Morbid meditation in Buddhist iconography
The contrast ugliness and beauty
By Vittorio Roveda @ (Copyright text and pictures)
Admin: Sothon Yem
This paper begins with the examination of the human body’s beauty and ugliness as conceived in Western art. Using examples of Thai and Cambodian paintings, I reached the understanding that the detachment from one own body puts an end to desires, the cause of life’s suffering. Awareness of the body’s impermanence and the need to emancipate from it can be achieved by meditating on corpses.
In this paper I contemplate the body as a beautiful entity, externally embellished and aesthetically attractive in a Western art’s contexts. In the total contrast, I examine also the body as a corpse, a cadaver, internally and externally, its dissolution in death, leading to the realization that attachments, cravings and desires are conditioning our life. The images of these to corporeal aspects brings me to examine Buddhist morbid meditation.
The objective of this paper is the human body in Buddhist iconography and the emancipation from all concerns about the body. To illustrate this it I recurred to two extreme examples:
- The deceptive sensuality of the body of the girls of Siddhartha’s harem
- The beautiful, sensual and provocative daughters of Mara
- The corruptibility of the physical body. Corpses, as the subject of Buddhist meditation.
Both aspects lead us to see that in the Buddhist doctrine there must be total detachment from the body, both in its pleasant and unpleasant aspects. Furthermore beauty leads to sensuality and desire, conflicts and to the endless samsara, cycle of repeated births and suffering.
The concept of body-beautiful has been idealized by Western art with the representation of nude bodies, the ‘nude’, from the sculptures of the Greeks, of the Romans, to the painting and sculptures of the Renaissance.
The women rejected
My first example of bodies depicted on murals, is the episode of “The women rejected”, described in the Lalitavistara, chapter XV (Rachet 1997: 174) or “the Women’s Sleep” (Foucher 2003:73). This happened in the occasion of Siddhartha giving farewell to wife and child.
When Siddhartha decided to live his father palace end “enter the world”, Indra assembled the gods. All were very pleased and each put forward some proposal to assist the Bodhisattva in his plan to leave. One god said he will put to sleep all the people of Kapilavastu; another that he will make imperceptible the noise of the horse’s hoofs; another offered a great chariot and another apsaras making music and chanting; another that he will open the city gates and show the way out. Finally, Dharmatchari, son of a god, proposed to give a disagreeable appearance to all the women of the Bodhisattva palace.
In mural painting this episode leads to the depiction of the girls of Siddhartha’s palace and harem: without garments, nude, in unseemly postures, with limbs vulgarly arranged; some still hanging on their musical instruments, harps and flutes, cymbals, tambourines.
In the Buddhacarita, Canto IV (Johnston 2004:44) the event is justified by the gods having intoxicated the women. Some girls have firm, rounded, close-set charming breasts; other let their garments to slip down displaying their hips, and making obscene proposals to the Bodhisattva.
Siddhartha experienced for a few years the pleasures of life, made available to him by fortune. He had only “one queen” Maja, his sole legitimate spouse, who mothered Rahula,. The girls mentioned and illustrated in the episode of the Bodhisattva departure from his luxurious private apartments were ballerinas and musicians whose duty was to entertain the prince.
By glancing at them Siddhartha felt uneasy as if he was surrounded by corpses for cremation, and had only one thought: to flee his harem and follow his firm decision to renounce worldly life.
For monastic authors, this event is too good an occasion to disclose their hatred and fears of women (misogynism); for the painters it was the best opportunity to depict voluptuous female bodies, topic that was unseen in Buddhist painting.
The Lalitavistara narrates the legendary event of the daughters of Mara (the Buddhist evil) tempting the Buddha. This gave another opportunity to painters to illustrate the sensuality of women’s body and the wicked attitudes in some women.
After being defeated by Buddha (Maravijaya), the evil Mara, taken by his pride, said to his daughters: “Girls, go to Bodhimanda (where Siddhartha was in the process of reaching the Enlightenment) and make sure that the Bodhisattva is not exempt to passions, verify if he is mad or sage, if he is blind or awake, if feeble or strong” (Lalitavistara, Rachet 1996: 262, chapter xxi).
The girls appeared in front of the Bodhisattva and displayed to him the 32 magic tricks of women, description of which is beyond the scope of this paper.
Following the Lalitavistara narrative, it is said that the girls displayed their sweet faces and the brilliance of their smile, lips red and fleshy like the Bimba fruits. Some flaunted their firm round breast; others loosed their transparent garments to reveal the golden chain around their hips or to show their naked thighs. Twitching their naked legs, emitting short screams, spreading the perfume of their body, looking like virgins. All this they did while exchanging lascivious look at the Bodhisattva, dancing and chanting, and at the same time observing the face of the Bodhisattva to spy any reaction. But he remained still, unshaken, like Mount Meru.
