Let us turn now, O sisters and brothers, to the Satipatthana Sutta, I:1:6:
If a monk sees a corpse dead one, two, or three days—swollen, blue and festering—he should think: “My own body is of the same nature; such it will become, and will not escape it.”
His mindfulness is established, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world.
And if a monk sees a corpse thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms—
Or a body reduced to a skeleton, with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons—
Or a skeleton, blood-besmeared and without flesh—
Or reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions—here a hand bone, there a foot bone, a shin bone, a thigh bone; the pelvis, spine and skull—
He should apply this perception to his own body.
This is one of the most important types of meditation in Asian Buddhism.
Preferably, you should go to a charnel ground, where corpses are dumped to rot or be eaten by wild animals. Examine the bodies closely, in these various stages of decomposition. If you can’t get to a charnel ground, high-resolution photographs are the next best thing.
The Satipatthana Sutta is the classic explanation of vipassana. Most current Western vipassana systems are based on it. Influential Asian teachers highly recommend this corpse practice as a part of vipassana. Yet it seems not to be overwhelmingly popular among Western Buddhists. Why is that?
I think the answer points directly to the central failing of mainstream Western Buddhism. I’ll get to that later in this post. First, let’s look at how and why corpse practice works.
Disgust and horror in Theravada
Finding your own body disgusting cuts your attachment to worldly existence. And, if you don’t like having a body, you won’t get stuck in one next time. Horror of death motivates you to practice, abandoning all other concern. Here’s the Visuddhi Magga, another key text:
A monk who is constantly mindful of death will be diligent. He is disenchanted with all forms of existence. He has conquered attachment to life… The perception of impermanence grows in him, followed by the perceptions of suffering and non-self [the Three Marks of Existence]… The monk dies fearless, without delusion. If he does not attain Nirvana at that time, then he is at least assured of a happy rebirth in heaven for the next lifetime.
Corpse practice is also considered one of the best antidotes to sexual desire. Theravada sees that as the foremost obstacle to spiritual progress.
If you can manage to see women’s bodies as rotting sacks full of loathsome substances, your lust will lessen. [Meditators are generally assumed to be heterosexual males.] A closely related vipassana technique is called “reflection on repulsiveness,” also recommended in the Satipatthana Sutta. You contemplate each of the parts of the body in turn, concentrating on their disgusting qualities.
The #2 attachment is enjoyment of food. To counteract that, you practice contemplation of food’s inherent loathsomeness. This is one in the short list of standard meditations recommended by the Visuddhi Magga. It doesn’t seem to be hugely popular among Western Buddhists, however.
In both cases, inherent disgustingness is key to the meditation. You view physical reality as truly, necessarily, inevitably, irreparably disgusting. Disgust is the correct response; feeling attraction is a terrible error.
Renunciation and transformation
There are two fundamental approaches in Buddhism. One is renunciation, the main Theravada approach. You lessen the defiled emotions (such as sexual desire, or attachment to tasty food) by avoiding the things that provoke them. Then you use meditation to cut off the remainder.
There is a clear Buddhist logic to this; you can understand how renunciation ends suffering by extinguishing negative emotions.
The other approach is tantric transformation. Externally, you avoid nothing. (Enjoying sex and yummy food are both central to tantric Buddhism.) Internally, you don’t try to get rid of negative emotions; you might even deliberately intensify them. Instead, you transform your relationship with them, so that they cease to be problems. Tantric meditation makes all situations and experiences enjoyable.
Again, there is a clear Buddhist logic. If you enjoy everything, there is no suffering.
(There’s actually a third fundamental approach, Dzogchen self-liberation, but I’ll ignore that here.)
Disgust and horror in Buddhist Tantra
Corpse practice, disgust, and horror are as important in Tantra as in renunciate Buddhism. The practice is exactly opposite, though. Instead of making attractive things (women, food) disgusting, you make disgusting things attractive. Then you can enjoy them.
The key is the realization of emptiness—the fact that things have no inherent nature. Nothing is disgusting on its own account. Disgust is just your emotional response to it. With practice, you can break your habitual perception-emotion linkage. You can transform disgust into delight.
Elsewhere, I’ve written a page about the tantric approach to eating and drinking disgusting things. This is a practical, safe form of Buddhist Tantra; it is not difficult to experience the transformation of disgust into enjoyment.
