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"There are in this body head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, intestines, intestinal tract, stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovium (oil lubricating the joints), urine, and brain in the skull." source

This seems like a pretty comprehensive list, but semen and menses are noticeably missing; although if they were included, there would obviously have to be separate male and female versions of this contemplation.

Do we know why they are missing? Are other body parts missing? It seems unusual given how direct the Buddha's teachings normally are; so I imagine there is a reason. Thank you!

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    i don't know about this one. 32 is a pretty arbitrary selection and seems more mnemonic than anything orderly. therefore, this question could be asked of a lot of other body parts, for instance muscles, eyes, gall bladder, numerous glands; not to mention the reproductive organs altogether. just my thoughts. – Anthony Jun 12 '15 at 4:37
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    @Anthony, some (not all) of those might be considered made up of components already listed in the "32 parts", no? It would be interesting to see a modern anatomical comparison done against this list. – Robin111 Jun 12 '15 at 10:42
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    What i find notable is that the nervous system and the lymphatic system is not mentioned. They are both significant parts of the body system. Although regarding the meditational function of the 32-body-part contemplation one might not need anything else in order to practice it. – Lanka Jun 12 '15 at 11:02
  • I don't see any mention of reproductive organs at all, much less what's stored inside them. – sss4r Jun 12 '15 at 16:02
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    But an arm is not an organ, it only has an epidermal component, whereas internal organs are listed, yet reproductive, internal or no, aren't listed. Just an observation. I agree with the lust avoidance theory, since there was emphasis placed on contemplating the inevitable rotting corpse of a body you're attracted to. – sss4r Jun 12 '15 at 16:10
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IMHO, - Upaya (skilful means) - the purpose of the Buddha's teaching is liken to a raft to take us across the ocean of samsara to the island of exquisite bliss.

Hence 32 parts of the body is adequate enough to accommodate various human tendencies to the attachment of the body. Whereas the classification of the the aggregates to only 5 is sufficient to lead one to see dukkha, anicca, anatta.

There are some who think the Buddha taught realities, physical & mental.

When ask what does your teacher teach? ",,there is suffering (or stress), the cause of suffering (or stress), that there is an end to suffering (or stress), and the path to the end of suffering (or stress).

  • I agree; it's a useful teaching for getting rid of attachment to the idea of the body as beautiful. But still curious as to whether this was considered a complete list of components of the body, as know at the time, with the obvious omissions mentioned in the question. – Robin111 Jun 12 '15 at 10:57
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    There are other obvious organs mentioned by ChrisW, like pancreas, bladder etc.which are encountered in butchered animals, which are not on the list. IMHO the Buddha in his "omniscience" considered only a sufficient adequate list without imposing too much unnecessary burden on his disciples. – Samadhi Jun 12 '15 at 11:19
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You could probably contemplate on it as blood. Women entered the Sangha somewhat later. So I would presume this meditation was taught to monks before that happened. You might have also noticed that seminal fluid is missing from the list. Women having to contemplate on that might actually arouse their lust. Maybe it's the same case with men having to contemplate on women's period.

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    that was the only reason i could think of as well. contemplating on those things would be antithetical to the contemplation of the 32 parts of the body. – Ryan Jun 12 '15 at 2:13
  • Yes, contemplating on the opposite gender's gender specific bodily fluids would be both inaccurate for yourself and distracting. But is it the same for contemplating on your own gender's? It just seems such an obvious omission. – Robin111 Jun 12 '15 at 10:52
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    The objective of the meditation is to curb your lust. So this meditation is also done on others of the opposite gender whom you find attractive. Not just on yourself. So if gender specific bodily fluids were included, it would give a man the notion that he is thinking about a woman & vice versa. That could also be distracting. Remember the story of the monk who meditated on the teeth of a smiling woman? Later when asked he said he did not know whether it was a man or woman. He only saw a skeleton. – Sankha Kulathantille Jun 12 '15 at 11:21
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    Ah ok, since it says "there are in this body" I assumed people thought of their own body and realized foulness. Didn't actually realize people projected this to other people. Thanks for clarifying. – Robin111 Jun 12 '15 at 11:29
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    breast milk is also omitted making it that much more likely – Ryan Jun 12 '15 at 11:34
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Do we know why they are missing?

I don't. Could it be because semen is not being produced/created?

Are other body parts missing?

It's a good list.

For completeness, there is also cartilage (e.g. the trachea), pancreas, a gallbladder apparently, glands (salivary, thyroid, etc.), all the gender-specific reproductive organs, blood vessels (including arteries and veins) except heart, sensory and motor nerves (including spinal cord) except brain, sense-organs (eyes, ears) could be given a special mention, tongue, the lymphatic system, bladder.

"Flesh" can be a catch-all though.

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The author of the Sutra wasn't a biologist and may not have intended this list to be biologically complete or even all that accurate. The issue here isn't the completeness of the list, but the purpose of working with those items.

So why the overly specific number of 32? Some have suggested mnemonics; perhaps -- Buddhism has made heavy use of numbered lists after all.

But maybe it's because the Sutras used the concepts and imagery of a time and place far removed from our own? So maybe there is some significance to this list that we're missing? Since we aren't in the same historical context, many of the Sutras could seem jarring or confusing to modern ears. Fortunately this is not a problem, because the real message of the Sutras is timeless; we just need to look beyond the surface "message".

I think this is the real issue here. Why does this question matter? Are we perhaps getting side-tracked by the least important part of the Sutra? Will our practice really be affected because of a missing body fluid or so? For that matter, do body fluids matter, or is the exercise more about overcoming attachment to the body by a mental deconstruction of it?

  • I don't consider this teaching "false, offensive, incoherent or just plain silly". My question is simply do we know why these are missing? It sounds like we don't really know. And that's fine. But it's alright to ask. Be well. – Robin111 Jun 12 '15 at 23:42
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    @Robin111 I didn't mean to imply that everyone thinks this; I was just speaking in general. When we take teachings out of their context (and in this case, the context is the specific time and place in which they arose) they can come off as jarring or nonsensical, just like taking a scene of a movie out of the movie may make the scene seem silly. I'll modify the answer to clarify. Thanks for the feedback. – R. Barzell Jun 12 '15 at 23:44
  • Thanks R. Barzell. This was my attempt to find out the context to understand this better. :) – Robin111 Jun 12 '15 at 23:45
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    @Robin111 My pleasure; I re-worded my answer to clarify my intent and again, thank you for taking the time to provide the feedback. It's all too easy for me to try to make a point and in my rush to drive the point home realize I came off sounding too harsh. – R. Barzell Jun 12 '15 at 23:52

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