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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Buddhapadipa Thai Temple -

:: Buddhapadipa Thai
Written by Roy Allan on 09/05/2007

My talk this evening continues on the theme of the ten contemplations found in the Girimananda Sutta that we have been discussing over the past three weeks.

Background and continuity

And just by way of background and continuity for anyone who missed the previous sessions, I will start by putting the Girimananda Sutta in context.

From my own readings of the Buddhist Suttas, it is clear regular demonstrations of the utmost compassion and caring for the sick were a prominent feature of the Buddha’s everyday life. "He who attends on the sick attends on me," was a famous statement he made on discovering a monk lying in his soiled robes, desperately ill with an acute attack of dysentery. With the help of Ananda, the Buddha washed and cleaned the sick monk in warm water. He used this occasion to exhort his disciples on the importance of ministering to the sick, reminding the monks they have neither parents nor relatives to look after them, so they must look after one another. If the teacher is ill, it is the duty of the pupil to look after him, and if the pupil is ill it is the teacher's duty to look after the sick pupil. If a teacher or a pupil is not available, then it is the responsibility of the community to look after the sick.

But it was not always necessary for a sick monk to be physically nursed back to full health. For example, a number of suttas advocate recitation of the seven bojjhanga or factors of enlightenment for the purpose of healing physical ailments (and we have covered the seven bojjhanga in other sessions). On two occasions, when the Elders Mahakassapa and Mahamoggallana were ill, the Buddha recited the enlightenment factors and it is reported the two monks regained normal health. The Bojjhanga Samyutta also reports that once when the Buddha was ill, he requested Cunda to recite the enlightenment factors to him and was so pleased with the recitation, he soon regained health. It is interesting to note that the monks concerned were all Arahants, and had therefore fully developed the enlightenment factors. An Arahant of course is a term for the Buddha and the highest level of his noble disciples, being ‘worthy ones’ or ‘pure ones’ with minds free of defilement and thus not destined for further rebirth.

And then we have the occasion that gave rise to the Girimananda Sutta, the focus of this series of talks.

The sutta describes how Ananda told the Buddha about the monk Girimananda suffering from a serious disease and being gravely ill. Ananda suggested it might benefit Girimananda were the Buddha to visit him ‘out of compassion’. The Buddha replied ‘Should you, Ananda, visit the monk Girimananda and recite to him the ten contemplations (sometimes called ten perceptions - dasa sañña), then having heard them, Girimananda will be immediately cured of his disease. Whereupon the Buddha gave Ananda a lengthy discourse on the ten contemplations. With his prodigious memory, Ananda memorised the Buddha’s words and in due course relayed them verbatim to Girimananda who promptly recovered from his disease.

Healing properties of words v hands-on nursing/medicine

If you will allow me to digress for a moment, being raised in the Christian tradition (and thus being very familiar with biblical stories of Jesus healing the sick, making the blind see etc), whilst researching this talk, a question formed in mind. I found myself wondering why the Buddha elected to use the recitation of words for healing in certain cases rather than perform hands on healing – even if it only took the form of simple nursing and administering whatever medicines were available at that time.

In Girimananda’s case, though he didn’t get a visit from the Buddha, he got the next best thing ie a visit from the Venerable Ananda (the Buddha’s constant companion and personal assistant for the last 25 years of the Blessed One’s life) reciting the Buddha’s exact discourse on the Ten Contemplations. As a result, Girimananda recovered swiftly but nevertheless, it seems he did so helped by words alone and nothing else.

In seeking an answer to my ‘words v nursing/medicine question’, I came across a website article written by Lily de Silva, a Professor of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. In it she said the Buddha recommended a monk should not relax his energy and determination for spiritual progress even when he is ill (according to the Anguttara Nikaya collection of discourses). If the illness prevails and one’s health deteriorates, care should be taken to advance spiritually as much as possible. Neither should one be negligent on recovery or remission because if there is a relapse, the chances of gaining higher spiritual attainments obviously diminish.

From the Anguttara Nikaya and other canonical texts cited, it appears the Buddhist method of ministering to the sick attaches great importance not only to proper medical and nursing care, but also to directing the mind of the patient to wholesome thoughts.

There seems to be a belief that attention paid to doctrinal topics, especially the recitation of virtues which one has already cultivated, is endowed with healing properties. In the case of the Buddha and Arahants, the recitation of the bojjhangas restored normal health. In Girimananda’s case, he was probably not an Arahant at the time of his illness, so it was a discourse on the ten contemplations that restored his good health. Similarly, Anathapindika was a sotapanna (a ‘stream entrant’ or first stage in the realization of nirvana) and a discussion on the special qualities of a sotapanna was instrumental for his speedy recovery.

