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Gana Dancing Deogarh India

A Dancing gana, Dashavatara temple, Deogarh

'Charnel ground' (Devanagari: श्माशान; Romanized Sanskrit: śmāśāna; Tibetan pronunciation: durtrö; Tibetan: དུར་ཁྲོདWylie: dur khrod)[1] is a very important location for sadhana and ritual activity for Indo-Tibetan traditions of Dharma particularly those traditions iterated by the Tantric view such as Esoteric Buddhism, Vajrayana, Mantrayana, Dzogchen, and the sadhana of Chöd, Phowa and Zhitro, etc.

Disambiguation, working definition and qualification

Though a charnel ground may have demarcated locations within it functionally identified as burial grounds, cemeteries and crematoria it is distinct from these as well as from crypts or burial vaults. Specifically, a charnel ground is an aboveground site for the putrefaction of bodies, generally human, where formerly living tissue is left to decompose uncovered. This unsanitary practice is now known to foster disease and generally runs counter to an orderly and well-governed nation-state.

India

Throughout Ancient India and Medieval India, charnel grounds in the form of open air crematoriums were historically often located along rivers and many ancient famous charnel sites are now 'sanitized' pilgrimage sites (Sanskrit: tirtha) and areas of significant domestic income through cultural tourism.

Himalayan 'sky burial'

In the Himalaya where tillable topsoil for burial and fuel for cremation is scarce and a valuable commodity, the location of a 'Sky burial' is identified with a charnel ground.[2]

Sutrayana and Early Buddhism

The Sutrayana tradition of the 'Nine Cemetery Contemplations' (Pali: nava sīvathikā-manasikāra) of the Satipatthana Sutta demonstrate that charnel ground meditations were part of Early Buddhism.

'Cemetery contemplations', as described in Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN: 22) and the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN: 10):

"...have as their objects a corpse one or two or three days old, swollen up, blue-black in colour, full of corruption; a corpse eaten by crows, etc.; a framework of bones; flesh hanging from it, bespattered with blood, held together by the sinews; without flesh and blood, but still held together by the sinews; bones scattered in all direction; bleached and resembling shells; heaped together after the lapse of years; weathered and crumbled to dust.

At the end of each of these contemplations there follows the conclusion: "This body of mine also has this nature, has this destiny, cannot escape it.

Similar are the 10 objects of loathsomeness (asubha q.v.)."[3]

Charnel ground as a polysemy and metaphor

On the face of it or alternatively the cosmetic level, the charnel ground is simply a locality often chthonic where bodies are disposed of, either by cremation or burial.[4] Though the charnel ground is to be understood as a polysemy and metaphor it must be emphasized that holy people as part of their sadhana and natural spiritual evolution grappling with death, impermanence and transition did historically in both India, China and Tibet as well as in other localities, frequent charnel grounds, crematoriums and cemeteries and were often feared and despised by people who did not understand their 'proclivities' (Sanskrit: anusaya).

From a deeper structural significance and getting to the substantive bones of the Vajrayana spiritual point of view however, the charnel ground is full of profound transpersonal significance. It represents the 'death of ego' (Sanskrit: atmayajna), and the end of:

  • attachment (Sanskrit: Upādāna; Tibetan: len pa) to this body and life
  • craving (Sanskrit: Tṛṣṇā; Tibetan: sred pa) for a body and life in the future
  • fear of death (Sanskrit: abhiniveśa)
  • aversion (Sanskrit: dveṣa; Wylie: zhe sdang) to the decay of 'impermanence' (Sanskrit: anitya).[5]

It is worth noting that 'attachment', 'craving', 'fear' and 'aversion' abovecited in bold font are somewhat standardized and hence less-rich lexical choices for the semantic field represented by the four of the 'Five Poisons' (Sanskrit: pancha klesha) they denote.

Prior to spiritual realization, charnel grounds are to be understood as terrifying places, full of 'roaming spirits' (Sanskrit: gana) and 'hungry ghosts' (Sanskrit: pretas) indeed localities that incite consuming fear. In a charnel ground there are bodies everywhere in different states of decomposition: freshly dead bodies, decaying bodies, skeletons and disembodied bones.[6]

Simmer-Brown (2001: p.127) conveys how the 'charnel ground' experience may present itself in the modern Western mindstream situations of emotional intensity, protracted peak performance, marginalization and extreme desperation:

