Asubha as Disenchantment

Any thoughts about translating “Asubha” as “Disenchantment”? I find the term “repulsiveness” calls up associations in English that don’t fit with the goal of becoming neutral towards the body - approaching the body with neither craving or aversion.
I find the practice of Asubha Meditation very helpful. But I don’t experience myself as increasing repulsion towards the body with this practice. I experience myself as becoming disenchanted with attachment towards my body.

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Well, there is a different Pali word typically translated as ‘disenchantment’ (nibbidã)

Asubha has the literal sense of not-beautiful or not-pleasant

It seems that through the realization of the actual unpleasant nature of things, one gets disenchanted with them.
Shiny objects loose their luster…


ESTRANGEMENT: the Pali noun nibbidā and its verb nibbindati are made up from the prefix nir in its negative sense of “out,” and the root vid (to find, to feel, to know intimately). Nibbidā is thus a finding out. What is thus found out is the intimate hidden contradictoriness in any kind of self-identification based in any way on these things (and there is no way of determining self-identification apart from them — see under NOT-SELF). Elsewhere the Buddha says:

Whatever there is there of form, feeling, perception, determinations, or consciousness, such ideas he sees as impermanent, as subject to pain, as a sickness, as a tumour, as a barb, as a calamity, as an affliction, as an alienation, as a disintegration, as void, as not-self. He averts his heart from those ideas, and for the most peaceful, the supreme goal, he turns his heart to the deathless element, that is to say, the stilling of all determinations, the relinquishment of all substance, the exhaustion of craving, the fading of passion, cessation, extinction. (MN64)

The “stuff” of life can also be seen thus. Normally the discovery of a contradiction is for the unliberated mind a disagreeable one. Several courses are then open. It can refuse to face it, pretending to itself to the point of full persuasion and belief that no contradiction is there; or one side of the contradiction may be unilaterally affirmed and the other repressed and forgotten; or a temporary compromise may be found (all of which expedients are haunted by insecurity); or else the contradiction may be faced in its truth and made the basis for a movement towards liberation. So too, on finding estrangement thus, two main courses are open: either the search, leaving “craving for self-identification” intact, can be continued for sops to allay the symptoms of the sickness; or else a movement can be started in the direction of a cure for the underlying sickness of craving, and liberation from the everlasting hunt for palliatives, whether for oneself or others. In this sense alone, “Self protection is the protection of others, and protection of others self-protection” (Satipaṭṭhāna Saṃyutta).

Nanamoli Thera

Dialectic is between what puthujjana takes as intimately his own, and the real nature of such thing, namely: not-self. So Venerable translates nibbana as estrangement. Disgusting is also good, but it doesn’t cover wholly self / not self dialectic.

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The original question is about ‘asubha’

I don’t think anyone translates nibbana as ‘estrangement’.

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The result of asubha practice is disenchantment. And I think in this context “not-beautiful” is too weak.


It’s possible for a realization of asubha to result in virãga, vimutti, and nibbãna.

I wonder if an overly strong ‘asubha’, revulsion, could be an opposite of tanha, a strong desire to move away from something, disturbing equipoise.

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I’m reminded of Dhammapada 418 in this context.

Giving up discontent and desire,
Hitvā ratiñca aratiñca,
they’re cooled and free of attachments;
sītibhūtaṁ nirūpadhiṁ;

Ven Sujato, trans.


Yes. I think reading through your and the other answers I realize I was conflating three questions.

  • Is disenchantment a potential translation ofAsubha? No.
  • In my personal practice is it helpful to think of Asubha meditation in terms of the result - disenchantment - rather than the process - exposure to the repulsive? Quite probably, yes. I certainly no longer experience any revulsion going through the 32 Body Parts. But I do believe it still disenchants.
  • What words can I use to describe this practice when asked by a non-Buddhist, or a Western Buddhist who has never been exposed to the practice? Still a work in progress for me.

Thanks, @stephen and everyone who responded.


True, I was just referring to your observation that at certain point Bhikkhu Bodhi used disenchantment for nibbida. Anyway, it wasn’t off the mark, since properly developed asuba should lead to desidentification with the body.

Sometimes we can encounter complaints that asubha leads to kind of depression. Which suggests that it wasn’t done properly, without simultaneously developed perception of not-self.

A gentle way might be to explain the asubha meditations as “meditations on the true nature of the body” Not exactly a translation, but I find that a good framing (“And what is the true nature of the body? It is composed of parts. It gets old, it gets sick, and it dies…”)


Yes, I like that.
I think we can read about pitfalls of misapplied ‘asubha’ practice in the suttas. Moving from delight way past equanimity to revulsion and despair.


Something to consider:
People do not like hair in their soup. They also do not like people who randomly put scissors in their (the “owner’s”) hair. They happily leave their hair at the barber.

I recall a picture of someone who saved nail-clippings in a transparent jar. You can think of the reactions of most people.
Yet people in general will take care of their nails, some even paint their nails. They become agitated or even angry when their nail breaks.

If we expand this, we find that with neglect or even just lack of maintenance of hair, nails, teeth and skin leads to deterioration, which people consider opposite of beauty.
The same goes for the other parts of the body, where if I recall one sutta (paraphrased):
A young man meets a Buddhist nun and finds her attractive. He speaks: nun, you have beautiful eyes, I long for them. The resolutely plucks out an eye and hands it to him: Please take it, it’s yours now! His lust immediately disappears. (Think it’s in the Therigatha).

