Contemplating Decomposition

Discussion Facilitator: Bruce Cantwell. June 1, 2019

This is the final set of meditations in the Satipatthana Sutta addressing how to establish mindfulness of the constituents of the body.

I've updated this translation by removing references to monks and masculine pronouns, removed some repetition, and used some synonyms for observe.

The Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations

1. Seeing a dead body that has been thrown in a charnel-ground, dead for one, two or three days, swollen, blue and festering, regarding the body consider thus: "Indeed, this body is of the same nature, it will become like that and cannot escape it."

Observe the constituents of the body internally,

Or pay close attention to them externally,

Or maintain awareness of them both internally and externally.

Contemplate the nature of arising in the body,

Consider the nature of passing away in the body,

Or ponder the nature of arising and passing away in the body.

Establish awareness: "This is body!"

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

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

This is how to observe the constituents of the body.

2. Seeing a dead body being eaten by crows, vultures, falcons, herons, dogs, tigers, leopards, jackals and different kinds of creatures…

3. Seeing a dead body reduced to a skeleton with some flesh and blood attached to it and held together by tendons…

4. Seeing a dead body reduced to a skeleton without any flesh but smeared with blood and held together by tendons…

5. Seeing a dead body reduced to a skeleton without any flesh or blood, held together by tendons…

6. Seeing a dead body reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions, here a bone of the hand, there a bone of the foot, here a bone of the ankle, there a bone of the knee, here a bone of the thigh and there a bone of the pelvis, here a bone of the spine, there a bone of the back, again there a bone of the shoulder, here a bone of the throat, there a bone of the chin, here a bone of the teeth and there a bone of the skull…

7. Seeing a dead body reduced to bleached bones of conch-like color…

8. Seeing a dead body of bones that are piled up in a heap more than a year old…

9. Seeing a dead body, the bones having rotted away to powder, regarding this body considers thus: "Indeed, this body is of the same nature, it will become like that and cannot escape it."

Observe the constituents of the body internally,

Or pay close attention to them externally,

Or maintain awareness of them both internally and externally.

Contemplate the nature of arising in the body,

Consider the nature of passing away in the body,

Or ponder the nature of arising and passing away in the body.

Establish awareness: "This is body!"

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

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

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

Second Hand Insights

One of my essays on death of the body comes from Michael A. Singer's book The Untethered Soul. Below is a heavily edited condensation of some of his observations.

It is truly a great cosmic paradox that one of the best teachers in all of life turns out to be death. While someone could tell you that you are not your body, death shows you. While someone could remind you of the insignificance of the things that you cling to, death takes them all away in a second. While people can teach you that men and women of all races are equal and that there is no difference between the rich and the poor, death instantly makes us all the same.

A wise being completely and totally embraces the reality, the inevitability, and the unpredictability of death.

Any time you're having trouble with something, think of death.

You’re the one who throws your life away; you waste every second of it. You get in your car, drive from here to there, and you don’t see anything. You’re not even there. You’re busy thinking about what you’re going to do next. You’re a month ahead of yourself, or even a year. You’re not living life; you’re living mind.

So, instead of getting lost in the normal mental chatter, why not contemplate the temporal nature of life? Don’t be afraid of death. Let it free you. Let it encourage you to experience life fully. Don’t you understand that every minute you’re a step closer to death? This is how to live your life. You live it as though you were on the verge of death, because you are.[2]

Discussion

1. "While someone could tell you that you are not your body, death shows you."

How can we use the changing nature of the body after death to contemplate the question whether I am identical to my body or my body is identical to me?

2. "While someone could remind you of the insignificance of the things that you cling to, death takes them all away in a second."

How can recognizing the impermanence of the body help us align our values with lasting happiness?

3. "While people can teach you that men and women of all races are equal and that there is no difference between the rich and the poor, death instantly makes us all the same."

What insight can contemplating the fate of all bodies give us about the notion of equality?

4. "You’re the one who throws your life away; you waste every second of it. You get in your car, drive from here to there, and you don’t see anything. You’re not even there. You’re busy thinking about what you’re going to do next. You’re a month ahead of yourself, or even a year. You’re not living life; you’re living mind."

Can contemplating the impermanence of the body encourage us to pay more attention in the moment to the time that we have?

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

[2] Singer, Michael A.. Untethered Soul. Oakland, US: New Harbinger Publications, 2007. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 22 October 2016.

Bruce Cantwell