The 8 Great Charnel Grounds Are In Your Mind

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In the Ngakpa and other Vajrayana lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, and in the Kapalika lineage of Shaivism, the tradition of traveling to India’s Eight Great Charnel Grounds for meditation goes back perhaps thousands of years. The theory is that by going to these Charnel Grounds and meditating on death and impermanence one may overcome the attachments of this life. I am not going to write in detail of this method but just refer you to the links above, the first one being from Rigpawiki and the second from Wiki. But the fact is that we do not need to go anywhere except the charnel grounds of our minds and lives wherever we feel trapped and in need of liberation from what keeps us from growing, transformation and enlightenment. I do like the quote at Wiki below from Judith Simmer-Brown who wrote Dakini’s Warm Breath – the Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism:

“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.”

And at the Tea Alchemy blog I found this poem that I assume is from an older Tibetan text (but I wrote them to make sure it was not newly written):

Song of the Eight Great Charnel Grounds

To the supreme state of ineffable suchness
I go for refuge first into your essence,
then to your nature,
and your energy.

I take refuge in your magnificent wilds,
these dancing places of birth and death,
these spaces of the mystery of Vajrayogini,
these nodes that match my body of light
with the body of the world.

I take refuge in your stupas,
the balance points between earth and heaven
that spin within
a constant radiance
from the heart of your mind to all.

I take refuge in the Gods and Demons
you have oath-bound with truth.
To their wild minions
who wield the power over life and death
with their hands
I command you as we both
fulfill our vows
of integrity.

I take refuge in the yogis and yoginis there,
the dakas and dakinis walking this razor with me
in each sphere of wonder.

I take refuge in the trials there
that expose whatever I may be clinging to
as the death of each passing.

Struggles in life bring preciousness
to aspiring yogis and yoginis
on paths to these wrathful places;
these open pits of suffering
that beg for insight
on the frontier of the unknown.

With my lama in my heart
I travel with great longing
through these wilds
in search of a surprise glimpse
of my true face
in these pools of tears.

The bones teach me,
the flesh teaches me,
the smell of decay teaches me,
the howl of the hunters teach me,
the howl of the prey teaches me,
the fly on my lip teaches me,
the maggot on my ankle teaches me.

This corpse I will use as a cushion,
as the energy of the unborn wells up
from the depths.

This trident I will adorn with bones
for in places where bones show through the skin
the marrow of the dharma is very near.

This drum I will adorn with the braided hair of a wild woman:
someone my heart could never tame,
someone who lurks,
a woman so dangerous to
every lie I ever told myself.

This tent I will stake with the four daggers
of Awakened Activity:
enriching, stabilizing, magnetizing and destroying.

These stakes bind and obliterate
all my feeble attempts to get away
from the madness of suffering’s display.

Naked, I will walk in these lonely wilds,
and for adornment,
I will use the ashes of the dead.

This pilgrim’s prostrations braid this body
to the paths of these sacred circles of desolation,
like weak strands of hair
that are fashioning a whip.

This journey is the arriving at the place
where the elements resolve all conflict
and burst with grandeur,
shining within these holy circles,
wherever they are found.

Here,
both the dead and the living sing
with the source of all things,
and so I sing of the Eight Great Charnel Grounds
and what I found within them.

I journey East,
to the Charnel Ground called Ferocious Expanse:
white jagged rocks cut the sky
and cries of jackals knife the air.

They fight over rotting flesh
and the sound of their laughter
causes explosive anger
until the light of first dawn
strikes the Stupa of Enlightenment that glows with clarity
while wounded animals sleep.

The cries of the sorceress can be heard day and night
in that place.
Her features are sharp and bewitching
above a sneering mouth so deadly.

She mocks the dead and living mercilessly
chasing her prey to a razor cleft in the rock
where there is no passage
until you melt into her glare and surrender.

To the Southeast is the Charnel Ground protected by
the Auspicious Guardian.
There the horror of death opens bodies to the
quickening of life in all its shocking variety.

Here, bodies do not lay long
but quickly decompose;
sharp sweet smells of wet rot
seep into the ground
feeding raging rivers
heard deep within surrounding caves.

The dakinis there laugh with sounds of a raging torrent,
their dialect abrasive and gutteral.
They make advances but can be
suddenly ruthless and aggressive,
leaving yogis bewildered and a little sore.

Frustrations rise with a mixture of anger and greed there,
and the entire area is overgrown
with brambles and thorny plants that fruit only once a year.

These vines try to wind up the golden white stupa there,
but fall back,
unable to secure a grip anywhere on its smooth curves
beyond the base.

To the South is the Charnel Ground of Bone and Marrow,
for the birds and beasts there feast immediately on the bodies
that lie everywhere.

The ground is very hard,
the only way to sleep is sitting up.

The richness of the landscape unveils at noon,
as the shadows from the cliffs in this hollow cleft
give way to golden radiance.

The brightness is bewitching, alluring
while dakinis descend on these beams,
bearing golden trays of rich morsels.
There is a great longing for them to stay
beyond the time of offering.

The desire for rich experiences brings
stiffness to the limbs there,
an ache in the bones that somehow
fades while prostrating around the
midday golden glow of the stupa.

The Charnel Ground of the Southwest
is called Fearful Darkness.

