I have a habit of wandering graveyards when I’m upset. It calms me and helps put problems in perspective. Life is short and ends too soon for most of our liking. The worries and anger that consume us now will be wiped away in the decay of time.
Far from being upsetting to me, graveyards are serene. When it comes to its residents, the struggle is over. Depending on your belief, dukkha has either ceased or transitioned to another form. In either case it has become divorced from the person who used to be, whose body now decays underground. Theirs is a past history and many more will join them in the ground in the future. So, humbled I can better focus on the present moment.
When there is some kind of problem, a graveyard also represents the collective wisdom of the life experiences of those who are interred there – kind of like a collective ancestral shrine. I can turn to any random headstone and say, “Okay, T CRANE, what would you do?” Perhaps I’ll receive insight as an answer.
Usually, it’s just silence, though. T CRANE comes back with, “Darned if I know. Figure it out for yourself.” Thanks, Dude. They put fresh flowers on your grave for that gem?
When I first learned about Tibetan charnel ground practice, I thought ewwwww! Then I thought, hmmmm… For those who don’t know, the charnel ground is a place high in the mountains where the dead are brought to be offered to the vultures. I am told they can be messy places where scattered human remains can be found randomly lying around with a smell that is less than daisy fresh. This practice came about largely because of the frozen temperatures in the highest communities in Tibet. Digging holes in the ground for burials is not an option most of the year.
There is a wonderful pictorial review of a “sky burial” here (Warning: parents review pictures before showing to your children)
The more I thought about it, I recognized that practicing in a charnel ground is really only an extension of my current practice in graveyards. The single addition is the potentially jarring presence of a disarticulated hand or eyeball to bring one back to the present moment like a visual gong. Living in America, of course, the opportunity for charnel ground practice is limited.
I’ve written previously about my reflections of A Day in Pompeii (as of this writing in Cincinnati). In one corner of the exhibit, I was brought to a startled standstill. There were two large sections of street strewn with skeletons piled on one another. This composition of human carnage was not from Pompeii, but from its nearby neighbor Herculaneum.
According to the descriptions of the artifacts, Herculaneum was somewhat closer to Mount Vesuvius and the first pyroclastic flows reached Herculaneum before reaching Pompeii. Apparently, great blasts of accelerated hot air rushed through Herculaneum, incinerating the flesh from the bodies of all in their path. The result was a sobering tableau of instant annihilation.
Flash of Bodhiccita. I think this is the closest I have come to charnel ground practice. In it resides the reflection of every human catastrophe that has been and each that is to come. Meditation on this simple fact of our fragility individually and even as a group commands me to stop my moaning and just get on with life in the present moment.
Now buy the Book!