"In contemporary Western society, the charnel ground might be a prison, a homeless shelter, the welfare roll, or a factory assembly line. The key to its successful support of practice is its desperate, hopeless, or terrifying quality. For that matter, there are environments that appear prosperous and privileged to others but are charnel grounds for their inhabitants--Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Wall Street, Washington, D.C. These are worlds in which extreme competitiveness, speed, and power rule, and the actors in their dramas experience intense emotion, ambition, and fear. The intensity of their dynamics makes all of these situations ripe for the Vajrayana practice of the charnel ground."[7]

Sadhana

Sadhana in the charnel ground within the Dharmic Traditions may be traced to ancient depictions of the chthonic Shiva and his chimeric son Ganapati (Ganesha) who was decapitated and returned to life with the head of an elephant. In certain narratives, Shiva made the Ganesha 'lord of the gana' (Sanskrit: Ganapati). Such depictions of Shiva, Ganesha and the ganas are evident in literature, architectural ornamentation and iconography, etc. In the Indian traditions of Tantra the charnel ground is very important. In must be remembered that the seat of Shiva and his locality of sadhana is the sacred Mount Kailasha in the Himalaya. In some non-Buddhist traditions of Ganachakra such as the Kaula the leader of the rite is known as 'ganapati', which is a title of respect. The Eight Great Charnel Grounds are important in the life of Padmasambhava. This is one definite way the the importance of the charnel ground in sadhana entered and became replicated in the Himalayan Dharmic Tradition. The charnel ground is a particular place that holds powerful teachings on impermanence and is important for slaying the ego. In this, the charnel ground shares with the tradition of dark retreat that was foregrounded in some Himalayan practice lineages.

Simmer-Brown (2001: p.127) conveys how great Mahasiddha's in the Nath and Mantrayana Buddhadharma traditions such as Tilopa (988–1069) and Gorakṣa (fl. 11th - 12th century) yoked adversity to till the soil of the path and accomplish the fruit, the 'ground' (Sanskrit: āśraya; Wylie: gzhi)[8] of realization - worthy case-studies for those with spiritual proclivity:

"The charnel ground is not merely the hermitage; it can also be discovered or revealed in completely terrifying mundane environments where practitioners find themselves desperate and depressed, where conventional worldly aspirations have become devastated by grim reality. This is demonstrated in the sacred biographies of the great siddhas of the Vajrayāna tradition. Tilopa attained realization as a grinder of sesame seeds and a procurer for a prominent prostitute. Sarvabhakṣa was an extremely obese glutton, Gorakṣa was a cowherd in remote climes, Taṅtepa was addicted to gambling, and Kumbharipa was a destitute potter. These circumstances were charnel grounds because they were despised in Indian society and the siddhas were viewed as failures, marginal and defiled."[9]

Poetry, song and literature

In Vajrayana poetry, literature and song paraticularly that of the 'songs of realization', charnel grounds are often described as containing "rivers of blood", "poisonous waterfalls", and depicted as localities containing dangerous wild beasts. The two truths doctrine though iterates this view and when perceived differently, charnel grounds are peaceful places of beatific solitude and this chthonic symbolism and Twilight Language and iconography accrues a rich polysemy. When perceived differently, the charnel grounds are places of 'peace' (Sanskrit: shanti), pleasant groves, populated by wildflowers and fruit. Songbirds, tame lions and tigers, and the vast open vault of the sky, fruit and flowers are often used in Vajrayana iconography and poetry and Beer (1999)[10] explains their symbolism and how they are understood in the tradition in fine detail. They are all included in depictions of the charnel ground.

Beyond social convention

In the charnel grounds of Vajrayana, there are no social conventions to conform to and no distractions to be seduced by for the siddha.[11] Dakas and dakinis gather there to celebrate ceremonial tsok 'feasts' (Sanskrit: ganachakra). The lion's roar of Dharma discourse resound as do the liturgy and the specific 'hourglass drums' (Sanskrit: damaru) of the chödpa and the light of the inner 'joy of bliss' (Sanskrit: ananda) radiates and this dynamic movement is represented iconographically by the 'bliss-whirling' (Sanskrit: ananda-chakra).

