Ajahn Puth Thaniyo
Translated by Sumano Bhikkhu
For free distribution only, as a gift of Dhamma
Ajahn Puth Thaniyo, the Abbot of Wat Pah Salawan, Nakorn Ratchasima, Thailand is one of the last surviving meditation masters who revitalized and reactivated the forest tradition in Asia. This is the tradition which many believe to most resemble in form and manner the practice taught by the Buddha himself. Essentially, it is a way of practice which is intended to push the envelope to the limit. And then, keep on inclining into the unknown, insecure, and uncertain. This is the way of practice which demands a continuous letting go, letting go, letting go until there is nothing left to let go of or hold onto. No toeholds, no secret hiding places, no worlds of fantasy and hope. Ultimately, all that is left is the transcendent refuge of the Buddhas'...the Crystal Clear Knowing in this Continuous Now Present Moment. Right here is the freedom most of us hunger and aspire for.
The forest tradition revived practice which emphasized strict Vinaya discipline as the primary facilitating factor in the process of development which could, in conjunction with proper practice, literally emancipate us from the tyranny of all the conditionning, all the programming, all the education, all the rest of the "stuff" which has bound us for so long to the wheel of endless becoming. It is possible to get real.
With the Vinaya as the backbone to practice, the mendicant learns to live more and more simply and further and further away from the demands of the insidious desire system and all the clamoring and whining noises that go along with it. Of course, that which is necessary and useful is maintained, supported and nourished. But that which is superfluous and encumbering to a seasoned spiritual life is left behind like the dolls, tricycles, water pistols and jump ropes of our childhood. In the phase known as adulthood, we have a duty and a responsibility to grow ourselves towards wholeness in order to become compassionate and holy beings. We are here to do just that. Even though, as we look around at the state of the world, we wouldn't think so.
Authentic spiritual practice must be designed to help us in this process. Those of us who have followed behind these pioneering forest monks are grateful beyond words to those who ventured out into the dangerous forests with little more than their bowl, robes, water filter and commitment to disciplined practice. There, under the Buddha's discipline, they spent years humbly enduring whatever the moment would manifest while learning to recognize that whatever arose would inevitably pass away. There was nothing that belonged to them personally. When malaria arose, that was to be seen only as malaria. When tigers, scorpions, snakes, or centipedes arose, they too were conditions that one had to patiently co-exist with, while they ran their course and passed away back into the emptiness which contains everything. When conditions cool down, they naturally and harmoniously flow back into Nature. By following anything and everything in line with Nature, all things are as they are, as they abide in their Actuality.
And so this testing went on for decades until the energies which spin out the world subsided and passed away. Some monks died in the jungles. Some completed the work, returning back to the world to help others and to point the way. It is through the impact of this intense and determined practice that dozens of Westerners have come to practise meditation in forests of Thailand. The disciples of Ajahn Cha have taken this way of practice "back home" so tradition is now living and growing in England, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and America. In these countries Buddhism is already having a considerable influence upon the social matrix, especially in the areas of conservation and medicine.
Here in Thailand, the disciples of Ajahn Puth Thaniyo number in the thousands. He has given Teachings to the royal family and almost all the important and high-ranking ministers, senators, and district representatives. Even now in his 70's, he gives Teachings everyday in every part of the country.
As this is the first teaching of his to be translated into English, the translator has selected a particularly detailed, refined and comprehensive talk. If the meditator reads this talk carefully, he/she will find before them an easily accessible path of practice which can be entered into immediately and with utter confidence. As you develop the foundation for practcie and the practice itself, you will soon find an extraordinary transformation beginning to occur.. an opening; a flowering, a spaciousness; a spontaneity. These are qualities which can only come into being through spiritual practice. Those who can appreciate these noble qualities won't need any further encouragement.
Now I will take this occasion to enrich your understanding of the Dhamma, the Teaching of the Buddha. In studying Buddhism, our intention is to know the Truth - the true nature of all conditions. The Buddhist religion, which is the teaching of the Buddha, is the teaching that points to the actual truth of all conditions within nature.
In order to help you to understand this teaching, I will divide the word Dhamma into two categories.
