Day of the Death Sangha
by Erik Davis
Welcome to Transmutations, a biweekly dispatch from the Alembic, a center for meditation, movement, imagination, and inquiry in Berkeley, California. Herein you will find commentary, reports, and think (or no-think) pieces from the co-founders of the Alembic—Michael Taft, Kati Devaney, and Erik Davis—as well as our in-house scribe Sasha Chapin. Going forward we also hope to elicit articles and reviews from Alembic attendee, and our growing network of allies and fellow travelers.
If you are receiving this, you have probably also signed up for the weekly Alembic newsletter, which offers class listings for the coming weeks. These are two separate publications, and you are welcome to unsub from this one below.
On a recent Saturday night, a few days before the most recent Halloween, the Alembic hosted its signature meditation event: Death Sangha. Twice a year, our inhouse meditation teacher Michael Taft guides people through a direct imaginal confrontation with the demise of the body and the often terrifying phantasms that cluster around the possibility of a post-mortem afterworld. For the Halloween Death Sangha, students and teacher alike arrive dressed in dark costume, mostly face-painted like corpses or ghouls, or at least like Norwegian black metal guitarists or Dio de los Muertos revelers. For this last Halloween weekend, the Alembic booked a whole day of related events, including a Death Café and a workshop with our resident visionary artist Krisztina Lazar. We called the whole event the Day of the Death Sangha.
Religious contemplatives are often haunted by death, and Buddhism in particular has been understood as a long quest to loosen the grip of our mortal coil. Wisdom teachings and practices the world over cultivate an awareness of impermanence, fragility, and the absolute inevitability of death, spiritual work that can lend poignancy, power, and resolve to our everyday lives. But to get these goods, you have to go through some fear, horror, and despair. Tibetan Buddhism, influenced by gnarly Indian Tantric rites and the soul abattoirs envisioned by some Eurasian shamans, includes the teaching of the bardo as well as some pretty unnerving ritual practices. In chöd, one ritually and imaginally offers one’s body and mind to ravenous demons. One of Alembic’s core teachers, Lopön Chandra Easton, teaches an accessible and psychologized modern version of chöd called Feeding Your Demons, originally developed by her teacher, the marvelous Western woman lama Tsultrim Allione.
Death Sangha is a more heavy metal affair. Lying down in a dark, electric candlelit room packed with people dressed like the dead struck a nice spooky chord. Then a cloaked Taft settled into his dark throne (actually a normal chair). Though sometimes my reason complains about submitting to the active imagination, I found it easy to let go of my self-consciousness and inhabit the drama that Taft unfolded with the same calm and inviting voice he brings to his Thursday night sits.
Though based on the grislier elements of classic tantric imagery, the improvised scenarios that Taft offered up on Saturday night had none of the musty air of religious theater or imported exotic traditions. It was rawer than that, rawer and closer to home. We spent a good long juicy time enjoying the repulsive disintegration of the gore puppet we walk around in every day. We then fed what was left of body and mind to a series of monstrous archetypes we all know from the movies, whose ravenous hungers I spontaneously recognized, lying there in the dark, as expressions of my own greed, hatred, and stupidity. Such unfeigned insights are some of the treasures of visualization, even when they conform to familiar teachings.
The imagination can be a remarkable engine of spiritual encounter, and its cultivation is a key feature of Alembic programming. The imagination can an interface, a muse, a psychedelic language, a goddess. But it also has its own tricks. Unlike the Universal horror monsters from this year, the bardo beasts that Taft channeled during the previous year’s Death Sangha were unfamiliar to me, and this made them more disorienting and disturbing. My imagination knew, or thought it knew, these pop culture monsters. But more familiar associations and patterns also lend depth and continuity to archetypal forms, which helps them become known and integrated. There is a little bit of cliché in every archetype, in every god.
It’s a Goldilocks situation. There is a sweet spot in the imagination between the generic and the bizarre, just as there is a sweet spot in guided visualization practice between our own active imagination and our more passive reception of a given script or form. Death Sangha is “just right.” Gathering afterwards for the usual Alembic snack and chat, I felt a heightened sense of appreciation for the meatspace I found myself afterwards, and a soft spot for all my fellow mortals. I have no way of knowing if this sort of dress rehearsal rag will make a difference when the final deal comes down, but I do know that familiarity breeds respect.