32 Parts of the Body Meditation:
Within this fathom-long body
with its thoughts and emotions lies our world.
‘It’s origin, it’s cessation, and the pathway to nibbana (freedom).
The Buddha, — AN 4.45
In 1980, I traveled to Burma with my teacher, Dr. Rina Sircar to meet Venerable Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Sayadaw, a renowned forest meditation master. I was in my early 20’s 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 USA, I lived at Taungpulu Kaba-Aye Monastery in Boulder Creek, Ca. for over 8 years, practicing Vipassana and the 32 parts meditation. After leaving the monastery and becoming an MBSR teacher, I worked with the 32 parts on and off for 26 years and gradually realized its power and profundity. My primary insight is illustrated by a Gary Larson cartoon from the “Far Side,” showing a cow in a pasture eating grass who 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
As you deepen into 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 less concerned about my hair.
Gradually the instructions move from the outside to the 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 kidneys that 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 the brain. Figure that out!
From my perspective, it’s skillful to teach the 32 Parts from a very neutral and matter-of-fact perspective and let the experience itself inform the practitioner. Many people report that the practice helps dissolve identification with and clinging to the body. (Just as a car is made of parts that we conceptually call a “Ford”, the body is made of parts that we conceptually call “I or Me”). One begins to see that this body is quite impersonal; that it has a life of its own and is quite unpredictable, and that there’s no one directing any type of control especially when it comes to aging, illness, or death.