This is from an e-mail by Heidi to me, a few years ago. I asked for permission to publish it, which was gracefully given. Thanks, lady.
I would go to the morning meditation at 3.15 am and come back about 5.45 -dawn. I was always one of the first to know in the monastery that we were going to have a cremation that day. The forest area in a corner of the monastery where I lived was the most dense and ‘left’, so had fallen trees and branches that were dried and good for the cremation fire. I would return to kuti (small hut on stilts) and hear the sound of the wood choppers in ‘my’ forest. It started a day of death contemplation – over the months and years I became quite practiced at it and could continue throughout the day and into the night, where I was often the last to sit watching the remains burn away. I’ve always loved an open fire outdoors at night.
I would be well into the death contemplation by mealtime at 8.30am – “feeding this body, not for gratification, not for beautification, only in order to continue the spiritual life…” by evening chanting time we chanted the reflection (beginning “there are 8 things a samana (spiritual seeker) should frequently reflect”)… I am of the nature to age : I have not gone beyond aging, I am of the nature to sicken : I have not gone beyond sickness,I am of the nature to die: I have not gone beyond dying, all that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me, ” and so on. These reflections were part of our daily routine and were amplified and deepened on a cremation day for me.
At night, the coffin long burnt away, revealed a sizzling bbq of flesh. Later the skull often times, would crack open with a bang and the brains explode and splatter and spit – I came to feel it was the great equalizer – where what we had in our brain was of no consequence whatsoever. All our thoughts and thinking reduced to ‘just this’.
When i first came to the north east of Thailand I went to a remote monastery for a monastic retreat – there were 3 bodies there in various stages of decomposition, donated for the monks contemplation. I visited them – it was strange and also spurred strong curiosity. I hate horror movies they give me bad dreams but the bodies were very different.Ii will never forget noticing one body ‘wriggling’ and as i stepped closer realizing that the body was ‘alive’ with zillions of maggots just under the tight leathery skin. It was truly bizarre to see a corpse so wriggly. It led me to do some interesting body meditations that led to what i believe to be insightful in terms of our extraordinary lives, human bodies defy all logic of me and mine or ‘bodily control’. I had already trained for years in kung fu , yoga, taichi , ballet – I had sound knowledge in how to feed and take care of ‘myself’. The meditations and death certainty changed me considerably.
Once a week, at the all night sittings I would have to sit in the front row of the hall, the monks sat down the side on a raised platform. More often than not I sat close to a fully grown unborn baby in a square perspex box filled with liquid – behind her was a skeleton with a bullet hole through its head (mother of a girl who used to visit the temple regularly – she had shot herself because she had cancer and was costing the family a lot of money). This sounds a bit morbid – it wasn’t. They inspired practice. they showed our humanity, our human condition. The Buddha had his ‘messengers’ an old woman, a sick man, a corpse, and a holy man. They are amazingly good messengers that give ‘great heart’ to the spiritual seeker.
consider yourself hugged largely.