In Praise of Disgust
by Dan Nussbaum
A sutta in the Pali canon describes the case of a man named Girimananda who “was afflicted with a disease, was suffering therefrom, and was gravely ill.” (Piyadassi translation.)
When the Buddha hears about G.s suffering he tells his assistant Ananda he might go and offer the sick man ten areas of contemplation which the Buddha will prepare for him. I’m reading two translations of the sutta side by side, Piyadassi’s and Thanisarro’s, and at this point of the story, they diverge.
Piyadassi has the Buddha saying that when the sick man listens to Ananda “(he) will be immediately cured of his disease.” Thanissaro presents a less grandiose Buddha who only says, “it’s possible that when he hears (what you tell him) his disease may be allayed.” I like the Buddha’s modesty in this version. He’s modest, though not shy. The Buddha clearly wants his emissary to be direct when he has the patient consider this:
Many are the sufferings, many are the disadvantages (dangers) of this body since diverse diseases are engendered in this body, such as the following: Eye-disease, ear-disease, nose-disease, tongue-disease, body-disease, headache, mumps, mouth-disease, tooth-ache, cough, asthma, catarrh, heart-burn, fever, stomach ailment, fainting, dysentery, swelling, gripes, leprosy, boils, scrofula, consumption, epilepsy, ringworm, itch, eruption, tetter, pustule, plethora, diabetes, piles, cancer, fistula, and diseases originating from bile, from phlegm, from wind, from conflict of the humors, from changes of weather, from adverse condition (faulty deportment), from devices (practiced by others), from kamma-vipaka(results of kamma); and cold, heat, hunger, thirst, excrement, and urine.’ Thus he dwells contemplating disadvantage (danger) in this body. (Piyadassi.)
For anyone looking for a novel word to use in naming the ills that flesh is heir to, I refer you to “tetter” above. It means various kinds of skin eruptions, such as acne, blisters, eczema, impetigo or herpes sores.
The Buddha also suggests investigations into how undependable almost everything is; how unattractive our bodies are when you think about our kidneys, livers and intestines; and the error of seeing these kidneys, etc., along with thoughts, feelings and perceptions as belonging to an enduring self.
Someone who’s ill doesn’t have much capacity for the pursuit of ordinary satisfactions or goals but may be receptive to thoughtful self-examination. The Buddha understands that in G.’s state of suffering he will want to know more about how he got to where he is. So the Buddha includes a culminating area of investigation which Thannisaro translates as “the perception of the undesirability of all fabrications.”
Here is the case where a monk feels horrified, humiliated, & disgusted with all fabrications. This is called the perception of the undesirability of all fabrications.
Horrified. Disgusted. Somehow I needed to get there too. It’s part of my own journey to the path. Students of meditation may be more comfortable with hearing about detachment, which in fact has its own section earlier in the sutta. But now we’re in the territory of a pervasive revulsion. The word fabrications is a way of denoting the repetitive world of experience we’re caught up in. Life. A world of experience that’s continually being built by wanting and wanting more, hostility and confusion.
It’s not just pain that brings us to a path that leads to a liberating upheaval in consciousness. This path can also begin with feeling disgust. You either feel it or you don’t. It can’t be manufactured. The idea is that when it arises, you don’t have to turn away from a feeling that in most circumstances we don’t want to have anything to do with.
At the end of the sutta Thanissaro says that G. “recovered from his disease” and Piyadassi says that “his affliction was immediately cured.” I think the sutta is working metaphorically with the word disease. What’s physical illness at the beginning becomes a disease of the body, mind and spirit as the sutta progresses. G. experiences liberation of mind when he goes through the ten contemplations, although whatever was bothering his body probably feels better too.