The first category we call sabhava dhamma . The second category is the conventional Dhamma; the Dhamma that is taught.
The sabhava dhamma was already in existence before the birth of the Buddha. We attribute sabhava dhamma as belonging to the Buddha in so far as he was the one who penetrated to the truth of all natural conditions. For example, he was the one who realized the Four Noble Truths:
1) Dukkha, which is the truth of suffering
2) Samudaya, which is the truth of the cause of suffering clinging and desire
3) Nirodha, which is the truth of the cessation of suffering
4) Magga, which is the truth of the path to the end of suffering the Eight-fold Path
The Buddha was the only one to realize all of this fully. Although others before him had partially realized these truths, they hadn't come to understand cause and effect, nor did they know, as the Buddha knew, the truth of impermanence, suffering and not self , which are the characteristics of all conditions.
Prior to the birth of the Buddha these characteristics certainly existed, and there were those who had come to some understanding of the changing action involved within Nature, but they didn't know this reality in such a deep and refined way as the Buddha; they were not able to reach to the heartwood. The Buddha was able to penetrate to the real heart of inconstancy, imperfection and not self. After he fully realized this Truth, he went out to teach it to others.
What is sabhava dhamma? What do these words mean? Actually we all have reality within us. What is that reality? It is the body and mind. In addition to the body and the mind, the external environment and events around us are also sabhava dhamma. Even learning and sciences are sabhava dhamma. It is these conditions of Nature, and in particular the body and the mind, which the Buddha came to understand and to realize. In addition to realizing the truth of these things, the Buddha also knew the causes for their arising.
For instance, he understood the causes for rebirth as a human being. The underlying cause which supports a human birth comes from a resolve to live within the constraints of the five moral precepts as the bases for skilful action. Whoever is able to keep these precepts purely is assured of a human rebirth (rather than a rebirth in a lower realm). This the Buddha came to know.
Before the arising of the Buddha, nobody taught the truth, particularly truths such as aging, sickness and death. Therefore, the Buddha taught that it is of great importance that we contemplate the cycle of human life; birth, aging, illness, and death, and to understand and clearly see the implications of these facts. Some of you may wonder why it is that the Buddha taught us to look into this matter when everybody knows that all who are bom must die? The Buddha wanted us to contemplate these truths because he wanted to offer a skilful means for people to come to know deeply and thoroughly realize these facts.
Although we have observed and seen these truths already, it is merely a perception of truth, not a heart-felt realization. There is something in us that doesn't want to accept these truths. As long as we have not come to terms with these truths, we will come into conflict with nature. When we experience aging there is suffering; when we experience illness and death there is suffering. As soon as the awareness that we may die pops into our minds, suffering arises immediately. Why is that so? Because we refuse to accept the truth of such things and so we must learn the hard way.
The Buddha knew all this and so encouraged his disciples to realize these truths for themselves, beginning with "jaradhammomhi: I am of the nature to age, there is no escape from aging; byadhidhammomhi: I am of the nature to get sick, there is no escape from illness; maranadhammomhi: I am of the nature to die, there is no escaping death." The Buddha taught these simple and essential truths so that we could arrive at an understanding of them on the experiential level.
Therefore, in studying and practising the Buddha's teachings, our aim is to train the mind to realize the truth of nature on the most profound level. Then our minds will come to accept these truths and will no longer be at odds with the laws of nature. When we no longer oppose the laws of nature, our minds will be at peace. When these conditions arise in our lives, we will not be upset or vexed by them, because we are already prepared for them. This is the very nature of sabhava dhamma. We can see this sabhava dhamma functioning in all life through these aspects: all things are impermanent, imperfect, and not self. This is natural truth (sabhava dhamma), which we also regard as the Buddha's teaching on account of his being the first one to discover and declare it.
Thus the other category of dhamma is Dhamma as teaching. Dhamma in this sense refers to virtue, concentration and wisdom.
