Exegetical Tantra, Sangye Gyamtso, seventeenth-century Tibet, From Tibetan Medical Paintings, © 1992 By Serindia Publications
Exegetical Tantra, Sangye Gyamtso, seventeenth-century Tibet, From Tibetan Medical Paintings, © 1992 By Serindia Publications

Since my sister began medical school last fall, she has spoken constantly about an obese female corpse she refers to as “my cadaver”: “She’s so fat, it’s hard to find the nerves and muscles. You have to do a lot of poking around.” Or, “When we first opened her up, there was still shit in her intestines. Can you believe that? She died two years ago!”

Although I was amused (and occasionally disgusted) by my sister’s eagerness to share every new detail about this dissected body, I was also bothered by her apparent remove. After all, this had once been a person. It reminded me of the “Reflection on the Repulsiveness of the Body” from The Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta), in which the Buddha taught his followers to contemplate what we’re made of: “the contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, puss, sweat, solid fat, tears, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine.” And when he had a captive audience at the cemetery, his descriptions got really vivid: monks were to meditate on “a body dead one, two, or three days: swollen, blue, and festering” and “blood-besmeared skeletons . . . eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or by different kinds of worms.” The list goes on and on. Monks were instructed to consider that their own bodies would someday meet the same fate.

It wasn’t the gruesomeness—in either these descriptions or my sister’s—that I objected to, but the revulsion they expressed. I was particularly put off by the fact that these meditations were used as a tool to fight lust, being a rather lustful nineteen-year-old myself when I first read them. Okay, I get it, I thought, the body is impermanent; the body you’re now attracted to will someday be a stinking mass of rotting flesh—but do we have to find it repulsive? I could see nothing wrong with praising and enjoying the body.

I went to visit my sister at school for the first time recently, and naturally she wanted to give me a tour. She showed me the lecture hall, the interfaith meditation room, her large wooden locker filled with dirty scrubs. “Oh, and the cadavers,” she remembered brightly, as if it were just another lab or classroom. The room was cold—to keep the bodies from rotting—and windowless. There were about twenty of them, all covered in dirty white plastic. A couple of charred bones floating in the Ganges were the closest I’d ever been to a dead body. At first, I had the feeling that we were not alone in the room, which is what most of us have come to expect from a body—that it equals a person. I felt the urge to pray. I felt the urge to flee. I felt like a voyeur.

And then she lifted the plastic off a body, and suddenly all that went away. It was surprisingly easy to look at, like the plastic model skeleton that was wheeled from classroom to classroom in elementary school—as inhuman as that, but a thousand times more interesting. A surgeon’s cut ran from the skull to the perineum, which allowed my sister to show me the parts. She peeled open the thick, rubbery flaps of skin and lifted up a baseball-sized heart. She dug around in the tissue of the upper arm until she found a nerve, which looked like a thick pink rubber band. “Isn’t this amazing?” she said. “This is how you know to move your hand.” It was hard to find the interesting parts among the excessive fatty tissue. “Jeez, this one’s even fatter than my cadaver,” my sister observed helpfully, so we moved along to another one.

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