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Symbolism of the Cremation Ground and Celestial Maidens

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by Sangharakshita

... have been grieving, even for those who have just witnessed the cremation of someone near and dear to them, it has been, on the whole, a not unpleasant experience, even a rewarding experience, even an uplifting experience.

Now, I'm reminded of all this, because tonight we are concerned with the symbolism of the cremation ground, concerned, in fact, with the symbolism of cremation ground AND the celestial maidens. And by the celestial maidens we mean, of course, the Dakinis, about whom we heard something last week. Now, you may be wondering perhaps, at this point, you may even have wondered it when you perused our poster, or when you heard the chairman's introductory remarks, you have been wondering, what on earth celestial maidens were doing in a cremation ground? It doesn't quite seem a fitting place for young ladies, even celestial ones. So, in order to understand this, what the Dakinis, the celestial maidens, are doing in the cremation ground, we have to go back. We have to go back to the sources of the Tantric tradition, back to the sources of the Nyingmapa tradition in particular, and back to the legendary life, if you like, the symbolic biography of Padmasambhava, the great Tantric guru of India and Tibet.

Some months ago, in the course of a lecture given in connection with Padmasambhava's anniversary, we saw that this great teacher, this great sage, this great yogi, lived in the eighth century in India. We saw that he had a very checkered career, to say the least. He began life as the adopted son of a king, was brought up as a prince, was married, but left his wife, became a monk, studied all forms of Buddhism, became a great scholar, teacher, practised also meditation very extensively, especially Tantric meditation of various kinds, travelled widely, even outside India, and eventually, at the culmination, we may say, of the checkered career, he became enlightened, became known throughout India and Tibet and beyond as the greatest teacher, the greatest master of the Tantra of his day. Now, at one stage of his career, before he became enlightened, while he was still treading the Tantric path, in quest of enlightenment, Padmasambhava seems to have spent a great deal of his time in cremation grounds, cremation grounds in different parts of India. And he is supposed to have lived there with the celestial maidens, with the Dakinis. And according to reports that were circulating in India at that time, he spent his time in the cremation grounds with the Dakinis, with the celestial maidens, singing, dancing, drinking wine etc. Now, whether this episode, even this series of episodes of Padmasambhava's frequenting the cremation ground associating with the Dakinis in this way is to be taken historically, as historic fact, or as legend, as symbol, as part of the symbolical biography is very difficult to tell. We don't really know. In the biography of Padmasambhava, the life of Padmasambhava that has come down to us, fact, historical fact and symbolical statement shade, it seems, one into the other. Sometimes we hardly know with which we are dealing, sometimes it's clear, it must be a historic fact, or, it must be meant symbolically, sometimes it can be either or both, so perhaps this episode, or this series of episodes is of this latter kind.

Perhaps it could be taken as historic fact, but also as possessing symbolic meaning. But, whatever the truth of the matter may be, the picture of Padmasambhava in the cremation ground, surrounded by the celestial maidens seems rather to have captured the imagination, we may say, of later generations of followers of the Tantric path. And this picture of Padmasambhava in the cremation ground with the Dakinis became, with the passing of time, richer and richer in spiritual content. Indeed, we can say that the symbol of the cremation ground and the symbol of the celestial maidens assumed, as time went on greater and greater significance, even individually.

And tonight we are going to try to feel something of that significance. First, we are going to consider the symbolism of the cremation ground, and the symbolism of the celestial maidens separately. Then we are going to consider them together, and finally, we may say a few words about Padmasambhava as frequenter of the cremation ground and companion of the celestial maidens.