Most of you are interested in the practice of Dhamma which concerns training the heart. In order to train the heart, we must first establish ourselves in moral conduct. Virtue or morality is an essential aspect of dhamma practice. It provides the necessary foundation for preparing the body, speech and heart for their return to their normal and peaceful condition. The five precepts which are within the capabilities of any layperson to practice, are especially important. This is our primary moral foundation on which the eight, ten and 227 precepts are all based. All precepts can be summarized within the basic five. Whoever you are, if you resolve to maintain the five precepts purely and then practise meditation, you will be able to make the mind calm and from there penetrate to the deep truths within all natural conditions. From there, and this is most important, you will be able to realize the Path, Fruit and Nibbana.
In the time when the Buddha was still alive and teaching we find many examples of lay disciples who kept the five precepts and attained Enlightenment. The lady Vishaka and Anathapindaka, the merchant, were both wealthy householders with many duties and responsibilities, but although maintaining only the five precepts, and practising the teachings of the Buddha, they attained the level of Sotapanna.
Some people these days feel that practising the five precepts, they are inferior to those who are committed to keep 8, 10 or 227. They believe that with only five precepts, it is not possible to arrive at enlightenment. This is a mistake. The truth is that the five precepts alone can and will remove unskillfulness and weaken the consequences of unskillful kamma.
The kinds of actions which lead to rebirth in hellish or unpleasant realms are all prevented by these five precepts. Any other actions which lie outside the confines of the five precepts will lead only to mental turbidity. If we maintain the five precepts purely, we will have a good chance of developing samadhi, practising the dhamma and realizing the truth.
Therefore those who are not in a position to keep more than the five precepts should not feel inferior or belittle themselves by thinking that they do not have enough precepts to become enlightened. That is a grave mistake. If you are thinking of increasing your precepts, you should first carefully consider whether you are capable of maintaining them.
Generally lay people are capable of keeping the five precepts, which are : refraining from killing, refraining from stealing, refraining from sexual misconduct, refraining from wrong speech, and refraining from using intoxicants. But many still choose to use cosmetics and perfumes, go to plays, concerts, and movies, and engage in singing and dancing. Also, they choose to sleep on comfortable beds. These are ascetic practices, included in the eight precepts, and do not violate the five precepts.
However, if you want to add the vikalabhojana precept but are not able to refrain from eating in the evening, or undertake the mala gandha precept but not refrain from using cosmetics and ointments, or take the naccagita precept without giving up going to plays and listening to music, or add the uccasayana precept but continue to indulge in luxurious beds (which tend to increase sleep), this shows that you are incapable of keeping these precepts. Undertaking the additional precepts without the capability and determination to keep them only increases your storehouse of unskillful kamma. Nothing good can come of this. If you want to increase your precepts you must first take a look at your own capabilities.
If we maintain the five precepts purely, and develop meditation practice, our practice will naturally progress and the precepts will increase on their own. When the five precepts are in order, samadhi and panna, insight into the true nature of reality, will follow. The state of mind that arises when it is in samadhi, when it is at peace and contains understanding of the true nature of conditions, will ensure that the mind abides in a state of normalcy, which will initiate the maintenance of additional precepts. Not merely the 227 precepts of a monk, you can increase your precepts to 10,000 or even 100,000 if the fundamental condition of the mind is sufficiently developed. Once the fundamental stages of the development of our mind is good and proper, we can uphold any number of precepts.
Therefore, when you are considering increasing the level of your dhamma practice, be aware of your capabilities and limitations, and practise accordingly. Don't be foolish. Even though the wise praise the eight precepts and recognize it as meritorious, if you find that keeping the eight precepts brings up discomfort and distraction, then you don't have to keep the eight precepts.
When I was a young monk practising under Ajahn Sao, we were all interested in fasting. There were times when we would fast for three, five or seven days. Sometimes I would fast for nine days, but the result was always weakness and hunger. In fasting, the body gets weak, and if there is no nutrition to energize it, the body becomes exhausted. Being so drained of energy it is not possible to practise a good standard. So, rather than enhance our practice, the end result was more negative than positive. Fasting can even lead to ulcers and intestinal diseases which are painful and take a long time to heal. So if you want to practise in the right and proper way, don't just fumble about. Practise intelligently, taking into account the state of your body and mind to see if you are up to the practice you are contemplating. I ask you to take note of this warning in your own practice.
