Depression and Suicidal Thoughts
(It looks like the first meditation given by Buddha resulted in suicidal depression, and perhaps some actual suicides. So he toned it down a bit to produce a milder form of depression.)
From a Dharma Talk at the Samye Buddhist Center
Referring to the corpse meditation: “The Buddha taught this specific meditation in order to help common people distance themselves temporarily from attachments. When he taught this for the first time, many of his followers, among many of whom were monks, nuns and serious, intense practitioners who did not have a particularly problem with desire, practiced so much on revulsion on the body that they became suicidal. So the Buddha had to give a new teaching to counteract this mistake.”
“If one looks into the state of one’s mind and discovers that one’s predominant emotional complexity is desire, the Buddha has described three methods that can be used to deal with this emotional complexity. The first method consists of contemplating on impurity, the second method is contemplating on ugliness, and the third method consists of contemplating on the skeleton.
Reflection on impurity is done by reflecting on one’s body. By contemplating, one will discover many essentially impure substances within one’s body, for example bones, puss and so on. Buddha said that there exists 36 of such substances altogether. By going through all of these, one contemplates on the physical substances that are connected with our physical existence. This will lessen the attachment of desire that was identified as the predominant complexity.
Contemplation on ugliness is done by contemplating on a corpse. This can be done by approaching an actual physical corpse, or it can be done by visualizing a corpse within one’s mind. The point is to develop some kind of renunciation. Altogether, the Buddha has prescribed nine different ways of contemplating on ugliness, as for example the meditation on a rotten corpse, but we do not need to go into detail about these meditations here.
Q: Can you say some more on the meditation on the corpse?
Rinpoche: I talked about nine of the contemplations as antidotes to temporarily suppress the emotional complexity of attachment to desire. This teaching is from the general vehicle of the Buddha’s teachings. From the perspective of the tantric approach, there is a totally different way of dealing with such complexities. Instead of suppressing the emotional complexities just temporarily, you can from the very beginning liberate them in their own place. You have to bear in mind that this was taught with the perspective of the general vehicle. From the perspective of tantra, you don’t involve yourself with ideas such as the impurity of the body of yourself or others. The tantric teaching of Buddhism suggests that you should regard your body as the mandala of the fully enlightened Buddha and all enlightened beings. So there is no mention of impurities, dirt and so on.
The Buddha taught this specific meditation in order to help common people distance themselves temporarily from attachments. When he taught this for the first time, many of his followers, among many of whom were monks, nuns and serious, intense practitioners who did not have a particularly problem with desire, practiced so much on revulsion on the body that they became suicidal. So the Buddha had to give a new teaching to counteract this mistake.
These specific contemplations, the 36 impure substances of the body and the nine disgusting states of the corpse, is associated with the first turning of the wheel of the Dharma, and more particularly with the first of the four noble truths that the Buddha taught – the truth of suffering.”