So, first of all the symbolism of the cremation ground. Now, leaving aside symbolism for the moment, this is something rather sublime, leaving aside symbolism for the moment, associations, at least, of the cremation ground are fairly obvious. The most obvious association of the cremation ground, the idea that springs most readily to your mind, when the cremation ground is mentioned, is the idea, is the association of death. When you think of the cremation ground you think of death. When you see the cremation ground, you think of death. When you actually visit, as I have done, on a number of occasions, a cremation ground, and you look around you, you can't help thinking of all the people who've died and who have been cremated there. If it's an old cremation ground, cremated there in the course of hundreds and hundreds of years. And if you are very quiet there, and especially if you are on your own, and if you can feel this sort of vibration, this quiver in the air, that I mentioned earlier, you can, as it were, almost feel the presence of those numberless dead people, as it were pressing all around, - there is something there, something left, some trace in the atmosphere, in the psychic atmosphere, as it were. One feels, as it were, the hosts of the dead thronging round, even pressing round, - and in such a place, on such an occasion one cannot help reflecting in a rather sober and serious way, that everyone will die one day, including oneself. One can't help recollecting, one can't help realising that one day one's own physical body will be carried on the shoulders of the six or eight strong men to the cremation ground and burned there, and that one will have to leave behind possessions, relations, friends and so on for ever. One will recollect that little by little the physical body will be consumed, will disintegrate, will sink into ashes.

Now, reflections of this sort, reflections proper to, the cremation ground, were rather systematically cultivated in early Buddhism. For obvious reasons,: the disciple, the serious disciple was advised actually to go to the cremation ground, preferably at night and on his own.

And he was advised, when he went there, just to look, to look at the remains of the people who had been cremated, look the remains of the dead bodies. And it would seem that in the Buddha's day cremation was not all that widespread. Very often, it seems, people's bodies were carried to the cremation ground, or rather in this case to the charnel ground and not even burned but just left there to rot, to decompose or to become a prey to wild beasts. So the visitor, the disciple, the neophyte visiting the cremation ground would see lying all around him not just the remains of cremated bodies, but bodies in various stages of decomposition. And he was asked not to shrink, not to shudder, not to turn away, but just look, just look at them, even to study them. And apply the lesson to himself, tell himself that his own body was equally liable to decay. And eventually, as this sort of practice became more and more systematised, the teachers, the meditation teachers started distinguishing ten stages in the decomposition of a corpse, or ten kinds of corpse in various stages of decomposition. And the disciple was asked to reflect on, to look at and reflect on each in turn. And at each stage, after looking at each kind of corpse, he had to tell himself, convince himself that one day his body too would pass through that very process. And this particular practise was known as the meditation on the ten stages of impurity of a corpse, and the word for impurity in Pali and Sanskrit is asubha or ashubha, which also means 'loathsome', 'disgusting' and 'unbeautiful'. And the practise of this corpse meditation in these ten ways led, it was said, to detachment, especially detachment from the body, and provided an antidote for craving.

So, let's just mention the ten stages or ten kinds of corpse, - give you some idea of what the early Buddhist were, in a sense, up against, how seriously they took their spiritual life, how radical, even how drastic they were in practice. One could see, in the cremation ground, in the charnel ground, it was said, swollen and bloated. You probably don't know, because you probably never have an opportunity of observing that, a few days after death, the corpse starts swelling on account of the gases which are produced inside. Then secondly, a corpse which is discoloured, which has become a sort of blueish green. And then thirdly, a corpse which is festering, from the apertures of which matter is flowing, which is rather unpleasant, - I must say, I've gone as far as this stage at least myself, and this is exactly what does happen. And then fourthly, a fissured corpse, a corpse which is split, maybe split in two, and then fifthly a mangled corpse, a corpse torn by dogs and jackals. Sixthly, a dismembered corpse, the limbs of which are scattered in all directions. And seventhly, a cut and dismembered corpse, one cut up into small pieces, presumably for disposal. And then eighthly, a blood-smeared corpse, or corpse streaming with blood. And ninethly, a corpse infested with, swarming with thousands of tiny worms, and lastly, the skeleton, just a few bones, that's all that's left. And this meditation on the ten stages in the decomposition of a corpse, the ten impurities, this meditation is still kept up in many parts of the Buddhist world, especially by monks. It's not always possible in these days, even in the East, even in India, to find corpses in all the different stages of decomposition, ...

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