The Corpse in Decay

These are notes on the end of Chapter 10, mindfulness of physical characteristics, in Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness.

The last section of mindfulness of the body is the contemplation of corpses in various states of decay.

Buddha’s contemplation in the sutta is:

Again, monks, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground —

  • One, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter
  • Being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or various kinds of worms
  • A skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews
  • Disconnected bones scattered in all directions
  • Bones bleached white, the color of shells
  • Bones heaped up, more than a year old
  • Bones rotten and crumbled to dust

He compares this same body with it thus: “this body too is of the same nature, it will be like that,  it is not exempt from that fate.”

This may help with attachment to the body and to the understanding of aging, sickness and death and looking directly at nature at work.  This is what is true for all living beings.

Goldstein mentions contemplating and looking carefully at animals killed on the road by passing cars.  It’s not a very pleasant sight.  This contemplation helps us open to the universal truth of death and decay.  The point here is not to become morbidly obsessed, but rather to use and care for the body without the underlying attachment to it.

My additions:

The Zen admonition at the end of the day:
The Evening message

I beg to urge you everyone,
Life and death is a great matter,
All things pass quickly away.
Awaken, awaken, take heed
Make use of this precious life.

And a story from Katagiri Roshi:

Katagiri Roshi was at Green Gulch Farm in California.  A deer got badly hurt in the fencing that Green Gulch Farms has around their gardens.  People were thinking about a mercy killing to help the deer who was obviously dying.  Katagiri Roshi suggested that the students have a vigil, meditating with the deer, helping the deer in that prayerful way, and contemplating the stages of death.