That kind of feeling is the aim of asubha meditation, not disenchantment with attachment to the body.
SN54.9 gives insight in how far people went with this kind of meditation.
I’m wondering if you are not lulling yourself to sleep instead of becoming alert to the dangers of the body…

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Yes, that’s probably what I was thinking of. Moving way beyond equanimity to revulsion, despair, and even suicidal thoughts. A pitfall so bad a sutta was made to warn against it.


Yes, I quite like that. Thank you, Bhante.

Yeah, I’m going to go with @stephen here that SN54.9 is cautionary not aspirational. :rofl:


Things are more subtle.

AN4.162 describes two types of people, one who is rather passionate and one who is not.
This is then expanded in AN4.163, where we find those who are rather passionate use abusha practice while those who are not that passionate can rely on Jhana practice.
We find that the abusha practice is considered inferior to the pleasant (Jhana) practice (AN4.166) due to it’s focus on what’s painful.
In AN4.167 we find that Reverend Moggallāna used abusha practice, and in AN4.168 we find that Sāriputta’s practice was pleasant.
Then we find that abusha is considered an extra effort compared to the pleasant practice (AN4.169).

As I read SN54.9 it’s not about caution, but to show that ānāpānassatisamādhi can be used as an effective antidote besides being the pleasant practice (And it disperses and settles unskillful qualities on the spot whenever they arise).
This means that those who’s main practice is abusha due to inclination can still use ānāpānassatisamādhi as a way to counter the unskillful qualities which might enter the mind when not paying close attention.

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Greetings @JimInBC

This response may be a little bit left field, but perhaps it may be of some use. All the best to you :pray: :slightly_smiling_face:

The practice of how one reflects on objects is to change perceptions about them. An easy way to do this is to look for the un-pleasant in what is assumed to be pleasant, and also to look for the pleasant in what is taken to be unpleasant.

This cuts through our conditioned automatic belief structures and allows one to see the true nature of things… ie that our beliefs/assumptions are just that - beliefs and assumptions - and not some kind of static truth. What was perceived as an object of desire and lust is now seen as a mishmash of body parts.

This can be taken further using the same principle of seeing the unpleasant in the pleasant to anything. Once one sees this, then as the next step there can be Nibbida and detachment toward not only the objects which one previously valued, but to the very process of the mental khandas themselves… realising that everything is relative and based upon attention and perception, and that there is no inherent essence of pleasant or unpleasant. Once this is penetrated, then one is no longer a slave to the conditioned… perception becomes a process that is no longer invisible (the illusion behind desire is dispelled - this includes both aspects of desire and aversion) and one does not cling to or grasp the perceived.


This is a really good point, it makes a lot of sense reading these AN suttas together. What do you make of AN4.165 and AN4.166 though? (in relation to the theme of this thread)

I feel one must always see this as relative teachings. Because it is absurd to think about something as inherently ugly or beautiful or or attractive or unattractive. A fly lays an egg in a decaying body. Probably fly and maggot are attracted, like it.

How others beings perceive things is relevant because it makes one see that all is mere human disposition and perception. No need to make this absolute.

I also believe it is not at all conducive to the goal that asubha sanna establishes as true and real. My brother is disgusted to change my mothers pants. She has Alzheimer. She has no control anymore on bowels. He is not even willing to help her. He does not want to go anywhere with her, afraid he might have to change her dipers.

I believe one can better see any arising sign of (un)attractiveness as a distortion of ones perception, delusional, corruption. Something to not follow upon.

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That’s a great example and wonderfully said. Thank you.

On the level of experience (granted this is an n=1experience), I’ve been doing Asubha practice for several years now, since seeing Ajahn Sona teach it. If every day, every time I brought to mind that parts of my body are faeces, urine, bile, pus, etc, I still experienced repulsivenes, I’d wonder what the point is. But the fact I find it possible to be with people who are sick, injured, homeless with just maybe a little bit more equanimity seems a good result. I find further developing that equanimity more useful than cultivating greater feelings of repulsiveness.


I’ll start with AN4.164 and AN4.165.
Here we find a different perspective on the practice, being impatient, patient, taming and calming.
Impatient has an element of responding in it, patient of enduring, taming of restraint and calming of not tolerating unwholesome thoughts.

AN4.166 fits the painful/pleasant theme again.
The painful (dukkhā) practice can the result of slow or quick intuition, where slow or quick is related to faith, conscience, prudence, energy, and wisdom.
The same goes for the pleasant (sukhā) practice, again with quick or slow intuition.
These are then classified as hīnā (low) and paṇītā (excellent), based on both the focus on the painful or pleasant, and slow or quick intuition.

If we take these two together, we could state that one with strong faculties of progressing from impatient to patient, taming and calming has quick intuition, leading to insight during this life, and those who have weak faculties have slow intuition and realise insight only at the end of life (AN4.169).

With either sukhā or dukkhā as theme, one can develop insight during this life (quick) or at the end of life (slow). Where the theme of sukhā with strong faculties is considered the most excellent of the practices, since it uses sukhā to gain insight during this life (and with that the ability to teach others, should one choose to do so).