This practice maybe related to the third stage of ānāpānasati practice. That of “You should train yourselves experiencing (becoming sensitive to) the whole body with the in/out-breath”. This then expand the practice found in the instruction to the observation and reflection of the individual parts of the body. And as this cultivates the “perception of unattractiveness,” it is not a sterile imaging. Rather, developing recognition of the non-beautiful (asubha) nature of the body.
The practice itself can be done either methodically or by focusing upon each part individually, although it is the latter described here. To begin learning the recitation of the parts in-order aids recollecting mentally the parts, which in turn assists in examining the full sequence without mixing-up or accidentally omitting any parts. To aid this examination it is useful to study some basic medical texts, diagrams, photography and videos of each part of the body mentioned to acquaint oneself with them. And you may wish to make a fact-sheet on each part to keep on view as you start the practice, for some extra assistance.
In the sutta texts there is only thirty-one parts of the body found (with the omission of the brain,) however, the commentaries include thirty-two. I follow the thirty-two part sequence here as it is the more common description of this practice. This is to reduce the likelihood of any confusion when looking at other useful instructions. However, you may wish to omit this inclusion, to keep more closely with the original texts.
The thirty-two parts of the body are usually placed in six sections and two elements.
(A) Head hairs, body hairs, hair (general), nails, teeth, skin,
(B) Muscles, connective tissues, bones, bone marrow, spleen,
(C) Heart, liver, diaphragm/pleura (membrane around the lungs)1, kidneys, lungs,
(D) Large intestines, small intestines, stomach, faeces, brain,
(E) Gall (digestive fluid in the small intestines from the liver via the gall bladder), phlegm (mucus of the
respiratory passage), pus, blood, sweat, fat,
(F) Tears, grease (sebum), saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, (fluid lubricating the joints) urine.
The first section (A) is used as the initial meditative instruction for newly ordained Bhikkhus (mendicant monks) and forms one of two meditative instructions described here. Both forms can be done in the same ways. Either imagining the person themselves removing the part of the body – as a form of clothing or jewellery – removing each part in-order before moving onto the next part. Or by imagining each part 'melting,' 'decaying,' or 'falling' from the body in a grotesque way – as a form of mindfulness of death – which will be described more fully later.
Five parts of the body
This is section A of the list of body parts. And a useful tool to diminish sensual desire for another being as it arises, whether they are in-front of you or a mental image.
Do not go too fast; take your time mentally removing each part of the body.
- Begin by focusing upon the person as a whole, not only one aspect you find attractive. Stay with the whole body for a while, until the initial object of attention is no longer the primary object.
- Next start by imagining the person without
This practice is for the diminishing and removal of sensual desire when it is present for longer periods, or for the uprooting of desire as a formal practice.
- Settle into a comfortable & erect posture.
- Bring your awareness to the body, focusing your attention on the sensations of touch and pressure in your body where it makes contact with the floor and any support you are using. Spend a few moments exploring these sensations, and then direct your attention to the posture, paying attention for any tension being caused by poor posture, and uneven balance, straightening and adjusting the posture to ease any discomfort.
- Now bring your awareness to the breath coming in and out of the body at the point where a sensation of breathing is most prominent - be it a sensation within the nasal passages, or the lips & mouth, chest, & abdomen movements, or anywhere else. As the breath moves in and out of your body, take several deep breaths to get fully acquainted with the sensation before allowing your breath to relax into its natural flow, allowing what is to be, especially noticing how the breath is, whether short & shallow; or long & deep. If there is any discomfort or strain with the breathing this may show a unconscious controlling influence on the breath, so if it persists, breathe deeply a few times again and experiment with the breathing to find a rhythm the body is comfortable with before once again relaxing into the breath.
- Move your attention to the other areas where the breath can be observed - be it within the nasal passages, or the lips & mouth, chest, abdomen, or anywhere else - to know the different sensations of the breath within the body. Focus your awareness on the movement of the body during the slight stretching as the abdomen or chest expands with each inhalation, and of gentle deflation as it falls with each Exhalation, or the coolness of the touch sensation at the nasal passages, or lips & mouth on the inhalation and warmth of the exhalation, as best you can, taking several deep breaths to get fully acquainted with the sensations before allowing your breath to relax into its natural flow. Again noticing how the breath is, whether short & shallow; or long & deep, as-well as the slight pauses between the inhalation and exhalation, and between the exhalation and inhalation.
- Now turn your attention to the parts of the body (in order) and reflect on each part in turn. Try to place the location of the body part within your body, or simply mentally, but do not be concerned if you cannot. If feelings, emotions, and thoughts come up associated with that area investigate these also. Staying with these may not be comfortable or pleasant, but they are showing us the unsatisfactory nature of the body as it is.(A) Head hairs, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin, (B) Muscles, sinus, bones, bone marrow, spleen, (C) Heart, liver, pleura/diaphragm, kidneys, lungs, (D) Large intestines, small intestines, the stomach and its contents, faeces, (brain,) (E) Gall, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, (F) Tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine.
- At some point the mind will stray away from its focus on the part of the body to unrelated thoughts, moods, planning, or daydreams. This is just what the mind does daily, simply following its normal routine of trying to find pleasure, not that you are doing anything wrong or proof one cannot do this meditation. When you notice that your focus has not been on the object this is being clearly aware & an engaging in the practice of being fully aware of the present moment! You should know what state the mind has been in & bring the focus back to the breath. No-matter how often you notice the mind wandering off keep bringing it back to the last part of the body you were focusing on.
- After you have gone through the whole body in this way, spend a few minutes being aware of the body as a whole, and of the breath flowing freely in and out of the body. In later sessions you can adjust how you spend time in this practice by doing a shorter practice, longer, or the entire time with each part.
5a. At each part of the body asking yourself if this part of the body is attractive separated from the whole? Is the whole still
attractive with this part separate from it? Does the part work properly without the rest of the body? Does the body as a
whole work properly without it? If the part is diseased is it attractive?
If this part of the body is different from the corresponding part of another being? Is it yours? Can you fully control it by
telling it to grow or shrink in size, or change places with another part or to regain health? Is there a self or ownership of this part? Is this body part doing what it does with or without my command? Do these parts change? If they are replaced
what makes the new part mine?
Some of these reflections can be done on any object, from a cart – as found in the canon and famously used by Bodhidharma (of the Mahayana/Chan tradition) – to things we are possessive over. And remember, just because each part of the body is caught up within the body fabrication we individually identify ourselves with, does not mean it is ours.
"Just as when parts are put together, it can be called a chariot; so when the sensorial aggregates come together, conventionally there is a living being."
1 - Kilomakaṃ is either translated as being the pleura or diaphragm so the use of either one or both is still keeping with the texts. Although my understanding here is that the diaphragm is what is being referred to.