The 9th Charnel
A charnel ground (Sanakrit: श्मशन; IAST: śmaśāna; Tibetan pronunciation: durtrö; Tibetan: .mw-parser-output .uchenfont-family:"Jomolhari","Uchen","Noto Serif Tibetan Medium","Noto Serif Tibetan","BabelStone Tibetan Slim","Yagpo Tibetan Uni","Noto Sans Tibetan","Microsoft Himalaya","Kailash","DDC Uchen","TCRC Youtso Unicode","Tibetan Machine Uni","Qomolangma-Uchen Sarchen","Qomolangma-Uchen Sarchung","Qomolangma-Uchen Suring","Qomolangma-Uchen Sutung","Qomolangma-Title","Qomolangma-Subtitle","DDC Rinzin","Qomolangma-Woodblock","Qomolangma-Dunhuang".mw-parser-output .umefont-family:"Qomolangma-Betsu","Qomolangma-Chuyig","Qomolangma-Drutsa","Qomolangma-Edict","Qomolangma-Tsumachu","Qomolangma-Tsuring","Qomolangma-Tsutong","TibetanSambhotaYigchung","TibetanTsugRing","TibetanYigchung"དུརཁྲོད, Wylie: dur khrod) is an above-ground site for the putrefaction of bodies, generally human, where formerly living tissue is left to decompose uncovered. Although it 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.
The 9th Charnel
In a religious sense, it is also 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 Kashmiri Shaivism, Kaula tradition, Esoteric Buddhism, Vajrayana, Mantrayana, Dzogchen, and the sadhana of Chöd, Phowa and Zhitro, etc. The charnel ground is also an archetypal liminality that figures prominently in the literature and liturgy and as an artistic motif in Dharmic Traditions and cultures iterated by the more antinomian and esoteric aspects of traditional Indian culture.
Throughout Ancient India and Medieval India, charnel grounds in the form of open air crematoria 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. However, proper "charnel grounds" can still be found in India, especially near large rivers banks and areas where abandoned people (without family) are cremated or simply left to decompose. These areas are often frequented by Aghoris, a Kapalika sect, that follows similar meditation techniques, as those thought by the 84 Mahasiddhas. A typical Aghori sadhana (at the charnel ground) lasts for 12 years.
In the Pali Canon discourses, Gautama Buddha frequently instructs his disciples to seek out a secluded dwelling (in a forest, under the shade of a tree, mountain, glen, hillside cave, charnel ground, jungle grove, in the open, or on a heap of straw).The Vinaya and Sutrayana tradition of the "Nine Cemetery Contemplations" (Pali: nava sīvathikā-manasikāra) described in the Satipatthana Sutta demonstrate that charnel ground and cemetery meditations were part of the ascetic practices in Early Buddhism.
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. 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 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:
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.
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:
Tibetan representations of Ganesha show ambivalent or richly different depictions of him. In one Tibetan form he is shown being trodden under foot by Mahākala, a popular Tibetan deity. Other depictions show him as the Destroyer of Obstacles, sometimes dancing. This play of Ganesha as both the "creator and remover of obstacles" as per his epithet as well in the two Vajrayana iconographic depictions of him as that which consumes (Maha Rakta) and that which is consumed (danced upon by Vignantaka) is key to the reciprocity rites of the charnel ground.
The 'pastime' and 'play' (Sanskrit: lila) of dancing and its representation in charnel ground literature and visual representations is endemic: Ganapati as son of Shiva, Ganapati as Lord of Gana, the demonic host of Gana, dancing ganesha, dancing gana, the dance of life and death, what is dance but a continuum of forms, dancing is energetic, dancing is symbolic of spiritual energy in iconography, particularly chthonic imagery of Dharmic Traditions. Energy moves (and cycles) between forms as does dance. The 'wheel' (Sanskrit: chakra, mandala) in all its permutations and efflorescence is a profound Dharmic cultural artifact enshrining the energetic dance of the Universe. This is particularly applicable in the iconography of Nataraja and the 'wrathful deities' (Sanskrit: Heruka) of Vajrayana which are depicted with a flaming aureole, a flaming wheel. This resonates with the deep symbolism of the mystery rite and folklore and folk custom and high culture of circle dances which approaches a human cultural universal. Namkhai Norbu, a famed Dzogchen master in the Bonpo tradition and the Dharmic Traditions of esoteric Buddhism has revealed a number of terma (Tibetan) of circle dances such as the 'Dance of the Six Lokas of Samantabhadra'. The dance is a restricted initiatory rite and its process may not be disclosed as so doing would be a contravention of 'commitments ' (Sanskrit: samaya) but it may be affirmed that the rite is enacted on a colourful mandala of the Five Pure Lights and the 'central point' (Sanskrit: bindu) of the dance mandala is illuminated with a sacred candle known as the 'garbha' (Sanskrit) within the International Dzogchen Community. This terma dance is all clearly applicable to the charnel ground when taken as the 'wheel of becoming' (Sanskrit: bhavachakra) which generally is demarcated by six distinct 'places' (Sanskrit: loka).
Dattatreya the avadhuta, to whom has been attributed the esteemed nondual medieval song, the Avadhuta Gita, was a sometime denizen of the charnel ground and a founding deity of the Aghor tradition according to Barrett (2008: p. 33):
Beer (2003: p. 102) relates how the symbolism of the khatvanga that entered esoteric Buddhism (particularly from Padmasambhava) was a direct borrowing from the Shaivite Kapalikas who frequented places of austerity such as charnel grounds and cross roads etcetera as a form of 'left-handed path' (Sanskrit: vamamarga) 'spiritual practice' (Sanskrit: sadhana):
The form of the Buddhist khatvanga derived from the emblematic staff of the early Indian Shaivite yogins, known as kapalikas or 'skull-bearers'. The kapalikas were originally miscreants who had been sentenced to a twelve-year term of penance for the crime of inadvertently killing a Brahmin. The penitent was prescribed to dwell in a forest hut, at a desolate crossroads, in a charnel ground, or under a tree; to live by begging; to practice austerities; and to wear a loin-cloth of hemp, dog, or donkey-skin. They also had to carry the emblems of a human skull as an alms-bowl, and the skull of the Brahmin they had slain mounted upon a wooden staff as a banner. These Hindu kapalika ascetics soon evolved into an extreme outcaste sect of the 'left-hand' tantric path (Skt. vamamarg) of shakti or goddess worship. The early Buddhist tantric yogins and yoginis adopted the same goddess or dakini attributes of the kapalikas. These attributes consisted of; bone ornaments, an animal skin loincloth, marks of human ash, a skull-cup, damaru, flaying knife, thighbone trumpet, and the skull-topped tantric staff or khatvanga.
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. It 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 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.
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. 041b061a72