To excite him further, the girls chanted that they were available to him and asked him to get out from his meditative position and join them, join youth. As his slaves, they enticed him to look at them, their gorgeous bodies displayed uniquely for his pleasure.
The Bodhisattva, without flinching, without passion or agitation, firm in his determination, calmly and majestically said: “Desire is the root of all misery; desire for women cannot be satisfied. If one nourishes desire, is like the man that drinks salty water. Your bodies are like bubbles of water, like foam colored by illusion”.
He dismissed the three girls.
The girls, despite their magic, were taken by pride, anger, and intense passion reiterated the invitation to Siddhartha to abandon himself to the joy of desire. They invited him again to look at their bodies of a beauty rare even in the heavens.
The Bodhisattva said:”I see your bodies filled with impure matter and by a family of worms, soon to be consumed by diseases and infirmities of old age”. The desperate girls, seeing that all their maneuvers were in vain and could not seduce the young Prince, were taken by deep shame, saluted and greeted him, acknowledging his superiority and disappeared. The legend says they were transformed into old hugs.
Fig.1 – Mara’s daughters trying to seduce Siddhartha. Wat San Romeat (Siem Reap), Cambodia
Fig.2 - Mara’s daughters trying to seduce Siddhartha. Wat Pol Chen, Kampong Cham, Cambodia
Fig.3 – To the left of the picture, Mara’s daughters are dancing and playing music to distract Siddhartha form reaching Enlightenment. To the right of the panel, the three defeated sisters are shown departing transformed in old hugs by the future Buddha. Wat Bakong, (Siem Reap, Cambodia)
Fig.4 – When Siddhartha went to wish farewell to his wife and son, he saw a bunch of his harem girls sleeping unseemly. Wat Kock Sreuch, (Kampong Cham, Cambodia)
Fig.5 – The three daughters of Mara dancing in front of Buddha and then walking away as decrepit old women. Gilded stencils of Wat Xien Muang in Luang Prabang (Laos).
Meditation on dead bodies.
The second part of this paper deals with ugliness and the corruptibility of the physical body as the subject of Buddhist meditation. To illustrate it, I have to recur to painting from temples of Thailand where the practice was known apparently from the 13th century in the story of Preah Malay (Brerenton) that narrates, amongst other, the impermanence of body’s features as visible in corpses old and decomposed
The physical body is the source of repeated nuisance preventing escaping from conflicts. To break this chain of rebirths in order to reach eternal peace, it is imperative to realize the transitory nature of the body. This can be obtained by meditating upon the body as prescribed in Buddhist Scriptures (Vinaya, vol.3), the most adequate being the Maha Satipatthana Sutta or the Asubha Bhavana which lists the ten forms to counteract the different types of lust. The aversion for the body was recognized amongst the sages of India, but the meditation system is unique to Buddhism, probably since the early growth of the teaching.
It recommends as the object of meditation ten natural states of decay of a corpse according to ten different kinds of “Lustful disposition”.
- Swollen corpse, for those who lust after the beauty of body
- Discolored corpse, for those who lust after beauty of skin colour and complexion
- Festering corpse (stench), for those who lust after perfumed bodies with a flowers, perfumes and unguents
- Fissured corpse,(cracks in the skin), for those who lust after apparent firmness and solidity of the body
- Mangled corpse (mutilated), for those who lust after fullness of body’s flesh such as breasts [and genitals?]. It was recommended that monks should choose male corpses rather than female, the latter preferred by nuns.
- Dismembered corpse, for those who lust after graceful movements of the body
- Cut and dismembered corpse, for those who lust after perfection of body’s joints
- Bleeding corpse, for those who lust after beauty produced by ornaments
- Infested by worms corpse, for those who lust after the concept that the body is “I” and “mine”
- skeleton, for those who lust after perfection of teeth and nails.
According to the Asubha Bavana text of mediation, in old times, a monk had to perform meditation at night over a dead body abandoned in the forest. All precautions were taken in the choice of the location, time and equipment.
The dead body had to be observed as a manifold of impurities, hairs, flesh, skin, organs, excrement’s, fat, snot, and fluids (saliva, urine, etc). The body had to be seen as bag full of rice open at both ends, and the monk had to separate mentally each grain of rice, examine each elements in total awareness,” and remember: “In this body there are……, examining the body as a butcher when slaughtering a cow”.