Now let us talk about meditation practice. The activity of practising meditation includes both samatha, calm, and vipassana, insight meditation. You have probably heard and read a great deal on meditation practice, but some of you may be wondering what's the best and most effective way to practise it. Some of you have come to ask me - "Luang Por, I want to practice in a way which will produce the fastest results. Is there some skilful means which will bring fast results? How shall I practise?" In answer to this I say, "There is no such thing. Not in this world anyway". The way to produce the quickest results in practice is to resolve to practise with the utmost persistence. We must practise in a way which goes beyond all hesitation and all doubt so that practice is sustained.
Take for example, you go study a method of meditation from one particular teacher who teaches his disciples to observe the breathing as it occurs in the abdomen. The student practises observing the sensation in the abdomen as it rises on the inhalation and falls on the exhalation. So you resolve to undertake that practice. Then you go to study with the Abbot of Wat Paknam. There they use the mantra s Samma Araham. Then you resolve to practise in that way. If you went to Ajahn Sow or Ajahn Mun for instruction in meditation, they would teach the mantra Bud-dho. They instructed their disciples to practise entirely with this mantra and stick with it.
There is an important point here which needs to be clearly understood. Which way is the straight and genuine way? The answer is that any meditation object which you choose to work with can provided all the benefits, provided that you sit in samadhi wholeheartedly three or four times a day - and that each of those times you sit for a full hour. Each time you sit, you sit resolutely. From such resolute efforts benefits will automatically arise. If the benefits are not equal to our efforts it is because we have not yet been able to cut off our worries and suspicions regarding the particular technique that we are using. This undermines the practice.
Today you are here at Wat Pah Salawan and here the Ajahn (meditation teacher) instructs meditators to use the mantra Bud-dho. Tomorrow you may go and listen to Dhamma talk at Wat Mahathat and their Ajahn will demonstrate the technique of observing the rising and falling of the abdomen. The day after that you may go to Wat Paknam and they will teach samma Araham.
After this experience your suspicions will deepen and you will ask, "How is it that all these Ajahns do not teach the same method?" If your mind falls into doubt like this, you will be unable to grasp the essence of meditation and settle on a technique. This is an obstacle to practice.
Therefore, regardless of what technique or mantra you use, I recommend that you stay with just that one skilful means. Further I suggest that you firmly take a hold of one of these tools of practice and resolutely get on with the work. All of these meditation techniques are skilful means for centering the heart on one object so as to prevent it from wandering out into all kinds of distracting thoughts and feelings. In the initial stages this is all that is required in meditation practice.
Now I will describe the meditation technique taught by Venerable Ajahn Sow. He separated practice into three steps. The first step is to contemplate on the mantra Bud-dho. The second was the contemplation on the unattractive aspects (asubha) of the human body. The third step was to contemplate the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) which comprise all material phenomena.
As for the practice of concentrating on Bud-dho, Ajahn Sow instructed that immediately after completing chanting (Puja), we have a short session when we spread loving-kindness (metta) for a short while, then focus and concentrate on the virtues of the Triple Gem - Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha - a couple of times. Following that practice, we begin developing the meditation mantra, Bud-dho. The meditator should think Bud at the time of inhalation and dho at the moment of exhalation. If you find that while concentrating on the inhalations and exhalations and reciting the inner sound Bud-dho the mind drifts off into vagrant thought, then let go of the breath and speed up the rhythm of the mantra. Thus you will be able to re-connect with the meditation object and reestablish yourself. Don't concern yourself over when the heart will become calm, or when you will experience insight or samadhi. Don't think about these matters. Your duty is to maintain the mantra Bud-dho and not to sink into any of the passing mental states. Lightly recollect the meditation object. Don't force the mind or tense or contract the muscles in your body. Sit comfortably with the mantra. Rest your heart in Bud-dho. Make the heart as light as possisble. Pay particular attention to this Bud-dho. Take it into your heart. When you meditate on Bud-dho, it blends into the heart. The heart is one with Bud-dho and Bud-dho is one with the heart.
