“When you see the bones of animals, they don’t have much meaning, but when you see the bones of people, your perception labels them: “That’s a person’s skeleton. That’s a person’s skull.” If there are a lot of them, they can really scare you. When you see the picture of a skeleton or of anything that shows the inconstancy and not-selfness of the body, and you don’t see clear through it, you’ll get stuck at the level of skeleton and bones. Actually, there are no bones at all. They’re empty, nothing but elements. You have to penetrate into the bones so that they’re elements. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck at the level of skeleton. And since you haven’t seen through it, it can make you distressed and upset. This shows that you haven’t penetrated into the Dhamma. You’re stuck at the outer shell because you haven’t analyzed things into their elements.
When days and nights pass by, they’re not the only things that pass by. The body constantly decays and falls apart, too. The body decays bit by bit, but we don’t realize it. Only after it’s decayed a lot — when the hair has gone gray and the teeth fall out — do we realize that it’s old. This is knowledge on a crude and really blatant level. But as for the gradual decaying that goes on quietly inside, we aren’t aware of it.
As a result, we cling to the body as being us — every single part of it. Its eyes are our eyes, the sights they see are the things we see, the sensation of seeing is something we sense. We don’t see these things as elements. Actually, the element of vision and the element of form make contact. The awareness of the contact is the element of consciousness: the mental phenomenon that senses sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and all. This we don’t realize, which is why we latch onto everything — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, intellect — as being us or ours. Then, when the body decays, we feel that we are growing old; when it dies and mental phenomena stop, we feel that ‘we’ die.
Once you’ve taken the elements apart, though, there’s nothing. These things lose their meaning on their own. ‘They’re simply physical and mental elements, without any illness or death!’ If you don’t penetrate into things this way, you stay deluded and blind. For instance, when we chant ‘jara-dhammamhi’ — I am subject to death — that’s simply to make us mindful and uncomplacent in the beginning stages of the practice. When you reach the stage of insight meditation, though, there’s none of that. All assumptions, all conventional truths get ripped away. They all collapse. When the body is empty of self, what is there to latch onto? Physical elements, mental elements, they’re already empty of any self. You have to see this clearly all the way through. Otherwise, they gather together and form a being, both physical and mental, and then you latch onto them as being your ‘self’.
Once we see the world as elements, however, there’s no death. And once we can see that there’s no death, that’s when we’ll really know!”
~ Upasika Kee Nayanon, excerpt from ‘When Conventional Truths Collapse’