Meditation on the Body & the 4 Aspects of True Suffering

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True sufferings and the true origins of sufferings are the first two noble truths. These are the things that we need to rid ourselves of. There are four aspects that are associated with each of these and, to work with them in meditation, it is necessary to have a clear idea of how to do the meditations and not just a theoretical understanding. These are very practical types of teachings to work with.

We saw that we practice these close placements of mindfulness as the context for meditating on the four noble truths and the sixteen aspects of them. For the understanding when working with true sufferings, we focus on the body, which can be the body in general or various forms of physical phenomena that we experience with the body. Often people do this with physical sensations. For the noble truth of the origins of suffering, we focus on the feelings. That’s referring to different levels of happiness or unhappiness that we experience.

Shamatha, Vipashyana, Discerning and Stabilizing Meditations

The way that we meditate here is in terms of the practices for attaining shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind and vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. Although those names, “shamatha” and “vipashyana,” are referring to the actual states that we attain, they are also often given to the whole process of stages for attaining these states. So, we call that “shamatha and vipashyana practice.”

But, actually what we’re doing is discerning meditation, which is sometimes called “analytical meditation,” and stabilizing meditation. First, we do discerning meditation. This is meditation to build up as a habit the subtle discernment of something. “Subtle discernment” is the mental factor that scrutinizes finely to discern the specific details about something. With subtle discernment we scrutinize something closely, in great detail, for instance the body, and based on that scrutiny, taking it to mind in a certain way. This is based on having thought about the body and analyzed it beforehand from many different points of view. Then the actual discerning meditation is to discern it in that way. This is based on distinguishing, to distinguish different characteristic features. Then, to discern is to see the detail of it. In doing that, our energy in a sense is going out. That’s the way His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains it. It’s going out to the object and being very active.

Once we have distinguished and discerned a certain characteristic and, with understanding, we’ve taken that object to mind or considered it in that certain way – for instance, the body as being unclean – then, we stabilize that understanding with stabilizing meditation. If we are sensitive to our energy, we notice that our energy is going inwards with stabilizing meditation. It is going in, rather than actively going out. If we can speak of energy in terms of flowing, going out or coming in, then it is very helpful to be sensitive to that energy. It’s hard to specify what that actually is that you are distinguishing when we speak about energy, but it concerns the way in which the mind is functioning and dealing with an object. It can be very active and seeing details, or it can be letting an understanding sink in.

[See: Analytical Meditation and Stabilizing Meditation]

Example of Discerning (Analytical) and Stabilizing Meditation on the Body as True Suffering

For instance, the general way of discerning the body is as something that is unclean or impure. So, you try to discern that, distinguish that with various meditations just reminding yourself of what the body produces, what a body is like when it is rotting and you are dead, or what the body is like covered with sores or acne, what’s inside it, the waste products that it produces, etc. Focusing on the skeleton is also helpful.

We work not just with other people’s bodies if we have attachment, but the primary focus has to be first on our own bodies. Then, once we have that understanding of the lack of purity of the body, then we try to discern our body in that way. For this, we need to have examined how we consider the body. Do we consider it beautiful or do we consider it impure?

Now, we need to be very careful here with some of the typical Western disturbing attitudes about the body. For example, the disturbing attitude that the body is bad or that I’m ugly and therefore no good, this type of thing in which we are focusing very strongly on “me, me, me.” This is identifying with the body and judging it. We are not dealing with judgment. We are dealing just with the reality of what the body is. Conventionally, we may be considered pretty or not pretty. Different societies will consider it in one way or another. Different individuals will consider it in one way or another. But that is not the issue here.

We don’t want to encourage hating our body. That is absolutely not the case. Actually, if we are doing the meditation in a proper way, we are not thinking just in terms of this body and this lifetime. We want to understand uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This is true suffering. We want to focus with close placement of mindfulness on the body in terms of the noble truth of true suffering. What is true suffering? It is uncontrollably recurring rebirth with this type of body, and that no matter what type of body we have, it’s going to have this lack of purity. Whether we are by conventional standards extremely beautiful or handsome or many people consider us ugly, that is irrelevant, because no matter what type of body we have, it’s going to be characterized by being unclean and impure.

Every rebirth that we take will be with that type of body. We can focus in the meditation on our current body as an example of that or on bodies in general, let’s say the category of body, with a body representing it. It can be our current body, but with the understanding that it is just a representation of any body that we attain. When we talk about unawareness or ignorance, we’re talking about unawareness of how we and all other individuals exist, both conventionally and ultimately. That has to do with any type of body that anybody has in any type of rebirth, from the lowest hell realm up to the highest god realm.

