Thursday, July 30, 2009

2 Buddhist Reflections on the Body


“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 there 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 the brain.

This, then, 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.”

“The Reflection on the Thirty-Two Parts” is a commonly recited chant used in the forest tradition of Thai Buddhism. It is one of the asubha-kammatthana (‘unbeautiful practices’), used to reflect on the nature of the body, realizing that it is more than meets the eye. Now, looking at an anatomical atlas, or a cadaver, if you happen to be in possession of one, the thirty-two parts can be easily observed, but to realize that one’s own body is made up of these various unattractive elements is quite a step. Most of us spend a lot of time on pruning ourselves, making our bodies look more attractive by hiding its unpleasant aspects – but they are there, lurking beneath the fa├žade of beauty that we carefully cultivate.

This reflection is also useful if we have the tendency to indulge in sexual fantasies or obsessions, as seeing the truth that the person one desires is made up of these less than appealing things can release one from the grip of an overbearing sexuality. For, when carefully contemplated and absorbed, the thirty-two parts confirm the old adage that beauty is only skin deep.


Another form of asubha-kammatthana, which is often taught by Ajahn Sumedho as well as other forest masters, is the body-sweeping meditation. This form of reflection is interesting in that it doesn’t consist of visualizing the innards of the human form, but simply observing what is the case right now (the Dharma).

Sit down. Notice that the body is in the sitting posture, and that it is not me, but the body that is doing so. This is seeing the body as it is, a product of nature, rather than identifying with it and thinking “I am sitting.” Take note of the sensation of the bottom resting on the seat, cushion, or floor.

Notice the scalp, the top of the head. What sensations are present? Be aware of the forehead, the eyes, ears, cheeks, moth, teeth, tongue, the back of the head, the neck. Sweep your attention like this over the entirety of the body, taking note of how everything feels this moment; the feelings in the stomach, the beat off the heart, etc. Is the body hot, warm, cool, or cold?

Concentrating on the body in this way is a calming exercise. It also gives rise to insight into the nature of the body right now, settling awareness in the present. This awareness has an impersonal quality to it: it’s not my awareness or your awareness, but simply awareness. It is both peaceful and wise in nature, being non-judgmental, simply noting that this is the way it is at present. And when the body is subject to illness, pain or discomfort, we can then note dispassionately that it’s like this, not associating with the unpleasant sensations as mine, but just as the state of this body.

Awareness, as Ajahn Sumedho teaches, isn’t about complaining about things, indulging in them, or wishing for them to be different, but recognizing the way they are. Life is like this. This simple act of attention is the route to awakening, to enlightenment, for in letting go of the identification of being the body, or the mind for that matter, one is resting in the unconditioned, not the conditioned. And, according to Ajahn Sumedho, this is the awakening of the Buddha.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Buddhist Reflection on Stonehenge

As it says in the column on the right, I’m a British Buddhist. My hometown is a small city in the English county of Wiltshire called Salisbury, also known historically as Sarum. So, you could say that I’m a Sarumese guy living amongst the Siamese. A more traditional moniker for someone who was born in Wiltshire is a Moonraker, derived from a quaint story about smugglers who hid contraband alcohol in a river. When they returned at night and raked the water to retrieve their booty, they were confronted by some men of the law. To explain away their odd behavior, the smugglers said that they were raking the moon from the river, as its image was reflected in the water! I’ve never ascertained as to whether this bizarre excuse worked or not – but something tells me that that’s not really the point, anyhow.

Not many people know the above tale, but one thing pertaining to Wiltshire that is known around the world is the giant megalithic structure called Stonehenge, that lies at the heart of the shire. As a Moonraker, the Stones, as Stonehenge is also known, are a powerful symbol of where I come from, situated a few miles north of Salisbury. But, as a Buddhist, rather than a Druid, I’m led to consider what they actually mean to me, if anything. Contemplating the structure of Stonehenge leads me to think on the Three Characteristics (of existence), a central element in the Buddhadharma, the Buddhist teachings. Of these universal characteristics it is taught that all things are impermanent (anicca), imperfect (dukkha), and impersonal (anatta). The Stones are very, very old – over four thousand years old. No doubt they have aged dramatically during that time, and do not look exactly as they did when first erected. They are enormous symbols of the impermanence, despite their great age, slowly crumbling away.

