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The Goth Side of Buddhism

Does Buddhism have a goth side? Take a look at Buddhist Hell, Buddhist vampires, thigh bone trumpets played in charnel grounds, and decide for yourself.

I'll admit it. Growing up I was a goth. I wore black lipstick and teased my hair into a Robert Smith-esque birds' nest. The gothic subculture welcomed me. I wore all black as a way to make myself identifiable at the mall to other goths so we could talk about Sandman comics and share the exquisite pain of being alive.

As such, Buddhism made a lot of sense to me. It is only through familiarity and acceptance of death and suffering that we can affirm our lives. There's nothing depressing about that. To a goth, it's common sense. But that's why it's a subculture.

Buddhism has it's own take on the more frightening side of things. Take, for instance, the Buddhist Hell Garden in Thailand. If you didn't think Buddhism had a version of hell, you really need to look at this exploration of Wang Saen Suk, also known as the "Thailand Hell Horror Park." Unlike the conventional Western idea of Hell as a place for eternal damnation, Naraka (as the Buddhist hell realm is known) is a place where people suffer in very specific and horrible ways until their negative karma has burned up. Full of hungry ghosts, demons, and torture, the garden is a sight to behold. Though ostensibly created as a warning to those who might commit negative acts, the park tantalizes a morbid curiosity with all of its visceral detail.

Vampires are all the rage these days, but tween heartthrobs don't have the market cornered. David Chapman is a Buddhist in the Aro lineage who has taken a paradoxically playful yet totally serious look at the goth side of Buddhism in his works such as Buddhism for Vampires and the Tibetan Book of the Undead. According to Chapman, Tibetan Buddhism has a rich history of liminal beings and wrathful practices. He considers Vajrayana to be the most goth of all the paths, with it's use of sorcery and rampant death symbolism. 

Chöd is a shamanistic practice stemming from Tibetan Buddhism, practiced with the intention of cutting through attachment to the human body. Historically it is practiced in a charnel ground, someplace where human bodies have been cremated during funerals. The practitioner practices while playing a drum and a kangling, a trumpet made of a human thigh bone. The morbidity of this practice is meant to draw attention to mortality. And if there's anything more goth than a horn made from human bones, please let me know.

Buddhist culture in Japan has also yielded some macabre gems. Sokushinbutsu are self-mummified monks, elevated to the status of Buddha beause of their extreme self - denial. In order to mummify themselves, practitioners would spend years eating a diet that would slowly kill them while preserving them from the inside out. Finally, they'd lock themselves in a tomb, ringing a bell daily until death. Upon cessation of the bell, the tomb would be sealed, and you'd have a new Buddha. Sixteen such mummies remain and can be viewed at various Buddhist temples in Japan. 

If you're feeling a bit of disgust or revulsion right now, I don't blame you. These are extreme practices, meant to really cut to the core of what it means to be a human being with attachments and aversions. As Buddhism gets more press these days, the emphasis is on light, love, relaxation and well - being. But to leave out the other half of the equation is to miss the big picture of Buddhism, which embraces every aspect of life, including the most uncomfortable.

Last year I took a really great class here at IDP called Fearless Mind. In it we discussed the way that from a Buddhist perspective, fearlessness isn't an absence of fear. It is a familiarity with fear. To really be able to act responsively and with courage, one must really be acquainted with the experience of fear. It reminded me of the way that Alfred Hitchcock said that it was only because he was quite the scaredy-cat that he could create such terrifying movies. Because of his acute sensitivity to fear, because he experienced it so frequently, he was intimately familiar with the experience and could therefore skillfully tap into it to create epic cinematic depictions of fear in all its incarnations.

So don't shy away from Buddhism's less cheerful side. Get into fear, aversion, disgust. They're as much a part of the human experience as the more sought-after feelings of love, attraction, passion and relaxation. Our pendulum swings between eternalism and nihilism, passion and aggression. If we can learn to integrate, to realize that darkness is necessary for light to exist, we might have a shot at liberation.

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Dandelion Suffering

is def what I'm feeling,
as my path paves a sense of dandy-like impermanence
shedding from so many chunks of ex goth evidence.

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