When I was living in the Peradeniya University Vihara during my last years in Sri Lanka (2004-7) I would many times go down to the anatomy department in the University of Medicine to see the cadavers.
As part of mindfulness training the Buddha taught contemplation on the charnel grounds as a way to let go of lust, delusion and attachment to the body:
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 … 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 … a skeleton, with flesh and blood, bound together by tendons … a skeleton, without flesh, smeared with blood, bound together by tendon … 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.”
The practice of monks visiting morturies is quite common in Buddhist countries, and in Sri Lanka at least, it is part of the legal system that monks must be allowed access to see and contemplate the bodies.
Students at Peradeniya
It has to be done with wisdom and understanding of its significance, of course, which is why most medical students don’t get enlightened, but when you see your own fate it really does lead to a loss of interest (nibbida) in this sorrowful world.
There was a famous case in Sri Lanka probably in the 80s of an American monk who had a cadaver brought to his cave so he could watch it rot down, which is slowly did over a period of weeks.
Whether it was that experience or because the monk was too intense in everything he did he eventually lost his balance and ended up disrobing, returning to the States, where I heard he still leads a very ascetic life in the forests of California.
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Bhikkhu Sumedha, whose fifth anniversary falls next Wednesday donated his body to science: specifically he wanted his eyes to go to the eye-bank at the Peradeniya hospital, and his body to go to the anatomy department for dissection.
He eventually passed away at 10.30 pm on a Friday evening, the day before the Christmas holidays started, and although his eyes were immediately removed, we were very nearly unable to get his body to the anatomy department in time.
There is only 12 hours from certificate of decease to the time when the formaldehyde needed to be injected to preserve the body, and because of the holidays and staff coming in late we very nearly didn’t make it.
The Buddhist Publication Society had sent their van over to the mortuary where the body was refrigerated, and I helped get it to the van, and over to the anatomy department – I remember being surprised at how heavy it was, seeing he was nothing but skin and bones at the end.
Others made frantic phone calls to the head of the department, who had to drop everything she was doing at home and rush to the hospital, and get it opened up.
Dedication of Merits
There was a quick chanting and dedication of merits led by Bhante’s friend Ven. Y. Dhammapala, and the body was rushed in for preservation. It was then 10.35am, five minutes late, but it was accepted.
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Today’s documentary is about people who donate their bodies, as Bhante did, to medical science.
The film includes interviews with the people who have agreed to give their bodies, and finds out their motivations, what they expect and hope from making this, their final donation, at least in this life.
We then see the bodies – and the students – being prepared for dissection, and the film shows quite graphically how the bodies are dissected, and what interesting bits and pieces lie just beneath the skin.
It also includes interviews with students, who relate their feelings about their studies and about the cadavers they are working with. Interestingly, some of them at least seem to develop a relationship with the body over the two years of their studies and dissection.
One of the most interesting parts of the film is near the end, when the students have finished their studies, and are then shown interviews with the donors recorded earlier, which leads to some emotional scenes.
If you are not a monk, or (like me) are in a country where monks are not allowed access to the dissection room, then this is one way that you can do the contemplation recommended by the Buddha above, and contemplate your own mortality for a while.
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