What is “Kāya” in Kāyānupassanā?

Revised May 20, 2018; February 17, 2019; June 7, 2024

1. There are two meanings to “kāya”: (i) “kāya” for the body, and (ii) the other “kāya” means “collections” or “aggregates” of anything: rūpa, vēdana, saññā, saṅkhāra, or viññāna.

  • Sabba” means all. Therefore, “sabba kāya” is the same as “pancakkhandha” or, more correctly, “pancupādānakkhandha”; see “Five Aggregates – Introduction.” and follow-up posts.
  • In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, one contemplates on the five aggregates via four categories (kāyānupassanā, vēdanānupassanā, cittānupassanā,  and dhammānupassanā).
  • The kāyānupassanā deals with both types of “kāya.” “Kāya” + “anupassanā” rhymes as “kāyānupassanā“; see, “Satipaṭṭhāna – Introduction“.

2. We experience pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, touch (different types of rūpa), and dhammā (things we think about or recall.)

  • Note that dhammā are different from dhamma (without the long “a” at the end) in Buddha Dhamma; the latter dhamma refers to “teachings of the Buddha.”
  • Even though “rūpa” is commonly used to describe “material objects” (which are really “vaṇṇa rūpa” or “rūpa rūpa”),   rūpa includes sounds (sadda rūpa), smells (gandha rūpa), tastes (rasa rūpa), and touch (phoṭṭhabba rūpa).
  • For the rest of the post, I will just use the term “rūpa” to include sounds, smells, tastes, and touch, as well as visuals.
  • Dhammā are a type of rūpa, too, but they are below the suddhāṭṭhaka stage and “cannot be seen or touched”: “anidassanaṃ, appaṭighaṃ, dhammāyatana pariyāpanna rupam“; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhammā are rūpa too!“.

3. Something is a picture or a visual object only when one sees it. A moment later, it is only a memory, now a “memory of an old picture.” If we visualize a house that we are building, that is also a picture in the memory plane, an “envisioned future picture.”

  • In the Anatta Lakkha Sutta (SN 22.59), “all rūpa” are described as 11 categories: “Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītā­nāgata­pac­cup­pan­naṃ ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, sabbaṃ rūpaṃ..“. They are past, present, future, near, far, likable, distasteful, fine (not strong), coarse (strong), internal, and external; see also “Five Aggregates – Introduction.”
  • For example, feelings (vēdana) khandha can be any of the 11 categories. Here, near and far means recent or way back in the past. Internal is one’s own and external is feelings of the others; one needs to be aware of other’s feelings in the sense that “if I do this, it could cause a feeling of grief to so and so”, as an example.

4. It is good to contemplate these concepts and understand how different representations mean the same things: Pancupādānakkhandha is the same as “sabba kāya”; both include “everything in this world.” Please send me a comment if this is not clear. Many people think “Kayānupassanā” is just about one’s body, which is incorrect.

  • But we don’t think about the “whole world.” We think about a tiny fraction of that “world out there.” AND we get attached to (taṇhā) even a smaller fraction.
  • Thus, even though pancakkhandha (five aggregates) is unimaginably large, the fraction of pancakkhandha that we consciously interact with form attachments (via greed, anger, or ignorance) (pancupādānakkhandha) is relatively small. Upādāna means “drawn to” (or “pull close to in the mind”), and that is what one grasps willingly because one thinks there is happiness in them.
  1. For example, we all know about the zillions of stars or other planets in our solar system, but we do not generate greed or hate about them. We only attach to some of the pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch that we interact with daily, which is a tiny fraction of the “world out there.” The biggest component of our “pancupādānakkhandha” is the dhamma aggregate, the things we think about. Let us discuss this a bit more.
  • Thus, we are concerned with only a tiny fraction of “sabba kāya“: Only those that lead to greed, anger, or ignorance. This is the same as pancaupādanakkhandha. 

6. When we contemplate this a bit more, we realize that most of the pictures, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches we think about belong to the dhammā category; see #2 above.

  • A long series of thoughts may start with an “old picture” in our memory (say, an old friend), and then we start generating more thoughts about that person. Then we get into something altogether different: We may think about the nice neighborhood that person is living in and then start thinking about building a house there. Thus, we may think (generate saṅkhāra) about something totally different. Thus, it now belongs to the dhammā category.
  • Later, we must focus on such thoughts or dhammā in the “cittānupassana” and “dhammānupassana.” What we need to do in “Kāyānupassanā” is to mainly control our speech and actions first. This way, we can slowly change our habits (gati) and start controlling our “automatic actions” that we used to do almost on impulse.