In his Manual on the practice of the Longchen Nyingtik, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche holds that:

"Right now, our minds are very fickle. Sometimes you like a certain place, and it inspires, and yet with that same place, if you stay too long, it bores you. […] As you practice more and more, one day this kind of habit, this fickle mind will just go. Then you will search for the bindu interpretation of the right place, and according to the classic tantric texts, that is usually what they call the “eight great charnel grounds”. So then, you have to go to a cemetery, especially to one of the eight cemeteries. There, under a tree, in the charnel ground, wearing a tiger skin skirt, holding a kapāla and having this indifference between relatives and enemies, indifference between food and shit, you will practise. Then your bindu will flow. At that time, you will know how to have intercourse between emptiness and appearance."[12][13]

In the life in which a pratyekabuddha attains the fruit of their 'path' (Wylie: lam), they are naturally drawn to charnel grounds. "When reflecting on the bones found there, the pratyekabuddha inquire "Where do these bones come from?"[14] This samyama (Sanskrit) on the bones awakens knowledge of their many lifetimes of investigation into the 'Twelve Links of Dependent Origination'. These twelve links then unfold in their mindstream as a 'blessing' (Sanskrit: adhishthana), in both forward and reverse sequence and on that foundation they yield 'realisation' (Sanskrit: siddhi).[15]

Vajrayana iconography

The charnel ground, cremation ground and cemetery is evident as a specific region within wrathful Indo-Tibetan sand mandala iconography. As the anthropologist Gold (1994: p.141) relates in his comparative study drawn from his professional fieldwork into the symbolic universals of the sacred circles and sand-paintings of the Navajo and Tibetan peoples, parses the sacred precinct and motif of the charnel ground as a locality in the symbolic grammar of the Indo-Tibetan 'fierce yidam' or 'wrathful deity' (Sanskrit: heruka) sand mandala:

The third concentric ring [from the circumference] is optional, in that it is only used in mandalas representing the reality of deities of fierce power. It represents the charnel grounds wherein bodies are cut up and offered to birds of prey as a "sky burial." This ring signifies the cutting away of the bones and flesh of illusion on the way to the primordial ground at the mandala's center. In some mandalas, it is positioned outside of the Mountain of Fire ring.[16]

The region of the charnel grounds in many wrathful mandala often hold eight specific charnel grounds where certain key events take place in the life of Padmasambhava.[17]

Blood is thematic in Charnel Ground iconography where it may be understood as lifeblood, a symbol of viscous 'compassion' (Sanskrit: karuna) of 'sacrifice' (Sanskrit: yajna), and attendant with the symbolism of blood, bones ground our shared humanity and solidarity in the wider Mandala of life and the ancient lineage of 'ancestors' from which all sentient beings are of lineal descent.

The tradition and custom of the 'sky burial' (Tibetan: jhator) afforded Traditional Tibetan medicine and thangka iconography such as the 'Tree of physiology' with a particular insight into the interior workings of the human body. Pieces of the human skeleton were employed in ritual tools such as the skullcup, thigh-bone trumpet, etc.

The 'symbolic bone ornaments' (Skt: aṣṭhiamudrā; Tib: rus pa'i rgyanl phyag rgya) are also known as "mudra" or 'seals' are also known as 'charnel ground ornaments'. The Hevajra Tantra identifies the Symbolic Bone Ornaments with the Five Wisdoms and Jamgon Kongtrul in his commentary to the Hevajra Tantra explains this further.[18]

The important Varnamala (or 'garland of bija phonemes' in Twilight Language is iconographically represented by a 'garland of severed heads or skulls' (Sanskrit: Mundamala).

Padmasambhava

Beer (1999: pp. 277-278) relates how Padmasambhava received the siddhi of the kīla transmission from a gigantic scorpion at the charnel ground of Rajgriha:

The sting of the scorpion's whip-like tail transfixes and poisons its prey, and in this respect it is identified with the wrathful activity of the ritual dagger or kīla. Padmasambhava's biography relates how he received the siddhi of the kīla transmission at the great charnel ground of Rajgriha from a gigantic scorpion with nine heads, eighteen pincers and twenty-seven eyes. This scorpion reveals the kīla texts from a triangular stone box hidden beneath a rock in the cemetery. As Padmasambhava reads this terma text spontaneous understanding arises, and the heads, pincers, and eyes of the scorpion are 'revealed' as different vehicles or yanas of spiritual attainment. Here, at Rajgriha, Padmasambhava is given the title of 'the scorpion guru', and in one of his eight forms as Guru Dragpo or Pema Drago ('wrathful lotus'), he is depicted with a scorpion in his left hand. As an emblem of the wrathful kīla transmission the image of the scorpion took on a strong symbolic meaning in the early development of the Nyingma or 'ancient school' of Tibetan Buddhism...".[19]

Eight great charnel grounds

The 'Eight Great Charnel Grounds (Sanskrit: aṣṭamahāśmāśāna; Tibetan: དུར་ཁྲོད་ཆེན་པོ་བརྒྱདWylie: dur khrod chen po brgyad)[20]

'The Most Fierce'

'The Most Fierce' (Tibetan: གཏུམ་དྲགWylie: gtum drag)[21]

