2022-02-16 Satipaṭṭhāna (31) Skeleton Contemplation
3:49PM Feb 16, 2022
Today we move into the last of the mindfulness exercises of the body, with the body. There are six of these exercises. The Buddha starts with breathing, then mindfulness of postures, mindfulness of activities, mindfulness of the parts of the body, and mindfulness of the elements, the properties, of the body. Now there is mindfulness of a corpse meditation – reflection on a corpse.
This one begins with the words "as if" – as if we are viewing a corpse. Here, we are calling upon the imagination. Some Buddhists will spend time with corpses. Maraṇasati, mindfulness of death, is a time-honored practice in Buddhism. Most years before COVID, I took people to an anatomy lab to spend time with a corpse. It is fascinating to see and be with a corpse in an anatomy lab, where we are seeing a whole different perspective on life, the body, and people.
When I was a freshman in college, I took a drawing class. Halfway through the class, the teacher took us to the anatomy lab at the university. We went into the lab, and there was a person laid out, who had died – a corpse. It was the first time I had ever seen a corpse in that kind of detail, and we were supposed to draw it.
We were there two days. The first day I drew the person's foot, because that was the furthest I could get away from having to deal with this – this death. When I went back the next time, I realized that I had been avoiding so I decided to draw the face – to really be there with it.
The teacher explained that the reason he took his drawing classes to the anatomy lab was that after the visit, everyone's drawings would be stronger. I never asked him what stronger meant, but apparently he appreciated that something shifted for people.
So, this is a time honored way of being reminded of our mortality, of really knowing that we are going to die. It is easy when you are young to think, or operate as if, "No, I will never die." Or, "I know I will die, but it is irrelevant." At some point, to really consider – reflect and look death right in the eye. Take it in and consider it for the purposes of becoming free in this life, and for connecting to our lived experience, so that we can live in the midst of this life freely.
The contemplation of death is not a glorification of death. It is meant to be a variety of things. For different people, there are different benefits from contemplating death. For some people, it really helps them to show up and be present in an accute way for this life. Now is the time we have to be aware – to practice. Let's not put it off.
In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, the direction the practice is going in each of these exercises is to be deeply settled, peaceful, and undistracted. Settle back and observe things arise and pass away until observing arising and passing away of phenomena – the changing flow of experience – allows something inside to let go of the clinging and the grasping.
When the sutta introduces the corpse contemplation, we have to understand that it is for the purposes of getting concentrated and settled – being able to observe in a deep way. It is not meant to be disturbing, though it might initially be disturbing. It is meant to develop concentration and peacefulness. It does not work for everyone. But knowing that this is the purpose, we orient ourselves around this contemplation with that as the North Star.
How is it we contemplate the corpse in a way that supports this? It is a bit of a visualization – imagination. It may be a compelling one. Rather than going to find a real corpse to look at, it may be less disturbing, less challenging to imagine one. Imagine it lightly, and in a way that is not so disturbing. Just imagine there is a corpse.
For beginners, it is nice to start in the middle of these nine contemplations, and to contemplate a skeleton. So if you come across in an anatomy lab or museum a human skeleton – contemplate it.
I was practicing in Thailand with a famous teacher named Ajahn Buddhadasa. He was really into practicing outdoors and teaching outdoors. Because it rains there, he had a big meditation hall, dharma hall, that had open sides, and a roof to protect people from the rain. It was a big, big building, a big roofed area.
In a respectful way, hanging from the rafters were a couple of skeletons. One of them had a sign under it that said, "Miss Thailand, 1936." I imagine it had been up there for all those years, for a good reason, in the Dharma Hall, in a place where teachings and meditation happens. I suppose it is to remind people that any preoccupation with beauty, attachment to physical beauty – to identify with, hold on to, and be preoccupied with that – is only temporary.
Underneath that, there is a corpse. There is a skeleton. In what way is that not gross? In what way is it not disturbing? In what way can we contemplate that skeleton so that it is beneficial for us, and supports us in this path of freedom and liberation.
It is easy to be disturbed. It is easy to protest. It can be much more difficult to put that aside, gently – not rejecting it. Just put it aside if we want to benefit from these exercises. We do not benefit if we protest. We benefit if we do the inner work. How is it that this can be helpful for me?
The text begins: "As if one is viewing a corpse." It ends with each of the nine contemplations. It ends with reflecting: "This body too has a nature like this, will become like this, will not avoid this." In other words, the contemplation of a corpse is for the purpose to realize that this will happen here to 'me' – this too will happen.
In what way does this realization, this discovery, or taking in this true thing – in what way do we benefit from that? Where is the wisdom in that? How does it guide us in a good direction? How does it wake us up? How does it help us shed the distracted mind, the preoccupied mind, the mind that is involved in things that may not be to our benefit? How does it create seriousness, aliveness, or dedication? In the context of this meditation, how does it create a love for being present, now, so that we can get really settled here, really clear that this is the place where the meditation is – here in the present moment, here and now.
I will describe more of the contemplation of the corpse later. For now, I would like to encourage you to contemplate a corpse. I do not know about where you live, but around here this last Halloween, the population of skeletons increased dramatically. I have never seen so many Halloween skeletons and some are still hanging in different places. I saw one a week or so ago. Someone had outfitted the skeleton with climbing gear – mountain climbing gear, with shoes and belts and everything. They had it climbing underneath the eaves up onto the roof of their house. All these fun things people are doing,
Maybe contemplate skeletons. Consider your skeleton. Right now it is clothed with tendons and flesh. But consider that someday your skeleton will be without flesh. Someday your skeleton will be all that is left in terms of ashes, if you get cremated.
You might consider this and think about it. The exercise is to consider in what way can you do this that is beneficial – so you are not getting depressed, upset, or horrified. Rather, in what way does this light some greater present moment awareness? Some ability to really say, "Okay, here I am – no question about it."
When there is a skeleton, there is no animated life, no awareness, no sensations. There is nothing we see, nothing we hear. How do we rest in that – be free in that? So that is the homework, if you would like to do it. Then we will continue this tomorrow.
If you are on YouTube, I placed underneath the picture of the video in the description section one of the contemplations. Here, you can see the text of a skeleton contemplation:
As if a practitioner were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, [reduced to] bones not held by tendons, scattered in all directions – here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a pelvis, there a spine, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull – to this, one connects one’s own body, "This body too has a nature like this, will become like this, will not avoid this."
So thank you, and I look forward to our time tomorrow.