mind all memory of the happy years before prison in order to cope with the terror and hopelessness of the present. That letter brought up many warm memories of his wife and family, and made the darkness and agony of his situation even more unbearable. He cursed his wife for sending that letter and screamed deep inside, louder than he ever had under electric shock. As this story graphically illustrates, the intensity of your pain or discontent is proportional to the degree of the happiness that you recall has now vanished.

Vedanā Does Not Belong to You

Vedanā is thus clearly seen to be conditioned, in the same way that night conditions day and day conditions night. It is merely the dualistic play of nature. Vedanā is beyond your control and beyond anyone’s control. It is understood to be not mine, not me, not a self. Understanding vedanā in this way through superpower mindfulness, as just vedanā and beyond anyone’s control, gives rise to dispassion toward pleasure and pain. You realize with certainty that there can be neither permanent pleasure nor permanent pain. A perfect heavenly world is seen as a sensory impossibility, merely wishful thinking, and an eternal hell is similarly implausible.

Thus the purpose of this second focus of mindfulness is to gain the insight that vedanā is not mine, that pleasure and pain twirl around each other, two inseparable partners on the dance floor of saṃsāra. Craving becomes pointless. And when craving is finally abandoned, there is freedom from pain (and from happiness too).

Continued next week 18 February 2022 with Mind Contemplation

chattering green parrots

Old Notebooks: Bangkok: Delhi 2012: Flocks of chattering green parrots in the tall Eucalyptus tree opposite, disturbed by birds of prey circling around in the upper sky. I watch the whole scene from our place on the roof terrace. All kinds of flowering plants here; bougainvilleas and chrysanthemums. If you have ‘chrysanthemums’, why can’t you have ‘chrysanthedads?’ I ask Jiab, who is reading the Thai news with great scrutiny. But this doesn’t seem to be worthy of comment right now and after a period of silence, I get busy with shifting these heavy flowerpots of chrysanthemums into a beam of sunlight. Much huffing and puffing, when I’m finished with that and sitting on my chair, looking at what I’ve done, Jiab says to me: ‘… happy now?’ And the serial depressionist in me stirs, ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’

Since childhood really, that lingering sense that things are not right… not as I’d want them to be. But I’m happy enough, yes. Why? Because all these things that I think are not as good as they could be or should be (even worse); all these things are just there – then they’re not there, I’ve forgotten about them. ‘First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain then there is.’ That’s how it is; the dark cloud of unhappiness is not hanging over me today on the roof terrace with flowering plants in the sunshine. I can see there is dukkha (suffering) but that’s because I’m unknowingly holding it there. What’s needed is a conscious letting-go and then there’s no suffering – can it be as easy as that? Maybe it needs sustained effort, but that’s the idea of it. One can feel inspired, motivated knowing there is an end to it. And I suggest this possibility to Jiab, who now inclines towards me thinking maybe I seem to be making a more intelligent remark this time.

And we talk about that for a while. It’s always interesting for me to hear what she says because like most Thais she knows the Pali terms, having learned the chanting by heart in elementary school. Jiab is also fortunate because her father was a monk twice in his lifetime, each time for a couple of years. As a result, he was able to explain to his children that life is permeated with suffering caused by desire, and that suffering ceases when desire ceases. Sila, Samadhi, Panya (right conduct, meditation and wisdom) releases one from desire, suffering, and rebirth.

What it comes down to in the end, is everything that arises passes away and the Venerable Assaji statement: “Of things that proceed from a cause – their cause the Tathagata has told. And also their cessation — Thus teaches the Great Ascetic.” [Venerable Assaji answers the question of Śāriputra the Wanderer], and I’m amazed how how Śāriputra was totally blown away by that and people were getting enlightened on the spot as a result of the Venerable Assaji statement. In this context I’m thinking it means if you can see and are aware of the attachment to things you love and hate, that’s all there is to it; ignorance is gone and no matter how much it is held or the tenacity of the habit to hold on, suffering will pass away of its own accord: “Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation.” With that, there’s a sudden burst of noise from the green parrots in the trees opposite, attention shifts and we go over take a look at what’s going on…

reflections on an earlier post

the way out is the way in

POSTCARD #262: New Delhi: A papaya tree just seeded itself in our small flower bed. It grew and grew and became a giant among the flowers, created shade in the noon day sun. Glory be to the bird that flew by here one day and the fortuitous dropping of a whole papaya seed which landed in exactly the right place. When the small plant appeared above ground we cleared the weeds away and it grew to a height of 2 meters in a few months. This is the karma of the tree thus far, like one of those random, stumbled-upon truths which appear in awareness when the introspective state of mind is present.