7. We already discussed how we need to be “morally mindful” while we are in any of the four main postures (Iriyapathapabba) and also in any of the “sub-postures” or any action (sampajānapabba).

  • For example, when we see a likable picture (a person or an item), we need to immediately think about whether it is appropriate to take the action that automatically comes to our mind with our old habits. We may be waiting at the airport for the next flight and see a bar; instead of going there and having a drink, it may be more productive to get on the internet and read something useful. It is more productive to take a nap if one is tired.
  • In another example, someone may come to you and accuse you of doing something wrong. Instead of retaliating, it may be a good idea to calm down and listen to that person first to see whether you have unknowingly done something to aggravate that person.

8. As we discussed in the post, “What do all these Different Meditation Techniques Mean?“  Anupassanā means “see and discard defilements according to the principles learned” (“anu” means “defilements” and “passanā” means to “see”). We need to think logically about what would happen if a certain action were taken. If that leads to a “bad ending,” we must refrain from such an action.

  • Thus, “Kāyānupassanā” in the iriyāpatapabba and the sampajānapabba means to contemplate the moral consequences of an act one is about to do and abstain from doing it if it seems to have bad consequences.

9. There are three sections in the Kāyānupassanā where one specifically contemplates the physical body. These are patikulamanasikāra pabba, dhātumanasikāra pabba, and navasivatika pabba. These sections involve contemplating the nature of our physical bodies.

  • In the patikulamanasikāra pabba, the 32 parts of the body are discussed. Those body parts are not very appealing when separated from each other. It is amazing how our wrong perception of hair on the dinner plate differs from our admiration for the hair attached to our heads. The hair on the plate could be one of our own, but still, we do not like it.
  • We admire and care for the nails on our fingers, and some ladies paint them, too. But as soon as they are cut and separated, they become unappealing.

10. We form a liking for the “whole complete package” with all 32 parts that are in “good condition.” We get distraught when hair starts greying or skin starts sagging. A beautiful person may become ugly instantly if the face becomes disfigured due to an injury.

  • The reality is that all of the above IS GOING TO HAPPEN to us in the future. As long as there is birth, there is decay and death.

11. The section (pabba) on dhātumanasikāra pabba is to contemplate the fact that all our bodies are composed of just four entities. They are patavi (solidness), apo (liquid-ness/tendency to bind together), tejo (heat or warmth), vayo (wind). Out of the six dhātu, akāsa (space) is there too, but viññāna (consciousness) does not belong to the physical body.

  •  Those four things make all bodies — whether beautiful or ugly. There is nothing special.

12. The third section (pabba) of the physical body, navasivatika pabba, is to contemplate what happens to a dead body over many months if left out on the ground to decay. (That was commonly done at the time of the Buddha.)

  • Again, whether it is the body of a homeless person or an emperor, the same decay process will take place. Eventually, all body parts will be absorbed into the ground or released into the air.

13. All three of those sections are to help us lose attachments to our physical bodies. The purpose is NOT to get distraught but to develop the wisdom to realize that body decay is bound to happen.

  • A major component of our suffering arises when we eventually realize we cannot maintain things to our satisfaction. Most people do not like to think about this inevitability. They want to do “whatever it takes” to maintain a beautiful body. The more one does that, the more one will be depressed later.
  • Instead, we should try to maintain a healthy body by eating well and sticking to a good exercise program. The “eye-catching aspect” does not matter more. One should be more concerned with the health of the body.
  • Eating healthy foods and exercising regularly (see “Spark” by John Ratey“) will keep the body and mind in good condition so that we will have enough time to at least reach the Sotāpanna stage of Nibbāna.

14. It is important to remember that in all these “anupassanā“, we need to contemplate on the Three Characteristics of nature (anicca, dukkha, anatta) when we contemplate on the unfruitfulness in attaching to “things and concepts”.

  • Also, examining the potentially “bad outcomes” of immoral and unwise actions is essential.  We should also consider the wisdom of our stressful attempts to maintain our body appearances. (Especially using artificial techniques like Botox). The sooner we realize this, the less stressful it will be.

15. Finally, in those three sections on the body, patikulamanasikāra pabba, dhātumanasikāra pabba, and navasivatika pabba, we need to contemplate not only our own body (this is what ajjhatta means in these three sections), but also on the bodies of others (this is what bahiddhā means in these three sections).

  • We can contemplate other humans (famous, poor, rich, young, old, etc.) and animals. It does not matter who or what it is; we all will eventually become dust. But, for many, this realization comes only after going through much effort in vain to keep the body “beautiful” via artificial means; then it could be too late.
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