Twenty-Four Holy Places & Eight Great Charnel Grounds
Recently on the ‘Ask a Pastor’ section of this blog an online friend asked a question about the Twenty-Four Holy Places and the Eight Great Charnel Grounds. The Pastors were asked if these were actual places found in relation to our world, e.g. actual geographic locations. Upon seeing the reply, His Eminence 25th Tsem Rinpoche advised that it would be good to write a longer explanation, as these places are often mentioned within many liturgies to the holy beings such as the Dharma protectors Setrap and Dorje Shugden. In such liturgies, the holy enlightened beings are invoked to come forth from these places.
Twenty-Four Holy Places
The Twenty-Four Holy Places are associated with the origin story of Heruka Chakrasamvara. His Eminence had previously narrated this story as told to him by His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche when he was in Los Angeles in 1984.
A long ago there was a great god who lived in the highest of the god realms by the name of Mahadeva. He was the overlord of all the gods and demi-gods within samsara. Mahadeva was a very powerful being with a lot of psychic powers, however he was not enlightened. As with any being within the Six Realms of existence, he had his attachments and his primary attachment was to the act of copulation.
He was a very handsome and good-looking god who ruled a vast empire of gods and goddesses, together with his four primary consorts. He was so desirous that he would be in constant copulation with one of these four goddesses. He would switch consorts at the juncture between the four times of the day. He would have his consorts embrace him in full copulation during all his activities, such as sitting, walking, sleeping and even eating. This would not be possible for human beings, however he was a god with immense powers.
When the other gods would meet together, Mahadeva would not attend as he was so engrossed in his copulation, however he would use his psychic powers to see what was happening. Instead of going himself, he would send a symbol of his private organ to these meetings. This would float, accompanied with attendants, canopies and music to the place where the gods met. Due to his position as the overlord of the gods, this symbol was given the best seat and worshipped with milk, flower garlands, food, lights and incense. They did this to pay their respects to him. In this regard Mahadeva was encouraging the worship of copulation. On the other hand, if he was not honoured in such a manner, he would punish those who would not comply and show his anger severely. This is because his need for respect was second only to his desire. Since he was the most powerful of the gods, this desire began to permeate into other realms due to his widespread worship. He was powerful enough to grant boons to those who worshipped him, and to bestow his godly assistance to others. However, due to his primary attachment those who worshipped him became infused and overwhelmed with a sense of sexual desire that overrode all the other qualities that the worshipper may have, even to the point of ruining their lives. The gods were not affected as much but the humans who worshipped him were.
It was during this time that the historical Buddha Shakyamuni saw that it was time to subdue this being, in order to curb this energy of sexual desire that was permeating the various realms. So he emanated in the exact form of Mahadeva, but of course being an enlightened being he was infinitely more powerful. He had four faces, two legs and twelve arms, and each hand held a different weapon. This is who we now call Heruka Chakrasamvara. Shakyamuni had also emanated into four main consorts, the primary of which we know as Vajravarahi or Vajrayogini.
Buddha Shakyamuni then appeared to Mahadeva and his consort Kalratri in the form of Heruka and Vajrayogini in union. Upon seeing the divine form of Heruka and Vajrayogini, amidst the blaze of wisdom fire, with more psychic abilities, wisdom and compassion, both Mahadeva and Kalratri were immediately subdued. They offered themselves under the feet of Heruka and Vajrayogini as a sign that they recognised their wisdom and power. This is the reason why Mahadeva and Kalratri are depicted under both Heruka and Vajrayogini’s feet.
The god Mahadeva controlled 24 powerful places on earth. Each of these places were controlled by a powerful guardian god and goddess, who were originally sent there by Mahadeva. In order to subdue these powerful gods and goddesses, Heruka emanated his entire mandala, together with a daka and dakini in each of these places to counter the energies of these gods and provide a blessed environment to practice towards enlightenment. Usually the tantric deities dissolve their mandalas into themselves after performing certain functions, such as giving teachings or other enlightened activities. In the case of Heruka, he did not dissolve the mandalas in these 24 places back into himself.
The mandala of Heruka has become imbedded into the physical landscape of these places. Since that time these dakas and dakinis who are actually one in nature with Heruka and Vajrayogini have resided there as well. These sites are now known as the Twenty-Four Holy Places that are mentioned in various liturgies. These places are very powerful energy centres, in fact if we engage in practices at any of these 24 places, the various beings who aid tantric practice such as various dakas, dakinis and Dharma protectors will come forth to bless practitioners. Therefore it is mentioned in many prayers, that we invoke the enlightened beings to come from these places, to wherever we are to aid us in our practice. This is a very powerful invocation, as the mandalas of Heruka exist on our earth, in our very plane of existence. When the holy beings are invoked from these places, they are able to come to our aid quickly.
These Twenty-Four Holy Places are of particular importance to those who practice the Vajrayogini tantras. The dakinis that reside in the Twenty-Four Holy Places are considered a 24 dakini entourage of Vajrayogini. During tantric practice these 24 dakinis are invoked by the practitioners and come to reside in one’s body, blessing their subtle energy channels and drops that are utilised in the practice to achieve their same enlightened state, which is of course the same as Vajrayogini – a fully enlightened Buddha.
