Thrown In The Charnel Ground

Warning: this post discusses Jon Padgett’s “The Mindfulness Of Horror Practice”, and it contains spoilers.

If we’re looking for Buddhism’s appearances in contemporary horror fiction in English…

(… ok, admittedly, that’s a big and weirdly specific if, but in my case it’s exactly what I am looking for, so let’s go with it…)

…if, as I say, we’re looking for Buddhism’s appearances in contemporary horror fiction in English, then Jon Padgett’s “The Mindfulness Of Horror Practice” is Route One.

As his legions of admirers know – and I’m very definitely one of them – “The Mindfulness Of Horror Practice” is the opener to Padgett’s sublime 2016 collection The Secret Of Ventriloquism.

Using the form and language of a guided meditation, “The Mindfulness Of Horror Practice” sucks you in, sluices you down, and tips you out into the truly terrifying stories that follow. It’s very creepy, and very clever. And if you’ve ever tried the “mindfulness of breathing” meditation, it’s also very familiar.

In this recording I’m going to be leading you through all four stages of the mindfulness of horror practice. […] Closing your eyes. Now become aware of your environment. […] Just become open to these sensations and experiences – accept them, good or bad. […]

[…] Giving yourself a few moments to assimilate the effects of the practice. […] As hideous and alien without as within. […]

In an interview published in Fanzine in 2017, Padgett spoke explicitly about the origins of his “Mindfulness Of Horror Practice” in the Buddhist “mindfulness of breathing” practice:

Following the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall and the psychological impact it had on me as a New Orleanian, I began listening daily to a mindfulness of breathing practice by the Buddhist practitioner and teacher, Bodhipaksa. This was my first entry into awareness of my body, my thoughts, and the stillness within and beyond both. “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice” riffs on this standard meditation practice but with an inverted goal in mind: becoming aware of the physical discomfort of being alive, the helpless panic of compulsive thought, and the cosmic dread of that eternally silent voice both within and beyond our brief existence. 

Bodhipaksa is a British-born Buddhist who currently lives in the US, and who runs the online meditation centre Wildmind. The approach he takes to the mindfulness of breathing meditation is popular and well established (in fact, it’s the general approach I practise myself).

Indeed, the mindfulness of breathing meditation is one of the oldest and most basic in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha himself gives instructions on how to practise this form of meditation in certain texts the Pali canon, such as the Satipatthana Sutta or “Discourse On The Arousing Of Mindfulness”.

It’s traditionally believed that the Pali canon records the actual teachings of the historical Buddha himself, passed down orally from the disciples who heard him speak during the 5th century BCE.

That’s probably not literally true. But the canon had been passed down through oral tradition before it was written down during the 1st century BCE, and if its suttas are not the Buddha’s own words, then they’re as close as we can get.

Either way, followers of the Buddha have been practising the mindfulness of breathing for more than two thousand years.

I’ve no idea whether Padgett regards himself as a Buddhist, or whether he has any other form of practice than Bodhipaksa’s version of the mindfulness of breathing. But his engagement with the latter is substantial: as the reference to Hurricane Katrina suggests – and as he also stated in an earlier interview with The Plutonian – when The Secret Of Ventriloquism came out, he had been practising the mindfulness of breathing for around 10 years.

Padgett did say a little bit more about his personal take on Buddhism in that Fanzine interview:

Fanzine: I’m glad you mentioned the influence of Buddhism and its relation to Being. Reading through your book, I thought often of the Buddhists’ belief that no living creature possesses a “self.” […] As such, there is also frequently an unseen reality – a reality of unfathomable depth, as Thomas Metzinger might say – that threatens to corrupt, or perhaps claim, the identities of your characters. […]

Padgett: I hope the stories in my book project the struggle between the protagonists’ unconsciously compulsive thoughts and the Emptiness that threatens to engulf and assimilate the fictional fabric of their lives. […] Is the waking of identity into Being negative at all, any more than the trappings of our mortal existence waking into Oblivion is? In fact, the book as a whole could be described as Transcendental Horror, with an emphasis on Transcendental. […] The most horrific part of these tales, it seems to me, is the suffering the protagonists must endure to reach the other side – not the forced, final surrender of self.

Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack in that brief interview exchange, and I’m not going to attempt all of it right now.* But I assume that these notions of “Emptiness”, “the waking of identity into Being”, “waking into Oblivion”, are allusions to what Buddhists (and some occultists too) would call spiritual death.

Spiritual death is the fruit of very advanced Buddhist practice. It entails deeply lived insight into the “three marks of existence”: all things are impermanent, all things involve suffering, and all things are without self (or essence).

Crucially, “all things” includes you. You are impermanent. You suffer. And you have no self or essence. You do not exist.

Scary, huh?

Now, the process of spiritual death includes facing up to physical death. There are meditation practices, far more advanced than the mindfulness of breathing, in which one contemplates not just one’s own physical death, but also the detailed stages of the decay of one’s own corpse.

Your impermanence, suffering, and lack of self are all front and centre in “The Mindfulness Of Horror Practice”, all likewise encapsulated in your future corpse:

Feeling the skin and veins, muscles and sinews, and finally the skeletal structure of your feet. The dead bones of your future self. Feel them becoming more solid than the transitory flesh-gore that covers them. […] Now let that sensation spread from your skeleton feet up to your calf bones, thigh bones, pelvic bones, straight up through your spine […], shoulder blades, flexing ribs and collar bones […]. Become fascinated by the wellspring of discomfort you’ve discovered within yourself. […] You can finally stop breathing altogether and begin focusing more and more on less and less. […] You’re coming into perfect sync with your empty skeleton body and your empty skeleton head.

Padgett’s writing here is wonderfully, deliriously horrible. (Incidentally, the phrase “focusing more and more on less and less” comes straight out of the Buddhist school in which Bodhipaksa practises, and it’s a genuine recommendation for how to conduct one’s spiritual life.) Compare it with the Satipatthana Sutta, where the Buddha tells his disciples to be mindful that

[…] there are in this body hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, fibrous threads (veins, nerves, sinews, tendons), bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, contents of stomach, intestines, mesentery, faeces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tars, fat dissolved, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine […]

and instructs his disciples (“bhikkhus”) in a series of “cemetery contemplations”:

If a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body dead, one, two, or three days: swollen, blue and festering, thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: “This body of mine too is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body”.

[…] If a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body, thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus.

[…] If a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus.

[…] If a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions — a bone of the hand, a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull, each in a different place — he thinks of his own body thus.

[…] If a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones, white in colour like a conch, he thinks of his own body thus.

I mean, come on, really. Did the Buddha know how to spin a good horror story, or what?

The good news is that after spiritual death comes spiritual rebirth. Which, obviously, is a whole nuther story. But perhaps it’s a story that Padgett wants us to shock us into telling for ourselves. In the Plutonian interview, he said:

In The Secret to Ventriloquism [sic], I’ve concentrated on what Ligotti has called a “salvation by way of meticulous derangement.” I’m interested in the idea of redemption/epiphany through horror.

“Epiphany through horror” sounds like a nugget of crazy wisdom, the sort of thing an especially unhinged Zen master might dream up on a far-out mountain top.

Horror story as Zen koan? Sure, why not? Whether Padgett actually pulls it off is for each individual reader to decide.

So if you haven’t read The Secret Of Ventriloquism yet, do. If you have, read it again. I can’t promise it will turn you into a Bodhisattva overnight, but it will definitely blow your mind, one way or the other.

*For example: “transcendental horror” is a nifty tag, and Padgett is not the only person who has used it. Lately I’ve also seen people talking about “Gnostic horror”, and of course there’s good old “cosmic horror” for all you Lovecraft lovers out there… I might come back to this terminology, and the questions it raises, in another post.

Image credits:
Citipati (skeleton dance) image by Wonderlane, licensed under CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Secret Of Ventriloquism book cover reproduced under fair use.
Tibetan Shakyamuni image from a 13th-century Prajnaparamita manuscript, in the public domain.
Gandharan fasting Shakyamuni sculpture, 3rd–5th century, photograph in the public domain.

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