There’s something hauntingly inspiring about the charnel ground image for me, the place where that which we continuously avoid and cover up is finally revealed, exposed, laid bare. With its half-rotting corpses, partially chewed limbs and sun-bleached bones, the charnel ground is without pretense, raw, unabashed in its display of impermanence.
In early Buddhist teachings, the charnel ground was a reminder of the fragility of existence and the inevitable decay of even the most beautiful objects of human desire. In the Vajrayana, the charnel ground became the yogi’s favored place of practice where fear and disgust could be transmuted into the wisdom of non-duality.
We’ve probably all experienced the charnel ground at some point in our lives – those times when things seem to fall apart, when what has felt certain and solid dissolves beneath our feet. Maybe it’s the split in a relationship, the end of a job, the loss of a loved one. Our identity, the world as we’ve known it, crumbles.
The charnel ground can show up in far more mundane and subtle ways as well. There’s the charnel ground day when all the things you thought you’d accomplish lie unfinished or ensnarled in complication, and you’re left feeling the void of evaporated hours. There’s the charnel ground family dinner when our most neurotic patterns are on full display, ripping at each other like hungry hyenas, leaving the sweet fabric of intimacy torn and frayed. Those nights, I go to bed with an aching heart.
We tend not to like charnel grounds. They’re not pretty of course. And they refuse to give us anything to hold onto. Whatever we thought we were or knew is revealed as groundless. We’re left standing, naked and bare. Deeply pained, profoundly uncomfortable.
So the question then is “what remains?” What’s left when our script goes off track, when the scaffolding of our life begins to wobble and collapse? The thing is – something does remain. In the pain of loss it’s hard to see at first; and we can’t, we shouldn’t. We have to be in the genuine heartbreak of the moment, whether that is deep grief or simply the grating irritation of a day gone sour.
At some point, when we stop trying to make it pretty or make it right, we become humbly honest. I want to say we become tender. We soften because we have nothing to uphold. When we don’t have to show up on the stage of “what was supposed to be”, we can allow ourselves to be genuine with our not-knowing, our vulnerability, the soreness of our heart. We may not be where we thought we were supposed to be; but we genuinely are where we are.
There’s a fearlessness that can arise here, not because we are protected by a shield of armor, but precisely because we find ourselves on groundless ground. And strangely, even without ground – or perhaps precisely because there is no ground – we truly stand in the open presence of the moment, just as it is.
In one of the charnel ground chapters of my life, after the break-up of a long-term relationship, I remember realizing one day that my life would go on. The part of me which made it through had a wonderfully fierce quality to it. I wasn’t afraid of all the Beautiful Women in the world who might threaten my next relationship. Bring them on, I thought. Take me as I am. Or not. I remain.
What remains, from the Buddhist point of view, is bodhicitta, our true nature. It’s the heart exposed, vulnerable, open, and absolutely awake.
It’s a place beyond grasping, beyond the suffering of trying to make things other than they are. It’s raw but it is beyond destructibility. Adamantine. The awakened heart-mind, strangely…free.
Here we meet the dakini – the sky dancer – ornamented with bones and skulls, whose abode is the charnel ground. Fiercely compassionate, unwavering in her offering of wisdom, she invites us to dance on the groundless ground of raw reality, just as it is. Perhaps, indeed, we become the dakini, bejeweled with the very objects of our greatest fears, as though to remind us that even the darkest charnel ground apparitions might be keys to open the soft chambers of our heart.