There is a type of Buddhist meditation that requires monks to find a corpse and meditate over its decay. This decay has ten stages — ten “foulnesses” — that a monk can contemplate, beginning with “the bloated” and ending with a dried-out skeleton. To do this, a monk journeys to a charnel ground, a dumping place for corpses, and finds a corpse that fulfills the specific foulness he wishes to meditate on. He then sets about observing its shapes, colors, concavities and convexities in the hopes of eliminating attachment to the physical world and attaining enlightenment.
In my class “Buddhist Traditions of Mind and Meditation,” we watched a time lapse of a decaying corpse. The head turned black, like charcoal, and collapsed into itself while the abdomen swelled, turning the color of a fading bruise, until it too suddenly collapsed — almost like it had exploded. From then on the body seemed to wither instead of grow as ribs and bones became more prominent and skin dried up and was sloughed off. The face had long ceased to resemble anything human.
This form of meditation is ancient, of course, but even contemporary monks contemplate corpses in morgues. More than just examining the body, the goal of this meditation is challenging fears and coming to love and treasure the very thing that first appeared so unpleasant. Reaching this point allows monks to change not only themselves, but also their view of the surrounding world.
* * *
In another class, I watched a documentary chronicling the life and work of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei. Some might be familiar with his series of photos showing famous landmarks, including Tiananmen Square, with his middle finger raised in a sarcastic salute. In his art and his life Ai Weiwei constantly challenges the status quo: Defacing priceless Neolithic vases with the Coca-Cola logo or smashing them to highlight the fragility of history and tradition are par for his course. For him, even something old or venerated might still need to change. This idea is the heart of his activism against the Chinese Communist Party: with every act and every video recording and every piece of art, Ai Weiwei faces down what he sees as a decrepit, bloated structure. In a country known for burying its mistakes, Ai Weiwei constantly confronts a “corpse” of his own.
In 2008 Ai Weiwei uncovered the names of over five thousand children killed during the Sichuan earthquake because shoddily-built government schools collapsed: five thousand corpses, with names and families, that the government refused to acknowledge to his satisfaction. Later, attempting to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, who also investigated theww earthquake, Ai Weiwei was assaulted by a police officer and later required an emergency operation on his brain. He filed claims against several government offices only to be turned away.
In 2011, Ai Weiwei was arrested, jailed and, upon release, forbidden to leave Beijing.
* * *
In the West, it can be hard to understand why anyone would voluntarily stare at a corpse; it often feels like people train themselves to avoid thinking about the “foul.” I know when I’m guilty of this: Avoiding a conflict or an awkward text message is oftentimes easier than forcing myself to examine the situation in its cringe-worthy minutiae. Those aren’t national crises, but they’re the little corpses — or maybe small pieces of one, like a dismembered hand — that I need to face.
At Yale, I don’t think the “foul” is given enough weight. We have the unparalleled privilege of critiquing any aspect of this institution we want, any “corpse,” without fear of reprimand. No police officer will hold us under 24/7 surveillance for months without explanation, like they did for Ai Weiwei, if we question Yale’s mental health policy. As a result, we often look away from the “foul,” accustomed as we are to aimless criticism with no follow-through.
What’s foul at Yale is the “corpse of fine.” As in the typical conversation: “How are you?” “Oh you know, fine.” It’s a cultivated culture of fine-ness: when everyone else seems “fine,” it’s hard to admit when you’re not, even to yourself. Yet for once we’ve done a good job of staring down this foul concept in demanding reforms to Yale’s mental health policies. The next step is to challenge ourselves, face our own fears and corpses. We might not be Buddhist monks or radical artists, but we can smash convention in our own way.