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