It’s occurred to me that in EBT times, these 9 meditations must have been done in view of an actual corpse decaying.
I don’t have any evidence for this, it’s purely inference-based. I would imagine that a monastic residing in a charnel ground would gain access to a fresh corpse and take that as their meditation subject, keeping this dead body in front of them and at the forefront of their mind as it progresses through the 9 stages of decay. The smell alone is something I don’t think you could conjure up by imagination or even memory, and must be a powerful part of the meditation.
I think that this way is probably rarely practiced these days. Anyway, just something that occurred to me and thought I’d share.
can move this to the watercooler if it isn’t a suitable topic for discussion…
then again, i’m not sure decaying corpses are light watercooler topics either
I started to post a link to a youtube video of an autopsy, that has been posted by a monk so that people can use it for such meditation. When I look at it in Youtube, it opens with a warning message to prevent undesired triggering, but when I started to post it here, the preview showed a quite graphic still from the video. So I won’t post the link, just suggest if you are interested, google for autopsy meditation. You are right @SCMatt that is not nearly as direct a sensory experience as observing first hand a decaying corpse, but it may be as close as we can get in sterilized modern times. I don’t have any sources for it, but it was always my understanding that indeed these meditations were originally carried out in the charnel ground observing corpses in various states of decay.
In Varanasi, death is very real, very visceral. Right there. Unavoidable. We visited last year.
And such experiences are generally not directly available in many countries. But death cannot be hidden. I walk around my garden and see death everywhere. Lots to meditate on. I look in my vermicompost bin and see death churning, worms crawling, fungus growing, ants crawling, mites chewing, spiders skittering. So I stick my hand in all that and feel life. The worms have taught me much. Every day.
I might be wrong, but I understand the point of charnel ground meditation to include not just the contemplation of impermanence and the break up of the body, but also to be among the practices for subduing fear and dread.
The Buddha’s own practices included dwelling completely alone in dark forests at night, forests that were populated by poisonous snakes and large predators, and thought to be inhabited by potentially malicious spirits.
True- but beware of trespassing and digging up graves for contemplation! Its helpful for removing sensuality regarding the body. In theory removing sensuality could remove fear/anxiety and dread by letting go of very deep attachments to the body, and life itself, I suppose. But there is the letting go of fear through exposure to the feared situation, and allowing the mind to understand that there is no real threat (‘nothing to fear but fear itself’). This is sometimes used in Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Realization of impermanence of the body and utilizing the body in a symbolic manner via inference (‘anvaya’), understanding that all phenomena, are impermanent could lead to complete cessation (that is, nibbida, viraga, nirodha, repulsion, dispassion and cessation).
Once at a uposatha gathering I asked a few of the monks how one could be sure that one’s training was really leading to a complete uprooting of the psychological sources of suffering if that training was taking place in an artificially secluded and protected environment. What I had in mind was that it might be possible to deceive oneself into thinking one’s heart is liberated and pacified so long as one’s external circumstances are peaceful and well-protected. But the peace could be shallow, and if some sudden calamity were to occur, all the fear and worry would come rushing back.
I am reminded that the Tibetans sometime practice sky burial. They expose the departed’s body to vultures, and then sit, meditate and watch as the body is torn apart into pieces and devoured by vultures, leaving behind grizzle-covered bones and a few dismembered body parts. It occurs to me that might have a more of the required impact than one could ever get by just imagining these events. I myself do a lot of contemplation on aging, the body parts and death. But my imagination is not extremely vivid, so I wonder about its effect.
I also contemplate situations that arouse other kinds of phobias I have - for examples, claustrophobia. But even though I do these late at night when I am the only one awake, I can’t avoid thinking that since I am sitting in my nice, safe suburban living room, the depth of the confrontation with fear might not be powerful enough.
Where does it end, though? How about the fear which might arise from being struck by an Asteroid, thereby bringing about the end of the world? While I agree it is helpful to be open to sever experiences (assuming you are physically… and mentally safe, as otherwise it wouldn’t make sense) , I personally don’t believe in going looking for trouble, unless it is already something you might be potentially be exposed to. Even then… I suppose if growing up someone wasn’t exposed to the fear of say landmines, it might not be strongly rooted in their subconscious, therefore there’s little need to go looking for danger. If it is part of your natural environment then it is likely you will come across it again, offering an opportunity to remove the root of Avijja at the base of that fear.
