Body Contemplation Is Compassionate
May 20, 2024

Of all the meditation techniques recommended by the Buddha, there’s probably none that excites as many complaints as contemplation of the body. I remember when I came back from Thailand, there were a lot of books by feminist scholars complaining about this meditation, saying that it did violence to women—ignoring the fact that the monks are supposed to start the contemplation by contemplating their own bodies.

Every description in the Canon starts with you looking at your own body and taking it apart piece by piece. And what do you have in the body? Is there anything worth lusting for? Anything worth making yourself proud about? The color of your skin? What if you took your skin off and put it in a pile on the floor? Do you think that would be beautiful? Special? Better than other people’s? Well, no.

The whole purpose of this is to get rid of your sense of infatuation with your own body because, as the Buddha points out, our attraction to other people starts with attraction to our own bodies.

Secondly, the idea that contemplating other people’s bodies does violence to them is totally misconstrued. Some people say, “How can you have goodwill, compassion, or kindness for someone who you’re mentally taking apart?” You’re not taking them apart. You’re taking apart your own vision of their body. Remember the Buddha’s definition of how craving works: It has a location, and often the location is not where you think it is. You say you may desire somebody else, but what do you actually desire? You might desire your perception of that person, your fantasies about that person, your fantasies about yourself in relation to that person. Then you justify your fantasies by saying that you have affection for the other person. Confusing lust with affection like this is probably one of the most deluded things in the world.

Think about molesters. They often think that they’re showing affection. But the way they show affection is not affectionate at all, not kind at all.

So if you think that you’re being unkind to somebody by analyzing their body like that, you’ve got to question your equation of lust with affection. Realize that what you’re taking apart, what you’re doing violence to, is your own set of lustful intentions. So there’s nothing unkind about this meditation, nothing that does violence to anybody. In fact, when you overcome your lust like this, you’re much less likely to do violence to others. They say that most murders happen between people who’ve had sex. Or think of the actress, I think it was Marlene Dietrich, who said, “Nothing spoils a good friendship like sex.”

So that question of how we can possibly have compassion for others and do body contemplation at the same time is totally deluded. It comes from delusion of some of the worst sort, thinking that somehow your lust can be justified by affection. That’s where the violence is: It’s in the delusion around the lust.

So learn how to take apart the fantasies you have in your mind. Try to figure out: Where is the lust located? Where is the craving located? Is it in a particular perception of the other person? Is it in a perception about yourself, the fact that you’re attractive, and that you can seduce others? Try to be frank with yourself. Be honest with yourself—because in this particular issue, there’s so little honesty. Even between people who love each other, a lot of this aspect of the desire has a lot of dishonesty. So look into it.

The really compassionate thing is learning how to overcome your greed, your aversion, your delusion, your lust—all the defilements. Realize that they’re the enemy. The people you tend to focus on as exciting your lust are just excuses. The origination of lust comes from within. And it’s combined with all kinds of other things. There’s pride sometimes. There’s resentment—not all lust is based on liking somebody. You have to figure out: What is this cluster of defilements that you’re labeling affection, love, whatever. Realize that it’s a pretty toxic combination. It’s because of these things that we keep coming back, coming back, coming back, causing repeated suffering to ourselves and one another.

Even as an act of kindness to yourself, you want to learn how to get some distance from your own body. Because if you identify very strongly with your body, then when you die, where are you going to go?

I’ve mentioned the story about Ajaan Fuang who, when he was teaching in Bangkok, would find that Saturday evenings he didn’t have many people coming to see him because most of them would come during the day. So Saturday evenings he was free. He would sometimes take advantage of that time to walk around the monastery, which was a cremation monastery. They had a series of pavilions, about 16 altogether, which meant that they could have as many as 16 funerals at a time. They’d place the coffin at one end of the pavilion. Monks would sit on a platform going down the side of the pavilion and do chanting. Lay people would sit and listen to the chants.

It was about that time of the evening when Ajaan Fuang would go around. He came back one evening and said, “You know, the number of people who die and hang around their bodies is not small.” That’s because they’ve identified so strongly with their bodies for so long, so when they suddenly find themselves pushed out, they have no idea of anything else they could be or anywhere else they could go. So imagine what it’s like hanging around your own corpse.

At the very least, learn how to get some detachment from your own body. Then you’ll find that as you get detachment from your own body, the bodies of other people become less attractive. You look at your own body and say, “What could be attractive about anything in there at all?” A lot of the fuel for your fantasies lies in your own sense of your own attractiveness. When that’s gone, there’s very little left. So don’t be afraid of this practice.

There are stories, of course, in the Canon of people who do it and commit suicide. But that’s because they haven’t monitored their minds properly. If you find yourself getting really disgusted with the body, that’s gone too far, in which case you go back to breath meditation. But it’s good to have body contemplation as part of your repertoire.