In the god realms, the body becomes more and more subtle, so we have to understand what it means then to be impure in these higher realms, where the body is not filled with these dirty substances, where you would have to wash or clean it. In the desire realm, near the time of death, the body begins to smell bad, but in the higher realms you don’t have that particular type of suffering. That’s why you need to bring in the four characteristics true suffering in terms of a body.

Even the body of a divine being, a god, is still non-static, changing from moment to moment. It still is miserable in the sense that it goes through aging and dying and you have to leave it and all of these types of things. There are many different types of suffering and because there are many different types of suffering, it is impure. One has to not take that word “unclean” or “impure” in an overly literal way. But, what we want to recognize is that any type of gross physical body or very subtle body that we take – and this is the second noble truth, coming from that whole mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising – will be true suffering. This is what we want to stop. The body is just representative of this, because we want to stop all the aggregates of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

We want to first discern the uncleanliness or impurity of the body and then we let that stabilize in a sense. You have it stabilizing and you are still taking that object in that way, considering it that certain way. But, there is a difference in the way that your energy is working with that. Is it actively discerning it or is it going inward more? There is that sort of difference.

So, when we think of so-called analytical meditation or discerning meditation, you go through all these lines of reasoning – what we call in the West “analyzing.” That’s just a preliminary step. Then once you have come to the conclusion that it is unclean, then you focus on it, discerning it in that way. That word “analyze” is the same word in Tibetan as to discern the various details of something. When it becomes unlabored, as in the case of renunciation or bodhichitta, then you don’t have to go through all those lines of reasoning and work yourself up to it. You just discern it. So, we have this type of meditation.

Listening, Pondering, Understanding, Conviction, and then Meditation

First, we practice a shamatha type of meditation, but for that shamatha style of meditation, before we can meditate, first we have to hear about the topic of the meditation and then think about it. “Think about it” means that we ponder it. We try to figure it out, so as to reach the point at which we not only understand it, but we are convinced that it’s true. So, in this case, we understand that the body is impure and unclean, and all about the substances that are in it, and how you have to wash it all the time, and what it’s like when it becomes a rotting corpse filled with maggots and all of that. Not only do we understand all of that, we are convinced that it’s true. It’s only when we are convinced that is true, that we can sincerely discern the body in that way. Discerning it like that is the step of meditation, and meditating on it means to build up that way of discerning the body as a positive habit. We habituate ourselves to that once we have understood it and are already convinced of it.

So, there’s a long process before we actually do what would formally be called “meditation” on this. This is the procedure and the process. Once we have understood and are convinced of the uncleanliness and impurity of the body, then we just try to discern the body in that way, take it to mind in that way, consider it in that way, and focus on the body. Discern it and then stabilize that. The shamatha meditation is focusing on the stabilizing aspect of it. We have to first discern it to be able to stabilize it. Then we stay focused on that understanding and that way of considering the body.

Vipashyana Practice

Then if we want to do a vipashyana practice on top of that, then we consider the four aspects concerning the body, so that, while staying focused on this body as being unclean, we are able to discern that any body that we take in any rebirth is going to change. It’s non-static. It is going to grow old. We have to be parted from it and take another one. It’s going to go through all these problems in terms of changing not only moment to moment, but in terms of getting old and sick. But also there is changing in terms of one lifetime after another after another. It’s going to be the same problems no matter what type of body we have, whether human, insect, ghost, or whatever it might be.

Also, we discern that the body is miserable. It’s a suffering type of thing that is not very pleasant in that we have all the problems involved with taking care of it and so on, in sickness etc. We went through all the different types of suffering that are there. So, we try to discern all these details in vipashyana. In vipashyana, we discern all the details.

Then, we discern that the body is devoid of a coarse impossible “me.” So, it’s not something that is like the residence of a solid “me” that is separate from all of it and we are just using it and occupying it and in a sense enjoying it to give us pleasure. That’s a myth.

The body is not something that we – “me” – can be known separately from. So, the fourth characteristic is that it lacks the subtle impossible self. So, despite all these shortcomings of any body that we have to have, we still have to deal with it. I can’t just think of myself as separate from it without some basis, some physical basis being there.

