BuddhismTemples

Corpse Meditation Murals at Wat Um Long

The small old ubosot at Wat Um Long in Thoen, Lampang province, is interesting and unusual in many ways. The most interesting for me is that the majority of interior wall space is covered with murals of a monk doing corpse meditation. (The rest are scenes from the life of the Buddha.) This is not an uncommon subject matter for inclusion in temple paintings, but it's rare for it to be featured prominently.

Wat Um Long corpse meditation mural and life of Buddha mural

The Nine Cemetery Contemplations, as it's formally known, is a practice encouraged by the Buddha for understanding and accepting the impermanence of all things and is explained in detail in the Pali Canon.

(1) If a monk sees a body dead one, two, or three days; swollen, blue and festering, thrown in the charnel ground, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: "Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it."…
(2) And further, monks, as if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms...
(3) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons...
(4) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton blood-besmeared and without flesh, held together by the tendons...
(5) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together by the tendons...
(6) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions here a bone of the hand, there a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull...
(7) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bleached bones of conchlike color...
(8) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground reduced to bones, more than a year-old, lying in a heap...
(9) if a monk sees a body thrown in the charnel ground, reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he then applies this perception to his own body thus: "Verily, also my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it."
…His mindfulness is established with the thought: "The body exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and mindfulness, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world.

The Wat Um Long paintings go back to the mid-20th century, but corpse meditation is still practiced in Thailand by monks and lay people. Though since there are no longer charnel grounds in Thailand, usually gruesome photos of decomposing corpses are used in place of actual corpses. But not always. Some temples are known for doing corpse mediation and families of people who die unexpectedly (such as in a motorcycle crash) and thus the bodies will not be promptly cremated are sometimes given to these temples to use for meditation; not unlike a family donating a body to medical science. Other times monks meditate in front of crypts and coffins without actually seeing the bodies.

Wat Um Long corpse meditation mural

Wat Um Long corpse meditation mural

Wat Um Long corpse meditation mural

Wat Um Long corpse meditation mural

Wat Um Long corpse meditation mural

 

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