In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts
there is the world,
the origin of the world,
the ending of the world
and the path leading to the ending of the world.
The Buddha—Anguttara Nikaya 4.45
In 1980, I traveled to Burma with my teacher, Dr. Rina Sircar, to meet Ven. Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Sayadaw, a renowned forest meditation master. I was in my early twenties when I began studying with Taungpulu, who encouraged us to do the sitter’s practice (no lying down), live under the trees or stars, collect alms, eat one meal a day using one bowl, live with three robes, and go to the cemetery during the middle of the night to practice mindfulness of death. The 32 Parts of the Body meditation was one of the first practices that Sayadaw taught us.
When I returned to the U.S., I assisted Dr. Sircar and others to establish the Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, California, in 1981, and I lived there over eight years, practicing vipassana and the 32 Parts meditation. After leaving the monastery and becoming a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, I worked with the 32 Parts on and off for twenty-six years and gradually realized its power and profundity. My primary insight can be illustrated by a Gary Larson cartoon from “The Far Side,” showing a cow in a pasture eating grass. The cow suddenly calls out to the other cows, “Hey, wait a minute, this is grass, we’re eating grass!” My realization seemed in the same vein: “Hey, wait a minute, this is a body, we have a body!”
The 32 Parts is a versatile practice that can be used for both insight and concentration, leading to absorption. This practice can help you understand the true nature of the body, recognize its impermanence and comprehend how the body is made of four primary elements: solidity, liquidity, motion and temperature. This practice has also been used for healing, and ultimately offers access to deep freedom and peace.
The 32 parts are:
Head Hair, Body Hair, Nails, Teeth, Skin
Flesh, Sinews, Bones, Bone Marrow, Kidneys
Heart, Liver, Diaphragm, Spleen, Lungs
Large Intestines, Small Intestines, Stomach, Feces, Brain
Bile, Phlegm, Pus, Blood, Sweat, Fat
Tears, Grease, Saliva, Mucus, Oil of the Joints, Urine
There are very few canonical references explaining why these specific parts are mentioned while others are not, or why they are listed in this particular order. From my own practice and teaching experience, I consider these parts to be like ambassadors or portals into the body. As is often the case, when you delve into one part, it may lead you into another. For example, although the pancreas is not mentioned, it certainly can be included if it arises into awareness while working with the digestive organs, especially if you live with diabetes.
Regarding sequence, I love how the Buddha asked us to first work with the parts we can see. Consider how much time we spend fussing, obsessing, primping and caring for head hair, body hair, nails, teeth and skin. As you penetrate into these parts, a multitude of feelings may arise physically, mentally and emotionally. For most of us, hardly a day passes without looking in the mirror with some type of judgment: too fat, too skinny, too many pimples or wrinkles. As you deepen awareness of these body parts, you may begin to break the spell of enchantment and see them for what they really are. For example, when I get a haircut I reflect on what head hair really is: “threadlike outgrowths from the skin of mammals; thin flexible shafts of hardened cells used for protection from ultraviolet light and thermal regulation.” This practice has helped me feel far less concerned about my hair.
Gradually the instructions move from outside to inside. From skin you move into the flesh (muscles), sinews (connective tissue), bones and bone marrow. From bone marrow, which is responsible for blood formation, you move into the internal organs, beginning with the kidneys, which are blood purifiers. As you continue the practice you may begin to see how all these parts are interconnected, although it’s an interesting arrangement to see that feces is next to brain. Figure that one out!
The canonical texts reference the 32 Parts meditation often, as a way of cultivating the loathsome or repulsive aspects of the body, meant to reduce passion and serve as an antidote to lust and desire. Consequently, this meditation is sometimes seen as life-denying and denigrating of the body; many modern yogis have shied away from it. A lot of us already have harsh, critical relationships to our bodies, which could be reinforced by this practice. There’s even a story in the vinaya of a group of monks who practiced the 32 Parts and got so disgusted they committed suicide. The Buddha explained to the sangha that these monks had misunderstood the practice.
Fortunately, other sutta references give alternative reasons for the 32 Parts meditation. For instance, it can be seen as an insight practice revealing the impermanent and impersonal nature of the body. I have heard many students say that it leads to a deeper appreciation for the miracle and mystery of the body. One woman said the practice helped her overcome health challenges with her large intestine. She exclaimed, “I now love my large intestine!” A friend with terminal lung cancer, given one year to live, began practicing the 32 Parts and for the next five years sent a postcard to her oncologist saying “Still here.” She did pass away after six years, but through this practice she believed she lived longer and met her death with greater awareness and peace.
I believe it is skillful to teach the 32 Parts from a neutral and matter-of-fact perspective, letting experience itself inform the practitioner. The practice can help dissolve identification with and clinging to the body. (Just as a car is made of parts we call “Ford,” the body is made of parts we call “I” or “Me.”) One begins to see that this body is quite impersonal; it has a life of its own and is unpredictable. No one has any type of control, especially when it comes to aging, illness or death.
The texts offer a unique formula for practicing this meditation, called the sevenfold skill in learning. Try working with a group of parts for 30 to 45 minutes. Begin by reciting each group of parts verbally (1), then mentally (2). Bring awareness to each part, knowing its color (3), shape (4), location (5), direction (6) and boundary (7). I find it helpful to also know each part’s definition and function.
Since this practice can bring up a myriad of feelings, I suggest that the practitioner be especially mindful of what arises. One woman reported, after meditating on head hair, that she felt precious and sad memories of stroking her dying grandmother’s hair. Begin each practice with mindful breathing and then proceed to each part. Always end with a short lovingkindness meditation for yourself that acknowledges your body as the only one you have, the vessel you inhabit on the path to greater freedom. Then gradually expand lovingkindness to all embodied beings.
For more, visit www.32parts.com.