This is my charnel ground

Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be,
This recollection about death,
Blessed with such mighty potency.¹

from the Visudimagga

“[W]hen one is actually dying it is a bit late to begin thinking seriously about death. We should familiarize ourselves with the thought long before we hope it will happen! And besides, even for the young and strong, it can still come with unexpected suddenness. Mors certa — hora incerta, ‘Death is certain — the hour is uncertain.’ To bear this in mind is for the Buddhist an important aspect of Right Understanding. And therefore the Buddhist practice of Meditation on Death — not very popular in the West — should be encouraged.”²

Death is on the mind. It surrounds me. Something shifted. Before, there was a sense of detachment. I thought it was due to equanimity. Now, when I look into the face of my patient and see her life retreating, I see my own face. I cannot help but identify with this body that is so soon going to be a corpse. When the woman who talks like a machine gun, nonsensically, shuffles her wheel chair towards me, I cannot help but face my own confusion, the busyness of my mind. When the woman with no short-term memory grabs me and asks me to help her because no one there knows who she is, I face my own feelings of worthlessness and groundlessness. When I stroke the hair of my 98 year-old uncle, who lies in the hospital bed, victimized by pneumonia, and hear his sighs of pleasure in between coughing bouts, I melt; reminded just how important it is to touch and be touched, how we need each other.

The nursing home and its residents are my teachers. They provide an active reflection on what it means to live and die. I cannot do anything but face my fear in this environment. This is my charnel ground.

1. “Buddhist Reflections on Death”, by V.F. Gunaratna. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.

2. “Buddhism and Death”, by M. O’C. Walshe. Access to Insight, June 7, 2010.

See also:

“In the Dead of Night” a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Chah

Death & Dying at DharmaNet International Learning Center

Leave a comment


  1. ebe

     /  September 27, 2010

    Thanks for the post. The issue is indeed serious. Thanks also for the references.


  2. Laura

     /  September 27, 2010

    Yes, this was a welcome post–very few I think, in the blogosphere, on maranasati (mindfulness of death). It is not easy to think of our own demise, when all around, one is kept from seeing this (ads of the beautiful, the young, and the vibrant), and the sweeping away of the old and infirm to various institutions. I was just commenting to a friend, to go to a cemetery I pass daily while biking to work. And yet, it never even needs to be that far. One can see it in the faces of the older generation while they pass by on the street, or perhaps of a dead bird/carcass here and there on the street before it’s swept away. Good to arose some samvega, thank you. :)


    • Laura, have you explored NewBuddhist at all? Here’s a thread on maranasati. Indeed there are so many every-day opportunities to use for contemplating this…

  3. Great post.
    I must say, I had never heard the word “charnel” and had to look it up. If anyone is interested, here is the etymology:

    late 14c., from O.Fr. charnel (12c.) “fleshly,” from L.L. carnale “graveyard,” properly neut. of adjective carnalis (see carnal). Glossed in O.E. as flæschus “flesh-house.” Charnel house is attested from 1550s.

  4. Lovely and poetic truth….

    Isn’t it great to understand our mortality growing all the more alive and awake toward our own death? It’s the desire to continue to the last; and add life in our lives that makes it all worthwhile!

  5. Sorry, but this all seems a bit self-indulgent. We have to pull the concept “death” out of nothing, and begin to give it meaning? It has no meaning, only that which is conditioned in us. The task in Buddhist practice is to live without pre-conceived notions. There is nothing to meditate on. We just make stuff up so as not to be bored. :)
    We also like to be entertained, either by interesting, or scary phenomena. Another reason to not conjure up the fantasy of death. IMHO

    • @ Chana
      You should really consider putting your blog on blogspot or WordPress (the best) so people can respond and dialogue. It would be fun.

  6. ebe

     /  October 2, 2010

    After reading the article of Bhante G, provided at references, I had some thoughts about “free will” (with “” since it needs to be defined first). Is there, according to Theravada tradition such a “free will”? How it is related to Kamma (cuase and effect)? Though I feel I have somethings to say on this issue, I feel they are not crystalize yet. A cloud of feelings with no words. Is it the fear?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: