MEDITATION ON THE THIRTY-TWO PARTS OF THE BODY
by Dhamma Viro
This meditation has a special place in the Dharma. It is one of very few subjects of meditation which contain both a tranquillity aspect and an insight aspect. As well, it is a very useful practical meditation, providing a powerful antidote to the hindrance of lust.
Taken as a tranquillity meditation, any one of the thirty-two parts that appear strongly to the meditator can be developed as an object of concentration, all the way to Jhana. The tale is told in the Visuddhimagga of a monk who developed Jhana thirty-two ways, taking each of the parts in turn as a meditation object. It may seem strange that something as mundane as "sweat" or "urine" can be the sign for exalted states of consciousness, but such is the power of meditation upon the thirty-two parts to transcend both attachment and aversion towards the body.
The detailed treatment of the tranquillity meditation leading to Jhana is not the subject of this article. The interested reader is referred to the "Path of Purification" , (Visuddhimagga), VIII-42f. While we will have reason to return briefly to the insight aspect of this meditation, our main concern here is the practice of the thirty-two parts as a practical or "secondary" meditation for the specific purpose of counteracting sensual lust.
While an alternative name for this practice is "Meditation on Repulsiveness", the meditator should not cultivate an attitude of repulsion towards the body, which is merely exchanging attachment for aversion. Rather, by seeing clearly the repulsiveness inherent in objects (e.g.. skin, hair, flesh) that formerly were seen as desirable, the skillful yogin will develop an attitude of dispassion towards the body. Such an attitude is conducive to neither lust nor disgust, but fosters instead a balanced and mindful equanimity. If the aspect of repulsiveness is stressed at times in the texts, this is probably because our usual attitude towards the body (our own as well as those of others) is coloured by desire and to achieve the balance point of equanimity we must work to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction.
The practical development of this meditation can be approached in various ways. What follows here is a technique the present writer has found both effective and workable as a secondary meditation for one whose primary practice is Mindfulness of Breathing. The individual yogin may adapt the details to suit his or her own characteristics and requirements.
Seated comfortably, as for insight meditation, the yogin should direct his concentration to each of the thirty-two parts in succession. The order of the parts is considered important and should be adhered to. As each part is mentally named, direct your mindfulness towards that part and attempt to visualize it. Some parts will naturally appear more clearly, and the specific parts that "stand out" may not be the same every time you practice. Do not strain to visualize parts that don't naturally arise strongly. Instead, move on to the next part. When one does appear strongly, linger over it as long as mind can hold the object without wandering. Try to remain aware that each part is just that (i.e. heart is just heart etc.) and not a self, a real substantial entity or a component of one.
It is also important to be mindful of the repulsive nature of each part. This aspect may not be obvious for a few of the traditional thirty-two parts. The Visuddhimagga discusses a valuable technique for bringing out this aspect where it may not be apparent. The example used is hair. Many people find hair a desirable and decorative feature provocative of lust. And yet, considered by itself, as just hair, it is undoubtedly repulsive. As Buddhaghosa says, imagine a delicious meal served to you with a long black hair in the sauce. Would you not put the dish aside in disgust? I might add another consideration, one to pertaining to skin. Wrapped around flesh and bone, skin is for most an object of lust. But considered by itself, as just skin, it's repulsiveness is obvious. Imagine skinning a piece of chicken breast. Could you possibly see that shapeless, slimy stuff as an object of lust? And yet, that too is skin!
Repeating a caution mentioned earlier, don't allow this repulsiveness to develop into aversion, use it merely to counteract attachment. Those meditators who do tend towards aversion regarding the body should strive to see the parts as neutral. Bile is just bile, dung is just dung etc. Viewing the parts as composed of the four elements may be of aid for this type of person. When dung is seen as "solid earth element" it's repugnant nature is eliminated. This particular practice is treated in detail in the Visuddhimagga, XI-47f.
Returning to the systematic practice: After completing the thirty-two parts, repeat in the reverse order, again visualizing each part. Continue for as long as the time set aside for this practice, alternating forward and reverse order for each repetition of the list.
A note on memorization: Some teachers recommend a preliminary exercise of simply memorizing the list, forwards and backwards. Personally, I did not find this necessary. The list follows a natural sequence, for the most part, and I think most people will find memorization comes quickly. Begin working with the list written out on a piece of paper, and refer to it as often as required. Very soon you will be able to dispense with the paper.
