IN THE CREMATION GROUND
Buddhists of all schools find it helpful to keep death in mind.
Vessantara explains why.
Reprinted from Golden Drum 18.
Ghoom is a small village crouched on a frequently mist shrouded ridge, 7,500 feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas I was there last February, visiting the monastery of the late Dhardo Rimpoche As I was exploring the dusty nooks of the old monastery, someone rushed in, picked up a conch-shell horn, went out onto the steps and began blowing it. I guessed what that sound sailing into the mist signified: a funeral procession was passing, making its way to the cremation ground on the hillside below the monastery.
I and a friend decided to attend the cremation. We arrived to find a group of about thirty Gurkha men beginning to build a funeral pyre. They were cutting up logs, which were damp from the mist, and placing them in an open structure which looked ~ little like ~m~1l bandstand: circular, with pillars supporting a roof surmounted by a seated Buddha figure.
I felt a little uneasy about being there. Meditation on death, including meditation in cremation grounds, is a highly-recommended Buddhist practice. I wanted to use the occasion to accustom myself more to the fact of death, of universal impermanence. I was there for a serious purpose. However, I wasn't sure how the Gurkhas would feel, but when I asked a young man if they minded us staying, his reply was a casual 'No problem'.
The pyre of damp logs grew, supplemented by a couple of old car tyres. The men joked as they worked. One man who was chopping twigs with a kukri-the fearsome Gurkha knife- playfully mimed cutting the throats of his companion there were smiles all round
Eventually the pyre was completed, the men added incense, to mitigate the effects of the tyres. They carried the body from a low building where it had lain, removed the coffin, and hefted the corpse on the pyre. Then they gathered in a circle, and we were invited to join them. From my new vantage point I could see that the deceased was an old man, of the typically wiry Gurkha build. He was dressed in cheap clothes-none of the men looked as if they had much money.
Four men took burning brands and circumambulated the body three times, then they plunged them into the damp wood. It took some time for the fire to take hold, but eventually there was a good blaze.
From being outsiders, my friend and I gradually became guests of honour. Someone appeared with metal cups of sweet milk tea, which we were offered. We were then ushered to the best seats-a log laid on the ground within three feet of the pyre.
The wind was blowing down from Kanchenjunga, and we all huddled around the fire for warmth. I sat in the midst of the crowd warming my hands by the fire, chatting with the Gurkhas, amongst whom were several children. It was a merry blaze, and welcome. A friendly and convivial occasion. As I stretched my hands to the fire again and again, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
And yet, part of my mind insisted, it was incongruous to be happily warming myself when, within touching distance, the body of an old man was being consumed by the flames. Between mouthfuls of tea, I could watch the skull blackening, note how the flesh on the limbs was being burnt away to the bone. Ghosts from my Western Christian upbringing kept whispering to me in the wind. This was Death I was facing, the great mystery, the fear of all fears.
I consulted my body and feelings for my 'gut reaction'. 'No', they replied, 'what is happening is simply natural, another part of life, something very human and ordinary, just like drinking tea, joking with friends, or sheltering from a cold wind'. With that awareness, I felt a fear fall away from me, a fear of whose existence I had hardly been aware.
There has always been a strong tradition of meditation on death in Buddhism. In recent months I feel I have been living out a meditation on death: the Gurkha cremation being swiftly followed by the deaths of my father and Dhardo Rimpoche, whom I had gone to India to visit. Practising meditation on death over the years has stood me in good stead, enabling me to respond positively to these events. I now understand more clearly than before why Buddhism has developed meditations on death, and how useful contemplating death can be, especially for Westerners.
All schools of Buddhism employ meditations on death. It is understood that it is a practice with strong emotional effects, so there are different 'strengths' of practice prescribed for people of different capabilities. The gentlest is meditation on the fact of impermanence. You simply reflect on how everything changes: on all levels from the atomic to the cosmic, nothing stays still everything is in flux, in process of transformation. Everything comes into existence in dependence upon certain conditions, and when those conditions cease, the phenomenon disappears. This is true for an atom, a flower, a human being, or a galaxy.
This meditation helps us to see things as they really are. We tend to see life in terms of 'things'. We generalize from our experience, abstract from it, and then treat our categories as if they were real. This process is strongly reinforced by language, which gives us fixed nouns as the building blocks for our thinking process. So I think of myself as 'Vessantara', and hang onto this concept stubbornly. I have fixed ideas about what 'I' am like, and what 'I' want. This tendency leads me to develop fixed habits and fixed ideas in an attempt to keep my behaviour in conformity with my stereotyped picture of myself.
