A number of years ago His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a lecture in Washington, D.C., where he spoke of death: “I meditate on my own death several hours every day. But when the time comes, I’ll probably blow it.” His admission was met with a lot of nervous laughter, as everyone in the room understood that even the wisest among us have a difficult time with the letting-go part of life. This was an important moment in our relationship to the subject.
So perhaps it was Yvonne Rand’s garden itself, teeming with life, that made her collection of dead critters okay to look at and to smell. Add to that their authoritative introduction by Yvonne, the teacher, presenting them one by one as her teaching assistants in that garden by the zendo. They were rotten, desiccated, decomposing, stinky, crawling with maggots and flies—yet as perfect in death as when they had been alive.
Immediately we knew we must photograph these creatures. So that first meeting we took some quick shots of a couple of the birds laid out on mirrors reflecting the sky. The images were so beautiful that we resolved to produce a book.
Over the course of several trips from New York to Muir Beach, California, we used a high-resolution digital camera to photograph over sixty individuals in varying states of decay and decomposition. We developed a profound respect for the mighty maggots and the contribution they make to the excarnation of life forms. (We were even inspired to add their portraits after seeing one crawl out of a bird we had positioned to photograph and actually attempt to push the bird out of the light and into the shadows!)
Sometime before we began taking the photographs, Yvonne introduced us to Joanne Lauck’s marvelous book about the insect-human relationship, The Voice of the Infinite in the Small. Recalling this, we contacted Joanne and asked if she would come to Muir Beach to meet Yvonne and consider writing for the book. Happily, she agreed. We also had the very good fortune to meet Yvonne’s close friend and Inquiring Mind designer Margery Cantor, who seemed ideally suited to design the book. The critters book project was now fully under way. (Its publication is forthcoming.)
From Paleolithic cave painters to Albrecht Dürer to Damien Hirst, artists have long been inspired by dead beings. So often it seems that the aesthetic weaves an unspoken interest in death’s spiritual and physical aspects, offering it up as a work of art. This triangulation of art, spirit and body is as alluring as the process it attempts to explain.
—Dianne Dubler &
John Bigelow Taylor
Yvonne Rand, a meditation teacher in the Soto Zen lineage, began her practice and study of Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and has since studied with esteemed teachers including Dainin Katagiri Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Venerable Tara Tulku. Drawing on the Zen, Vajrayana and Theravada traditions, her teachings have become increasingly rich in the areas of death, dying and grieving for children who have died through childbirth and abortion.
In an exploration that is certainly innovative for an American lay householder priest, she has taken on the practice of contemplating decomposition. “That’s a cat I found on the side of the road,” Yvonne told me after arriving at my Berkeley home. “I’ve been watching the body of that cat for about a year and a half. There are changes every single day.” Yvonne had driven three hours from her home in Philo, California, to mine in West Berkeley—with a Honda Odyssey full of dead animals. We’d carted fragile boxes of “critters” up the stairs of my Victorian house and hoisted them to the tops of bookshelves and armoires, out of temptation of my border collie pup.
Joined by Wendy Johnson, Yvonne’s longtime Zen colleague, I enjoyed a “viewing” to initiate our March 2008 interview. Yvonne introduced some of the veritable “dead critters.” Gingerly, she opened the boxes to reveal a raptor, mice and moles, lizards and bats, various kinds of finches, several turtles, a snake, some frogs and toads, a fox and a magnificent sturgeon—some remains already skeletal and others still rank, in various stages of decay.
Next we looked at photographs of her collection taken by Dianne Dubler and John Bigelow Taylor (some of which we include here). “Those are baby birds,” she commented, as we studied the photos together. “Notice the incredible transition in shapes and structure, from bone to feather. The whole world of death reveals so much about life and the structure of the being when it’s alive.” With each animal, she pointed out her observations, guiding us—as we cooed and hooted in wonder—into a dangerous and illuminating underworld.
Yvonne Rand: I find the process of these critters decomposing remarkable. In many ways, this practice grew out of my sitting with people while they died. It really began for me when Suzuki Roshi got sick and was in his own dying process. I had been Suzuki Roshi’s secretary and assistant for almost six years, so going through his dying with him was an extension of the relationship the two of us already had. I was one of the two people who took care of him the last four months of his life, the other being his wife, Mitsu Suzuki.
I remember sitting next to his bed. As Suzuki Roshi became more and more quiet, all of a sudden an arm would appear from under the quilt, and he would hold it straight up in the air. I knew he wanted me to massage his arm for a while. Then the arm would disappear back under the quilt, and later another arm . . . and a while after that there’d be a leg. I’d do his arms and legs, and usually I’d say, “I’m going to prop you up in a sitting position so I can rub your back, because I don’t want you to get bedsores.”
