I’ve wanted to mention something in this blog about Dharma Drum Mountain’s “cemetery,” as it is quite unusual and has much to say about how Dharma Drum teaches the Dharma. And, despite the fact that today, as the 10th anniversary of September 11th, is a day we are heavily reminded of what kind of tragedy death can appear in, I figured this post may still be appropriate and possibly even a bit interesting.
To get a sense of the uniqueness of DDM’s services for those who have died and who would like to be “buried” here, a little information and context on burial here in Taiwan may help. I do not know much about the customs, purpose, or rites behind services for the dead here, but you don’t need to know a lot to get a sense of what kind of place this literally holds for people. On many of the hills and mountains around Dharma Drum and elsewhere in Taiwan sit quite elaborate and unique cemeteries consisting, most often, of what are effectively small buildings for individual families as memorials for their deceased. It seems the better the view, the better the location is to bury and venerate one’s ancestors, thereby offering greater help for the deceased. In what form such help comes in, I’m not exactly sure; I wasn’t aware that the dead need great views in the first place. However, as always, I could be wrong.
Here are some photos of what these places can look like.
There does seem to be a fairly strong belief, associated with duty and obligation, in many Chinese families to strictly adhere to practices that show tremendous respect and filial piety to the deceased, especially a parent or grandparent. Many of these practices westerners might find quite superstitious (including the burning of paper money, cars, cell phones, etc., so the deceased may be able to use them in the afterlife), but many Chinese see the rites as essential and important. This article highlights some of these features more than I want to discuss in this post.
As you might imagine, these types of services and cemetery plots can cost a family a significant amount of money to purchase and have maintained; such that there are quite a few very profitable cemeteries around Taiwan that provide extremely elaborate preparations, tombs, and services. Some of these cemeteries, interestingly enough, surround Dharma Drum Mountain.
Master Sheng-yen, the founder of Dharma Drum, felt this type of significant preoccupation with death to be counter-productive when it comes to the Dharma, as it represents a type of attachment to the body, one’s memories, and one’s future that often have very little basis in actuality. And, indeed, the living relatives can perpetuate such a strong attachment to the deceased they thereby generate additional, needless anxiety and suffering for themselves and for others. Master Sheng-yen felt it was letting go that was the most beneficial, not holding on.
In this way, to help people who come to Dharma Drum understand the Buddhist view of death better, Master Sheng-yen developed what is call the “Memorial Life Garden” here at DDM. This is a picture of the “cemetery” here:
You may wonder what you are look at in the above photo; I was when I first visited this very serene and solemn place. This is a small plot of land designated for the burial of ashes for anyone wanting their remains to stay under the care of Dharma Drum. The area is probably around 1,000 square feet or less; quite small in many ways. No flowers, incense, plaques, notes, statues, etc., are allowed to be placed here. It is just a small, very simple area with grass and a few bamboo trees that provide cover and support. And, unlike just about every other Chinese temple, Buddhist or otherwise, Dharma Drum does not have a memorial hall where ashes can be stored (see MABA’s for an example). This Memorial Life Garden is the only place.
How the ashes are buried here is very interesting, as it highlights both the Buddhist view of death as well as Master Sheng-yen’s legacy related to it. From what I understand, for each person, five small holes are dug and the ashes are distributed equally among them. This helps to break one’s idea (and one’s relatives’ ideas), obvious or latent, about the state of one’s body after death. After death, the body one is so familiar with is literally no more, and in fact is now not even all is the same place. In addition, every few months, this Memorial Life Garden is tilled up, so that the ashes of everyone buried here get mixed together, further helping one’s living relatives to see the nature of the body as impermanent, and help them let go of an potentially unhealthy attachment to the deceased, or their idea of the deceased.
Master Sheng-yen held so strongly to the teaching of letting go of those who have died that he forbade any of his disciples of erecting any kind of memorial to him. Master Sheng-yen’s ashes are also buried in this Life Garden, now mixed together with the remains of many other people. There is no “spot” one can come and pay their respects to this great Buddhist teacher of recent times, other than Dharma Drum Mountain itself. He wanted people to pay their respects by adhering to the teaching of the Buddha, not focusing on the past, worrying about the future, or getting stuck asking unanswerable questions related to what happens after death. For such a revered Master here in Taiwan to forbid his disciples and followers not to memorialize him in this way sends a strong message, if we are willing to listen to it.
There is a fairly new and interesting art installation almost directly behind where I took the above picture, again showing the impermanent nature of all conditioned things. It is a small wall made of clay bricks which will, over time, slowly deteriorate and dissolve back into the earth. Right now it seems pretty solid, but in a few years, its purpose will be quite a bit more obvious.
While this is not the most inspired post about the virtues of the right contemplation of death in the Buddha’s teachings (here’s one that is), hopefully it does communicate in some small way how death is dealt with here. Again, Dharma Drum is quite unusual in its rather “extreme” example of not allowing even the slightest attachment to superstitious beliefs surrounding death to creep in; many other Buddhist groups in Taiwan have a bit more of a balanced approach. However, the teachings communicated here are very strong and can be very helpful.
Speaking of death (at least the contemplation of it), I’m hoping to go and see an exhibit in Taipei right before my next Chinese class begins called Body Worlds. Some of you may have seen it before, as it has toured all over the world. They have managed to preserve bodies intact through a special process called plastination, which prevents decay. The bodies are then positioned in various ways to highlight the incomprehensible nature of both life and death. It looks to be helpful nourishment for contemplation, especially about impermanence. Many of the monks from DDM went to see it last week, but I couldn’t go with them. Hopefully I will be able to next week before this life gets swallowed up again with Chinese class.
Here’s a two and a half-minute video about the exhibit for anyone who is interested.
As always, thank you for reading. I hope you are well, living fully.