Perception of a Skeleton and the Seven Awakening Factors

Hello all,

In SuttaCentral there is a short description of meditating on a Skeleton to cultivate all 7 Awakening Factors. I tried and enjoyed this meditation.

My twofold question is, how should this be done and what are the benefits?

Much Metta,

James

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One of my teachers recently discussed his experience with meditating on the bones of the body. Here is the link to the YouTube video roughly at the point where he starts talking about it: https://youtu.be/k8N36GdNlEU?t=484

The skeleton is a recommended subject for several reasons. In the Satipatthana sutta itself the list begins with the external and most easily experienced, then moves inward to those parts only accessible through visualization:

‘In this body there are head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, tendons, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, gorge, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-oil, saliva, mucus, fluid in the joints, urine.’—MN 10

The skeleton is large and not directly visible, but is easily sensed where it projects or contacts external onjects. Becoming aware of these tactile points is a beginning to inner awareness of body feelings. The skeleton is fundamental to the movement exercises in the first foundation:

“And further, when walking, the monk discerns, ‘I am walking.’ When standing, he discerns, ‘I am standing.’ When sitting, he discerns, ‘I am sitting.’ When lying down, he discerns, ‘I am lying down.’ Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it.”—-MN 10

As an aid to this knowledge of anatomy is necessary, the construction of the skeleton and how it operates under movement:

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This idea/practice seems not found in SN/SA suttas, I think.

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I’m not positive about the SN, but at least in the SA, it seems that contemplation of impurity barely exists. The samyukta on the Seven Factors of Bodhi seems to act in part as a type of registry of accepted meditation methods. I think the short little sutra about impurity contemplation was added to legitimize the practice. But the main text that introduces that practice is the MA / MN, I believe.

In SA 809 / SN 54.9, I think we see backlash in the Anapana Samyukta about impurity contemplation. The text seems to regard it as potentially dangerous, and to advocate for anapana instead. Much has been said about this problematic text, but it is interesting that it exists at all.

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The contemplation on the body as impure (asubha) is mentioned in SN35.127 = SA 1165. I got this information in p. 101 in Choong Mun-keat’s Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism. But the impurity contemplation is not fundamental to the “movement exercises”.

Yes, good point.

It’s correct that the positional awareness of the body exercise is not concerned with repulsiveness. Nevertheless knowledge of the anatomy of the skeleton strengthens that neutral awareness, allowing the practitioner to tap into the dynamic of body positions, as the body is governed by balance between the opposing forces of weight and structural support.

In the Thai forest tradition meditation on the body as the four elements is very much emphasized. This is often times done in the context of asubha, but it’s also taught as a wisdom-based practice. Seeing the body as just the four elements can lead to seeing it as anatta (and therefore anicca and dukkha). When Tan Ajahn Anan was a young monk, he was a gifted meditator, and was able to attain samadhi fairly easily. However, his samadhi wasn’t stable. After spending days on end in an extremely calm, peaceful state (which I believe he defined as having very few thoughts and the only thoughts that did arise were wholesome), his mind would pull out of that state. For days or maybe even weeks afterwards, he couldn’t calm his mind at all. He said he first had to do a lot of “investigation of the body,” meaning meditation on the body as the four elements, before his samadhi returned. So, in the Thai forest tradition, at least, all of these practices are very much connected. Asubha or wisdom practices lead to samadhi, and samadhi leads to wisdom. They are feedback loops. I’m not claiming that this is new information, just pointing out that we need to be careful not to fall into the old trap of samatha vs. vipassana, as if they are different, unrelated practices.

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This is an incorrect approach, often caused by the lure of anatta as an intellectual discussion topic, compared with the down to earth nature of anicca. According to the definitive description (SN 22.59) and repeated throughout the suttas, anicca is the cause of dukkha and anatta, and the reason the order is anicca, dukkha, anatta.

This also seems to show incorrect grasp of fundamentals, the order is sila, samadhi, panna, for the reason sila gives rise to samadhi (AN 11.1, 11.2).

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I can assure you that in the Thai forest tradition anatta is not an intellectual discussion topic. They don’t read commentaries or abhidhamma.

Interesting. In the Thai forest tradition, they say seeing just one them automatically allows you to see the others. The order doesn’t matter. But my understanding is also that the see they three characteristics as generally working together . There will always be some understanding of anicca and dukkha if someone has an insight that is primarily concerned with anatta. Just like how samatha and vipassana are not distinctly separate practices, the three characteristics generally all exert an influence.

If it doesn’t why in EBTs they always accur in that order? :thinking:

I think there may be a reason, maybe just like there is a reason for the order of the factors in the eightfold path.