Stonehenge is by no means perfect, either. The original pattern in which the megaliths were placed has been disrupted, with some of the rocks broken and lying at odd angles to one another on the ground. They are subject to dukkha, to being imperfect. (Dukkha is usually translated into English as ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘suffering’, but also carries the connotation of imperfection.) If they were perfect, the Stones would still be in the same positions as they were four millennia ago, but of course they’re not. As with everything else, they are vulnerable due to their very nature as conditioned phenomena. Another way in which the Stones symbolize dukkha is their inability to reveal much about themselves. This can be both intriguing and frustrating!

Little is known about the origins and early history Stonehenge because no carvings or other ancient records from the time of its construction remain that might refer to its makers or original purpose: there it stands on a hill as though dropped there by some unknown pagan gods, or as some more imaginative theorists would claim, by aliens! In truth, we don’t know who made Stonehenge, for as it is barren of any calligraphy or imagery, its makers remain as anonymous (or ‘selfless’) as the featureless Stones they erected. In this impersonal aspect of their appearance, they symbolize anatta.

So, returning to my query above, as to what the Stones mean to me, my answer as a Buddhist is unsurprisingly dependent upon the Dharma: Stonehenge encapsulates the Three Characteristics, standing as a colossal reminder that all things are under the sway of impermanence, imperfection, and selflessness. Applying these reflections to our own selves, we begin to see through the assumption of self and the suffering that necessarily follows from thinking of oneself as inherently separate from the world and therefore in conflict with it. In truth, there is no self, and like the giant Stones north of Sarum, to silently play witness to the conditions that constantly arise then fall away is the best that can be done – unless one wants to rake after a moon that dissipates upon closer examination.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not Me, Not Mine (Anatta)

One thing that you come to realize in Buddhist meditation practice is that nothing you previously took to be you is, in fact, you. By this, I mean to say that both body and mind do things that we don’t want them to do; they age, get sick, and die, no matter how much we protest or wish otherwise. How often has the body been unwell or tired when we really wanted it to be at its best, and how many times has the mind not been able to focus on the task at hand, distracted by regrets, fears and the like? Let’s face it, neither body nor mind really belongs to us; they belong to nature. They are natural phenomena, going their own way, doing things that we’d rather they didn’t: aging, being ill, and then dying. This understanding of the true nature of our ‘self’ forms the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. It’s what makes his message so profoundly different from the other spiritual greats. He first taught on the impersonal nature of existence in his second sermon called the Anattalakkhana Sutta which he gave to the five ascetics that had become his first ordained disciples. (‘Anattalakkhana’ is usually translated as ‘the Characteristic of Not-Self.’) All five monks realized complete enlightenment for themselves after hearing this teaching of the Awakened One. He taught:

“Form, monks, is not self. If, monks, form were self, then form would not lead to affliction, and one might be able to say in regard to form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form not be thus.’ But since, monks, form is not-self, form therefore leads to affliction, and one is not able to say in regard to form, ‘Let my form be thus, let my form not be thus.”

Basically, the Buddha said that since we have no ultimate control over whether our bodies are sick or not, young or old, alive or dead, they are not truly us, nor do they belong to us. These bodies will get ill, age, and die according to their nature, irrespective of what we think. The Buddha also applied this principle of not-self to our feelings (positive, negative, and neutral), to our perceptions, mental formations (such as thoughts), and to consciousness itself. None of them constitute a permanent self, and nor do they belong to a ‘me’ that I take to be here; they belong to nature. This is the radically unique teaching of the Awakened One that had not been taught before him by any other religious figure: indeed, it has not been taught by any major non-Buddhist religious leader since, either. Usually, religions involve the concept of an eternal self, or soul, whereas the Buddha cleverly avoided the attachments that can grow towards such concepts, thus causing a revolution in the spiritual history of humanity. The repercussions for the understanding of what we are are still being felt over two and a half thousand years later, not only within the Buddhist traditions, but increasingly amongst scientists, too.

The Awakened One went on to tell the five ascetics that since the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness are impermanent (anicca), they are also unsatisfactory (dukkha). They are transitory processes over which we have no fundamental control. Further on in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha also states that whatever form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness are experienced, whether of the past, future, present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, and whether they are far or near, they should be seen clearly with wisdom:

“This is not mine, I am not this; this is not my self.”

