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Why Do Monasteries Have Skeletons?

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If you go to a Theravada Buddhist forest monastery in Asia, you are likely to find a full skeleton or parts of a skeleton somewhere where it can be viewed easily. Some monasteries also have cemeteries inside the boundary like Pa-Auk Forest Monastery in Mawlamyine. Some other monasteries have a place were dead bodies are burned (with open wood fires), right on the premises, like Pa-Auk Mawlamyine and also Wat Pa Nanachat in Thailand. Wat Pa Nanachat has an enclosed glass case with a skeleton inside located in their main eating hall. Does that sound appetizing? Pa-Auk has a glass case near the entrance of the lower monastery, not far from the cemetery.

Cemetery at Pa-Auk Monastery Main Branch, Mawlamyine. The 10 feet on other side of the road are where monks sleep.

So why do we have so many of these reminders of our internals or death? Doesn’t it seem a bit freaky? When I first came to the monastery scene, I thought it was strange, but now it is not so strange. In fact, it is “cool and normal.”

What does this have to do with Buddhism ?

There are several meditation subjects related to skeletons such as:

  • Meditation on Death,
  • Meditation on the Foulness of the Body,
  • Meditation on the Elements and Nonself.

While Meditation on Death is very important, we will save that for last and compare with some other cultures. Meditation on the body and the elements and nonself includes the meditation of the skeleton. There are traditionally 32 parts of the body as listed below. You will see “Bones” listed in group 2 which is also part of the earth element (dominant) group.

Group 1Group 2Group 3Group 4Group 5Group 6
Hair of headFleshHeartIntestinesBileTears
Hair of bodySinewsLiverBinding wireFlemSkin grease
NailsBonesMembraneContents of stomachPusSaliva
TeethBone MarrowSplinePoopBloodSnot
SkinKidneysLungsBrainSweatJoint oil




FatUrine
A synthetic skeleton outside sitting outside meditation hall

When I first started learning in Buddhist monasteries, I was surprised to see how much anatomy played a role in the Buddhist monastic life. We have books describing these specific parts in detail with shape, color and location in respect to the other parts. We also have many large anatomy books as well. The Buddha once gave the objects of the body as a subject of the Four Elements to his own son, Venerable Rāhula. They were given as a contemplation of foulness of the body and also for nonself and he was instructed to contemplate and to reflect,  

‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the earth element, detaching the mind from the earth element.

MN 62: The Longer Advice to Rāhula

In other places, it is a subject for foulness of the body. For instance, a story in the Path to Purification is mentioned below:

It seems that as the elder was on his way from Cetiyapabbata to Anuradhapura
for alms, a certain daughter-in-law of a clan, who had quarrelled with her husband
and had set out early from Anuradhapura all dressed up and tricked out like a
celestial nymph to go to her relatives’ home, saw him on the road, and being low-
minded, she laughed a loud laugh. [Wondering] “What is that?” the elder
looked up and finding in the bones of her teeth the perception of foulness (ugliness),
he reached Arahantship (full enlightenment). Hence it was said:

“He saw the bones that were her teeth,
And kept in mind his first perception;
And standing on that very spot
The elder became an Arahant.”
But her husband, who was going after her, saw the elder and asked, “Venerable
sir, did you by any chance see a woman?” The elder told him:

“Whether it was a man or woman
That went by I noticed not,
But only that on this high road
There goes a group of bones.”

Path of Purification, p24
Skull found on top of the mountain of Pa-Auk Main Branch in Mawlamyine

The Buddha spoke of skeletons in one of His most famous discourses called Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasuttaṁ, DN 22 translated as, The Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In this discourse, He mentions foulness of the Body as 32 parts and also a 9 charnel ground contemplation. Lastly, there is a strong emphasis on the contemplation of death called maraṇanussati. Below is a quote.

Contemplation of the Body
The Section about Applying the Mind to Repulsiveness


Moreover, monks, a monk in regard to this very body – from the sole of the feet upwards, from the hair of the head down, bounded by the skin, and full of manifold impurities – reflects (thus):


“There are in this body:
hairs of the head, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin,
flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys,
heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs,
intestines, mesentery, undigested food, excrement,
bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat,
tears, grease, spit, mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”


Just as though, monks, there were a bag open at both ends, full of various kinds of grain, such as: hill rice, white rice, mung beans, kidney beans, sesame seeds, chickpeas; and a man with good vision having opened it were to reflect (thus): “This is hill rice, this is white rice, these are mung beans, these are sesame seeds, these are chickpeas”; even so, monks, a monk in regard to this very body – from the sole of the feet upwards, from the hair of the head down, bounded by the skin, and full of manifold impurities – reflects (thus):


“There are in this body,
hairs of the head, body hairs, nails, teeth, skin,
flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys,
heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs,
intestines, mesentery, undigested food, excrement,
bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat,
tears, grease, spit, mucus, synovial fluid, urine.”

