Solitary Night time Meditation at the Cemeteries

A question regarding meditation at the cemeteries was raised by a Yogi at a recent retreat held at Meetirigala Nissaranavanaya Forest Monastery. The questioner mentioned that such cemetery meditation was known to be practiced by Ajahn Chah (1918-1992), a great Thai monk considered to be an Arhat (a fully enlightened being).  The questioner mentioned that these types of practices could be even looked at as Attakilamatanuyoga (an addiction to self-affliction). The questioner also referred to similar difficult practices of another great Thai Nun Mae Chee Kaew (1901-1991) who is also considered to be a fully enlightened being.

In his reply, the Most Ven U Dhammajiva Maha Thero explained that such practices should not be considered either as Attakilamatanuyoga (an addiction to self-affliction) or as Kamasukallikanuyoga (an addiction to sensory pleasures). The adopted practice should be considered from the point of view of the situation and the person adopting the practice. The Maha Thero mentioned that what we learn from the life stories of such great Monks and Nuns should encourage us in our own practice of meditation.
As such a Lay Meditation Practitioner felt that it is important to provide more details on the methodology of cemetery meditation practice for the benefit of serious meditation practitioners. The following details are provided by that Yogi with the consent of Most Ven U Dhammajiva Maha Thero.
That Yogi experimented with solitary nightly meditation at a cemetery in Matale, Sri Lanka in 1977 as a 20 year old youth. This was different to the cemetery meditation practiced during Lord Buddha’s time. (In the days of Lord Buddha Monks and Nuns practiced meditation at the cemeteries. Those days the cemeteries were different to the present days because most of the dead were just taken and left at the cemeteries unburied. As such at a cemetery a Yogi could find dead bodies in various stages of decay. Those Yogis used those bodies as objects of contemplation and meditation.)
Our present day Lay Yogi considers this practice as a useful method to test and develop the skills in meditation practice. However such a Yogi should be fully prepared prior to embarking on such a venture and the following key aspects are highlighted as essential to that level of preparation.
  1. Attitude: The Yogi or Yogini should be ready to accept death or worse. This is not a state of resignation or madness but an attitude filled with calm and determination. Fear is there but it is not allowed to take the upper hand and overpower the Yogi. It is somewhat similar to the attitude of a good Samurai warrior. A suitable visual example could be given from the 2002 Movie Epic, ‘The Last Samurai’. In that movie the main character played by the actor Tom Cruise, visits a town after his training as a Samurai fighter. There, he is confronted with 3 Samurai warriors who had been sent to kill him. He faces them with absolute calm which is coupled with determination and overcome them after a sword fight. So the attitude should be ‘It’s OK even if I have to die. And yet I will do this’.
  2. A high level of Morality or Sila: The Yogi or Yogini should have a high level of Sila that go beyond the mere upholding of precepts. At the level of precepts it should be above the usual 5 precepts, preferably at least the 8 Uposatha Sila. Yogi should practice the Sila at Indriya Sanwara Seela level. An explanation regarding this could be found in Indriya Bhavana Sutta. (Clink this link to Indriya Bhavana Sutta from Access to Insight)
  3. A high Level of Skill in Meditation: The depth and level of skill is very important. The level of skill could vary but some guidelines need to be provided. Our lay Yogi had a few years’ experience in meditation at the time and he continuously practiced 8-10 hours a day for more than a month before attempting the solitary night time cemetery meditation. Solitude and silence is important and he didn’t speak more than 10 -15 words during that whole period of more than a month. The depth of the level of meditation needs to be explained using two parameters. The first is the level of concentration. The Yogi/Yogini should be able to shut out the external and internal ‘noise’ and focus on the object of meditation – comfortably. The internal ‘noise’ in this case is the fear. The second parameter is the Mastery of the quality of that concentration. This could be explained using an example. It is like separating a specimen on to a Petri Dish and turning it using forceps. In this case the specimen is fear and the Yogi/Yogini has quality of concentration to separate it objectively.
  4. A High level of Shraddha (A deep belief in the Triple Gems of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha): This is especially needed by the Yogi/Yogini who undertakes the specific cemetery practice as a technique to develop the skill in meditation. Those who undertake the exercise to test their skills may not need this at a high level. Our Yogi undertook the exercise to test his skills.
A Yogi or Yogini is ready to face the challenge after the above preparation. Ironically the fear itself works as an aid in the development of such a practitioner. This is because the practitioner has sufficient skill to focus on the object of meditation to keep off the fear which tries to creep in. Unlike in other situations the practitioner has a real incentive to focus deeply on the neutral object of meditation such as Anapanasathi. The practice becomes quite lively and vigorous! Later when the mind becomes really pure the negative feelings such as fear becomes totally suppressed. The cemetery becomes a beautiful place. Our Yogi believes that those who achieve higher states of Jhana or Vipassana levels couldn’t be harmed by any evil spirits or Demons.
The following benefits could be gained by the successful practitioners of solitary nightly cemetery meditation.
  1. Improved ability to enter Deep Levels of Concentration under difficult circumstances.
  2. A cemetery is a wonderful place to experience the transient, brittle nature of life.
  3. Those who are successful in the exercise would gain a lot of confidence. This would become beneficial both in meditation and in other activities throughout the life.
Given below is the link to the question raised by a Yogi at Meetirigala Nissaranavanaya Monastery. This is in Sinhalese language and it is taken from 02 – Q&A – 01_Kalakarama Sutta_21-06-2012: Meditation at the Cemeteries


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