Not long ago, I attended a teaching with a Theravada monk who led a group of students through a traditional body contemplation exercise. We reflected on the body’s constituents—skin, teeth, spleen, bile, blood, urine, hair (there are 31 discrete elements to consider)—and were encouraged to dispel the notion that the body was in any way attractive. Later we were instructed to visualize in vivid detail the stages of our own decay following our last breath, from oozing bloated corpse to the heap of bleached and broken bones we’ll soon become. The point, the stoic monk explained, was to loosen our attachment to the body and know its impermanence, to give up idle hours spent in vain contemplation of our appearance at the expense of cultivating the mind.
It didn’t go over well. During the question-and-answer period that followed, howls of protest arose in an otherwise subdued retreat setting. Wouldn’t this practice only deepen the self-reproach so many already feel in a culture that feeds us abundant images of bikini-clad perfection? And what of our own Hellenistic heritage and its celebration of sublime corporeal beauty? A longtime meditator turned to me and whispered, “I think we can safely skip this practice.” To him, as to others, it appeared at best anachronistic, at worst psychologically detrimental.
Of the many practices available to Buddhists, perhaps few are as difficult and challenging as this one. Like the Tibetan charnel-ground meditation, it forces into consciousness the body’s fragility and unavoidable fate. Because it doesn’t resonate with contemporary sensibilities, the practice can elicit deep resistance—even disgust—in the modern student, appearing to be little more than a morbid obsession. The mother of one young Buddhist I know once admonished her, “You’re too young to be thinking about death!”
Yet the body contemplation is a fundamental practice; it is undeniably present in the early canon as one of the Buddha’s key teachings. What should we make of it?
Whether we ultimately choose to undertake the practice or not, we’d be missing an opportunity if we didn’t stretch the imagination a bit to try and understand its internal logic: freed from slavish attachment to our appearance and others’ judgment of us, not to mention the allure others hold for us, we’re left to explore the mind’s possibilities. But there is another opportunity here, and one so many Buddhist practices offer us: the chance to consider our own resistance and the assumptions that underlie it.
For this issue, we asked Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a monk in the Thai forest tradition, to do his best to explain the practice in ways that make sense to contemporary students (“Under Your Skin”). “When you’re attached to something so fragile,” he writes, “you’re setting yourself up to suffer. The appearance of each new wrinkle becomes a source of fear and anxiety, and when this is the case, how will you not be afraid of aging, illness, and death? And if you can’t overcome this fear, how will you ever be free?”
Even if the internal logic of this practice does become clear, we may still walk away from it, concluding with reasonable justification that it’s not for us. Either way, though, we’ll likely carry our own beliefs a bit more lightly, just as we often see old habits and conventions with new eyes when we return home from immersion in a foreign culture. Approaching the practice this way, we may find ourselves a little less judgmental. We may even try it out.
—James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher
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