The most commonly-known tantric corpse practice is chöd. Ideally chöd should be practiced in a charnel ground. There you visualize your own violent death, as horrifying as possible. Then you serve your dead body as a feast for all beings, who find it utterly delicious. Chöd transforms horror into fearlessness, and transforms revulsion for death and corpses into generosity.
Chöd is just the tip of the iceberg. The tantric scriptures are full of horrifying stories and images. Tantric Buddhist art often depicts corpses or parts of corpses. Human bones are used in most tantric rituals.
Disgust and horror in Western Buddhism
I suspect many Western Buddhists would say that corpse practice is just some sort of Asian cultural thing, not particularly Buddhist, and not suitable for Westerners.
Death was taboo in the West during the formative years for leading Western Buddhist teachers. You were supposed to pretend it didn’t exist. The traditional rituals that had made dying a community event were abandoned. Death became a private, hidden, shameful matter.
America was supposed to be hygenic. Disgusting things had no place. Food was, ideally, processed by machines into a uniform paste, to disguise its biological origins: Wonder Bread, Jello, Cheez-Whiz, Crisco, Twinkies.
So, it’s not surprising that when Americans brought Buddhism home from Asia, they left corpse practice behind. (In fact, they left out most meditation methods.)
But corpse practice is not an Asian cultural thing. Resistance to corpse practice is a Western cultural thing. Corpse practice is directly aligned with the essential principles of Buddhism. It is a powerful tool for either renunciation or tantric transformation.
The reason many Westerners don’t see the importance of corpse practice is that they aren’t interested in either renunciation or transformation.
Few Western Buddhists have any interest in giving up sex, or even Twinkies. Few Western Buddhists think that getting rid of all desire would be a good thing. Few Western Buddhists become monks or nuns.
Buddhist Tantra is also mostly unacceptable to Western Buddhists (despite the popularity of some Tibetan books and teachers). More on that in a future post.
So how is mainstream Western Buddhism supposed to work? There are clear explanations for how renunciation and tantric transformation bring an end to suffering. Does Western Buddhism have a third way to end suffering? Or does it have some entirely different goal?
Later in this blog series, I will suggest that there is another approach to ending suffering lurking in Western Buddhism. It comes originally from Christianity, but has passed through a series of transformations that make that hard to see:
- In the early 1800s, Romantic Idealism promoted a theory of the end of suffering based on Christian salvation, but with the Christian mythology removed.
- Romantic Idealism (now long forgotten) was popularized in a lineage of non-Christian spiritual movements: Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Thought, and the New Age.
- Psychotherapy began as the bastard child of Romantic Idealism and late-1800s pseudoscience. Its continuing development has been influenced by the Romantic lineage; for example, there are close relationships between Jung, transpersonal psychology, and the New Age.
- “Social” theories of ethics and politics are rooted in Christian ideas of charity and good works.
- All these have been major influences on Western Buddhism, and provide its often-unspoken explanation of the end of suffering.
I don’t think that theory can work. Secretly, it depends on God, and God is undead.
This abandoning of renunciation and transformation, and the substitution of a Western concept of salvation, is what I called “the central failing of mainstream Western Buddhism.”
Disgust and horror in future Western Buddhisms
The Western taboos on death, disgust, and horror seem to have lessened. The enormous popularity of vampire fiction among young people is one sign of that. And, the Baby Boom generation, which includes most Western Buddhists, have reached an age where it’s difficult not to think seriously about death.
I hope that means Western Buddhism can begin to discuss those things again.
I am writing a tantric Buddhist vampire romance novel, The Vetali’s Gift. It is all about death, disgust, and horror—although it’s also a romantic comedy, so you might not find it too tough to take. I try to show ways that these subjects can be approached in a serious yet light-hearted way.
The most recent episode takes place in a charnel ground, scattered with corpses in various stages of decay. It’s also got kinky sex and human sacrifice in it. What more could you want from Buddhism than that?
Brooke Schedneck has an interesting piece on corpse practice in Thailand, and Westerners’ reluctance to participate.
The excerpt from the Satipatthana Sutta at the beginning of this post is based on Thanissaro Bikkhu’s translation. His version compresses out much of the mind-numbing repetitions in the original. I have compressed out much more, without significant loss of meaning.