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To the Cemetery & Back

BuddhismLeonard Price describes an imagined stroll through the cemetery, calling on us to reflect deeply on the nature of our lives, and on the urgency of Dhamma practice.

In this city, as in all, the dead are granted a little space. Our business and pleasure take us past the old iron gates a hundred times on the way to seemingly more immediate destinations. But on this odd morning when time hangs lightly and pure chance finds us here gazing over these hills of stone and ivy, let us actually turn our steps into the cemetery and along its crooked paths.

The day is fine (or certainly we'd never venture here), the flowers glisten with last evening's rain, and a fair fragrance rises with the first breeze. Just inside the gates, someone stands at an easel and paints flowers. Farther off, a caretaker trims a hedge. The signs are propitious -- we shall have privacy but not solitude, and the morning's grace restrains the onslaught of gloom. We may even, carefully, allow ourselves to think thoughts appropriate to the place.

On these finely tended hillsides the music of birds mingles strangely with the numberless testimonies of death. The earth is half-paved with the stone remembrances and the middle air is full of obelisks and angels. Names and dates surround us, some sharp and raw, some worn nearly to oblivion, all crowding upon us with the particulars of spent lives -- of this family, of this age, with these virtues, with this hope of heaven. What can this mean to us, especially if we have no family here? The wind flings a rag of shade across the bright grass: We too shall die. The birds sing on, the bees hum in the violets, and the thought is not so terrible. Not so terrible, we remind ourselves, if the fever of life ends here, swathed in honeysuckles and southern airs.

We stroll on, reading the chronicles of grief: beloved wife, infant aged three days, daughter, son, darling children. Generations are drawn from the world by the chain of mortality. Do these stones mark an ending or only a continuance? The deceased fare on according to their deeds while we living stay to grieve. Where is there an end? These picturesque stones only mark the limit of our knowledge. Dress them how you will, O gardener, they bespeak our helplessness.

The rumble of the city dwindles and fails in these granite acres until a somber stillness attends our steps. Despite our resolutions and the sparkling sun, we are troubled and would turn back to the gates, but unaccountably we are lost and the hills roll on with their bare legends. Nothing to do but keep walking. assuredly we still live, and while we live we can try our philosophies against enormous mortality around us. Look now, a butterfly flails at the air in what we hope is joy. Beneath that tomb lives a chipmunk -- see him frisk about and vanish down his hole. We are briefly cheered and then plunged in doubt, for why should we lament the extinction of life and hail its repetition? We grow weary of sentiments careening back and forth and wish for equilibrium within the volatile universe. Samsara, we are told, is the terrible round of birth and death, but this disquiet, this resolution of doubt -- is it not samsara as well?

Hardly can we set a foot down for fear of treading wrongly, so crowded is this cemetery. We walk narrowly, wobbling on over the beautiful, terrible hills. Here where the path straightens for a moment let us pause and experiment by closing our eyes. At once the world collapses into red darkness and the pressure of the wind and sun. Now we shall take a step, hesitantly, feeling the gravel underfoot, imagining boundaries and perils. We move further. Somewhere the ground drops off, but where? Anxiety throws its coils around us, and we are walking through our minds -- with danger unseen but guessed on every side. Open eyes! The world blurs back to us, green and lovely, composing itself slowly and almost mockingly. Are we quite sure what is real? Are we quite sure we understand death?

Here's an iron bench in the shade we can rest and consider our position. Eyes closed or open, it's mind that assembles our world. Mind stirs up fear, mind accommodates grief, mind moves thoughts and limbs according to its nature. What is this nature? To judge from our confusion and instability, it is restlessness. We are, it would seem, not firm in space or conviction, not fully in control of anything. If we watch closely, here in the semi-silence, we may discern the flutter, the whir, the unease of this shifting mind. It knows not itself, it knows not the world, it only wants and hates by turns. The odor of flowers heaves it momentarily to paradise. The chiseled history of dead children hurls it down to despair. A crow on a stone angel's head call forth a smile. A fresh name on an old monument chills us. Delight pulls us one way, grief another. Neither can bear us across doubt or fear.