Practice like this until the heart settles into peace. As the heart approaches calm, observe that a state of tranquility, almost like sleepiness, arises. Don't mistake this tranquility for sleepiness or sleep. When this feeling of tranquility or sedation is present the meditator should be with it and carry on with the Bud-dho. Don't try to resist it. The mind becomes half-sleepy and may seem to drop into a deeper state. When this occurs, some meditators may get startled and have to re-establish themselves all over again. So the mind never becomes peaceful because we keep getting startled by the dropping off into the calm.
In this practice our duty is to follow the mind states with awareness. Whatever arises is allowed to be. Our duty is to stay with the awareness of that which arises, all the time continuing with the mantra Bud-dho. So, when this calm feeling of tranquility arises we just stay with it.
As it develops the heart will brighten and the word Bud-dho will vanish. When the mantra Bud-dho has disappeared from the mind, don't think that you have forgotten your meditation object. This is just the natural state of when the heart has settled into peace. We practise with the mantra Bud-dho until the heart drops into a state of peace and light, and releases the mantra word. Those who do not understand the dynamics of this natural process may think that they have let go of their mindfulness. Actually, this is a natural transformation within the mind. The mind is beginning to become calm, and this phenomena occurs which is similar to the sleep state. Quite suddenly we feel as if we are being pulled down into sleep. But just as suddenly, that condition changes and there is only brightness. If, in fact, we are actually going to enter into sleep that sleepiness would just carry through into dullness until we are fast asleep and we would be completely unaware of what was going on. This is the initial stage of developing the meditation object.
When the heart is quiet and slips into a state of restful and still brightness, what should the meditator do then? Ajahn Sow taught the the meditator should then pay close attention to this bright mind, to peer straight into the bright heart and become aware and mindful of the brightness. The brightness itself then becomes the object of meditation. The meditator should continue to look into this brightness until the heart becomes progressively more refined. If at this stage the mind happens to become aware of the breathing again, Ajahn Sow instructed that we should then observe the breath. We should simply focus on the breathing as it goes in and out without interfering with it or questioning it. We don't have to distinguish whether the breathing is fine or coarse, but just notice it. If we begin to note the mode and texture of our breathing, the mind will change and our mind will withdraw and samadhi will dissipate. For that reason you just notice the breathing as it is, without any involvement. At this time the heart will be bright and peaceful. We just let go of any intruding thoughts which beckon us to investigate the breath, and continue to note just the breathing. When the heart knows the in and out breath just let it stay like that. The breathing becomes our object of awareness and object of recollection.
Eventually the heart will become peaceful and subtle. The breath becomes very subtle as well. The level of subtlety of the breath corresponds to the level of subtlety of the heart. Finally, the breathing just seems to stop and the body seems to disappear. At this time the heart will be still and bright. In this state, the mind doesn't think about anything. There is no awarenss of the breathing or even of the body. At this moment the heart is absolutely one pointed - still, bright and calm. The heart has now been raised into appana, samadhi (absorption or attainment concentration). This particular state of appana samadhi is not particularly useful (for developing wisdom), but it is necessary to develop this state, and to practise it often. When the mind is able to attain this state more fluently, it enables us to know what the original nature of our heart really is.
Formerly, we would perceive our mind getting involved in all sorts of thoughts and mental objects. When our practice penetrates into the peaceful and quiet of appana samadhi, the heart abandons all these external objects and is free of all thoughts and feelings. There is only a still, bright state of peace. We know that, actually, the original state of the heart is like this. This state of consciousness is called pabhassaramidam bhikkhave cittam - The original state of our mind is pure: calm, bright and clean. But it is made impure by the defilements, which withdraw into the shell of the mind; they lurk deeply within the mind and do not readily show themselves. At this stage, mindfulness and clear comprehension (satisampajanna) are not yet completely operational. There is only sufficient development to sustain peacefulness momentarily or for a short period.