:anjal:

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My understanding, which is shared by Bhikkhu Bodhi and is mentioned in Ajahn Brahmali’s talks, is that they function together like individual strands that, bound together, make up a single rope (the path). Sure, you need all the factors, but it isn’t really a “Step one, get Right View and forget about the other steps,” is it? It’s a collection of elements all working in harmony and exerting influence. You’re working on all of them at the same time. Regarding the three characteristics, they are all true of all dhammas all the time. I don’t think we can, based on an explanation in a text, tell people, “You couldn’t have experienced anatta because you didn’t say you first experience anicca and dukkha.” I don’t think the path, as it’s practiced and experienced (in contrast to how it’s laid out in a pedagogical manner in a text) is that clear cut. But to each their own.

Here’s one of Tan Ajahn Anan’s teaching on the subject of investigating the body as the four elements and anatta (https://watmarpjan.org/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/Sotapattimagga.pdf):

Summary

WHEN CALM ARISES,INVESTIGATE THE BODY

Sometimes we may think, “Ohhh, why is it that everyone around
me seems so sure of themselves and free of doubts, but I’m filled
with them?” It’s because though our wanting to see the Dhamma has
come about through a lot of listening and studying which is a form of
wisdom, it causes us to expect certain results. It’s a constant struggle
that gives rise to restlessness. We want so much to achieve.
Luang Pu Chah would say to put it aside for now. Just leave it alone
at this point. It’s just like a glass filled with water: we have to pour
the water out before we can put drinking water in. If the glass is filled
with water already, the drinking water can’t go in, it will overflow. In
the same way, if we think we know everything then the Dhamma
can’t enter our heart. So at first we need to reduce diññhimāna
(conceited opinion). This is really important in the way of practice
Luang Pu Chah taught.

Luang Pu Chah’s style was to lead by example and to do as he taught.
Sometimes we might be careless and think critically of him, letting
our sense of self come up in the mind. But when we continue the
practice we would admit, “Who am I to criticise him? I can’t keep up
with him.”

Maybe we have good samādhi. In those days when my samādhi was
good, pīti would arise. I could get to upacāra samādhi. My mind was
cool and at ease; no mental disturbances would enter. Entering states
of calm was really easy. I thought, “There’s no need to investigate
the body, I’ll go straight to the mind.” I didn’t want to contemplate
the body, I just wanted to go straight to the mind, straight to the
Dhamma.

So I went and saw Luang Pu Chah. He quickly pointed out to me,
“Right now are you peaceful?” Right then I was nervous and
trembling because I was with Luang Pu Chah. The peace the heart
previously had before totally vanished and I couldn’t even pull
myself together. I was flooded with delusion. Then this delusion
answered that, yes, I was calm. But all it was doing was taking the
state I experienced one hour ago and using that as an answer.
Looking back at it I wasn’t in the present moment at all; I just took a
previous state and brought it up as an answer.
But Luang Pu Chah knew that this was just delusion talking. He said
to go back and keep investigating the body over and over. This really
stuck in my mind. Keep investigating the body, right here in this
physical mass of saïkhāras.

Still I thought, “Hmm, why does Luang Pu Chah keep having me
investigate this body when my mind is so calm? All I want to do is
delve into this mind.” I wanted the fast track to nibbāna. But later,
the deeper levels of samādhi that I had been experiencing subsided.
That’s how it goes, down, down, down, until it’s like we have no
samādhi at all. We have to go back and carefully tend to the mind
anew. We have to re-establish samādhi in the heart.

And this is really hard. It’s a real struggle, step by step, inch by inch.
Contemplating death, walking caïkama, sitting in meditation, keeping
the mind with the parikamma as much as possible. Slowly but surely
it gets better, step by step. And when it gets better, it’s better than
before. There’s more power and sati-paññā than there was before.
Getting in and investigating the body as asubha, as filthy, seeing the
body as more and more unattractive, the heart experiences greater
levels of pīti. As we see the unattractiveness of the body, the heart
goes into deeper levels of happiness. The more we see the body as
unattractive, the greater the peace becomes. It functions back and
forth like this.

If in the past we saw this body as attractive, its outer appearance as
beautiful, then the heart wasn’t radiant, it was engulfed in darkness
and overrun with kilesas. But if we see the body as something not
beautiful, then the heart becomes beautiful. It becomes bright and
luminous, because it sees the truth. It’s as if the heart flips over and
experiences true peace. It becomes calm and still.
Investigate hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin. When
they are refined and broken down we can see them as elements. Just
elements, earth, water, fire and air. Separate the whole mass out and
analyse them as anattā . If we pull them all apart and see them as
anattā , then the heart comes to peace.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Pursue it to the end and try to find a
self. Separate all the elements and see them as they really are.
Understand and know what these elements are like. Take a look inside.

Where is the earth? Where is the water? Where is the fire? Where is
the air? Really look closely.

In and out, back and forth, round and round. Split, divide and analyse
them from the angle that they are just elements. Here’s the earth,
here’s the water, here’s the fire, here’s the air. Investigate down
inwards…what’s in this body? Poke and prod at it right here. Pick it
up and analyse one part.