The mind runs endlessly in moments that flare and fizzle. There is a being-born and a dying with every one of them -- a birth and death of every thought and every breath happening right here while we worriedly scan the horizon for a supposed Great Death. Consider this dying that goes on all the time -- fits of memory and feeling, spasms of cells, torrents of desire and aversion, all tumbling in birth and death, birth and death -- the weary reiteration of samsara. Each instant ends but gives no rest because it ignites its successor; and in this the physical death memorialized around us is no different -- the troubled flame of being is passed on and on. What we fear out there, among the graven sorrows of the cemetery, is burning in here, in the mind, right now. Death has been our neighbor long before we came to ponder headstones. The Buddha understood this. We as yet do not, and tremble in the presence of innocent stone -- wide-eyed toward the symbol, blind to the blazing fact.

Sitting here alone, while the shade splashes silently around us, we hold all the worlds in our lap and can study them as the Buddha taught us, not with hunger, but with the clean dispassion that lays bare truth and liberates the beholder. The Buddha called craving the source of suffering, and indeed, as we bend our attention closer, what do we find but craving nesting even in the fractured moment? Every little death, every wretch of disappointment, is preceded by a birth, an upsurge of craving founded on ignorance. Being blind to the true nature of things, we continually give rise to passion that veers this way and that, never satisfied, forging link by link in the moment the chain binds us over the years. Events in themselves are only events; the deluded mind invests them with horrors and delights and ties the mortal chain around itself.

This cemetery with its solid stones is only a mirror, into which the Buddha bids us look to find the funeral procession within ourselves. Say we look, then. Say we are able to observe the deplorable state of our mind. What can we do about it? If birth and death are whirling on so mechanically and inexorably all efforts would appear futile. Indeed, though we begin to notice the cascading instability of body and mind, our mere intellectual recognition does nothing to free us. Birth -- that is, the uprising of craving -- will of necessity be followed by death -- that is, the pang of impermanence and loss. But craving itself is not an inevitable phenomenon; it springs up only in the soil of ignorance, and when ignorance is dispelled craving and its resultant miseries cease to exist. The whole teaching of the Buddha drives to this end. We are urged to strive diligently to see things as they are, to resist craving, to observe it unsparingly, to uproot it altogether. All the defilements and afflictions of mind exist, as it were, with our permission. Not knowing we have the power to end them, we go on muttering, "Yes, go ahead, there's no help for it." But when we realize we do have the power to alter the painful course of life our excuses will no longer suffice. We must look closely, fix on a straight line, and sail by the three points of morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Spurred by these thoughts, we rise from the iron bench (how quickly it has become uncomfortable!) and continue walking through the endless field of graves. This business of being alive once seemed simple -- either you were or you weren't -- but even a brief contemplation reveals surprising complexities. It appears we have long considered death as a single grim monolith that will one day thump us on the head, while in reality death is subtle, manifold, and co-existent with the mind that fears it. Our steps drag slowly over the gravel, and around us the cemetery seems more empty than ever. There is nobody to be seen, even the birds have vanished, and our solitude is complete. The question must arise now; if we have misunderstood death, have we not misunderstood its corollary, life, as well? If what we have been calling death is not singular and unique but threaded throughout the living process, can we even draw a clear and meaningful distinction between the two? Here we must turn to the Buddha, who did not speak of "life" and "death" as independent realities but rather pointed out that experience is a continual becoming, a process of ceaseless change, a flux of arising and perishing -- which is to say samsara, the great wheel of cause and effect, on whose flashing rim no beginning and no end can be found.

As we examine mind and body we feel increasingly the inadequacy of conventional words such as "birth," and "death." We have taken definitions for granted and now find them useless when we need them. Experience upsets imagination. We are forced to ask ourselves, "Whatever these words mean, who is it that is born, who is it that lives, who is it that dies?" Having so grossly misunderstood events we reach desperately for the one who undergoes events, but can we even find such a one? The Buddha many times patiently explained that human beings are temporary compounds of five aggregates: form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These aggregates are constantly changing, but so swiftly that they appear to retain a distinctive identity -- hence the conventional notions of "you" and "I." But such words and ideas are only conveniences which do not accord with ultimate reality. Life and death are only the continual becoming of the five aggregates, within which there can be found no indwelling core, no identity or permanent "self." Well, we may ask, does such-and-such a person live or not? Of course we may say that he or she or they or I live -- it is true enough on a mundane level. We are all, in a sense, lost beings wandering through cycles of existence. But we must clearly understand that ultimately there are only the five aggregates spinning through birth-and-death, afflicted with pain and pleasure, weighted with ignorance and goaded by desire and fear. The question "Who?" becomes meaningless as we study mind and body. Here we find instability, misery, and doubt burning in rightful chain reaction. Rather than searching futilely for an owner of the fire, hadn't we better put it out?