Ajaan Lee talks about having many topics of meditation as your foraging grounds. The breath is home base. The breath is home, your secure and safe place. As the Buddha says, when you do other meditation topics and unskillful mind states start developing, you go back to the breath. As you sweep the breath through the body, sweep the breath through your mind, those unskillful states get swept away. He makes a comparison with the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. During the dry season in India, there’s a lot of dust in the air. As soon as the rain comes, though, the air clears quite dramatically. In the same way, when unskillful mind states come from your alternative meditation topics, you go back to the breath to clear things out.

This applies also to contemplation of death. Some people get really depressed when they contemplate their own death. That’s taking it in the wrong direction. The contemplation of death is meant to lead to the deathless. In other words, you realize that you have work that needs to be done, and it’s good work. It’s the work that’s going to help you when you die.

All too many people think that when you die, there’s nothing you can do. You just simply have to accept it and learn how to be okay with the fact that you’re dying. Actually, though, there’s a lot more going on, a lot of decisions you have to make. When you leave this body, where are you going to go? If the mind has lots of attachments, it’s just going to grab onto whatever comes past, out of desperation. There’s work to be done so the mind doesn’t grab on like that. You really can make a difference in how you die by the preparatory work you do right now.

And ideally, when you actually see the Dhamma, have a glimpse of the deathless, that eradicates a lot of your fear about what’s going to happen after death. The Canon makes a distinction between the fear of death that’s associated with the pain and illness that may lead up to death, and the fear of what’s going to happen after death. For stream-enters, the fear of what happens after death is gone. The fear of what leads up to death can still be there, but you’re not afraid of what’s going to happen afterwards because you’ve seen this deathless element. That takes a huge load off the mind. And that’s what the contemplation of death is meant to do: to inspire you to do the practice that gets you there.

As for the contemplation of the body, you begin to realize that it’s not so much the body that’s the issue, it’s your perceptions and intentions around the body. So you learn how to focus on those. And here again, perceptions and intentions are going to play a huge role when you pass away. You want to be able to question your perceptions, question your intentions, and not just run with whatever comes through the mind.

So these contemplations are really valuable. They give you alternative themes to focus on when the breath doesn’t seem to be offering anything promising. They also deal with specific defilements that come up in the mind, so that you can recognize, yes, these are defilements. You can’t just say, “Well, this is the way lust is, I’ll be okay with the way the lust is, and that somehow will take away its power.” That attitude weakens it for just a little while, but it’s going to come back. You’ve got to really take it apart. Where exactly in the lust is your craving focused? Why is it focused there? Why is there that attraction there that you’re so willing to give into? It’s only through knowing your own mind in this way that you can get past the tricks that it plays on itself—like the equation of affection with lust.

So there’s nothing in the contemplation of the body that’s in any way contradictory to the brahmaviharas. In fact, it’s part of your way of showing goodwill for yourself and goodwill for the people around you. The less lust you have, the less pride you have in your own body, then the less damage you’re going to do—both to yourself and to others.

So if you have any thoughts that somehow the contemplation of the body is an act of violence, remember, the violence is toward your own lust, and your lust is probably what’s complaining. When there are these complaints about body contemplation, on the one hand, that comes from the lust itself, and secondly, from wanting to have a good body image. The two are connected.

There’s such a thing as a healthy positive body image. There’s such a thing as an unhealthy positive body image, just as there’s a healthy negative image and an unhealthy negative image.

The healthy positive image is that you’ve got a body that can practice. You’ve got a body that’s got a breath that you can focus on. It’s a good topic. You fill the body with a sense of rapture and pleasure, rapture and ease, to give the mind a good place to settle down. The body’s good for that. It’s good for being generous. It’s good for being virtuous. That’s a healthy positive image.

The unhealthy positive image is when you think, “I’m attractive,” and then there’s the question of how long you can make that lie continue, because you can’t help but look in the mirror and see that there are signs of aging here and signs that those parts there are not quite attractive. Then you have to have other people come and confirm for you that, yes, you’re still attractive. That makes you dependent on them—and then they can manipulate you through your fear of not being attractive. Of course, when you’re still young and attractive, you have that sense that you can manipulate other people through your beauty. All of that’s very unhealthy.

The healthy negative body image is that everybody is composed of the same things. If you took your liver out and put it on the floor and you took somebody else’s liver out and put it on the floor, along with Miss America’s or whatever, there’d be no competition. There’d be nothing there to attract anything at all. So we’re all equal in this sense. That’s a healthy negative image, because it helps you overcome the lies that the mind tells itself in order to provoke its lust.

The unhealthy negative image is that you tell yourself that other people are attractive and you’re not attractive, and you come down hard on yourself for that. That can make you do all kinds of things, develop all kinds of resentment, jealousy, low self-esteem. Based on what? Something that’s made up of hair of the body, hair of the head, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, bones. It’s basically no big deal, yours or theirs. So learn how to develop a healthy positive image for your body and a healthy negative image. Try to get past the unhealthy images, whether they’re positive or not.

When you can have that kind of attitude toward the body, you’re not doing violence to anybody at all. It’s your act of kindness to yourself. And as you can overcome these defilements, it’s an act of kindness to everybody around you.