'Dense Thicket'

'Dense Thicket' (Tibetan: ཚང་ཚིང་འཁྲིགས་པWylie: tshang tshing 'khrigs pa)[22]

'Dense Blaze'

'Dense Blaze' (Tibetan: འབར་འཁྲིགས་པWylie: 'bar 'khrigs pa)[23]

'Endowed with Skeletons'

'Endowed with Skeletons' (Tibetan: ཀེང་རུས་ཅནWylie: keng rus can)[24]

'Cool Forest'

'Cool Forest' or 'Cool Grove' (Sanskrit: Śītavana; Devanagari: शीतवन; Tibetan: བསིལ་བུ་ཚལWylie: bsil bu tshal)[25]

'Black Darkness'

'Black Darkness' (Tibetan: མུན་པ་ནག་པོWylie: mun pa nag po)[26]

'Resonant with "Kilikili"'

'Resonant with "Kilikili"' (Tibetan: ཀི་ལི་ཀི་ལིར་སྒྲ་སྒྲོག་པWylie: ki li ki lir sgra sgrog pa)[27]

'Wild Cries of "Ha-ha"'

'Wild Cries of "Ha-ha"' (Tibetan: ཧ་ཧ་རྒོད་པWylie: ha ha rgod pa)[28]

Charnel ground relics

Dudjom et. al. (1991: p.626 History) relates how "earth, stone, water, and wood" gathered from The Eight Great Charnel Grounds and auspicious objects such as the flesh of a seven-times-born Brahmana and relics of the Tathagatha amongst other items were used to sculpt a statue of 'Yangdak Heruka' (Wylie: yang dag heruka; Sanskrit: Viśuddhaheruka)[29] modelled on Zurcungpa (1014CE - 1074CE; alt. Zurcung Sherap-tra)[30] holding the aspect of the yidam after a vase empowerment was given to the sculptors by the "master" (Zurcungpa):

"The sculptors displayed great devotion, so first of all the master gave them the vase empowerment of the glorious Yangdak Heruka. They prepared a mixture which combined relics from the Tathagata's remains; the flesh of one who had been born as a brahman seven times; earth, stone, water, and wood from the eight charnel grounds; a variety of precious gems; and sacramental medicine refined by the awareness-holders of India and Tibet."[31]

See also

References

  1. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [1] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  2. Gold, Peter (1994). Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit (Paperback). Inner Traditions. ISBN 089281411X, ISBN 978-0892814114, p.141
  3. Nyanatiloka (1980). Buddhist Dictionary: Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines. Fourth Revised Edition edited by Nyanaponika. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society. Source: [2] (accessed: Tuesday December 24, 2009)
  4. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [3] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  5. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [4] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  6. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [5] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  7. Simmer-Brown, Judith (2001). Dakini's warm breath: the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 9781570629204 (paperback), p.127
  8. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.535 Index of Technical Terms
  9. Simmer-Brown, Judith (2001). Dakini's warm breath: the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 9781570629204 (paperback), p.127
  10. Beer, Robert (1999). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, (Hardcover). Shambhala Publications. ISBN 157062416X, ISBN 978-1570624162
  11. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [6] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  12. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, from Longchen Nyingtik Practice Manual (page 66).
  13. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [7] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  14. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [8] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  15. Rigpa Shedra (July 2009). 'Charnel ground'. Source: [9] (accessed: Saturday December 19, 2009)
  16. Gold, Peter (1994). Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of the Spirit (Paperback). Inner Traditions. ISBN 089281411X, ISBN 978-0892814114, p.141
  17. Simmer-Brown, Judith (2001). Dakini's warm breath: the feminine principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 9781570629204 (paperback), p.124
  18. Kongtrul 2005, p. 493.
  19. Beer, Robert (1999). The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, (Hardcover). Shambhala Publications. ISBN 157062416X, ISBN 978-1570624162, pp. 277-278
  20. Rigpa Shedra Wiki (July 2009). 'Eight great charnel grounds'. Source: [10] (accessed: Monday December 21, 2009) ི
  21. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  22. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  23. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  24. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  25. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  26. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  27. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  28. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.157 Enumerations
  29. Rigpa Shedra Wiki (September 2008). 'Yangdak Heruka'. Source: [11] (accessed: Tuesday December 22, 2009)
  30. The presence of light: divine radiance and religious experience
  31. Dudjom Rinpoche and Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (1991). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: its Fundamentals and History. Two Volumes. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje with Matthew Kapstein. Wisdom Publications, Boston. ISBN 0-86171-087-8, p.626 History

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