The Buddha did not proclaim the Dhamma in order to satisfy our curiosity about the origin or end of the universe, or to reveal startling secrets, or to stimulate worship. His purpose was to teach us to put an end to suffering -- the same suffering we feel now as we contemplate these symbols and evidences of death. By investigating with dispassionate minds we come to see things as they really are, seeing them we turn away from the destructive habit of craving, turning away we are by degrees liberated from all suffering. We may be familiar with this idea and may even give it our intellectual assent, but until we make it work in our daily lives we must remain in doubt and under the sway of continual death. We shall be buried soon enough -- shall we stay in the tomb till then? The light of insight can dispel the charnel darkness and free the suffering mind even in this present life. If the present is well attended to, the future will take care of itself.

We look up through sunlight and find that our steps have gone full circle: just beyond a bank of ivy and flowers stand the gaunt gates of this cemetery. The painter has gone; the caretaker is nowhere to be seen; nobody accompanies us on this quiet journey. We pause by a final marker, an old one, whose legend has been eaten by time. It lays flat, abject to the sky, speaking no longer any name of man but uttering the truth of impermanence. Its individuality has been effaced -- it is scarcely more regular then random nature -- but still it declares in the sounding-box of thought the ineluctable fate of all compounded things. It will bear our names as easily as any others, and indeed already does so -- let the wise man read his own! The death of the body is real, as are the small convulsions of flesh and thought in the present moment. Let us drive to the end of all of these. No evasion shall avail us, no distraction blur the sight -- this marker is our own. It shall not yield to the blows of hope or fear, but only to the long, cool gaze of wisdom.

We issue from the iron gates into the churning city once again, and the granite hills slip into distance and memory. Walking familiar pavements we find, strangely, that we carry still a mood or vision before which all objects fall into atoms and aspects of the Buddha's revelation. The city shows as many symbols as the graveyard. Around us life burns as profligately as gunpowder -- in getting and spending, gaining and losing, craving and hating. We see buildings, avenues, hurrying people, but if we are careful we also see that we are really still walking among monuments in the mind. We make our fate right here. The cemetery and the city are one. Shall we continue to build upon our little insight? It's not so hard: the body moves, feelings spring up, mind comprehends, mental objects succeed one another -- all these may be observed. In city or cemetery the process is the same -- let us simply keep looking, noting with cool attention the flow of the phenomena. The defilements of mind cannot stand the scrutiny; they must perforce dissolve. Who shall oppress us then? Life, till now one long fatality, may unfold in understanding. When birth and death are understood they are overcome, and with them all manner of suffering.

Whoever realizes a little, should he not strive to realize more? Whoever would be free, should he not lay hands on his chains? Whoever would act rightly, should he not found his actions on knowledge? The Buddha has declared the nature of suffering, its origin, its end, and the means to its end. His words hang in the air -- pregnant, epic, awesome -- until we begin to move by their guidance. Then they become living truth. Then the dark and mortal way we tread brightens with direct experience. Final emancipation may be far or near. What matters is the going.

This electronic edition was transcribed from the print edition in 1994 by Pat Lapensee under the auspices of the DharmaNet Dharma Book Transcription Project, with the kind permission of the Buddhist Publication Society.



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Keywords: buddhism, what is buddhism, guide to buddhism, introduction to buddhism, basic buddhism, four noble truths, dhamma, buddha, samsara, karma, buddhism, tibetan buddhism, buddhism religion, theravada buddhism, buddhism belief, basic buddhism, buddhism meditation

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Leonard Price is from Louisville, Kentucky.

An actor and a writer, he spends his free time in reading, meditating, and Dhamma-activities.
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