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  • Writer's pictureBhang, Youngmoon

Observation of the Dead Body(屍身觀察) - the ancient meditation that gave birth to civilization

Notes for my photo work

<순야타 suññatā 空>, 2021 (c) BHANG Youngmoon

Whether the Buddha statue originated in the Indian subcontinent or is a product of Macedonian culture, a Greek culture that was transmitted to the Gandhara region that is Pakistan in present-day, there was a basic rule that “Thou shall not make for yourself the Buddha’s image in the form of anything.” Away from such arguments, when we see the figures (statues) of the Buddha, most of them depict a figure immersed in some kind of thought.

In process of making photo works, imagining, and immersing in deep thought is an essential process for artists. There are various kinds of methods, but I take a rather static method than loud or kinetic. For this reason, I usually sit for a long time and dive in my sea of thought what most people call ‘meditation’, but I just don’t want call it that way.

In fact, the Buddha did not secretly pass on or hide something like secret, I think. The process of attaining enlightenment on his own are conveyed in detail. One example is the system in <Dīgha Nikāya> that has been revealed to us. From breathing to observation techniques, very detailed contents are transmitted. Depending on the etymological interpretation, there may be differences in whether the Pallaṅka(paryaṅka), the way he sits, is viewed as Siddhasana(Adept’s Pose - which can be translated as 'Master's Seat') or Padmasana(lotus pose - a cross-legged seat) such as a The Seat of Good Fortune(吉祥坐) or The Demon-Subduing Seat(降魔坐).

There are differences in such iconography, etymology, and interpretation in the historical context, but it is clear that the Buddha himself answered people's questions, and he did not attempt to secretly convey or hide certain things.

I’ve found a interesting research on the history of human brain development and the development of the idea of God of a psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, deputy director of Stanley Medical Research Institute, by historically tracing the use and development of the brain. The content that is very closely connected to a part of <Diga Nikaya> is interesting.

Observation of the dead body(屍身觀察),

that is, observation and understanding called ‘9 correlations (九相觀)’.

In a way, this is also the root of the oldest meditation of human race.

From the photo series <순야타 suññatā 空>

Modern society - a society far from death

Many languages of mankind choose to express human's death indirectly. In a way, this can be seen as originating from the negation of death. Most of human society as well as modern society have denied death in various ways.

One is to assume the immanence of an eternal and immutable, eternal soul is in us. On the contrary, if we delve into the materialist perspective, we may take the way that meaning of life cannot be important and think of it as just a spark of material phenomena. One side may be viewpoint of religious people or sometimes, it’s superstitious. And the other one can be objective or scientific. But actually, both sides take just different viewpoints, and it is difficult to find any meaning beyond. It’s just 'denying death’ as a frightened little child.

Moreover, the modern society is very far from the reality of death. We can encounter the death of others through various media, but we rarely experience it in our closest relationship or real death of people. In fact, when we eat food every day, we eat food, that is, living things. We always take a place for ourselves very far from harvesting or slaughtering, unconsciously. And we immerse ourselves in deriving only the perspective of ‘food' without thinking enough about the death of living things. We enjoy to take pictures of foods every day, like a bizarre ceremony with parts of other living things, flesh and organs, intestines of other living things, and parts of plants and animals. Nowadays, when we encounter unjust deaths through the media, we show our sympathy for them, but also performs bizarre rituals several times a day, immersed in a life that is literally out of balance.

Awareness of Death made Homo sapiens, modern human society

E. Fuller Torrey notes that hominins have seen the death of others last 6 million years, and we are also remembering dead people and beginning to unravel it’s meaning. The death of other living things was leading to a 'familiar situation' for intelligent creatures. He explain that other animal, except modern Homo sapiens, seems to fully understand death. He also insists that the development of autobiographical memory is a prerequisite for such an understanding - even in chimpanzees there is no sign of understanding of death.

The point is that unlike today, even intermittent burial of corpses did not take place until 100,000 years ago, early hominins witnessed corpses in various stages of decomposition. E. Fuller Torrey pays attention to the point of view of 'ancestral worship' that started when Homo-sapiens encountered a wild granary in its natural state and attempted 'settlement' and the accumulation of cultures began to take place. Whether it is a civilization that assumes the essence of immortal human beings as a soul, or a civilization that considers the judgment of history, the same thing has given rise to numerous justifications in 'ancestral worship' or its relationship, and such traces remain historical and Religious, cultural and superstitious. Many 'transcendental expressions' have been found in the archaeological sites such as Göbekli Tepe, Hallan Çemi and Nevalı Çori. By archaeologists, there is a consensus of opinion, these kinds of expressions are amorphous expression for their ancestors(not Aliens), just as they lived with their ancestors’ bones in their houses.

"And again, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu should see a body, one day dead, or two days dead, or three days dead, swollen, blue and festering, discarded in the charnel ground, he then compares it to his own body thus: "Truly this body is of the same nature, it will become like that and cannot escape from it." Thus he dwells perceiving again and again the body as just the body in himself…. Thus, bhikkhus, this is also a way in which a bhikkhu dwells perceiving again and again the body as just the body.”

- <Dīgha Nikāya>

Mahasatipatthana Sutta (大念處經),

Navasivathika Pabba (Section on Nine Stages of Corpses)


9 Stages of Corpses(九相觀) is a famous content appearing in <Dīgha Nikāya>. This is a description of the conduct of observations that are segmented according to the decomposition stage of the corpse. Through meditation, observing death and the decay of the corpse, we can understandd that we and our body would be the same, and pondered what we should really look for.

(In my opinion) This is in fact consistent with the foundations of various civilizations of Homo sapiens. It is an insight gained through such observation and immersion in the death of others. E. Fuller Torrey emphasizes that this 'autobiographical memory' is the ability to enable these kind of behaviors. Understanding death is something that cannot be achieved unless the creature is intelligent enough to predict the future through empathy for others and understanding that ‘the aspect of myself’ is constantly changing, it can’t be forever. Also, this must have been a powerful driving force that made human beings those who are able to separate concepts and facts to imagine another world, another dimension.

The understanding of myself can also be polarized into 2 ways, these are often understood as Ārambhavāda(積聚說 - The ideology which believes that effect is produced sequentially after the sequential destruction of the cause) and Pariṇāmavāda(轉變說 - Transformation theory: pre-supposes the cause to be continually transforming itself into its effects in ancient Indian philosophy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the attitude to pursue the transcendental world or the attitude to view all these things only as a result of material combinations, are came from the fear of death and the denial of it, in fact.

There is a risk that thinking deeply about the facts of life and death may lose balance and lean toward a spiritual or materialistic perspective, but what can be gained by overcoming such risks and finding balance can be certainly valuable and profound. So today, I take it as a process of creating my new photo works through thinking about it.

I'm not saying that the universe is infinite because I don't know what infinity is,

I’m not talking about the eternal world because I don’t know what eternity is.

Knowledge comes from reflection and acceptance, not from logical understanding.



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