Meditation on impermanence helps you escape from the prison of fixed views. It shows you that everything in the universe is a constant flux, a process of becoming. It changes your view of how you 'exist'. You experience yourself and the world as much freer, less predictable, more mysterious, even magical. You stop fighting the process of change, and begin trying to channel the process in positive directions. Change then becomes positive transformation.
You start to hold life very lightly. Meditating on impermanence is a traditional Buddhist antidote to craving and attachment. You can really only hope to control and possess something which is unchanging. If life is chameleon. Like, a stream of flickering phenomena, then ultimately it is ungraspable. So you begin to see that craving, trying to hold onto things to gain security from them, is a strategy doomed to failure from the start. There is nothing to get hold of. Ultimately things are like water, flowing through your fingers as you try to grasp it.
Beyond meditation on universal impermanence is meditation specifically on death. You contemplate the fact of death, and that you will die. Some Buddhist schools have taken this to its limits. In the Theravada tradition we find a meditation on the ten stages of decomposition of a corpse. These ten stages of the decay of a dead body can be visualized imaginatively, or seen with the naked eye in an actual cremation ground. This practice is strong medicine, but it is the remedy for a very powerful disease. Whilst we can all manage to contemplate impermanence to a degree, and begin to see everything more as process, it is very hard to apply this understanding to our own bodies. As a French abbe' once put it: 'Nous mourrons tous, moi aussi peut-etre'.
Buddhism sees this identification with the body as extremely limiting, for it knows that consciousness has infinite capacity. Our minds can experience limitless freedom. However, our consciousness has become fixated, hypnotized, by the physical body. In this way it becomes narrowed down, confined to experience from one point in time and space-the point occupied by the body. So identified does the consciousness become with the body that one feels that the death of the body will be the end of everything. Hence this consciousness, which could be boundless, sovereign, and free, cowers behind the barricades of flesh and bone, fearful of being 'untimely wrenched' from it. Meditation on death encourages us to stop identifying ourselves with our physical existence, and to open up the possibility of freedom. It also reminds us that life does not last, and it is a matter of urgency for us to set out on the quest for freedom.
Buddhist Tantra is much concerned with death. It surrounds you with reminders of death, and things made from bone: skull cups, thighbone trumpets, and rosaries. However, it is absolutely not morbid or lugubrious. It is ecstatic and relishes freedom. It sees death as a symbol of the death of all limitation. It sees literal death as a great opportunity for the tantric practitioner who has trained in meditation. Buddhism believes in rebirth. However, usually at death ordinary people are not able to be sufficiently conscious of what they are experiencing, and are reborn in accord with the nature of their previous actions. Tantric meditators aim to go through the death process conscious and in control, enabling them to choose their own future destiny
A few weeks after the Gurkha cremation I was back in England, attending another cremation. My father had died of a bone cancer, and I had flown back to be with my family and attend the cremation. The contrast with Ghoom was striking. Though my father's family and friends made it a very human occasion, I felt we managed to do so despite the environment and ceremonial rather than because of it. In Britain death has to be wrapped in black coats and long faces, and hidden away.
It was all symbolized for me at the crematorium by the smooth way in which the curtains glided closed on my father's coffin. This low-key tiptoeing around 5 death, whilst it may aim to make the whole experience as little upsetting as possible, is somehow very disquieting. It is based on a deep-seated fear, which unconfronted, causes more psychological damage than meeting the whole experience head on.
Western Buddhists, using meditation on death to overcome their own fears, have a great deal to offer to our society. It may be some time before we develop to the point where we can seize death as a spiritual opportunity. In the meantime it will be a good start, and will alleviate a huge amount of suffering, if we can just help people in Europe, America, and Australia to recapture a human feeling of death as something natural, part of life.
Along with all its other benefits, meditating on death gives us a sense of perspective. After all, our death is the only worldly event upon which we can definitely rely. To acknowledge it gives us a solid foundation on which to build our life, and our view of our place in the universe. Death is a touchstone by which to judge what is important in life. In that sense it is a friend, a counselor to be welcomed. It taught me a great deal as I sipped my tea on the misty hillside of Ghoom. It has spoken wisely to Buddhist meditators through the ages. Those who have gone to meet it, and befriended it in meditation, have found that at last, after teaching them all it can, it has vanished like a mirage, to leave only an infinite freedom, an expanded awareness, which knows neither birth nor death.