We try to have all four of these aspects in our understanding simultaneously. So when we practice vipashyana on the close placement of mindfulness on the body, then while holding our concentration, our mindfulness, the mental glue on something that represents the body in our meditation, then taking to mind that it is unclean, we discern all these aspects of the body without going blah-blah-blah and verbalizing them in our heads. We understand all of that and that’s the state of vipashyana, when we can focus on it with that understanding of all the details simultaneously and it’s all clear.

To briefly review, the body is changing from moment to moment and that’s a problem. It’s miserable because we have to take care of it and do all sorts of things. It’s not something that we are sitting inside of, but it’s not something that we can be known separately from, so we have to deal with it. The true problem is that continually, over and over again, we uncontrollably have that type of body with all these sufferings.

Choosing a Focal Point to Represent the Body

That’s what we need to focus on. It’s not just pain management and stuff like that if we practice the clos placement of mindfulness in the full Mahayana Buddhist way. Do you follow that? So, we could try to do the meditation and I think one of the not-so-easy points in the beginning is to choose something that we are focusing on. What are you going to focus on to represent the body?

Yesterday, we did it in a very simple way, a beginner way, of just looking at our foot or our hand. But, when we do these meditations, especially shamatha type of meditation, then as Asanga explains in his abhidharma text, we need to concentrate on mental consciousness, not sense consciousness, and to start with, that mental consciousness will be conceptual.

We could take as our object the physical sensation of our breathing or of other physical sensations in the body that we’re experiencing, both of which are changing constantly – so it’s easy to be mindful that they are nonstatic. We are distinguishing certain conventional characteristics of them, like their nonstaticness, their being miserable, etc. But, we are focusing on them conceptually through the categories of “physical sensation” and “nonstatic” and “miserable.” There is also a mental image – though not a visual one – a mental hologram that represents the physical sensations. The mental image could be changing as the physical sensation of our breath going in and out changes from moment to moment. Alternatively, we might not be taking as our object these physical sensations, but rather just be focusing on the body in general. Still we would be doing that conceptually, with the categories “body” and “nonstaticness,” etc. And there would still be some mental image that represents the body.

If we are meditating like that, it’s quite difficult to have some sort of mental image that represents the body. Nevertheless, meditating just on the body in general is perhaps easier than using the physical sensation of the breath. That’s because although the breath is nonstatic, devoid of a coarse impossible “me” that is breathing and lacks a subtle impossible “me” that is breathing – there’s no “me” sitting in my head controlling or watching the breath, but I still need to breath. Nevertheless, it is not so obvious that it’s a problem, that it’s miserable. It’s a problem when you have emphysema or asthma. Then it really is very tedious to breath. If you hold your head under water, then you really struggle because you don’t have breath and you need oxygen. So, you’re dependent on a supply of oxygen. If you were on the moon, you couldn’t breathe. We need to focus on the breath with some understanding of it as suffering for it to fit into this particular style of meditation, wouldn’t we?

I think taking the body in general as the object of focus for this meditation makes it much easier to relate the meditation to uncontrollably recurring rebirth. We realize that in every lifetime we’re going to have to have a body, even if it’s a very subtle body. I’m not sure that the higher realm gods, or ghosts or hell beings need to breathe.

What we are trying to gain a true stopping of is the all-pervasive suffering. All-pervasive suffering is uncontrollably recurring rebirth with a body and mind that is the basis for experiencing all the other types of suffering. If we didn’t have that basis over and again and out of control, we wouldn’t experience all these sufferings. So, just focusing on the physical sensations of the breath and the other sensations we are feeling while we’re sitting might be conducive for staying focused on the present moment, but not so conducive for applying a full understanding of all-pervasive suffering.

Meditation on the Close Placement of Mindfulness on the Body

Let’s try to do the meditation on the close placement of mindfulness on the body. Try to do it with a general body awareness – whatever that might be – or visualizing an image of your body. It’s not so easy to say what would be the best and what you can actually do. To just think abstractly of the body, of any body as unclean, is too abstract. It has to be represented by something. What we are usually most attached to is our own body.

Rather than thinking in terms of the parameters of pretty or ugly, which is irrelevant for this discussion, think more in terms of the way described from the Prajnaparamita literature. Think of the body when it rots, when it’s a corpse, when it’s filled with maggots, when it has a horrible skin disease, or when layers of the body are dropping off from the skeleton. There are all these very strong visualizations that are done to convince us of what actually this body is.

But, this is done without generating repulsion. Repulsion or aversion is exaggerating the negative qualities and adding negative qualities that are not there, such as it being bad. If we are repulsed, we might be imagining that we can get rid of this as a “me” that is somehow separate from it and that could be rid of a body and still stand there by itself. But this doesn’t correspond to reality.

