Theravada certainly has a marked negative outlook, negativity is the tendency to consider only the bad, the ugly or the deficient side of things.
Traditionally, the Theravadin monks will attend funerals, but none of the happy or happy rites of passage of life.
You can see the spiritual meaning of illness, decay and death, but nothing positive about a wedding, a birth or maturity. When we look at the Theravada’s discourse on virtue we see this same tendency. The first chapter of the Visuddhimagga, that great compendium of the Theravada, is entitled ‘A description of virtue’ and is the longest and most detailed analysis of morality in all traditional Theravadin literature.
According to Buddhaghosa, the function of virtue is to stop bad actions and to avoid guilt and its «immediate causes» are remorse and shame.Beginning with this negative note, proceed in the same way for your fifty-eight pages. There is hardly any mention of actually doing something that one would normally consider virtuous. Virtue is defined and described, its immediate causes and kamemic effects are discussed in detail, but in the final analysis it is presented completely as avoiding bad instead of truly doing something good. But the Visuddhimagga was written centuries ago, perhaps Theravada has become more inclusive ever since.
Commenting on this analysis, Damien Keown says «… despite the details provided by Buddhaghosa, the harvest in terms of a deeper understanding of Sila is disappointingly scarce. He skimps on what are the most promising areas for us and goes into great detail … on the issues of monastic behavior and the trivial infractions of the Vinaya … ‘
The experts give almost total coverage to the teaching that describes the cause of human suffering and completely ignore the one that describes the exit of that suffering.
If we look at the ‘links’ in each of these schemes we see the reason for this.The first is about the experiences of «grief, pain, suffering, lamentation, pain and despair» with which Theravadins has a fixation. The second is about faith, joy, joy, serenity, happiness, knowledge and vision and, ultimately, freedom, things in which Theravadins has little interest. The tendency to ignore the positive or to comment on it, to do it as briefly as possible or at least more briefly than the negative, can be seen in almost all aspects of Theravada.
Now let’s take a look at meditation. The Buddha taught many different types of meditation. Some of these, such as the contemplation of death or the contemplation of the disgusting of food, could be called negative in the sense that they induce contention, detachment and the cooling of emotions. Others such as mettā bhavana could be described as positive in the sense that they elevate, give joy or arouse enthusiasm.
It seems likely that the Buddha has taught this rich variety of contemplations to serve different types of personalities, to help deal with specific problems, develop certain virtues and balance each other.
Let’s take a look at how meditation is presented in the Visuddhimagga.Buddhaghosa devotes eleven full pages to meditation on death, while twenty-six generous pages are devoted to meditation on the repulsiveness of the body.
But it is in describing the contemplation of decomposing corpses that Buddhaghosa is really in his element. Throughout nineteen full pages, he stops lovingly and in minute detail about the putrid flesh, swollen viscera and worms that sprout from the eye sockets.
On the contrary, when he begins to elaborate meditations that can lift the heart and refresh the mind, his imaginative capacity seems to be exhausted. The memory of generosity, for example, is passed on in less than three pages, while the memory of peace has only two pages. Other positive meditations such as the memory of spiritual friendship (kalyanamittaanussati, AV, 336) are completely ignored.
The meditation manuals of the modules show this same preference for the negative. Most will give mettā bhavana a lot of space, but other positive meditations are given little or no importance, while the contemplation of food disgust and death are almost always included.
This last contemplation and the practices that surround it have acquired an almost talismanic meaning in Theravada. Any meditation center in Sri Lanka that deserves the name must have its rickety human skeleton in view. Thai meditation centers and even sometimes ordinary monasteries often have a collection of gruesome photographs happily provided by local police showing autopsies, swollen corpses and mutilated murder victims.
A book called «Treasury of Truth» consists of a translation of the Dhammapada with color images that illustrate the verses. 21% of the images in the book show images of human corpses or skeletons.
I have before me the biography of a popular contemporary Thai meditation monk that includes this paragraph: «Seeing day by day the decomposition of the bodies, he lived with these rotten corpses that swelled, with blood and bloody fluids emanating and also with the smell to rotten meat. To expose and search the internal organs for contemplation, he cut off the rotten bodies, extracted some organs and kept them in liquid. Living side by side with these corpses allowed him to progress well on the path of Dhamma. « If this monk really spent months in such a macabre environment, I do not know, but to take him seriously as a meditator he would have to say that he did.
In Theravada necrophilia it is almost synonymous with spiritual virtuosity.
The typically crude psychology of Theravada is that beauty causes attachment and therefore that wallowing in repulsiveness leads to detachment. Ironically, if evidence is needed that this is not true, it is enough to read the Vinaya, which contains numerous stories about monks making this contemplation. they ended up copulating or masturbating over corpses, including those in advanced stages of decomposition (Vin.III, 36).
The Vinaya states that up to 60 monks committed suicide once the Buddha gave a talk praising the contemplation on the repulsiveness of the body (Vin.III, 67). One might think that this would be enough for meditation teachers to recommend this practice only with caution. Not so It is quite usual that I teach it to anyone who comes to meditation instruction.
It is possible to see groups of young Thai monks laughing out loud and making obscene comments about a collection of particularly nauseating photos of female corpses that were passing each other.
Now one could ask; «If the Theravada is so negative, why are the people in the Theravadines so warm and friendly?» While it is true that the people of Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc. They smile and are kind because they do not practice Theravada.
The anthropologist Paul Wirs says correctly: «In reality, it is the same (in Sri Lanka) as in other Buddhist countries; only very few understand the true Buddhist dogma in its real depth; the rest are Buddhists only in name, among them also a large part of those who wear the yellow dress … «.
For most people in Theravada lands the religion goes little further than giving Dana to the monks, consulting them on astrology, worshiping relics, doing pujas and perhaps keeping the Precepts on full moon days when they get very old. As soon as they begin to take Dhamma study or meditation seriously, that distinctive valley of Theravada sadness settles over them and they become withdrawn, self-absorbed and morbid. Go to a festival in a Sri Lankan temple and you will find colors, smiles and an atmosphere of simple piety. But then go to the typical meditation center.The buildings are as functionally ugly as a block of municipal toilets, the rooms are austere, no one smiles and the mediators walk similar to the long-term inmates of a psychiatric hospital. In fact, it is not unknown that some people who spend time in these meditation centers end up having serious mental problems. A joke that circulated in certain circles in Sri Lanka in the 1990s was «A month in Kanduboda, six months in Angoda», being Kanduboda a well-known meditation center in Colombo and Angoda the main mental asylum in the city.