Monday, 25. March 2013 8:53
If you look carefully at the picture above you will spot in the middle of the flames, about one third down from the top of the brick structure, a cracked oval object. It is the top of a human skull, and just a few hours before this photo was taken it was covered in skin and hair.
This was one of about five rural Issarn cremations that I witnessed while staying at Wat Pah Nanachat, the ‘International’ Forest Monastery in Thailand. Issarn is how Thais refer to the Northeastern provinces. It’s where the vast majority of the great forest monks hail from, and where Ajahn Chah spent most of his life. And it’s where the tradition of disposing of bodies on an open pyre still burns strong. It might sound a little odd to the uninitiated, but being able to observe these fascinating spectacles was one of the highlights of my sixteen month stay. I’ll explain why.
All of our problems are rooted in a misunderstanding of the true nature of things, which includes, in no small part, our bodies. Because of this misunderstanding we cling onto the body as if it were ours: we see it as something solid, real and lasting. And so we live at odds with the body’s changing nature. We fight pain, illness, aging and death – our own and that of those around us. But it’s a losing battle: the more we fight, the more we suffer. And even if we are young, to balance on the house of cards of ‘good’ health without realising the precariousness of our situation is to store suffering for later on. With the ephemeral nature of the body so apparent, why do we cling onto it as if it were a reliable thing? Why do we invest such time and effort into dressing up a bag of bones that’ll be crumbing in a few years? Because our minds don’t see clearly.
Which is why observing a cremation can be so fruitful. The Buddha advised us to contemplate the body in various ways, from breaking it down into the four great elements; to analysing the many foul parts it encases; to observing a dead body and reflecting: ‘My body too is of the same nature. It will be like that; it is not exempt from that fate!’ And so by frequently contemplating the body in light of these truths we align our minds with the true nature of the body: we come to terms with change, with ageing and death. We gradually release the pressure of the sense of self by seeing that the body is but an aspect of nature and that it doesn’t belong to us. This is what we mean by seeing clearly, and it results in one thing only: letting go and thus peace.
On the afternoon of a typical cremation that I attended the monks and local villagers would gather at about 2 pm. The whole event is very much rooted in the core practices of giving, morality, and mental cultivation (dana, sila, bhavana), making the most of the fertile ground a cremation provides. Firstly, the laity will take the precepts, after which they will make offerings to the Sangha. Then there will be some chanting followed by a talk. The funeral Dhamma talk, far from dishing out some mollifying wacky fairy tale, is a call for us to live in harmony with the nature of things, and that to understand and not fight change is the way to peace and happiness. But it’s not a cold, hard merciless pouring of brutal words on tender spots – not at all. The Issarn funeral Dhamma talk is often replete with an earthy and warm humour. Humour and truth – a most powerful combination.
Then the fire is lit, and almost the entire congregation, including young children, gathers and watches as the flames begin to consume the coffin. A good monk friend of mine at Nanachat told me that by the time a typical local village boy is twenty he’ll have seen about that number of open-air cremations. Can you imagine that? Yet what a way to grow up; what a healthy and natural exposure to life’s great truth. Compare that to the heavy smothering of reality that is our culture’s suspicious response to death. But here it is in the open, for all to see, regardless of age: this is the nature of life; this is the nature of the body. It’s normal.
Each time I watched a cremation the coffin had been a cheap, flimsy affair and it fell apart rather quickly, so the corpse was revealed early on. Most of the villagers didn’t tend to stay around once the fire got going, which meant that we monks were left to contemplate the burning body. Before the flames became too hot we took it in turns to climb the steps flanking the body to observe the process. It’s fascinating. What is this body? A piece of meat: the skin of a thigh split open and sizzling yellow fat pushed though, just like a sausage cooking in a frying pan. What is this body? Earth, water, fire and air: an arm stiffened and raised; the hand curled and shriveled and hardened – liquid dripped from the fingertips back into the flames only to evaporate. What is this body? Selfless: it didn’t feel anything, it didn’t cry, and it wasn’t afraid…
Thus the body was revealed in its true nature: it is a part of nature. Oh the relief! Oh the joy at beginning to realise this! The water permeating our body is as much you and me as that which the tree drinks from the earth. Our teeth are as much ours as the bleached shells on the beach. None of it belongs to us. How can we be afraid of change and death when we see the body in this way? How can we view it as ‘me’? But it takes time for these truths to blossom in our minds. It takes frequent contemplation and reflection to steer the stubborn veils of delusion away from our mind’s eye.
Most people reading this are 7000 miles away from an Issarn cremation, which is a shame. So we must settle for using our imaginations. Picture your body dead: is it you? Visualise your teeth and skin and bones in piles around you: are they yours? Be mindful of the pain in you back: is it under your control? All of this might sound a tad morbid, but it’s actually very healthy. It’s simply a matter of coming to terms with the nature of our body so that we give up the painful and futile battle of wishing it were otherwise.