Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

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Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby dhammapal » Fri Mar 25, 2011 9:00 am


I have to go to the dentist soon. Why aren't teeth regarded as ultimate realities in the Abhidhamma? I know they are impermanent but so are the ultimate realities nama and rupa too.

Thanks / dhammapal.

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Re: Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Mar 25, 2011 9:08 am

Greetings Dhammapal,

I'm a little confused as to why you think teeth do not constitute rupa?

Retro. :)
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Re: Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby dhammapal » Sat Mar 26, 2011 5:09 am

Hi Retro,

According to the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition (I transcribed some of his books in the mid '90s) the 32 parts of the body is only a samatha practice, and Four Elements practice was vipassana, which I thought meant that only the Four Elements are ultimate realities.

I found this quote by my previous teacher who trained in the Mahasi tradition:
Ven Pannyavaro wrote:The body, as matter or material properties (rupa), is the first of the Paramattha Dhammas or the Buddha’s Teachings on Ultimate Reality, together with consciousness (citta), mental properties (cetasika), and Nirvana; and therefore is a subject of Vipassana contemplation. This investigation starts by acquiring the ability to access the primary elements of the body, with the aim to expose the body’s true nature.

For many people one’s sense of the body is not so much the qualities we are actually experiencing such as sensations, temperature, heaviness, etc., but more its form and shape – the body image. You could hardly say this is a reality, rather it is imaging – a misreading that creates an illusion. While at the same time, most of us are unaware of the identification we make with the body, not to mention the more obvious identification with the internal narrative, our story, as well.

The Buddha lists the body as the first of the five aggregates or groups we cling to, that is, identify with as 'me, myself' – the other aggregates are: feeling, perception, mental constructions, and consciousness. The question then is: is it possible to have a direct experience of the body without automatically identifying with it?

It is not so easy to be free of this identification, as medical science has well documented in the 'lost limb syndrome', where a person who loses a limb, say in an accident, will act as if the lost limb is still there, even apparently feeling painful sensations in the missing limb. This illustrates that there is an unconscious identification with the body's form and shape. That is, we have a deeply imprinted image in our mind's eye – a phantom – of the shape and appearance of the body, not so much what is actually being experienced in the body.

How then to access the reality of the body and not automatically identify with it? One way to loosen this identification or attachment to the body is through the meditations in the body contemplations, as given in the Satipatthana Sutta, on the unpleasant or disgusting aspects of the body – which is rather like shock therapy! This is a rather drastic approach but it can be very effective if done under proper guidance. At least it helps to free one from the gross attachment anyway.

What we can explore here though is the deep investigation of body phenomena at its elemental level, that is, through what are termed the four primary elements of earth, air, fire and water, or the reality of the corresponding experiences of hardness and softness, movement and vibration, temperature and fluidity. Such an introspection of the body will expose just the elements in the body and thus the meditator momentarily loses the sense of the body's boundaries, thereby loosening the identification with the body image, to eventually experience the body, with the other aggregates, as just rising and passing away (anicca).
From: The Vipassana Retreat by Ven Pannyavaro

I checked Sayadaw U Silananda's Four Foundations of Mindfulness and I couldn't find him make this distinction.

I found this quote by Mahasi Sayadaw:
Mahasi Sayadaw wrote:The function of the air-element is moving. It moves from place to place when it is strong. It is the air-element that makes the body bend, stretch, sit, rise, go or come. Those unpractised in insight meditation often say, `if you note bending, stretching, only concepts like arms will appear to you. If you note left, right, only concepts like legs will appear to you. If you note rising falling, only concepts like the abdomen will appear to you. "This may be true to some of the beginners. But it is not true to think that the concepts will keep coming up. Both concepts and realities appear to the beginner. Some people instruct the beginners to meditate on realities only. This is impossible. To forget concepts is quite impracticable at the beginning. What is practicable is to observe concepts combine with realities. The Buddha himself used the language of concepts and told us to be aware `I am walking', etc, when we walk, bend or stretch. He did not use the language of realities and tell us to be 'aware' it is supporting, moving', etc. Although you meditate using the language of concepts like walking, bending, stretching," as your mindfulness and concentration grow stronger, all the concepts disappear and only the realities like support and moving appear to you. When you reach the stage of the knowledge of dissolution, although you meditate walking walking, neither the legs nor the body appear to you. Only the successive movement are there. Although you meditate bending, bending, there will not be any arms or legs. Only the movement. Although you meditate rising, falling, there will be no image of the abdomen or the body. Only the movement out and in. These as well as swaying are function of the air-element.
From: Fundamentals of Vipassana Meditation by Mahasi Sayadaw

I now think it is best to avoid such extreme psychophysical experiences.

With metta / dhammapal.

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Re: Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Mar 26, 2011 5:46 am

dhammapal wrote:I now think it is best to avoid such extreme psychophysical experiences.
What is an extreme psychological experience?
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

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Re: Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Sat Mar 26, 2011 5:58 am

Bite your teeth together. What do you actually experience? Can you feel your teeth, or is what you actually experience only hardness, or pressure?

Tooth is a concept only — hardness (pathavi dhātu) or pressure (vāyo dhātu) are ultimate realities.
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Re: Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Mar 26, 2011 6:31 am

Thanks Venerable.

Some may feel that "ultimate realities" is a poor translation, but I think we can at least say that they are "ultimate" in the sense of being factors of experience that cannot be further broken down.

Could members please note that this thread is in the Classical section. Posts questioning the validity of the Abhidhamma are off topic here (but are perfectly fine in other areas of the Forum).

Comments clarifying the meaning of the Abhidhamma in the context of Classical Theravada thought are, of course on topic (that's the whole point of having such a forum!) but should be backed up by reference to Canonical or Commentarial texts, or modern explanations of those texts.


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Re: Why aren't 32 parts ultimate realities?

Postby Sidney » Tue Aug 30, 2011 1:54 pm

[quote="dhammapal"]Hi Retro,

According to the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition (I transcribed some of his books in the mid '90s) the 32 parts of the body is only a samatha practice, and Four Elements practice was vipassana, which I thought meant that only the Four Elements are ultimate realities.

If I may clarify the above statement;
Yes, 32 parts or 'kuthasa' of the bodily constituents are 'panata' or conditional realities just like every mortal things we know of; and it is true that reciting these 32
using rosary beads is a samatha practice; just like contemplating 'anapa' or mindful breathing in itself is a samatha practice.

However, if these 32 are analytically reflected whilst practising vipassana meditation it may enhance the understanding of anata and help in developing enlightenment. It is even said to be a special kamathana for those who have too much ego and have great passions and lusts for beauty of female and male anatomy.
Likewise, when anapana is combined with vipassana it helps in developing enlightenment. The Four Elements practice is usually performed together with vipassana which is more elementary than the 32 parts as they go further generalisation.

The Mahasi Sayadaw mentioned the above statement you've quoted because there are some camps or Orders who practised 32 constituents as their mainstream practice
in Burma; and he just wanted to clarify that it is a samatha practice and not to be confused with vipassana practice which was not that popular in those days.

To surmarise, it is important to know the difference between 'ultimate reality' which is the unconditional truth; e.g. man, woman, 32 parts are all conditional truth, but they are only composed of the five aggregates or rupa (objects either living or inanimate) and nama (thoughts) which is the ultimate truth (paramata cissa); and if you go further generalisation they all composed of the four elements!

I hope this will explain your doubts.

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