This state of mind is called pathoma citta (the 'first' or 'original' mind), or pathoma samadhi (basic concentration) or manodhatu (the mind element). It is similar to a baby chick still inside its egg; it can't yet do anything, all it can do is sit around inside the egg. However, it is this state of mind which allows us to recognize the original nature of our heart. This is a fruit of the initial levels of meditation practice. When we repeatedly practise bringing the heart to this level of samadhi, the heart becomes adept at this first level of meditation. In the beginning stages, the heart may unexpectedly drop down to a point of stillness. We may be able to perceive the mind in the beginning, but by the time we come to the middle stage we are no longer in contact or associated with it. Then we may regain awareness at the end when the heart is one pointed, still and peaceful. This samadhi occurs almost as a fluke. we have yet to establish it in its full and proper sequence. However, if we practise in this way often we will become experienced in concentration and will be able to perceive the various factors of jhana (absorption) as they arise, beginning with vitakka or initial application. This refers to the application of the mind to its object of concentration. Then there is vicara, (sustained application), the sustenance of the mind on its object which leads to brightness and peace. This is followed by piti, rapture, and sukha, happiness. When the heart contains rapture it is at peace. When the heart is still and at peace it is at the stage called ekaggata (one pointed concentration).
These are the characteristics of the original mind, at the level known as pathoma jhana (first absorption). It is the samadhi which consists of all these factors of jhana which can be used for the development of insight meditation. The mind is malleable, easily inclined towards reflection on the Three Characteristics. We must try to train the mind in this way with persistence and patience. The practice must be maintained calmly, because the agitated mind will not lead to the desired results.
Concerning the development of samadhi with a meditation word or mantra as described above, is the proper way to develop meditation. However, if, as we continue to repeat the mantra, the mind becomes progressively calmer and brighter, it may happen that the mind stray outwards in the form of nimittas, or images. If a nimitta arises and then the meditator hesitates or is perplexed or startled by it, the mind will be alarmed and the samadhi, and the nimitta, will dissipate. If you wish to observe the nimitta for a long time, then you must bring your attention right into the mind, which is the point of serenity. Reflect to yourself that the nimitta which has arisen is a result of this concentrated mind. If we leave our base of concentration, and go after the nimitta that arise, there are two possibilities that may occur: The first is that our samadhi will withdraw. The second possibility is that our mind will follow the nimitta. If you see the nimitta in the form of a person, the mind will follow that person. If you see a nimitta which is a devata (angel), consciousness may go and follow the devata. if you want to see heaven or hell you will follow the devata into heaven or you will follow a demon into hell. This is the mind flowing outwards, taking an interest in external concerns outside of our sphere of deliberation. If you have sufficient presence of mind you can follow whatever is occuring and observe what is out there. You can take awareness of this movement as your meditation object which can then be a tool for knowing and an object for mindfulness. But there is a potential problem here. External nimittas tend to have a deluding effect on meditators. People tend to take them as the truth If they see a person they can be misled into blindly thinking that they are really looking at a person. This is especially so in the case of ghosts. We may believe that some kind of spirit has come to beg punna (merit), and so we are distracted into trying to share our merit with them. When the mind begins to think about sharing boon (merit), samadhi will slip away and the nimitta will disappear.
Therefore the ardent meditator should carefully monitor the events that arise in the course of meditation practice. And how do we do this? By trying to observe and be aware of the heart, at the point where there is samadhi or the state of calm. Whatever arises, don't get interested in it: rather, maintain the heart in peacefulness. When we are able to sustain the mind in peacefulness, or samadhi, continuously, the nimittas will appear for longer periods of time, and can even be skilful means for realizing and seeing the Dhamma. I want to emphasize this point for you.
I have often said that all mantra meditation is capable of making the heart peaceful and still all the way up to the dimension of upacara samadhi. I would like to discourse further on the Ten Recollections, beginning with the reflection on the Buddha up to the eighth one. Whoever is practising any of these first eight recollections will be able to question the heart up to the level of upacara samadhi though not beyond that point. These eight recollections cannot take one to appana samadhi. Only the last two reflections, that is, anapanasati (mindfulness of the breath) and kayagatasati (mindfulness of the body), possess the means to bring the citta up to the level of appana samadhi or the level of samatha. Therefore, Venerable Ajahn Sow taught that once the mantra has brought the mind to a sufficient level of concentration, the meditator should further develop the reflection on asubha kammatthana (meditation on the unattractiveness of the body). This is Tan Ajahn Sow's second level of exhortation.
