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Why is the Asubha practice of "Head-hair, Body-hair, Nails, Skin & Teeth" included in Monastic Ordination?

We really should explore what makes this particular practice so important that it is included in the ordination itself… :thinking:

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“Head-hair, body-hair, nails, teeth, skin" is what we present to the world, and what we see when we look at others.

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I don’t know if there’s any record of how and when this custom first arose. It’s not something that’s prescribed in the Vinaya Piṭaka.

Still, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess. Since monks more often give up the training through lust than through hate or delusion, it makes sense that a new monk would be instructed in some sort of asubha practice. And of the various approaches to asubha, the “skin-pentad meditation” (tacapañcakakammaṭṭhāna) enjoys a reputation in meditation circles as the mildest and least risky way of going about it.

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I understand that it is because young men are being introduced to a life of celibacy and this is considered a good way of quelling sexual yearnings, to which I believe young men are constantly subject.

Of course, being an old woman myself, this is only hearsay. :wink:

(I can report, from personal experience, that bringing the BVs from the periphery to the centre of practice is helping to aleviate the Grumpy Old Woman syndrome.)

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I’m usually looking at someone’s eyes when talking to them. So, I found it odd that eyes weren’t included and added “eyes” to my own list. Wonder if anyone has any thoughts about that :eyes:

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Looking into the eyes while speaking to people is a Western thing, Bhante… :smiley:

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@faujidoc is sooo right. In different countries, the failing to make eye contact, or doing so, in the wrong situation can lead to all sorts of disaster.
As a woman in Thailand I would take care about who I looked at, and as a monk I wouldn’t feel able to look you in the face so I wouldn’t even know how/if you were looking at me, while in the USA before you ordained, I would of course have looked fully at you. And probably afterwards, unless I’d just had a trip to Asia. … I get confused in Australian monasteries about what the expectations are.

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Whether or not you’re making eye contact, eyes are still “present to the world” (as Jim put it) no?

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That’s true…

So why aren’t eyes included in the list? Is it a cultural thing, or something else? :thinking:


I have a theory- these five things viz Head hair, Body hair, nails, skin and teeth are the commonest parts of the body we lose on a regular basis. Sweeping the room, I see head hair daily, body hair occassionally, nail clippings every fortnight or so, bits of dead skin or teeth may fall off every few months/ years… Change in these parts is also a common source of Suffering. Meditating on these processes might serve to give the Trainee an insight into the Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta of the Body, while being safer than classical Asubha practice. :thinking: :thinking:


Now I’m really curious how this practice got started… is it only in Thailand or is it extant in Sri Lanka too?

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It’s the custom in all Theravada countries.

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Well, eyes are not in the sutta or commentary lists. Perhaps they are just classified part of the skin?

More practically, as I understand it, these meditations start by contemplating one’s own body, often with the eyes closed.

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Yes, the 32 parts are not a description of sense organs but of the elements earth and water as applied to body parts. As well as countering desire, this exercise is important in establishing knowledge of impermanence.

The five are all of the earth element which is the easiest to sense, and why the breath (air element) is not included as it is more difficult. Pa Auk Sayadaw’s instruction for beginners is to alternate between recognizing the earth and air elements in the body, and this would be the reason the first five are mentioned in ordination. In MN 62 the Buddha teaches four elements to his son as an auxillary to breath meditation. The 32 parts of the body are drawn from the earth and water elements only.

There are twenty parts of the body in which earth-element is predominant (MN 140):

  1. Head hair (kesà)
  2. Body hair (lomà)
  3. Nails (nakhà)
  4. Teeth (dantà)
  5. Skin (taco)
  6. Flesh (maüsaü)
  7. Sinews (nahàru)
  8. Bone (aññhi)
  9. Bone marrow (aññhimijaü)
  10. Kidneys (vakkaü)
  11. Heart (hadayaü)
  12. Liver (yakanaü)
  13. Membrane (kilomakaü)
  14. Spleen (pihakaü)
  15. Lungs (papphàsaü)
  16. Intestines (antaü)
  17. Mesentery (antagunaü)
  18. Gorge (udariyaü)
  19. Faeces (karisaü)
  20. Brain (matthaluïgaü)

—Pa Auk Sayadaw

The connection between the breath and the four elements comes into focus when attention is given to the body in the first tetrad of the Anapanasati sutta:

“According to MN 28, three of these properties—water, fire, and wind—have the potential to become “provoked” (kuppa). In other words, when stimulated, they can become quite volatile. So when you explore the ways in which the in -and-out breath fabricates the inner sense of the body, these are the three properties most directly responsive to influences from the breath. With regard to the water property, this could mean breathing in such a way as to raise or lower the blood pressure, for example, or to change the flow of the blood through different parts of the body: away from an area feeling excess pressure (as when you have a headache) or toward an area that has been injured and needs the extra nourishment that a healthy blood flow would provide. With regard to the fire property, this could mean breathing in such a way as to feel warmer when the weather is cold, or cooler when it’s hot. With regard to the wind property, this could mean breathing in ways that would regulate the flow of the energy
already coursing through the different parts of the body.”—Thanissaro

The first group of five constitutes the most easily accessible of the body parts:

“The set of anatomical parts given in the Satipaììhãna Sutta follows a natural sequence from the solid and outer parts, through the internal organs, to the organic liquids. This sequence represents a progressive penetration of awareness. The parts most easily accessible to awareness are mentioned first, while the aspects of the body listed further on in the sequence require a deeper degree of awareness and sensitivity.”—Analayo

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