So Professor Lily concludes by hypothesizing that, when one is reminded of the spiritual qualities one has already acquired, great joy arises in the mind. Such joy is perhaps capable even of altering one's bodily chemistry in a positive and healthy manner. Just a thought to leave you with on this matter.

Contemplation on the disadvantages (dangers) of the body

In the Girimananda Sutta, the Buddha first lists the ten contemplations for Ananda in order, of which ‘disadvantages of the body’ is the fourth, after impermanence, anatta (no permanent self or soul) and foulness, which Lionel talked about last week.

Towards the end of last week’s discussion, Chulan suggested the ten contemplations appear in the order given because each is underpinned by and carries on from the previous one.

This certainly seems the case to me because the third ‘foulness’ contemplation focuses on the physical material and ‘stuff’ that comprises a body, pretty much all of which is hidden from human view by the skin. And when not hidden, it (ie blood, guts, viscera etc) is pretty ghastly to look at, even when fresh. And when it isn’t fresh, and is say rotting on a corpse, then unless you are a trained medical clinician or mortician or some such, these days, ‘sickening’ and ‘horrific’ are more likely to be used than ‘foul’, which is rather milder.

By contrast, the fourth contemplation’s focus is not on the stuff the body’s made of but what can go wrong with it, and there’s a long list of ailments the Bhudda sets out, thus:

"What, Ananda, is contemplation of disadvantage? Herein, Ananda, a monk having gone to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to a lonely place, contemplates thus: 'Many are the sufferings, many are the disadvantages of this body since diverse diseases are engendered in this body, such as: Eye-disease, ear-disease, nose-disease, tongue-disease, body-disease, headache, mumps, mouth-disease, tooth-ache, cough, asthma, catarrh, heart-burn…………”
The list goes on to over 40 items, finishing with

“… diseases originating from adverse condition (ie faulty deportment), from devices (practiced by others), from kamma-vipaka (results of kamma); and cold, heat, hunger, thirst, excrement and urine. Thus he dwells contemplating disadvantage in this body. This Ananda, is called contemplation of disadvantage.”

I’m sure in using the term ‘adverse condition’ the Buddha also had in mind the physical self-harm one can do on account of life style choices such as becoming sedentary, ‘sitting around all day’ – stemming perhaps from depression or fear of one’s perceived physical frailty due to advancing years. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his bestselling book entitled ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ – how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation’ states that:

Even if there is nothing ‘wrong’ with your body, if you don't challenge it much, you may be carrying around a highly restricted image of what it (and you) are capable of doing. Physical therapists have two wonderful maxims that are extremely relevant for people seeking to take better care of their bodies. One is “if it’s physical, it’s therapy” whilst the other is “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. The first implies it’s not so much what you do that’s important; it’s that you are doing something with your body. The second maxim reminds us that the body is never in a fixed state. It is constantly changing, responding to the demands placed upon it. If it is never asked to bend or squat of twist or stretch or run, then its ability to do these things doesn’t just stay the same, it actually decreases over time. This decline is technically known as disuse atrophy. When not maintained by constant use, muscle tissue atrophies. That is, it breaks down and is reabsorbed by the body.

From personal experience, I know that doing nothing is not an option, otherwise one’s body just wastes away. When I was 23, a very bad car accident put me in a hospital bed for 16 weeks. I had to stay there all tied up to a metal frame for that time in order to let my broken bones grow back properly. I ate reasonably well throughout my 112-day long lie and did daily, though very limited ‘keep fit’ routines. Yet at the end, when I finally was allowed to get out of bed and stand on a pair of scales, I was appalled to discover my weight had dropped by 40lbs (18 Kilos) – 20% of my body mass immediately before the car accident. So doing nothing, for whatever reason, is not an option because one’s physical body simply wastes away. And if that’s not a disadvantage, I don’t know what is!!

Summary of the body’s disadvantages

Walpola Rahula’s book ‘What the Buddha taught’ gives the Buddha’s excellent summary of the many afflictions that can befall one’s body. The Buddha said:

“O bhikkhus, there are two kinds of illness. What are those two? Physical illness and mental illness. There seem to be people who enjoy freedom from physical illness even for a year or two….even for a hundred years of more. But, O bhikkhus, rare in this world are those who enjoy freedom from mental illness even for one moment, except those who are free from mental defilements” (ie except arahats).

