2022-02-17 Satipaṭṭhāna (32) Death That Highlights Life
3:48PM Feb 17, 2022
To continue with something I said at the beginning of the meditation, this sixth exercise, of the 13 exercises that make up the practice of the four foundations for awareness, is contemplation of the corpse. It sits between mindfulness of sensations and mindfulness of feelings.
We are preparing the ground to go deeper in this practice of sati, in becoming sensitive and aware of the sensate life, the sensations that come and go. Those sensations have a characteristic quality of being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The ability to feel the pleasure of things, to feel the pain of things, is part of our deeper, animated life.
Pleasure and pain, in some ways, we can think of as much deeper and more within us. It is not only physical when we feel the warmth of the sun on our skin. That is a purely physical sensation. The pleasure we get from that is a mixture of physical pleasure and mental pleasure, the mental evaluation of it. It is something deeper and more connected to our lived life.
Between these two – sensations and feelings – there is the contemplation of a human body that has neither sensations or feelings. To spend some time contemplating that there will be a day for each of us. In the contemplation of the corpse, there are nine different states of decay that the practice talks about. To imagine, for each one of those, "I will be like this too." All the things of our body that we cherish, we love, we are identified with, we may be attached to, or preoccupied with – they will slowly go.
The contemplation of the corpse involves what happened to corpses in the old days when many people did not cremate their bodies. They were just put out in a charnel ground, where there were wild animals, and were left there to rot, decay, and decompose. You could go to a charnel ground and see this process. A friend of mine was in the Himalayas where they still have charnel grounds. Walking through a charnel ground, he came across a recently dead body that was just lying there, had been left.
I mentioned yesterday a teacher, Buddhadasa, who had the skeleton hanging of Miss Thailand 1936. His instructions for when he died, was to simply be put in the forest – a place where his followers, monks, and nuns, could come and contemplate his body decaying. He did not get his wish because he was one of the most famous monks in Thailand, and other authorities had other ideas.
Our skin, which we pay a lot of attention to perhaps, our hair, will all decay and pass away. They may be eaten by worms, mushrooms, and fungi. The muscles that some of us might be exercising, working out, will fade and decay. They will not be here at some point. The tendons will no longer be here. The bones will no longer be held together. The bones will begin to decay and will eventually become dust.
Feeling, knowing that not only the sensations will go, but all the ways in which we are attached, or we orient ourselves around the body, will also go. The absence of this highlights that are alive. Stheme of the core elements of that aliveness are the sensations and feelings. Maybe we appreciate these sensations more deeply in contemplating their absence through the image of a corpse – that we will be like a corpse too. Maybe it is a way of taking more seriously this moment. The only place that you can be alive is in the present moment.
There is a very powerful verse in the Dhammapada. In chapter two, the first verse says something like, "Negligence is the path to death. Vigilance, path to the deathless. Those who are negligent, are as if already dead. Those who are vigilant, never die." I do not know the figurative meaning of this "will never die." The sense of being vigilant, heedful, careful, present in a full way – the only place where that can happen is now, in the present moment. To feel that, to be present for the flow of sensations, experience, and feelings – and to let go of everything else. When you die, you are a corpse. You will have let go of everything.
It is possible to do this before you die, and why not? Why not, when that gives us freedom? Why not, when that gives us an experience to really be alive and present? Free in a way that is fantastic and wonderful.
To spend time contemplating a corpse. You might not have a place to go, an anatomy lab to go visit a corpse. It is probably pretty easy to find some photographs. But photographs of people who are peacefully dead. Maybe photographs of bodies that are decaying. Not to make it gruesome, not to upset your stomach, but is there a way of contemplating corpses, the body that has no animated sensations, that brings you into the present moment?
I will tell you a story of something I do that I have told many times. It is related to this. I am fond of looking at old photographs, old enough that the people in them are no longer alive, like from 100, 120, 130, 140 years ago. I like it when the photograph has really good resolution and you see portraits of people. I will go up close and look at their eyes, or the expression on their face.
Occasionally you see in the old photographs, a gleam in their eyes, a spark of life that was there for that moment. Other times you see the expression on their faces that stands out as the expression of the moment. When I see these, I contemplate, "This was their moment to be alive – and this is my moment for me to be alive." Somehow appreciating that that was their moment, I do not want to miss my moment. This is my moment, my glimmer of the spark of life. Life is short. Looking at old photographs puts me into my own life in a fuller, nicer way.
I think that is what I will say today. I am not sure what we will do tomorrow. I would like to do one more day on the corpse. I have not really introduced you to the full text of it. But maybe we will move over to feelings.