The meditation must contemplate the body externally and internally and the monk to be able to remember all details when back to his monastery’s cell. Meditation on dead bodies leads to deep understanding of the impermanence of the body and the need to emancipate from it.
Personal view on morbid meditation
As a Western art historian, I have studied several temple-murals of mainland Southeast Asia (Fig.1-5) illustrating the extreme contrast between beautiful bodies and the ugliness of horrible putrefaction bodies (Fig.6-19); the contrast between deceptive sensuality and the impermanence of human body is visually demonstrated. It examines the way our society has visualized the body, beauty and impermanence.
The painted images of the body that I have selected here, clearly illustrate the Buddhist concept of impermanence. They are highlighting the features of the body alive and beautiful, and dead as decaying body, painted to educate viewers and transfer moral principles.
Scenes of morbid meditation were painted in Thailand, especially on manuscripts narrating the story of Phra Malay. In Cambodia, similar scenes were painted on Pra bots probably by Cambodian painters trained in Thailand at the end of the 19th century. In Bangkok, a small temple is devoted exclusively to morbid meditation, the Wat Thevarajakunchorn. All its mural are included in this work (see pictures).
In Southeast Asia there was - and is - a different attitude towards the body unduly covered. The psychological attitude of the artist (erotic or chaste preferences) was ruled by tradition and religious patronage of the period when the painting was made. Fear of nudity comes from centuries of inhibition. Even in India the body is always more or less dressed since the beginning of Buddhist art. Full male nudity was permitted exclusively in Jain art.
In the past women were allowed to be topless till the end of the 19th century but now, und westernized girls wear mini lingerie and bikini jeans.
In Western art, beauty was idealized in the representation of nude bodies,’ the Nude’, highlighted by the sculptures of the Greeks, the Romans, to the painting and sculptures of the Renaissance and the Baroque, to modern art where the nudes of Manet and Modigliani reach the highest prices in auctions and are the pride of Museums and collectors. The non-attachment of the body is due to the Buddhist doctrine and the concept of body’s beauty has no place in Buddhist art and iconography.
There are many publications about Buddhist Mediation and I recommend that of Francis Story (1995) available on the internet. The publication by Paravahera, mentioned in the bibliography, has been my main source of information.
Attached are 19 images related to the topic of this paper, five illustrating body’s beauty and fourteen the ugliness of decaying body. Those of Mara’s daughters tempting Siddhartha are from various monasteries of Cambodia, painted in the period 1980-90. The pra bot of the Phnom Penh National Museum (Fig.17) could be attributed to the end of the 19th century. The pra bot of Fig.16, to the middle of the 20th century, with strong western influence.
The gilded image from Luang Prabang (Fig.5) is a modern stencil restorations of antique images also stencilled.
The 14 pictures of monks meditating on corpses progressively decaying are from What Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok), tentatively dated around 1930 (Rama VI). The well-known painting on the wooden door of the library of Wat Ramkan (Fig.18) is of the 1788 (Rama I),
the oldest survived in Southeast in Southeast Asia.
All photographs are mine with reserved copyrights, taken in the period 1998-2013.
Brereton, Bonnie P. Thai Tellings of Phra Malai, Arizona State University, 1995
Buddhacarita, Edward Johnston, Delhi 2004
Lalitavistara, Guy Rachet, Ed.Sand, Paris, 1996
Paravahera, Vaijranana M., Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice, Buddhist Missionary Society, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1975
Story,Francis, Buddhist Meditation, 1995, available on internet at:
Bangkok, July 2016
 named Crawing, Discontent and Lust allegorical figures of Pleasure, Displeasure and Concupiscence
Fig.7 - A monk contemplating a dead man on the street. What Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.8 - A monk meditating on a corpse that starts to discolor and swell What Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.9 - A monk unwrapping a corpse for meditation. What Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.10 - A monk unwrapping a festering corpse. Wat Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.11 - A monk meditating on a dead body being eaten by a fox. Wat Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.12 - A monk unfastening as bloated corpse. Wat Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.13 - A monk unwrapping a mangling, suppurating corpse. Wat Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.14 - a monk meditating over a cut and dismembered corpse infected by worms and flies. Wat Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.15 - A monk meditating on a skeleton. Wat Thevarajunkhorn (Bangkok)
Fig.16 - A monk sitting in meditation (left) and a monk unwrapping a bloated corpse. Painted on a preah bot of a private collection.
Fig.17 - To the right from the Buddha descending from Tavatimsa, a monk is unwrapping a corpse attacked by tigers preparing for mediation. Preah bot at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
Fig. 18 – Contemplation on dead bodies. Lacquered painting on a door of Wat Ramkhang, Thonburi (Bangkok).