Today just focus on the water element. What is the water element like
in this body? Investigate just this one part. “Is this water a person or
self?” Review and reflect upon it like this. Water is just water isn’t it?
Is the water outside us a person or self? So why is the water inside
this body a person or self then? How is that so? Is it really a being or
person? Investigate this thoroughly and clearly. Bile, phlegm, pus,
blood, spit, grease, urine. Investigate them one by one, closely, back
and forth all through the water element until we see the whole mass
joined together as anattā . Our heart will become at ease, like a
weight has been lifted, because we have seen the truth.
We keep on investigating, looking at it over and over again, until we
feel that its intensity has faded and become flat, until the
investigation becomes stale. Then investigate another part of the
water element. Change it around often and bring it back to the start
and go again.

Investigate the earth element as well, the hair of the head, hair of the
body, nails, teeth, skin. What are they like? What does the earth element
appear like? How does it change appearances? In the end, what does it
end up like, where does it go to and where does it come from? Why is it
in this state now? In the past was it the same? Investigate back
and forth, over and over, until it falls apart and is reduced to its
original state.

The food that we consume is just elements as well. How does it
enhance and supplement us? Look at it—the earth adds to the earth,
water adds to the water, fire to fire, wind to wind.
Investigate right at earth, water, fire and air, right here, this mass of
four elements. Over and over, in and out, right down to the finest
details, and then build them up again in fine detail. Do this for clear
seeing and understanding. This is wisdom that comes about through
investigation.

There’s a specific order and then a feedback loop. Maybe watching the latest workshops on the topic of the eightfold path held in BSWA may help to understand what that this means (link below). I’ll not carry on as this is already off-topic.
A key sutta to refer too is AN10.121:

"Mendicants, the dawn is the forerunner and precursor of the sunrise.
In the same way right view is the forerunner and precursor of skillful qualities.
Right view gives rise to right thought.
Right thought gives rise to right speech.
Right speech gives rise to right action.
Right action gives rise to right livelihood.
Right livelihood gives rise to right effort.
Right effort gives rise to right mindfulness.
Right mindfulness gives rise to right immersion.
Right immersion gives rise to right knowledge.
Right knowledge gives rise to right freedom.”

Not the use of the term pahoti to convey the sequence and feedback loop.

:anjal:

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I think it would be interesting, as a separate topic, to ask @Brahmali and @sujato how literally the order of sequences, like the realization of the three characteristics (which is what this started out as before being made about the N8FP), are to be interpreted? I’d personally like their input.

There is a description of how to develop advanced meditation on repulsiveness of the skeleton in Pa Auk Sayadaw’s book, “Knowing and Seeing,” p 59:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B7p0UB1QfBmvaUtFNnNUQTVmWVE/view

This does not rule out that the skeleton should be used at a beginning level due to its accessibility, and once it has been studied in modern anatomy, visualization is facilitated complementing tactile sensory perception.

“Linked together with a chain of bones,
stitched together with tendon-threads,
it produces its various postures,
from being hitched up together.”—Thag 10.5

Benefits:

“A question arises: `How can joy and happiness arise with the repulsive-
ness of the skeleton as object?’ The answer is that, although you are con-
centrating on the repulsiveness of the skeleton, and experience it as really
repulsive, there is joy because you have undertaken this meditation, be-
cause you have understood the benefits of it, and because you have un-
derstood that it will help you to eventually attain freedom from ageing,
sickness, and death. Joy and happiness can arise also because you have
removed the defilements of the five hindrances, which make the mind hot
and tired.”—“Knowing and Seeing.”

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Thank you for the clarity on this!

@paul1

do we visualize or feel?

The skill involves firstly being aware of the contact points of the skeleton with external objects of support. These are bodily feelings at different points in the body and are easily acquired, unless the mind is scattered externally. Then to fill in the gaps between those tactile sensations, visualization of bones is necessary and depends on the knowledge of anatomy of the skeleton and the strength of concentration that has been developed. Being a linear and an angular network it lends itself to visual interpretation. This overall skill assists the first tetrad in the Anapanasati sutta where the instruction is to train sensitivity to the entire body. That then leads to the second tetrad exercise of cultivating pleasant feelings in the body.

Going by memory, I would say the usual description in the suttas is sequential, that is, seeing impermanence leads to an understanding of suffering, which in turn leads a grasp of non-self. But this is not absolute. The suttas also speak of contemplating these individually, with no reference to sequence. For instance, when you experience a peaceful state, you know directly that a busy state is suffering by comparison. In the similar way, when certain things cease in your meditation and are no longer accessible to you, you directly know their non-self nature. Yet in all these cases, even if you are focusing on a specific characteristic, the knowledge of the other two is not a separate thing. All you need to do is turn your attention to them. The three characteristics are really just different angles of viewing the same basic reality.

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Thank you, Ajahn!

In the beginning of part 5 of the N8P talks you also addressed the question of the sequence of the N8P. Thanks for clearing that up. For reference, I’m talking about this part of the video https://youtu.be/1z0tlKnfJ_M?t=624

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