Whatever form it takes, there’s always the return to the human condition and finding a way out of attachment, the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth nirodha, (There Is A Way Out). I was reminded recently the way out is not an escape from the world, it’s a reappraisal of the situation without the attachment factor, the clinging adherence to objects of mind or body. This is what it comes down to, the way out is the way ‘in’, obstructed by the various forms of hunger and thirst in the human organism. The task is to get rid of desire, getting it unpeeled, unstuck and we could spend a lifetime searching for these and knocking them out, one by one – or maybe the whole thing just falls away by itself in an afternoon, and suddenly it’s done.

All that remains then, is equanimity like a vast still ocean mirroring the sky above. Some small event may arise, a puzzle, and one may choose to examine the circumstances of it, resolve the issue and allow it to disappear. For me it was a world of unsolvable tricks, riddles and switcheroos, created by an uncle only five years older than me. A nerd, long before his time. He’d show me a puzzle and conceal the answer so I’d never find it… sometimes dangled a clue like a carrot baits the donkey.

This was in a lonely farmhouse on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma*, it was before the days of mobile phones, before even the days of black and white TV. This was so long ago nobody could remember what existed in that place before it. We would have to go there for the school holidays, and I’d then be confronted by this strange cloned uncle, who looked like me, was near enough to be a brother but wasn’t – no, no… definitely not.

Sometimes I would escape from his forever hold on the secret I needed to find, and go for help from my other uncles and aunties there, but they were all his older brothers and sisters, had a fondness for his snarky wit. Yep, enough said.

The years went by and I’d come back from long journeys in the world to visit him sometimes, but he never changed from his middle-of-nowhere mind state. I’d see him age and think that’s what I‘ll look like when I’m his age… expecting to see him change in some way, but he didn’t, right up until the day he passed away… holding the secret to himself.

There was this release when it happened… there is no answer to the puzzle – no answer, no puzzle. It’s got to do with letting go, and everything is seen. It can’t be hidden, nothing can, concealment is not possible in the middle of nowhere because in the middle of nowhere there’s no concealment. No subject, no object… nothing there at all.

“Feel nothing, know nothing, do nothing, have nothing, give up all to God, and say utterly, ‘Thy will be done.’ We only dream this bondage. Wake up and let it go.” [Swami Vivekananda]

Gratitude to Val for her comment: ‘the way out is the way in’
“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Winston Churchill

inertia of TV

inertia-001-jason-decaires-taylor-sculpturePOSTCARD 141: New Delhi: I passed a shop selling TVs, walked in and stood there for a moment in the zizzling static of huge glowing plasma screens. We don’t have a TV at home, haven’t owned one for nearly 5 years. It seems alien to me now, ‘entertainment’, compulsive Bollywood movies with high-power advertising every five minutes. I managed to kick the TV habit many years ago in the house in East Anglia. Reblogged below are some excerpts from the post I wrote about that event.

(Originally dated October 2, 2012): There used to be a TV here but I gave it away. A big old fashioned dinosaur TV, too large for this little old cottage. No room for it; limited floor space, low ceiling height, clutter and junk (jutter and clunk). I manhandled the TV upstairs but it was no good there; then downstairs again and hurt my back in the process. It was always in the way; just too big. I had it under the table for a while but it looked silly there… and I started to see that it had to go.

But I was dependent on TV watching; every other activity took second place to that, and attempting to disengage from TV was a struggle. What to do? I’d try switching it off suddenly, right in the middle of something, a chat show, whatever, just to see what the room felt and looked like without all the noise, bright lights and rewarding, congratulatory applause. But every time I did that, the absolute silence of a world without TV was devastating! The lack of colour and severity of greyness in the house was just… sad! I had to switch it on immediately. TV was like a friend, I couldn’t say goodbye to it. I kept on doing that, though, switching it off and on again, in the middle of programmes, to surprise myself. Eventually I started to get interested in the idea of the silence that remained without TV, typical of the location I was in – a house surrounded by quiet fields and nature.