In Thailand monks are able to book visits to autopsy rooms.
Also, any serious hermitage or monastery will have a number of photo albums with asubha pictures. And often a skeleton in the meditation hall.
If you google asubha and click images you’ll find a lot of pictures that could be used for that.
Just mind that back in the time of the Buddha himself some people got the wrong idea from the practice and became susceptible to suicide. As a result the Buddha gave emphasis to mindfulness with breathing.
To read about that, check what can be taken as the origin story of the practice of mindfulness with breathing, found in SN54.9:
I think the fear of asteroids and such will be covered by dealing with other more near and realistic fears requiring one to confront impermanence.
Sometimes when I meditate at night, I actually begin by setting up an imaginary “end of the world” scenario - like a nuclear annihilation. I imagine I am the last human alive, and so there are no worldly human goals left to give life meaning, or to define spheres of possession. I sometimes even recite a list of observations about that imaginary situation. I will say things like “I have no future with others; I have no family or friends; I have no job; I have no remaining obligations. I have gone forth completely from worldly human life.” Then I start noting the things that are not mine: “This is not my town or street; this is not my house; this is not my world; this breathing is not my breath; this body is not my body; these mental images and thoughts are not me or mine; these feelings of fear and worry are not me or mine; I am not these inner words and statements. I am not that which is producing the word “I”.
This is only a preliminary way of setting the scene prior to the meditation proper, which has to go forward from there in silence. Sometimes they seem to work and arouse feelings of grief, sadness and meaninglessness that can then become be an object for meditation and letting go. But sometimes they don’t do much because I can’t escape the recollection that I am only acting. I think if I were a trained actor, I might have more consistent success.
Lately, I have been wondering if some meditation in some actual desolate and frightening place, like a cemetery, would be useful.
There are cultural barriers. I’m guessing that in some Asian countries, if a person sat overnight in a cremation ground, the authorities would say, “Oh its just a monk meditating.” But here in the Norrheast US, a person who tried to hang out overnight in a cemetery would probably be seen as a deranged weirdo, and then questioned and chased away by police.
Might be better to gain access to a morgue. Especially if one wants to do the meditation on the 9 stages of decay. I would bet some academic institutions that take post-mortem bodily donations would be open to it.
I dissected dead bodies, as a medical student in Sri Lanka. It was an interesting experience. It was nerve racking for some- understandably. More found it nauseating -but then most got used to it after doing it for a few months. It all seemed to depend on the sanna, the perception that was afforded to it. We saw it as study rather than a method to find a lesson in life. I recall monks visiting the morgue, which in turn was more intense. I wasn’t into the dhamma that way I am now, so a couple of years later I remember being at the meditation centre and looking at drawing of the 9 stages of decomposition, and even more useful was my own imagination of it, in letting go of the body. I suppose it is helpful to experience the full spectrum- I later found photos of decomposition too intense to be useful, and might find an actual decomposing corpse similarly, not very useful.
I think that fear of uncertainty, disease, hunger and death will be very subduded and mostly non-existent when one is surrounded by family and modern comforts. For an ascetic, a begging bowl and a robe doesn’t provide much defense against diseases, decay and death. It’s mainly mental fortitude and resilience that gives the strength to face a world that seems determined to throw thorns everywhere. The possibility of a mutilated death or being afflicted with a debilitating disease becomes immediate and an ascetic has to confront it alone. No spouse, no relatives, no house, no home, no children, no health insurance, no war-chest of money in a bank, no ready access to hospitals, no safety at all. And above all, the illusion of well-being that clouds minds when ‘organizing’ things, dreaming about a sedate future is completely removed.
Fear will be a very abstract concept when trying to dissect it when one is in the middle of a multitude or a comfortable nest and there are safety-nets in one’s life. Confronting fear in complete ascetic isolation, in jungles and mountains and deserts will be hugely impactful compared with academic and dry meditation.
As the Appendix explains, the author wrote that letter to explain to his relatives and family that his decision to join the Sangha and become an ascetic was a higher calling, and not a desertion. Maybe he included the Bible quotes to appease them by using references that they would understand.