Perceiving the Unbeautiful

Ajahn Yatiko • July 2012

Yesterday Luang Por Pasanno spoke on the theme of asubha kammaṭṭhāna—contemplating the unbeautiful. This topic can be embarrassing for Westerners to talk about because it seems like such a foreign and strange concept, deeply personal and almost taboo. Why do we contemplate the unbeautiful? The answer isn’t immediately obvious, but if we look at this question in terms of our own experience, we begin to see its benefit in our practice.

There is a strong tendency to judge and slap a perception on everything we experience, and it could be said that whatever we experience is filtered through these perceptions. In particular, we habitually distinguish objects as either beautiful or unbeautiful. There is something within us that creates this perception. But in fact, it’s merely a perception, not the ultimate truth of things. We can perceive anything in the world as being beautiful or unbeautiful depending on the way we’ve been conditioned to look at it, but when we look at the body, we almost always see it as beautiful and ignore its unbeautiful features. That’s our default bias. There is a deeply ingrained tendency toward creating and perceiving the beautiful in the body. We become attached to the beautiful, worry and fight about it, and become distressed when we lose it.

We all have rāga-taṇhā, sensual desire, as part of our being. If our parents didn’t have rāga-taṇhā, we wouldn’t be here. When sensual desire is present, we want to perceive the beautiful in the body. When it’s not present, the body doesn’t seem so beautiful anymore—it doesn’t appeal to us in the same way. We’re no longer in the grip of a desire that can lead to painful mind states and regrettable behavior. This is where asubha practice comes in. When we start thinking about what comprises the human body—bones, sinews, blood, intestines, undigested food, the heart, the whole lot of it—we may come to realize that these objects have an unattractive quality to them.

When left to our own devices, we tend to only focus on the thin layer of skin that wraps around these unattractive objects, ignoring everything else. Or we convince ourselves that the skin is of a different nature than the rest of our body—but how could that be so? How could the skin be of a different nature? The unbeautiful quality of skin and of what it contains are exactly the same, but because we’ve created a fixed perception that the skin is beautiful, we see it in that way.

The fact is, nothing in the world is inherently beautiful or ugly. These are merely qualities we create and project onto the world. We can create an entire universe of perceptions around the beautiful and the ugly, which then dictate to us what we want or don’t want. It becomes a heavy experience, a heavy reality, which is completely unnecessary. Asubha practice can help liberate us from this tyranny of entrenched perceptions.

Initially, there can be a strong resistance to asubha kammaṭṭhāna. This resistance is rāga itself—the desire that does not want to give up the perception of beauty. Recognizing and investigating this resistance can be very interesting and a profound experience in its own right as well as a direct way of working with fear. Even so, we might say to ourselves, I didn’t take up the Buddha’s teachings to focus on the unbeautiful! But actually, this is a significant part of the Buddha’s teachings, and it doesn’t in any way overshadow the beauty of those teachings. In fact, the feelings that arise from asubha practice are themselves quite beautiful—feelings of letting go, release, and freedom. It also helps in overcoming our resistance to recall that asubha practice is to be done within the supporting framework of loving-kindness toward ourselves and others.

However, we do need to apply this practice with discernment, to watch out for any difficulties that arise. If we find ourselves getting negative results from the practice, it’s perfectly fine to put it aside for weeks, months, or even years if necessary. However, it’s worth working with the difficulties, because asubha kammaṭṭhāna is such a potentially rewarding practice. Eventually, if we use this practice repeatedly, we will likely discover that it’s an extremely useful tool for the realization of Dhamma.