But TV-cold-turkey was no fun and I was in denial for a very long time. Then one day I was watching the BBC news and noticed the newsreader pronounced his words with a weird sort of ‘smirk’… kinda disgusting, and then the whole ugly ‘self’ aspect of it was revealed. Shocking, but I was glad it happened because it was obvious then that I didn’t feel comfortable with TV in the house – it had to go. I carried it out the back door and left it in the garden; went back inside and discovered this huge space in the room where it used to be. Interesting to see the directions in the room created by a focus on TV; chairs arranged so that viewing could take place comfortably. So I rearranged the furniture, changed it all around, and that was really quite liberating.

I’d return to the kitchen window from time to time and look at the TV out there in the garden – holding my attention, still… thinking, that object should be ‘inside’, not ‘outside’. Completely out of context in the garden, but I just left it there; no longer connected to it. Later that day, it started to rain and drops were falling on the dusty black surface – the urge to take it back in… that was difficult. The neighbour dropped by and he said it’s not a good thing to leave a TV out in the rain. I told him I didn’t want it anymore, maybe he’d like to have it for his spare room? Okay thank you very much… and, you’re welcome. So I gave him the channel changer and that was it. Off he went and I watched him carry it into his house, happily bewildered by my generosity and failing to understand my joy at having escaped the inertia of TV.

‘Like a thief entering an empty house, bad thoughts cannot in any way harm an empty mind.’ [Padmasanbhava]


Photo: Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculpture, ‘Inertia’. Click here for more images.
Excerpts from an earlier post, titled The End of TV.


Rooftop2POSTCARD #91: Delhi: The laptop crashed. Not once, many times. I had to take it to the technician and he said he wasn’t sure if he could fix it but anyway it would take a few days. Doesn’t speak English well, confusion, then there was the weekend too, another two days to wait and see, catastrophic feeling arising: Oh no! There’s something wrong, it feels like an illness, a kind of death; ‘All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become separated from me.’ I’m offline, the blogging world goes sailing by and I’m marooned on a desert island. Standing on the beach waving, shouting, jumping up and down, trying to get the attention of passing ships but they don’t see me. What to do? Sit at the desk among all the unplugged cables where the computer used to be. Write with a pen on a pad of paper – doodle and draw pictures instead. No focus in my life, no screen to look at. No need to be at the desk… why am I sitting here?

Rooftop5Get up and walk around; phone in pocket, go upstairs and walk on the roof terrace. It’s a sort of walking meditation path, jongkrom. Up and down, thirty five paces from end to end. Fifteen-hundred paces equal one mile, I need to walk the path 42 times to cover a mile – quite often I lose count and forget… the mind wanders. Basic mindfulness is about remembering what it is you’re supposed to be doing. Returning to the action itself, looking at the feet touching the earth one by one: left then right. The human body, this place I inhabit; it seems strange. I was a child once, learning to walk. How did it feel? Getting myself up here in the vertical position, stumble and fall – world goes sideways, get up again, walk… fall down. Try again, learning how to live my life. Seeing it all through the eyes of a person called ‘me’, a localised experience in a world of fifty million square miles of land space to walk on, and one of seven billion people on the planet. I’m the guy in the street; the ‘you’, the ‘me’. I am a single cell in an organism so vast it’s inconceivable.

Thirty five paces to the end, turn around and walk back. The brick floor looks like an abstract painting, take some photos, back to the walking. How does it feel? This sensation of stepping out from the past into the future but never getting there. Always in transit, housed in a kind of wobbly, thud-thud-thud, rubberoid, physical experience of present time that’s just rolling along. Awareness sees the ground spinning towards each foot like a treadmill driven by my walking… hamster in its spinning wheel. A fun thing to do, hamster’s idea of meditation. Everything happens in the movement towards a place I think I’m going; an arrival point that’s one among many, fixed end to end and disappearing into the perspective. I am the vanishing point; no beginning, no end, always only a part of the continuum. The seed sprouting from the earth is not how the story began, there was another tree before that…

Phone rings, Hello? It’s Jiab saying she’s on the way home with a laptop borrowed from the office. Relief floods through me – aware of the craving; that which is always seeking engagement. I understand what attachment is, so good to see it like this. I’m glad the laptop was taken away… glad too that another one is coming back. The walking has a new kind of ease. Electrical energy of Mind is grounded through footsteps touching the earth.

‘The purpose of walking meditation is walking meditation itself. Going is important, not arriving. Walking meditation is not a means to an end; it is an end. Each step is life; each step is peace and joy. That is why we don’t have to hurry. That is why we slow down. We seem to move forward, but we don’t go anywhere; we are not drawn by a goal. Thus we smile while we are walking.’ [Thich Nhat Hanh]