32 PARTS OF 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 façade 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.