When contemplating the meditation on unattractiveness, we take the objects or parts of the body as our object of attention. Ajahn Sow recommended beginning the practice with these five meditations: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, and skin. When a monk or novice ordains, his preceptor explains these five objects of meditation forthwith. In the Pali language this is called tacapancaka kammattha na. The preceptor, right in the ordination ceremony itself, teaches the initiate that these five parts of the body are not beautiful but unattractive and unclean. Because of this, the owner of these things must constantly look after and take care of them to prevent them from becoming foul and ugly. If we disregard the care of the body it becomes dirty, foul-smelling and unattractive. Why are newly ordained monks and novices taught to see these things in this way? The Buddha taught in this way in order to open the mind to the truth regarding these parts of the body and the nature of the body itself.
If we carefully look at the parts of the body we will come to see that the hair of the head, the hair of the body, the nail, teeth and skin are all symbols which designate beauty or non-beauty. Beauty closes our eyes and ears to further consideration, we don't see the true condition. We don't see the truth hidden within the body. Therefore, the Buddha presented these five parts as the first meditation objects.
These five parts of the body should be humbly contemplated as unattractive, that is, seeing that these parts of the body are unattractive, repulsive and unclean. Even when our bodies still have life within them, they are filthy and unattractive. When life is no more and the body becomes a corpse, the stench it produces will thunder home this fact. We are urged to consider this fact over and over again until the heart enters samadhi. A nimitta of one or more of these five parts of the body arises, and you will see them as foul and unattractive. This technique can be a skilful means for uprooting lust and preventing it from overwhelming the mind. The Buddhist monk can take this excellent opportunity to practise in a way in which he can see the truth of things so that he can be cool and happy within the Dhamma-Vinaya. In practising in this skilful manner we are following the advice and guidance of a great meditation master, Tan Ajahn Sow.
Now we come to the last aspect of his teaching. If the meditator comes to recognize through the practice of asubha kammatthana that the body is unclean and unattractive, and has become proficient in his practice, the following step is required to progress further to vipassana, or insight practice. Venerable Ajahn Sow would recommend that we practise analysing the entire body into 4 components: Earth, Water, Wind, and Fire. Hair of the head, hair of the body, teeth, skin, nails, bones, etc. all have the predominant characteristic of the hardness, which is characteristic of earth. Why should hair be regarded as the earth element? Because when the hair decomposes it must change into earth. The meditator practises to see that all these aspects of the body are actually earth element, and continues to practise until a nimitta of this appears. This is the realization which goes deeper than just intellectual or surface understanding.
The next element is water. This contains pus, sweat, blood, spittle, mucous, urine, and whatever other parts of the body having the characteristic of liquid. Parts of the body which are imbued with the characteristic of water, we call the water element. We are told to contemplate this and see that these things are really just water.
The warmth or heat which is in the body is called the heat element (fire element).
The wind element is the wind in the upper and lower parts of the body. The in and out breath is an example of the wind element.
We are told to investigate the body as a thing which is composed of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. There are only elements, not a person or a self. This body is merely a heap of four elements coupled with the impersonal birth consciousness (patisandhi vinnana). We grasp onto the perception that there is a self. The perception of self is defilement, manifesting as craving, conceit, views and clinging. When you see this body as only four elements, not a person, a self, a human being, or a him, her, we or us, the meditator realizes the perception of anatta or non-self. That is, he or she will come to see that this body is non-self. By reflecting on the four elements, the meditator will come to see in a deep and profound way the truth of anatta. A nimitta of not self may arise. The meditator will see deeply that this body is truly the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The heart will realize intuitively that there is nothing in the body other than these four elements. When the mind realizes that there is truly no self, no person whatsoever, how can it not progress in the development of vipassana? I would like to request that you all consider this entire body as nothing more than the four elements. In practising in this way you will be able to intuitively realize that this body is not self. This truth accords with the Pali words of the Buddha "Sabbe Dhamma Anatta" - all things are not self.
If you are truly sincere in your practice, don't go and suspect these methods of practice. What I have related to you today is the teaching of Venerable Ajahn Sow. What the great masters teach is always absolutely correct, but of course, it is up to you to realize the truth for yourself.