Body contemplation – The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

For this reason, the Buddha’s teaching, particularly his way of ‘meditation’, aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, equilibrium and tranquillity. There are two forms of meditation – samatha meditation for one-pointedness of mind and vipassana or insight meditation – and both forms can take the body (kaya) as their focus.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness represents one of the Buddha's most significant teachings on meditation, being seen as a direct method through which - for those who practice it assiduously - enlightenment is certain. There are four aspects to it: contemplation of the body (kayanupassana); contemplation of feelings; contemplation of the mind; and contemplation of mental objects.

The Kayagata-sati Sutta

The Kayagata-sati Sutta is a middle length discourse in which the Buddha spoke of ‘mindfulness with regard to the body’ or ‘mindfulness immersed in the body’, during which one contemplates, among other things, the ‘disadvantages of the body’.

This is what the term Kayagata-sati means – mindfulness immersed in the body – and sometimes it is used to refer only to contemplation of the 32 parts of the body whilst at other others to all the various meditations comprised under the first of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

So here is the Sutta and I am grateful to the Venerable Sangtong for providing me with this modern English translation of the Pali text:

I have heard that on one occasion, the Buddha stayed at Jetavana temple in Savatthi City.

There, after breakfast, there was a conversation about the benefit of contemplation of the body among his disciples. The Buddha asked them, "What is the conversation about?". They reported the conversation to him.

And then he said to them, "The contemplation of the body has a great benefit as being mindful of the physical actions, starting from the mindfulness of breathing to the movement of the body, or physical postures. Behold monks, all postures should be known clearly; you should not be careless of those postures or actions. You should make an effort to observe them. This is called the contemplation of the body.

On the other hand, you should know that your body consists of four elements; the combination of many components. If you observe your body from the feet to the head, you will see that it is composed all of these parts together and also that they are subject to sickness, ageing and death. When you see that, you will use it in the right way; don't destroy it. As long as this body lives, you can learn and practise to develop yourself for the better.

Monks, you should not be careless about this body because you are young and strong. Anything can happen to you unexpectedly, life is uncontrolled, so you should be careful about it, you know? The body is of the nature to get old, sick and dead or to dissolve. When the time comes, you cannot dispute this. So when you are still alive, you should be eager to improve yourself. Because when you die, you cannot do anything; even if you still have a perfect body, but all the organs stop working; they are just either sensationless or feelingless", and the Buddha added, "If you practise the contemplation of the body, you will be fully concentrated; knowing what life is. And at the same time you will be wise and be with the present moment".

The Buddha explained more by saying, "Behold monks, if you don't practise observing your own body, you are careless and leave a gap for unwholesome thought, feeling, speech and action. On the contrary, if you practise contemplating the body, you are careful or aware of your own life or action. There is no gap left for unwholesome things to enter. A lot of practice will make you fully mindful and you will be capable of understanding Dhamma and life; seeing things as they really are. This is because you will have mindfulness as a good cause.

The great benefits of contemplating your body are as follows:

You will tolerate feelings of like and dislike. You will be free from them and will get rid of them if they occur.

You will tolerate fear, you are free from it and will subdue it if it occurs.

You will tolerate pain/suffering, both physical and mental, heat, cold, thirst, hunger etc.

You will get one-pointed contemplation and contented happiness.

You will have psychic powers.

You will obtain ultra-conscious insights, for instance, the divine ear etc.

You will be able to read or realize the human mind (Roy assumes: of others you come into contact with).

You will recall previous lives.

You will know the decease and rebirth of beings.

You will reach deliverance of mind and liberation through wisdom.

Behold monks, if you practise the contemplation of the body and obtain full concentration, you can obtain those benefits as I have said".

When the monks heard that, they were delighted with what the Buddha said and they determined to practise meditation. Some got great benefit according to their own efforts.

End of Sutta


The impressive list of benefits given by the Buddha in the Kayagata-sati Sutta is potentially available to all of us as practicing Buddhists, depending on the level of mindfulness practice we achieve. And for me, that’s quite an incentive in its own right.

However, I am realistic enough to accept the possibility that despite by best efforts, I may not get all – and in the worst case – any of those benefits in this particular incarnation.

But even allowing for that bleakest of scenarios, I am not in the slightest disheartened because from the Jon Kabat-Zinn book I mentioned earlier, I know if I do regular body contemplation, the least it will do is help me cope successfully with a wide range of problems such as medical symptoms (including HBP and broken sleep patterns), physical and emotional pain, anxiety and panic, time pressures, relationships, work, food and events in the outside world.

According to Kabat-Zinn, thousands of non-Buddhists are getting those basic health and well-being benefits by following his body mindfulness practice that comes primarily from the Buddhist meditative tradition, so why not me? Indeed, why not you?

Thank you.

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