A Forgotten Key to Mindfulness

| August 31, 2016 | 15 Comments
Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Vlado at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Days grow shorter. The small ruby-throated hummingbird that visited our feeder for sugar-water several times a day through August has decamped, beginning the first leg of his journey down to Mexico.

Overhead the Canada geese flock in great ‘V’s, calling out to each other as they wing south. The sugar maple at the bottom of the yard, stressed by an overburden of years of soil washed down from the hillside above, has already begun to turn. Its leaves are a beautiful orange, bright against the green of the trees beyond.

In the dark of the evening, the constellation Cygnus the swan flies overhead, having made its way slowly westward from its position lower in the east in June and July.

There is a clarity to the passage of time out in the country that is lost to the city, where ranks of buildings keep out the weather, streetlights blind the night sky, and snow is swept away in hours by machine.

Death as well is clearer out past the subways and freeways. A hawk swoops down in midday and catches a bluejay in mid-flight. It sits atop the bird, mantling it from the view of others who might want to steal a meal, while it moves its claws to finish the job.

A deer lies by the side of the road for days, its guts spilled beside the waving grass.

Modernity can almost be defined by the regulation of time and the sanitization, even the disappearance, of death. In the main this is a good thing: we prefer to live long, without thought of what comes after. Death is for us lucky ones something that happens far away, in the managed environment of a hospital rather than out on a messy field, public square, or homebound sickbed. Perhaps, we may come to feel, death happens nowhere, or not at all.

But we do not have exclusive rights to such blindness, the ancients suffered from it as well. And the wise among them counseled practices to combat it. A recent article by Bryant Rousseau in the New York Times on the “intensity” of meditation rituals in Thailand reminds us of the ancient Buddhist practices known as charnel ground contemplations. These practices are, in fact, key parts of mindfulness practice as outlined in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10.14-30), central to mindfulness of the body. As Rousseau says,

The practice of corpse meditation, largely limited to Thailand today, is an ancient concept in Buddhism, sanctioned by the Buddha himself. There are centuries-old murals and manuscripts depicting scenes of meditation next to different types of cadavers, some infested with worms, others cut in two or being picked at by crows.

The unpleasant sight and overpowering stench of flesh decaying in tropical heat can impart lessons about important Buddhist precepts, like nonattachment to one’s body and the impermanence of everything, said Justin McDaniel, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

The ritual is viewed as a powerful way to learn selflessness, Professor McDaniel said, “and the more selfless you are, the closer you are to nirvana.”

I wonder why such practices are not included in what we in the West consider mindfulness meditation. It is certainly not because such practices are incompatible with a secular outlook. While other practices in the article may be set to one side, death and decay are as much a part of secularism as they are of religion.

Perhaps indeed charnel ground contemplations are more compatible with secularism. It is, after all, in the supernatural aspects of religious belief that we find myths of escape from death, either through entrance into an everlasting heaven, or through rebirth. A secular outlook does not embrace such escapism.

So then why such aversion? Is it because in secularism, death is so final that it scares us, and in our fright we prefer not to contemplate it directly? Or is it simply a matter of disgust with the smelly and unfamiliar?

The countryside is redolent with the aroma of manure in spring and summer. An animal’s death is often first known by the smell, before the vultures descend upon it and clean its bones.

But death does happen in cities too, sometimes violently, other times known only by its stench. Perhaps those from the city may be no more aversive to learning about death than those who live closer to earth in the countryside. The Buddha recommended charnel ground practices in a world barely out of prehistory, to a public as close to the earth as any today. He must have felt they needed it. He must have felt that the awareness of death we get in daily life, even in daily life on the farm, was not sufficient to truly understand it.

There are practical difficulties with getting access to dead bodies. Thanks to modern notions of sanitation, there are no charnel grounds to visit. But even so we may undertake the contemplations. Neither are they so foreign to the West, where the skull on the shelf was a commonplace in paintings of the great masters. And in the theater: Alas, poor Yorick!

But a skull is already sanitized; clichéd enough that we barely register its past.

So let us reconsider certain of the “Intense” practices of Thailand, of original mindfulness, and see if there is a way to include them in our modern practice. We all could use them, particularly those of us buffered from the cycle of life in the city.

The Pāli word for mindfulness is “sati“, which connotes “memory” or remembering. To be mindful is not simply a matter of awareness; it is also a matter of remembering wise lessons learned through experience. The more intimately we can make ourselves aware of our mortality, the wiser will be our approach to the life we have left.



Anālayo (2003). Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (Cambridge, Windhorse).