Thus he dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body in regard to himself, or he dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body in regard to others, or he dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body in regard to himself and in regard to others, or he dwells contemplating the nature of origination in the body, or he dwells contemplating the nature of dissolution in the body, or he dwells contemplating the nature of origination and dissolution in the body, or else mindfulness that “there is a body” is established in him just as far as (is necessary for) a full measure of knowledge and a full measure of mindfulness, and he dwells independent, and without being attached to anything in the world.


In this way, monks, a monk dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body.


The Section about the Nine Charnel Grounds
Moreover, monks, it’s as if a monk might see a body thrown into a charnel ground, dead for one day, or dead for two days, or dead for three days, bloated, discoloured, having become quite rotten. He then compares it with his very own body (thinking): “This body also has such a nature, has such a constitution, has not gone beyond this.”
Moreover, monks, it’s as if a monk might see a body thrown into a charnel ground, being eaten by crows, or being eaten by hawks, or being eaten by vultures, or being eaten by dogs, or being eaten by jackals, or being eaten by various kinds of worms. He then compares it with his very own body (thinking):“This body also has such a nature, has such a constitution, has not gone beyond this.”
Moreover, monks, it’s as if a monk might see a body thrown into a charnel ground, a skeleton, with flesh and blood, bound together by tendons. He then compares it with his very own body (thinking): “This body also has such a nature, has such a constitution, has not gone beyond this.”
…a skeleton, without flesh, smeared with blood, bound together by tendons…
…a skeleton, no longer having flesh and blood, bound together by tendons…
…with bones no longer bound together, scattered in all directions, with a hand-bone here, with a foot-bone there, with a knee-bone here, with a thigh-bone there, with a hip-bone here, with a bone of the back there, with the skull here…
…having white bones, like the colour of a conch.
…a heap of bones more than a year old…
…rotten bones that have become like powder. He then compares it with his very own body (thinking):
“This body also has such a nature, has such a constitution, has not gone beyond this.”


Thus he dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body in regard to himself, or he dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body in regard to others, or he dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body in regard to himself and in regard to others, or he dwells contemplating the nature of origination in the body, or he dwells contemplating the nature of dissolution in the body, or he dwells contemplating the nature of origination and dissolution in the body, or else mindfulness that “there is a body” is established in him just as far as (is necessary for) a full measure of knowledge and a full measure of mindfulness, and he dwells independent, and without being attached to anything in the world.


In this way, monks, a monk dwells contemplating (the nature of) the body in the body.

Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasuttaṁ, DN 22
A famous painting representing the cemetery contemplation

Meditation on Death

It is good to meditate on your own death because when you do, you can realize that many things that used to matter don’t really matter anymore. For instance, if you are angry at someone, what use is it to you when you are dying or dead? The Dhammapada explains below:

Pare ca na vijananti, mayamettha yamamase,

Ye ca tattha vijananti, tato sammanti medhaga.

People, other than the wise, do not realize, “We in this world must all die,” (and, not realizing it, continue their quarrels). The wise realize it and thereby their quarrels cease.

Dhammapada Verse 6, Kosambaka Vatthu

The Path to Purification has 8 subjects for meditation on death:

  • Meditating on death as a murderer, since it takes away life;
  • meditating on it as the ruin of success;
  • viewing it by comparison with famous persons reflecting that even these great ones eventually died, even the enlightened ones themselves;
  • meditating on the body as the abode of many-many worms as well as the target of many others;
  • meditating on the difficulty of keeping alive;
  • meditating on it as without occasion, since beings die unpredictably;
  • meditating on the shortness of a lifetime;
  • meditating on the fact that, properly speaking, the lifetime of a being is a single moment of consciousness, that one dies every moment, so to speak.

One can also develop a sense of urgency in this life, and realize that the human life is short and rare in samsara. By doing so, one can practice ardently to achieve the goal of liberation.

Momento Mori

Mori is the Latin word for death. maraṇa is the Pali word for death. Do you see a similarity?

Memento mori is a phrase used in Western cultures which means: “Remember, you must die.” It was said that Trappist monks used to greet each other with this phrase: Nice eh? It is also a Catholic practice for Ash Wednesday to put ash on the forehead. Perhaps you didn’t know what the ritual was to symbolize, but now you know. The ash is put on the head with the phrase, “”Remember Man that you are dust and unto dust, you shall return.” There is a whole Wikipedia page based on Momento Mori which is worth a look. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_mori

Below is a painting which is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time


By Philippe de Champaigne – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=369918

Philippe de Champaigne‘s Vanitas (c. 1671) is reduced to three essentials: Life, Death, and Time

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