Through meditating on these observable facts, one may penetrate through the veil of the delusory self and see the Dharma, the way things are. This is Nirvana, the ‘snuffing out’ of the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion. Of course, when anatta is discussed, many people don’t like to listen to such teachings, as they cling to the idea of having, or being, a separate, individual, and permanent self. But then, if they were to reflect on the feeling of anger, for instance, noting that even though they may not want to be angry, they cannot simply throw the feeling away, they may begin to gain a glimpse of anatta. If we wish to transcend this world of suffering, we all need to investigate such feelings with wisdom, understanding why they arise, rooted in the delusion of self, and fuelled by greed and aversion. Seeing and understanding the truth of anatta through meditative experience, we can let go of all of this self-delusion, and be truly free.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I Can't Get No Satisfaction (Dukkha)

Ever had that sinking feeling?

It’s a funny thing, but it seems to be a common misconception that rich people don’t suffer. The assumption appears to be that because they have loads of money and can buy pretty much anything they want, that they’re never dissatisfied with life. But the truth is that the rich and famous are afflicted with roughly the same forms of suffering that the rest of us are. We might think that this isn’t so, that they can buy their way out of unhappiness, but life doesn’t work out that way; it is full of dukkha. Just think of all the news stories about the rich and famous getting divorced, arrested, going into rehab or prison, or sometimes taking their own lives.

Dukkha is the central problem of human existence according to the Buddha. This word has many possible translations in English, the most common being ‘suffering’ and ‘unsatisfactory.’ Buddhism shows us that life is full of suffering, that it’s innately unsatisfactory or imperfect in nature, and that this is universal for all beings. In his first sermon, the Buddha taught about dukkha, saying that:

“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha.”

So, according to the Enlightened One, being born is dukkha, growing old is dukkha (tell me about it!), and death is dukkha. This life is unsatisfactory from beginning to end, and those moments of happiness that we squeeze out of it are occasional respites from the suffering that marks existence. That ‘grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair’ are all unsatisfactory seems pretty obvious, but the Buddha went deeper in the nature of suffering than this. He stated that along with not getting what we do want, getting what we don’t want is a form of suffering, as is being separated from what or who we like.

Right now, you might be doing something that you really enjoy, like surfing the Net and visiting your favorite websites – at least I hope that’s the case! However, seeded in this moment of happiness is unhappiness, or dukkha, for when the time comes that you can’t log on to your most loved sites, you’ll suffer. Who amongst us hasn’t experienced the annoyance of a slow Internet connection, or a website being ‘down’ just when we ‘needed’ it the most. People can be just as unsatisfactory as technology, for who can say that they’re in a perfect relationship where their partner never annoys them or lets them down? And how about all those times that someone was plain nasty to you, or somebody that you really cared for was lost to you? Let’s face it: life stinks.

Seeing this fact of suffering for myself and realizing that ‘I can’t get no (lasting) satisfaction’ from any thing or person is the beginning of the Buddhist Path. Buddhism teaches that in contemplating the fact of dukkha, and through meditating on the nature of the mind, suffering can be understood and lessoned, even transcended altogether in the realization of Nirvana, or transcendent happiness. Being confused and miserable is not actually caused by the world, but by the mind’s reaction to it; we make ourselves suffer. It’s our responsibility.

The Buddhadharma also leads us to the realization that hopelessness and suffering grow out of our tendency to cling to what we want and what we think should be happening. We then get pushed around by life, because every time something occurs that we don’t like, a state of suffering arises in the mind. Observing this with dispassion and noting its development is an important step in cultivating the understanding that can begin to free us from our self-created torture. It certainly takes a lot of time and effort for most of us, but the resulting peace from such heedfulness is well worth it.

If someone’s mean to us, we usually respond by thinking, “He hurt me, she abused me. How dare they!” Using wisdom to become aware of our responses to the world, we can see how they arise and the effects that they have on our future states of mind. We can see the rebirth, moment-to-moment, of suffering within ourselves. Then, we can make the choice as to whether we wish to continue with this train of thought and feeling, or whether we want to take some control of the mind and train it in the art of happiness, which is achieved through the development of calmness and wisdom through meditation. This is the beginning of walking the Buddha Way to enlightenment, and the real satisfaction that’s independent of fame, fortune, infamy, and failure.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.