Bryant Rousseau (Aug. 30, 2016). “Corpses, Pythons, Sleep Deprivation: Meditation Rituals in Thailand Can Be Intense”. New York Times.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (15)

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  1. Great post, Doug. I can’t speak for all traditions, but Ven. Yifa (a Taiwanese nun who has done and teaches Vipassana) told students this summer that she doesn’t teach charnal ground (asubha, ugliness of the body) meditations to lay people because if they actually did them well, they would develop a very monastic aversion to sex – seeing that their partner’s bodies are composed of the same basic elements and destined to the same fate. This might be good for those who are a bit too attached or lustful, but for others this wouldn’t be healthy in lay life.

    On the other hand, she said, she likes the TV show CIS, because it often starts with a very beautiful man or woman, alive and well one moment and then dead and being looked over by examiners a minute or two later. It’s probably too sanitized to get the message through to most people, but the message is clear: beauty, youth? Don’t count on them.

    My guess is that a fair number of secular Buddhists – like the vast majority of Westerners – just don’t want to think about such things.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for the great comment Justin. The point that you make had occurred to me as well — that in lay life such meditations might make one aversive to sex. But I think generally its the internal organs meditation that’s used for that purpose, at least canonically. While I certainly see the point that charnel ground meditations might have the same effect, my sense of them is that they’re more for getting one to understand anicca rather than non-beauty.

      While I wouldn’t recommend that one do these kinds of meditations exclusively, or obsessively of course, I think that many lay practitioners would benefit from such meditations every once in awhile. Indeed, I think they would benefit from the internal organs meditation as well.

      The reason I think they would be helpful is to deal with the last point you bring up: that Westerners just don’t want to think about death and decay, particularly their own or those of their loved ones. I’d argue that confronting such issues is really the whole point of the dhamma.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Well, one of the primary reasons charnel ground meditation isn’t more frequent here is that we don’t have charnel grounds. Perhaps because of Christianity’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body, we treat human remains with what we take to be respect, preserving them and interring them with monuments to the deceased. Even cremation is practiced with respect for the corpse and ashes are preserved in urns or spread in some sacred place. I won’t say Western culture isn’t squeamish about death — at least outside of popular entertainment — but there is more to our reluctance to use dead people as an object of meditation practice than just that. Your article gives us a very poetic list of things we can contemplate to be mindful of impermanence without violating the dignity of the deceased.

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    “My guess is that a fair number of secular Buddhists – like the vast majority of Westerners – just don’t want to think about such things.”

    Hmm- I wonder — perhaps Westerners don’t think much about traditional symbols of death, but we may have our own disturbing images and symbols — images of mass shootings and gun violence in American cities, suicide bombings in Paris and Iraq, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean …. The nightly television news is our charnel ground, and its images probably resonate with our fears more effectively than older images of death. If anything, they feed & exaggerate our fears.

    However, I don’t know if these images are often subjects of meditation, at least not directly. In my case, the “state of the world” enters into my meditation, but I haven’t, for example, meditated directly on Sandy Hook. Is this typical? Would direct meditation on the refugees washed ashore in Cyprus be something that should be considered? In the present context, could mindfullness help put our fears in persspective as well as confront the reality of death & decay?

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    addendum: I occurs to me that no one really wants to confront death & decay — I suppose that why chanel ground meditation was recommended in a society in which death was more a daily experience than it is for most of us (most of the time). We’re perhaps no different today than our ancestors. We see death, but it is how we react to it that invites meditation about it. I think attemps to evade its reality and unreasoned fear of it are two sides of the same coin.

  5. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Yes, thank you Michael for your comments. Tragedies like 9/11, suicide bombings, gun violence (“if it bleeds, it leads” on the nightly news) present their own problem. Meditating upon them, or obsessing as so many do, I think risks the knee-jerk reaction that death is something unusual and violent, and that if we could only clamp down on such actions with (e.g) stronger laws, a more ruthless police force, or a faraway war somewhere, we might never have to confront death.

    Death, human death, our own death and the deaths of all those we know, is something that must be confronted as essentially banal, as everyday and inescapable. That is I think what’s so hard to confront about it. As you note, we either avoid such thoughts or fear them.

  6. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Doug wrote: ” Meditating upon them [9/11 etc.], or obsessing as so many do, I think risks the knee-jerk reaction that death is something unusual and violent, and that if we could only clamp down on such actions with (e.g) stronger laws, a more ruthless police force, or a faraway war somewhere, we might never have to confront death.”

    Very true, I think.

  7. Michael Michael says:

    Thank you for the post Doug. It made me remember a telephone conversation I had earlier this year with the guy who runs Ireland’s (only) green burial site.

