(Not So) Beautiful Anatomy Lesson

Discussion Facilitator: Bruce Cantwell. May 4, 2019

We're continuing to answer the question: "How do we observe the constituents of the body?"

The translation of this sutta that I used calls this section "Reflections on Repulsiveness."

Because not all of the objects of this meditation are visible, we have to use our imagination. When I first came across this passage, the most vivid visualization that came to mind was a short, old time radio play by Arch Oboler entitled, "The Dark." You can listen to it here.

Instructions:

Again, friends, reflect on this very body, covered with skin from the soles of the feet upwards and from the hair of the head downwards: "In this body, there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin.

Brain, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow.

Kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen,

Lungs, large intestines, small intestines, stomach and contents, feces.

Bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat.

Fat, tears, lymph, spittle, snot.

Joint fluid and urine."

Just as if there were a double-mouthed sack, full of various kinds of grains and seeds, such as mung-beans, cow-peas, sesame seeds and husked rice, and as if someone with discerning eyes, who, after having opened that bag would examine the contents, saying: "These are mung-beans, these are cow-peas, these are sesame seeds and this is husked rice"; in this same way, reflect on this very body.

"In this body, there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin.

Brain, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow.

Kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen,

Lungs, large intestines, small intestines, stomach and contents, feces.

Bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat.

Fat, tears, lymph, spittle, snot.

Joint fluid and urine."

Observe the constituents of the body internally,

Or pay close attention to them externally,

Or maintain awareness of them internally and externally.

Contemplate in these constituents their nature of arising,

Or consider their nature of passing away,

Or ponder their arising and passing away.

Establish awareness: "This is body!"

Develop awareness to such an extent that there is mere understanding along with mere awareness.

Dwell independent, without clinging towards anything in the world [of mind and matter].

This is how to observe the constituents of the body.[1]

Discussion Questions:

  • Albert Einstein wrote "A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."

    How can this external/internal inventory help us embrace "the whole of nature in its beauty?"

  • How much of our sense of self is bound up in "head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, and skin?"

  • How much of our concept of others is bound up in "head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, and skin?"

  • How attached are we to our head hairs and body hairs once they've been cut or shaved, our nails once they've been clipped, a tooth once it's been pulled, or our skin when we encounter it as house dust?

  • For those of us fortunate enough to have had an x-ray or a camera inserted into one end of our "sack" or another, how closely is our sense of self bound up with the resulting pictures or video?

  • How might contemplating the nature of arising and passing away of, say a liver, lungs (or other organ) affect our thinking about the arising and passing of "I," "me," or "my body?"

Second Hand Insight

Joseph Goldstein: Joseph Goldstein: The asubha (not beautiful) practice weakens our attachment to our own bodies and weakens lust for the bodies of others. We’re not so likely to identify with the liver, stomach, or small intestines. We see them as impersonal organs. There is nothing to claim as “I” or “mine.”

When we wrap these organs with skin, we identify with it and lust for it because of a superficial way of seeing. This contemplation reminds us of what constitutes our bodies and the bodies of others that enrapture us. It can lead to a calming of sense desire leading to greater non-attachment and freedom.

When we contemplate internally, externally, and both internally and externally we also see the impermanent, contingent nature of these parts of the body and the interdependence of the various systems: nervous system, circulatory system, skeletal system, etc.

All the organs are impermanent and subject to change. It is the nature of the body for these organs to fail and break down.

Doing this contemplation “just as though there were a bag with an opening at both ends full of many sorts of grain,” suggests a dispassionate attitude. It’s just seeing things as they are.

By seeing the body as a collection of asubha parts, it helps us relinquish our clinging.[2]

One commentary concludes this investigation with, “How else, except through lack of insight, could one exalt oneself or disparage another because of such a body?”

[1] “MahāsatipaṭṭhānaSutta.” Mahasatipatthana Sutta - The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness, www.tipitaka.org/stp-pali-eng-parallel.shtml#24.

[2] Goldstein, Joseph. “Satipatthana Sutta - Part 9 - Clear Knowing And Meditation On Parts Of The Body.” Dharma Seed - Joseph Goldstein's Dharma Talks, Insight Meditation Society - Forest Refuge, 14 June 2004, dharmaseed.org/teacher/96/talk/6162/.

Bruce Cantwell