The benefits of the practice should become apparent almost immediately. The body will be seen in a new way, as a collection of strange and undesirable parts. Where is there here a place for lust to arise? None of the thirty-two parts considered separately are conducive to lust, so how can a body composed of their collection into a "two-mouthed sack" be desirable? When we speak of lust in this context, we of course mean in particular sexual lust towards the human body, either the pleasing of our own of possession of another's. But that is not all that is meant by lust. The more general fires of all kinds of sense-desire greed are weakened by meditating upon the body, root of all sense-desire, in it's true nature as a collection of parts.
Further, fear of death and worry over bodily well-being is also counteracted by this meditation. In some cases this may be of more importance than in over-coming lust. By seeing the body as a compound entity without a substantial nature we are freed from fear rooted in attachment.
This last point leads into the consideration of thirty-two parts as an insight meditation. Practiced as described above, this meditation is really a type of insight meditation and has many benefits that will carry over to the methodical practice. To begin with, much of the often difficult and tedious work of "putting away the body" will be done here, making the preliminary stages of insight easier. As well there are benefits that carry through to the higher stages. In particular, seeing the body as composed of separate parts overcomes the illusion of "compactness" that is the principal obstruction to right understanding of the truth of anatta (no self). To elaborate, the worldling sees his body as a compact "thing-in-itself", a substantial reality. This encourages him to believe in a "self" , either as the body or as a "soul" residing in the body. In the clear light of right understanding, however, the body is seen as a compound thing, a collection of parts, subject to dissolution. No self or soul can anywhere be found. Not only anatta, but dukkha too, is seen clearly through this exercise. Often translated as "suffering" , dukkha could perhaps often be better rendered by the admittedly awkward word; "unsatisfactoriness" . It should be obvious by now that the repulsive aspect of the body will reveal this characteristic.
To conclude this section, note that the yogin who develops this meditation over a period of time will be able to use the fruit of it swiftly, should the need arise. What I mean, is that after the preliminary groundwork has been done by way of long practice the yogin need not repeat the entire list to combat lustful thought arisings. A selected group of parts, contemplated very briefly, will often serve to bring forward the mood of dispassion and detachment peculiar to the meditation upon the thirty-two parts.
There are several variations upon this list. The differences are small ones, and often amount to no more than differences of name. By and large the differences arise out of translation difficulties, no doubt compounded by modern scholars imperfect understanding of ancient concepts of physiology and anatomy. The list which follows borrows from several variations to make one suitable for a modern mind. Also, in choosing the names for the parts I have generally preferred the earthier Anglo-Saxon to the sterile and medical sounding Latin or Greek (e.g.."dung" rather than "feces" and "spittle" rather than "saliva" etc.). The fastidious may find fault here, but I would argue that the emotional impact of the words chosen are correct for the purposes intended.
The parts are arranged in (mostly) natural groupings, which makes memorization easier. Notes on a few of the more obscure parts follow the list.
Hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth,
Flesh, sinews, bone, marrow, kidneys
Heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs
Bowels, intestines, gorge, dung, brain
Bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat
Tears, grease, snot, spittle, oil of the joints, urine
If lust becomes a problem, the thirty-two parts provide a valuable counter force. If a yogin is finding lustful arisings interfering with his practice, he may briefly switch practices to thirty-two parts and will usually find it very helpful. However, the skillful yogin will not want to leave his principal object for long and therefore I am including a few tricks that I found speeded up the process at times.
First, use the body of another. Are you fantasizing about a desirable member of the opposite sex? Contemplate his or her body in terms of hair of the head etc. Mentally undressing someone? Keep going! Peel off the skin, the flesh, the sinews.
A real quick fantasy stopper: replace the object of lust with a skeleton. The absurdity of lusting after this impermanent and unsatisfactory body becomes starkly apparent when the imaginary lover becomes a pile of yellowed bones.
There is in fact another traditional meditation also recommended for its power to overcome lust. That is "corpse meditation" , more precisely translated as "the meditation upon foulness" . While suitable objects are hard to find, a reasonable facsimile may be had in animal carcasses. I remember using a maggot ridden bird with considerable effectiveness. This meditation is also very good as a reminder of impermanence.
Visuddhimagga VIII-42f. The complete classical account of this meditation subject. The physiology known at the time of Buddhaghosa was relatively primitive, so that the detailed descriptions of the parts are of little use to the modern meditator, but there is much of practical value in the preliminary sections and the conclusion.
Heart of Buddhist Meditation (pp. 65-66) Valuable description by a modern Buddhist of the mood and purpose of this exercise. Also, a well annotated translation of the canonical treatment. (119-120)
Living Buddhist Masters (pp.186-191) Taungpulu Sayadaw presents another modern approach, somewhat different than that presented here as it is laid out for a yogin taking this type of Mindfulness of the Body as his principal vehicle.