    My aunt had recently died and there was some confusion about the type of burial she would have wanted, so I decided not to put my family through the same fraught process and bought (am buying in fact, at €30 per month – the cost of dying is not cheap!) what will be an unmarked plot, into which I intend the bits of me left over after I’ve died to be placed. Coppice trees and meadow flowers will later be planted over the spot at the right season and the various atoms which my body is made up of at that time should have a fairly easy route back into an uncontaminated chunk of the planet.

    It’s not a charnel ground – I hasten to add, they’ll all still be a good 6ft under.

    I was quite happily arranging all this with the site owner over the phone when I noticed a catch in my voice. I had a quick cough and carried on again, only for it to come back. Then I noticed that there was a slight quiver in my voice and while he was talking away to me I noticed that my teeth were slightly chattering. It was very unexpected and surprising.

    For the logical day-to-day part of my brain all I was doing was making a sensible future arrangement about which I had absolutely no qualms. However at some other level, being forced to confront the practicalities of my eventual dissolution was generating an unexpectedly powerful emotion. I wouldn’t say it was anything like fear or revulsion, it was just extraordinary and ‘big’ and ‘real’ and something in me was struggling to process it.

    I just offer this up as an example of why charnel ground mediation could have been recommended: I imagine that doing so would cut straight through any intellectualizing about it and force the meditator to confront the reality of death, their death, everyone’s deaths on a visceral level. Not in a morbid way, but in a way that made it ‘real’ for them – revealing and therefore going beyond their preconceptions and cultural programming until there was just ‘them’ and ‘death’.

    If confronting the reality of my death, even if only at arms length in the form of a plan, a telephone conversation and site visit can reveal something about myself to me, how much more effective would a deliberate meditation on the subject be, while witnessing the processes of decay taking place?

  8. Ron Stillman Ron Stillman says:

    In light of the “meditation on death”, I have found it beneficial to stop and consider the death of any animal I might find during my daily life. I specifically remember stopping at the carcass of a dead seal during a hike on a California coast. It was a powerful reminder of my eventual death and the importance of living a life of doing no harm in body, speech, or mind.

  9. kokaku says:

    Several years ago my husband and I purchased a cremation plan. This was prompted by my mother’s death; we simply called the number on the back of her Neptune Society card and two men in dark suits rolled a gurney into her home and quickly removed her body only for her to be returned to us in three days neatly encased in a small mahogany chest. Such efficiency. After we “joined” the society, two identical boxes were delivered to our front porch by UPS. Inside were mahogany chests. They have been sitting patiently in our front closet, a daily reminder as we put our shoes away for the evening that this life is truly a gift to cherish.

  10. steve mareno says:

    I think that meditation on death is a powerful part of the Tibetan lineage? In this society (the US) everything is designed to have us avoid focusing on death, since death would mean that there would be one less consumer to buy the corporation’s products, and it’s also important for these corporations that really govern us to keep society from thinking too much about actual death (vs death that is experienced second hand in a printed or viewed media) because it might make people adverse to joining an army in a time of Permanent Warfare.

    I would think that rather than meditate on death it would be much more effective to experience it. By that I mean, be around sentient beings that are dying. Then it is real. I remember one sort of Tibetan training that involves the student monk going up to the top of a mountain w/ a dead person. The dead person is then chopped up by the student, the pieces thrown into the air, and the hungry vultures who have been watching all this eagerly swoop down and grab the chunks. i believe it is called a sky burial. This activity teaches the monk in an experiential manner that all of us are going to die, and once dead the person is gone, it’s just the elemental makings of a person that remain. A real teaching on impermanence. Meditating w/ a corps would be very effective as well, but being present w/ dying beings should prove more powerful. Seeing my friend who died at 16 at his wake when I was about that age was disturbing, but looking at Jamie’s white, bloodless body made me think, that’s not Jamie, Jamie is gone, that is just something that is not Jamie.

    In my life, being present while giving the command to a vet to euthanize our beloved cat because her cancer had returned and was causing much suffering was one of the hardest things I ever did, and afterwards, what I felt could not be duplicated by any meditation known. While I still grieve for her loss, I also understand that it is just how it is. All things are impermanent, and it’s our attachment to permanency in a impermanent world that causes us suffering.

    If I was around more beings that were ill and dying…. in a hospice, a hospital, a vet clinic, a war zone, etc, that experience would fundamentally change how I understand death. But who wants to do that, right? At some point it will play out that what I want to do is not going to lead to happiness and a cessation of suffering about death, what I need to do will.

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