The danger of stepping
on dead bodies riddled by disease is constant,
and there are worms there that enter the body through the feet.

Rich rusty soil is replete with edible and poisonous herbs
that thrive in the light of the afternoon.

By dusk there is a bright copper glow as shadows lengthen
on the stupa there.
As these shadows pass over the bodies
countless teeming creatures are liberated
and are born with blessings from the corpses heaped all around.

There yogis experience great yearnings
for someone to share a lonely sort of beauty,
and gnawing aches drain the heart.

But a single glimpse of the stupa
burning bright,
on fire day and night
warms the welcome for the coming
of The Untouchable Dakini.

The Charnel Ground of the West is called Blazing Vajra,
for the animals come far and wide
to mate and fight over scraps.

The howls of their delight every full moon
resound through the caverns,
bouncing through your body
as your resolution stiffens.

There,
time is rich with fire,
the glow of the stupa at dusk
polished to a mirror glow
reflects red with blood
of those cast in the open.

Bodies are heaped up there,
victims of a plague,
so the decomposition is slow,
with wild scents floating the breezes.

The dakinis of Blazing Vajra are flesh eating ones,
their lust is inescapable,
as thick and heavy as a sunset rain cloud,
and the only one left standing by dawn
is the spire of the stupa,
the axis of the three worlds.

It is a lonely place of meeting
a place of the unexpected glare of a tigress
in the flash of her eyes
as she stalks your secret.

The Charnel Ground of the Northwest is the Sound of Kili Kili.
The sound is in the mouths
of the thousand ravens that haunt it,
the ones who call to each other all at once
in early evening.

The wind is hot with the humidity of the breezes
that blow from the southeast,
and the bodies are constantly being torn
and pieces flown off in the beaks
of birds to high pine perches.

The dakinis there sing in the dark amidst candles
that spit burning oil in windy gusts.

Their songs are impossible to hear without
bringing oneself constantly closer
to the lips that are singing
and the dangers
of the poisoner priestesses living there.

In that terrible place
gases from the bodies
sometimes shift all at once,
as zombie mouths utter belching words
from beyond the grave.

There is always so much to do there
for the sound of wings stirs agitation in the nerves,
flighty feelings make many yogis abandon their visit
too soon
after seeing the circling flight
of two thousand dark wings
cawing around the stupa
in deepening sky
of the draining moon.

The Charnel Ground of the North is called Very Dense Forest,
for the pines growing there are centuries old.

The land is a clearing within a circle of the oldest pines
and the sky above is clear by midnight.

The moan of the wind through the trees call out
and zombies call back,
bringing twitches and shivers to the muscles
beyond all control.

Vultures hop around constantly,
fighting and stretching out their wings
in the heat of the day.

The dakinis who abide there appear suddenly
and suddenly leave after exhausting all the situation’s angles.
They play games never seen before
and it is hard to keep up with them.

The constant cry of fighting vultures on the ground
pulling limbs back and forth to tatters:
an endless dance of activity.

Bodies are moved or move themselves
far from where they fell,
but the zombies never drag themselves
above the steps of the stupa
that glows with alcoves flickering in night wind.

There is another Charnel Ground that is not located anywhere at all:
The Charnel Ground of The Great Vastness.
It is so flat there
that the sky takes over the horizon
while the entire earth falls constantly.

It is on an island closed in on all sides by waves at twilight;
the roar heard there
thrills with the play of
green,
red,
yellow
and white
dakinis of the elements
dancing naked in the light of nowness.

The stupa there is enormous
and lords over all the bodies below,
so impossibly spacious
for it is made of suchness,
the space that leaves no trace.

With great longing for passage
to the wildest secret places,
I have traveled wastelands in search of my mind.

But in reality, I never got anywhere
nor was able to achieve anything
really significant.

May the journeys of all wayfarers of truth
be brought to the path of these Great Charnel Grounds
so that the delights and horrors of existence
should know the taste of bittersweet beauty.

5 thoughts on “The 8 Great Charnel Grounds Are In Your Mind

  1. Very true, indeed. Thank you for sharing this. I needed to read it.

  2. Hi there, what’s your name? I absolutely love this posting and the poem. Hope to communicate. Would you send me an email if you like? I would like to find like minded people and build a community around people who are into charnel ground studies.

    Do you know if they still exist and if a person can still go meditate there?

    I would like to go!

    My name is kathy lixing

    • Kathy – as the post says, “the charnel grounds are in your mind”, no need to fly to India and Nepal, become an Aghori, and meditate there. And having worked in the ER and hospitals all of my life and worked on several hundred patients as they died, i am not sure your view of death is real enough. Are you a scholar of the Aghora path that you would wish to form some kind of study group around this practice, which is extremely foreign to the Western mind?

  3. Hey, this is an awesome post.

    I went to syria a number of years ago and discovered my own charnel grounds by antagonising the authorities there ( this was before the civil war). when you experience extremes of emotion such as fear it stops time and i can reach a point of great clarity in the mind.

    i’m interested in the practice of chod which i believe is slightly different to Aghora but requires meditation in the charnel grounds.

    I have found that when you open up your heart you can begin engaging the hundreds of spirits which are beyond the human eye, this often requires making offerings and engaging in debate on the true nature of reality.

    j

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