Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Sealed Bag of Skin

The sealed bag of skin & its contents...yummy!

“This, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down from the crown of the head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things. In this body are: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, entrails, undigested food, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, mucus, oil of the joints, urine, and brain. This, then, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down form the crown of my head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things.”  
(Reflection on the Thirty-Two Parts, Amaravati Chanting Book)
The above quote may seem more like something from a medical student’s textbook rather than from a Buddhist chanting book, but it is in fact taken from the latter. Based on an ancient teaching found in the Tipitaka (‘Pali Canon’), the oldest extant Buddhist scriptures, the above reflection is still chanted across the Buddhist world, and is especially emphasized in the Thai forest tradition and its derivatives in the West. In this context, it is used as a meditative reflection as well as a chant. From this perspective, it is certainly worth our attention, as the benefits are manifold, something not atypical of the various contemplative techniques developed throughout the long history of Buddhism.
So, in the introduction and conclusion of the chant, the body is colourfully described as “a sealed bag of skin” which is “filled with unattractive things”. These two descriptions of the body treat it much as a doctor would, in that it is being viewed with an objectivity that sees it as an impersonal thing rather than as a person. This is a central theme in the Buddha’s teaching on anatta (‘not-self’), which states that the body does not constitute a self, which is also true of the mind. With the wise dictum that we should take one step at a time, we are focusing purely on the body in this brief reflection. The medical theme holds true in another sense, also, which is that the doctor acts for the benefit of the patient; the reflection on the thirty-two parts also has our wellbeing at heart. Rather than healing the body, this reflection has our enlightenment as its prime aim; cultivating a dispassionate and factual attitude to the body can assist in this.
A commonly-employed meditation in Thailand (and in many other places, too, no doubt) is related to the part of this reflection that goes “from the soles of the feet up, and down form the crown of my head”. This meditation encourages us to be aware of the outer aspects of the body rather than the inner parts of the human form (the latter of which is rather difficult for most of us to investigate in our daily lives, unless we happen to work in a morgue!). The best way to understand meditation is to do it, so you may wish to read through the following instructions prior to sitting in a quiet environment and slowly working your way through each step of the process:
Focus your attention upon the top of your head, noting the sensations there, the temperature, anything else that you can feel in that area. Very slowly move your awareness from the top of your head to your ears – very sensitive parts of the human anatomy – and again become familiar with the sensations that are arising there. After a few moments of this, shift attention to your face, moving awareness across the various features there such as the forehead, eyes, nose, cheeks, lips, and chin. Next, turn attention upon the neck, again taking some time to become acquainted with every sensation that is there. Do the same with the shoulders, arms, hands, back, chest, stomach, abdomen, legs, and feet, being alive to the way each part of the body is in this present moment.
This body-sweeping meditation brings two main insights: firstly, the body is not the self, but rather a composite of various parts; secondly, and somewhat conversely, an increased awareness of the condition and needs of the body. As each body part is brought into full consciousness, not only its current condition is revealed, but also its possible needs. An example of this is when we focus attention on the shoulders, we may notice an uptight tension in them that was not apparent previously; they may require a massage or perhaps general relaxation levels need looking at. As to the central revelation of not-self, seeing the body in its constituent parts will reveal its impersonal nature; “it” is not “me”. Rather, it is a collection of sense data arising in awareness.
A problem that may occur during body-sweeping meditation is that the mind cannot focus on any one area of the body for long. This is more often than not a concentration issue, so we need to get back to basics and cultivate our concentration mediation practice first before attempting to do body-sweeping. Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) is a good way to develop the concentration needed to do body-sweeping slowly and surely. Getting frustrated and trying to force the mind to concentrate on the body will only exasperate the situation, so if the mind is unable to do body-sweeping, cultivate its concentrative skills first. The benefits of a concentrated mind will be crucial not only to successful focused meditations, but also for life in general. Be patient. For a previous article on Anapanasati click here: The Great Escape/Anapanasati
Returning to the quoted text above, it is advised to reflect upon the inner parts as much as the surface of the body. Body-sweeping is perfect for the latter, but for the former a slightly different approach is required. We need to use our imagination to envisage the inside of the body and its contents – unless we indulge in a rather messy dissection! Body-sweeping mediation can be adapted for this purpose, however, an example being the heart. We can focus attention on the beating of the heart as we reflect on that particular organ, becoming aware of the rhythm of the heart and its speed. It is worth noting here that monks and nuns have long used this meditation to reduce sexual feelings, and they therefore often advice laypeople against practicing this kind of meditation. For if in a sexual relationship, it is possible that one may lose interest in sex altogether, frustrating one’s partner!
Reflecting on this “sealed bag of skin” can be a liberating experience. When we see that the body does not constitute the self, we have removed a major barrier to enlightenment. Furthermore, the Buddha taught the Middle Way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-punishment, and the wisdom that can arise from knowing and understanding the body can result in neither pampering nor ignoring it. Letting go of identifying with the body means that when someone says either, “You look great!” or “You look awful!” we will not react out of ego. Despite this dispassion towards the body, wise understanding of it will not result in it being neglected, for being fully aware of the body and its needs results in the appropriate care for it, giving it rest when it is tired and nutriment when it is hungry. After all, compassion, like charity, begins at home!


isis de la noche said...

Really interesting post...

The meditation, in fact, helps us to discover the 'ineer viewer' and, as you say, lets us feel, more than think about it, the needed distance to understand what we really are.

The exercise that you gave us is really interesting to 'feel' the 'here and now' and all the things that you described.

In spite of these truths about the body, it's also our way of 'being' here, in the manifestation world. It could also, as all the material things, be a door to the subtler realities.

It's really nice to read your posts..


G said...

Once we've become aware of an 'inner viewer', Isis, the next step is to apply the same awareness to this viewer and see exactly what this is, also. This is when things start to get really interesting...

Ms.T. Fishstabber said...

Thank you for this post, it is exactly what I needed to understand more of this morning.

G said...

Glad it was useful, Ms. T. Fishstabber.

Anonymous said...

live with a chronic illness and then re-write this. the truth will be the same. the words, different

G said...

Good point, 'Anonymous'.
Perhaps you are writing from first-hand experience, in which case it would be inspiring to read your account of this sealed bag of skin. Thank you for your comment.