These Twenty-Four Holy Places from ancient India are:
Eight Great Charnel Grounds
Another set of holy places are the Eight Great Charnel Grounds. At one time there was a god by the name of Rudra who was originally part of Mahadeva’s retinue. He was a very fierce being who also had many of his own consorts. Together with his consorts he began to oppress sentient beings, and promoted violence and unethical behaviour. At that time, Heruka once again arose, and in a dance of great compassionate wrath, liberated Rudra and his consorts from their physical bodies, sending their minds to pure lands. The places where Rudra’s body parts fell became charnel grounds. Rudra’s four energy centres (his head, heart, navel and private organ) fell in the four cardinal directions, and his limbs fell in the intermediate directions. It was from these body parts that eight great trees arose, and from here the charnel grounds developed around these trees.
They are known as the Ashta Maha Smashana in Sanskrit, and were the most important charnel grounds in Ancient India. They are known as:
- The Sitavana Cool Grove (in the East)
- Perfected in Body (in the South)
- Lotus Mound (in the West)
- Lanka Mound (in the North)
- Spontaneously Accomplished Mound (in the South-East)
- Display of Great Secret (in the South-West)
- Pervasive Great Joy (in the North-West)
- World Mound (in the North-East)
Charnel grounds are terrifying places, full of decomposing bodies, wild animals, wandering ghosts and other terrifying beings. The grounds are scattered with bodies, skeletons and other remains. In the various liturgies, it is also described as places with rivers and lakes formed from the bodies of the dead. However they are also peaceful places, because they are commonly described as groves, with pleasant flora and bird song amidst vast and open skies.
From a spiritual perspective the charnel ground represents the death of the ego, and therefore our suffering, as well as the methods of how to accomplish this. Through (a) meditation concentrating on the various states of decomposition of the bodies, (b) meditation on the frightening environment, and (c) meditation on death itself, one is able to come to four very pivotal realisations in one’s spiritual path. These are that (i) one has to overcome attachment to the body and life, (ii) craving for a body in the future, (iii) the fear of death itself and (iv) aversion to the decay that is a part of impermanence.
In ancient times it was here that great masters attained many ‘siddhis’ or attainments. Many of the great tantric adepts of the past practiced in charnel grounds. Unfettered from adhering to cultural norms relating to life and death, and with no distractions to seduce them, they were able to meditate on death more clearly. On an ultimate level this is useful to realise the impermanence of the self as a means to realise the true nature of existence. This is achieved through meditation and investigation of the Dvadasanga-Pratityasamputpada or the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.
On a more gross level it can be used to overcome fear, due to the culturally ingrained fear people have of such places. The wrathful beings and deities are said to reside in these Eight Great Charnel Grounds, therefore in some prayers, we invoke the wrathful deities from these places.
Within tantric practice the Eight Great Charnel Grounds have a deeper significance. In the practices of the wrathful yidams (meditational deities), surrounding the mandala of the deity are eight quadrants which are visualised as the Eight Great Charnel Grounds. These visualisations are particularly wrathful and include corpses in various states of decomposition and in different positions such as lying down, sitting up, those who have been hanged, those who have been impaled, those who are headless, rotting, etc. There are also zombies, various other wrathful beings, and wrathful animals such as jackels, vultures, crows, etc. They also include various dakas, dakinis, stupas, fires and wrathful yogins and yoginis.
Each of the aspects within the visualised charnel grounds symbolise tantric elements. There include:
- The great central trees in each charnel ground represent the central energy channel of the practitioner, known as Tsa-Uma (Tibetan) or Sushumna (Sanskrit).
- The ground itself represents the path of practice (the entire sutra and tantra teachings).
- The four types of corpses: (i) New corpses represent birth, aging, sickness and death or cyclic existence; (ii) Decaying corpses, or those impaled, hanging or dismembered represent the death of the mistaken idea of the self or ego; (iii) Skeletons represent the realisation of Shunyata or emptiness; and (iv) Reanimated and mindless zombies represent the realisation of selflessness.
- The wrathful animals represent the realisations of the generation stage of Highest Tantra Yoga practices, as they devour the ‘corpses’ of ordinary perception.
- The various lakes represent aspiring Bodhicitta or the aspiring thought to attain enlightenment for the benefit all of sentient beings.
- The clouds in the sky represent the drops of Bodhicitta at the crown of one’s head.
- The various fires represent Tummo or Inner Heat (Sanskrit: Candali).
- The various Dikpalas or direction protectors symbolise the ‘downward-voiding wind’ which is located below the navel.
- The various Lokapalas or realm protectors represent the ‘life-supporting wind’ which is located at the heart.
- The mountains symbolise the immovability of meditative stability with the inseparability of bliss and emptiness as its focus.
- The various stupas represent the three bodies of a Buddha.
- The Nagas represent the cultivation of the Six Paramitas.
- The Yogins and Yoginis represent practitioners who hold their tantric samaya well.
- The Wisdom-Holders (Sanskrit: Vidhyadharas) represent those who have realised the generation stage of tantric practice.
- The Mahasiddhas represent those practitioners who have realised the completion stage of tantric practice.
As we can see, both the Twenty-Four Holy Places and the Eight Great Charnel Grounds have tremendous significance within Buddhism, on both the sutra and tantra levels of practice. Therefore they are often mentioned within various liturgies and prayers as places where we invoke the enlightened beings from, especially those that have manifested wrathfully out of their compassion to aid sentient beings. I hope this post has been informative and has given some understanding as to the significance of both these sets of powerful and holy places.
PS. Thanks to Phng Li Kheng, Vinnie Tan and Joy Kam for assisting in this post.
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