In the Charnel Ground

Creation and DestructionPerSpectives

An excerpt from Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, to be published in May 2018

Every time I’ve traveled to Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, I have climbed up to the Dakini Charnel Ground, a barren, rocky plateau above the trail on the Western side of the mountain.

This is the place where dead bodies are offered in a practice known as sky burial — or in Tibetan, jhator, “scattering to the birds.”

There I have practiced walking meditation among piles of bones and pools of blood, fat, and feces. The stench is rancid, even in the cold wind, and I could hear the flap of vulture wings and howls of jackals close by.

The first time I visited the charnel ground, I came upon two faces shorn of their skulls, their bloody hair in a tangled mess. Shaken, I barely managed to stay on my feet as I avoided stepping on these bloody masks of death. A man dressed in a ragged military coat approached me and motioned for me to lie among the fresh remains. Glancing around, I saw that Tibetans were sitting here and there among the body parts; a woman was pricking her tongue and others were pricking their fingers, drawing blood, symbolic of death and rebirth.

The man in the military coat glared at me and again gestured toward the cold, slippery earth. I slowly lowered my body and laid back onto the messy, rocky ground. The man then drew a long, rusty knife from a sheath beneath his coat and began to mime chopping up my body. A wave of fear and disgust passed through me. But then I let go into the realization that I too am blood and bone. The aversion left me as I gazed at the snow-capped Mount Kailash, remembering that sooner or later, I too will be dead. And the thought crossed my mind: Why not live fully now? Why not live to end the suffering of others? What else would I want to do with my life?

In a way, this strange experience is not so foreign. We are made of blood, bone, and guts, as any trip to the ER will remind us. Yet Kailash is a sacred place, and the ritual of symbolic dismemberment, representing death and rebirth, is a rite of passage that opens one to the reality of one’s own death and immortal life. For me, this experience was very intense, but not traumatizing. In fact, it was liberating — because it’s harder to fear what one more clearly sees. Isn’t this what we learn about compassion from contemplative practice, from serving those who are most vulnerable? When we see compassion more clearly, we might stop fearing the vulnerability that it opens within us.

We don’t have to go to Tibet or into a war zone to practice in a charnel ground. The charnel ground is a metaphor for any environment where suffering is present — a Japanese hospital, a school room, a violent home, a mental institution, a homeless shelter, a refugee camp. Even a space of privilege, like the corporate boardroom or Wall Street trading floor, can be a charnel ground. Really, any place that is tainted by fear, depression, anger, despair, disrespect, or deceit is a charnel ground — including our own mind.

Whatever our profession or calling, charnel ground practice is available; we are always sitting in the midst of subtle or obvious suffering. The mire we fall into when we go over the edge — this also is a charnel ground. It’s a place where we have to face our own struggles, and where our compassion for others who are struggling in the depths can grow strong.

When we suffer within our own internal charnel ground, we are vulnerable to pathological altruism, empathic distress, moral suffering, disrespect, and burnout. But when we take a wider and deeper view, we see that a charnel ground is not only a place of desolation but also a place of boundless possibility. My colleague Fleet Maull, who was incarcerated for 14 years on charges of drug trafficking, compares his experience of practicing meditation in prison to practicing in a charnel ground. The prison is a tough practice environment, one where greed, hatred, and delusion are the order of the day. Yet this charnel ground proved something to him. In his book Dharma in Hell, Fleet Maull writes, “I’m thoroughly convinced after spending fourteen years in prison with murderers, rapists, bank robbers, child molesters, tax dodgers, drug dealers and every sort of criminal imaginable, that the fundamental nature of all human beings is good. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind.” Like Fleet, I believe that redemption is possible, and every situation has within it something that can teach us, something that can lead us to our natural wisdom.

In many Tibetan mandalas, the outer protective circle depicts eight cemeteries filled with corpses, scavenging animals, bones, and blood. There is no better place to contemplate the impermanent nature of our lives than a cemetery. This circle serves as a barrier of entry to the fearful and unprepared; it is also a zone in which our meditation practice can flourish. If we find equanimity in the midst of death and decay, then we may become the Buddha at the center of the mandala.

Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet will be released in May 2018. To preorder your copy, please click here.


Maull, Fleet. Dharma in Hell: The Prison Writings of Fleet Maull. Providence: Prison Dharma Network, 2005.

Roshi Joan Halifax, PhD, is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her PhD in medical anthropology in 1973 and has lectured on the subject of death and dying at many academic institutions and medical centers around the world. She received a National Science Foundation Fellowship in Visual Anthropology, was an Honorary Research Fellow in Medical Ethnobotany at Harvard University, and was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress. From 1972-1975, she worked with psychiatrist Stanislav Grof at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center with dying cancer patients. She has continued to work with dying people and their families, and to teach health care professionals and family caregivers the psycho-social, ethical and spiritual aspects of care of the dying. She is Director of the Project on Being with Dying, and Founder of the Upaya Prison Project that develops programs on meditation for prisoners. She is also founder of the Nomads Clinic in Nepal. She studied for a decade with Zen Teacher Seung Sahn and was a teacher in the Kwan Um Zen School. She received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh, and was given Inka by Roshi Bernie Glassman. A Founding Teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order and founder of Prajna Mountain Buddhist Order, her work and practice for more than four decades has focused on engaged Buddhism. Her books include: The Human Encounter with Death (with Stanislav Grof); The Fruitful Darkness, A Journey Through Buddhist Practice; Simplicity in the Complex: A Buddhist Life in America; Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Wisdom in the Presence of Death; and her forthcoming, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet to be released on May 1, 2018.