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2. The Charnel Ground

A Vajrayana, or tantric, master, Trungpa Rinpoche was at pains to dispel wrong-headed notions about the exoticism of tantra. He didn’t shy away from graphic tantric imagery but emphasized the perspective the imagery embodied. He presented it as a subtle and elaborate picture of what our mind experiences. The tantric perspective is potently conveyed in a practice text that emerged in the mind of Trungpa Rinpoche in the cave at Taktsang: the Sadhana of Mahamudra. For forty years, it has been chanted on new and full moon days in centers he founded and is available to be practiced by dharma students new and old.

As part of this practice, one recites a long description of the “charnel ground.” Since the earliest times, Buddhist practitioners practiced in burial grounds, surrounded by powerful reminders of life’s impermanence. Eschewing philosophical statements about “impermanence,” tantra suggests our life is in fact a charnel ground. More than a burial ground, as Rinpoche described it, it is an environment where “birth, life, and death take place. It is a place to die and a place to be born, equally, at the same time.”

Our perspective on life tends to be choosy, he pointed out. We project a partial reality to suit ourselves, but the perspective of tantra takes in the whole picture. We would like things to be just one way—comfortable for us and never-ending—but there are unsettling dichotomies all over the place: As soon as we are born, we are starting to die. Whenever we’re happy, there is a tinge of sadness. We long to be united, but we know we are alone.

We feel wretched, he observed. There is so much wrong with us. And at the same time, we are glorious. We are the buddhas of the future. In some sense, we are buddhas right now.

If we can find the bravery to face the totality of our circumstances— the negativity as well as the richness—a world of invigorating energy will reveal itself. The dichotomies begin to resolve themselves because we stop trying to ally ourselves with one smaller perspective or the other. For example, he taught, if we rely too heavily on our intellect to sort things out, we ignore our emotions. And if we give full throttle to our emotions, we lose our insight. What the tantric view and training can teach us to do, he said, is to “bring together emotion and insight. Insight becomes more emotional and emotion becomes more insightful.” We can exercise control and relaxation simultaneously, he said.

Such a vision would find appeal among young spiritual seekers in the West, who had become disillusioned with what society and traditional forms of religious practice offered. To be told you’re both completely wretched and glorious rang true. It meant you weren’t crazy for feeling bad and good at the same time. He proclaimed to his students that it was not only okay but wonderful to be in a place of simultaneous birth and death, celebration and mourning, and that in fact buddhahood was not some faraway place. It existed in the middle of the charnel ground, where the places we usually run from could be fertile ground for discovery, where, as it says in the Sadhana of Mahamudra:

Whatever you see partakes of the nature of that wisdom which transcends past, present, and future. From here came the buddhas of the past; here live the buddhas of the present; this is the primeval ground from which the buddhas of the future will come.

 


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