Now, of course we want the conventional “me” to gain liberation and not have this type of body. But, we’re not talking about a solidly findable “me” that is repelled by all of this. We’re just talking about the actual conventionally true body and the conventional “me.” There is no judgment of good or bad. But, this body is a problem. It limits us very much.

We want to avoid both attachment to the body and repulsion from it, because as we’ve seen, we have to deal with it. Having this body is a precious human rebirth and we can attain enlightenment working with it. As a human being, the body has the subtle energy systems and so on that we can work with in anuttarayoga tantra practices. So, there are many advantages of the human body; we are not denying that. But, here there is no point in focusing on that in this particular meditation.

There are many different characteristics of the human body, but remember we are not just focusing on the human body. We’re focusing on any uncontrollably recurring type of body that we would attain in any rebirth and which is the basis for the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age, death, being parted from what we like, meeting with what we don’t like, having no friends that can go with us, having to go from higher to lower type of status, and the whole rest of the list of the sufferings. That’s what we’re talking about regarding this type of body that’s like that.

The fact that this type of body gets old and breaks is not terribly nice, but it is the truth. This is true suffering, the truth. It’s a fact. So, that’s all we’re focusing on, so no heavy self-hatred or “I hate my body” type of trip with that, please.

If you have that type of negative attitude toward your body already in terms of self-hatred and low self-esteem or things like anorexia or bulimia, please don’t do this kind of meditation. You are not emotionally prepared to do it. Meditations like this on the impurities of the body are only for those who already have some sort of emotional stability. In fact, all the Buddhist meditations are intended for those with emotional stability to a certain degree, and not for those who are psychologically and emotionally unstable.

So, let’s try to do this meditation and try to find an object that you can focus on for doing it. As I say, that’s not very easy to choose an object because you want an object that you can stay focused on.

First, try to understand the body as being impure and unclean. Just playing around with that, let me share with you the first thing that came to my mind. I’m not visualizing my body in front of me. I’m not working with the breath or physical sensations, but just, it’s hard to say, a feeling of the body as being not just the outer coating of it or of what it looks like, but that I’m sitting here and there is the skin, there’s the muscles, there’s the digestive system, there’s the circulatory system, there’s a lot of waste that is already inside the intestines, there’s the skeleton. Try to be aware of all of that as being the body that is sitting here, not just what it looks like. That is what comes to my mind. There’s the mucus in the nose and the urine in the bladder and so on. That is in fact what is sitting here.


If we are going to do the meditations with imagining the skin falling off and the maggots and so on, that would be in the first part of working yourself up to having the discerning of the body as being unclean. It functions the same way as the line of reasoning to build up to bodhichitta – everyone’s been my mother and they have been so kind etc. That’s step by step. That gets you into that state of mind of bodhichitta. So, likewise, the maggots and skin falling off and what’s inside the intestines and all of that gets you to the understanding and conviction that this is really what this body is.

Now take to mind that there is nothing particularly clean or pure about that, body beautiful and all of that.


Then add on top of that, any body that I have in any lifetime is going to be like that, just changing its outer appearance. It’s not going to make any difference.


Then, the four aspects: First, it’s changing from moment to moment. I have to have another one and another one. It will grow old, break down.


Then, there is all the suffering involved with having to wash, feed, and care for it, put it to sleep and do all the sorts of things that have to do with maintaining it.


Next, it is not something that has a separate “me” that just controls it and uses it for sexual pleasure or for the pleasure of eating or whatever.


Then, I can’t think of “me” without also dealing with a body and so I have to deal with it.


Although I want to be able to benefit all beings and help them as much as I can, now as well, I would be far better able to help them if I didn’t have all the limitations of this type of body.


But I’m going to make the best use of it as I can, considering its limitations. But I would really prefer not to have this kind of body, but to have the body of a Buddha. Like this, we’re combining the meditation with the determination to be free (renunciation) and bodhichitta. That’s very necessary.


Concluding Remark

Although you could do this meditation to overcome attachment to your body, let’s say if you are narcissistic, it’s not making full use of this meditation. Full use of this meditation is to gain renunciation of uncontrollably recurring rebirth with a type of body that is a basis for problems no matter what rebirth we take. The present body that we have is just an example of that. But don’t limit it to the present body; then there’s the big danger that you get into self-hatred and so on. That’s not the point. It’s a very delicate type of meditation and not for the fainthearted to deal with. That’s why it’s presented as an advanced meditation.