At a certain point, I guess it was before he went to bed full-time, he went to Mount Zion Hospital, where he had some tests. When I went over to see him, he was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed dangling his feet like he was on a swing with this big grin on his face. The nurses had just brought his lunch in. He mouthed to me, “I have cancer!” He was relieved that he wasn’t contagious and that he didn’t need to be afraid of being close to the people he wanted to be close to. He patted the bed next to him and said, “Come sit here.” Then he took a forkful of his lunch and fed me. He said, “Now we can eat together like we used to.” So we ate together off the lunch tray.
Inquiring Mind: How amazing for you as a young student to spend so much intimate time with a great teacher as he was sick, suffering pain and dying—the core experiences addressed by the Buddha.
YR: It was a huge teaching in presence. Huge! For Suzuki Roshi was fully present with whatever was happening, moment by moment. I remember at one point his doctor giving him some pain medication pills. After about four hours he said, “Yvonne, can you get rid of these for me?”
I said, “Well, I could flush them down the toilet.”
He just nodded his head. “I never want to take anything like that again. I don’t want to disturb my mind.”
The kind of cancer he had is associated with extremely intense pain, but I never had any experience of him being in discomfort. He was so present with whatever was there.
IM: And you were learning from him how to be present with his dying and death.
YR: After he died some of us sat with his body around the clock for a week. He had died on an early morning in December, right after the bell announcing the beginning of the traditional year-end Zen retreat. The bell rang and he passed.
We sat with his body in the room where we had met with him every day for morning tea. After a week the mortuary people came, did all this preparation stuff and took his body. Then we sat with him in the mortuary with an open casket. A number of us went to the crematorium in Colma. The cremation occurred behind a beautiful curtain, and, much to the dismay of the mortuary people running the whole thing, we not only wanted to see the body but to go with the body and help put it into the oven. Mrs. Suzuki pushed the button that started the flame. We weren’t about to be left out of any of it (which the mortician and the crematorium people were not used to at all!).
IM: After Suzuki Roshi’s death you became the member of the San Francisco Zen Center community who was “in charge” of dying people. How did that come about?
YR: Well, I didn’t take care of anybody or sit with anybody again for about a year. But once people knew that I had sat with Suzuki Roshi as he was dying and took care of his body, they began asking me to come and keep them company while they died. I’ve also done this with other creatures. I once sat with a friend’s dying coyote, who had become my friend’s dear companion. I would also be there when a body was buried. If it was going to a crematorium, I would usually go there as well.
I think that the next body I took care of after Suzuki Roshi’s was Lama Govinda’s. Before we put his body in the oven, I covered it with rose petals and herbs, including rosemary, the herb associated with remembrance. The man running the crematory in Oakland, who was very kind, let me push Lama Govinda’s body on a wooden board into the oven. We didn’t have him in a coffin, just on a piece of plywood. After the door was closed, I sat by the oven during the whole cremation. There was a little hole with a removable plug where the man running the oven could peek into the oven to see how things were going. Periodically he would ask me, “Do you want a look?” I kept removing the plug, watching the body as it burned. At a certain point, because of the heat and the flames, there was a change in the ligaments and tendons in the legs, and Lama Govinda’s knees lifted up. It was only afterwards that I realized why that had happened. There had been a sense for a moment of “he’s still alive!”
After that, every time I was involved with somebody who wanted to be cremated, we’d have the body taken to the same crematorium. Returning there again and again educated me about the whole process. The crematory man and I got to be quite well acquainted. He’d tell me stories about what would usually happen when people came, and what a short time they could stand to stay in the room.
IM: You’re beginning to write a book about attending to the deaths of your teachers. Could you give us a preview of one of the other stories?
YR: Harry Roberts was a teacher who worked with many of us involved in planting the garden and fields at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. Harry had lived at Green Gulch for a while and then lived with me and my family for the last several years of his life. As he was dying he asked me, “What are you gonna do with the ‘carcass’ after I die?” I told him, “First of all, I’ll close all the orifices, and then I’ll wash your body with tea made from yerba sante that I have collected from Mt. Tamalpais. Then we’ll put some medicine pieces from your own wisdom tradition into your hands. We’ll sit with your body for three days, and then we’ll take your body to be cremated, or we can bury you somewhere.” And he said, “That’s too much trouble. Just put the carcass out the back door and let the dogs take care of it!”
Harry was quite equanimous about his body. He was in the late stages of dying for two months. I’ve never experienced anyone else take that long a time in the late stages of dying. Harry was so thorough in his lifetime; he did everything slowly and carefully. And that’s exactly how he died!
IM: It seems like a continuing transmission on the dying process. You learn from the deaths of these wise elders and then bring those teachings to the wider community, to people who are aching to die in the light of that wisdom.
YR: I remember one woman who said, “I’d like Yvonne to come and sit with me while I go.” Her doctor and I went to her in the middle of the night. It was clear she was ready to go, right on the edge. But when her kids showed up—two daughters and their husbands—they pulled her back into ordinary consciousness, so her dying process was long and painful. She didn’t die until her kids were able to accept that she was dying. That was a different, but a very powerful, experience. And much more typical of what happens in our culture, with both our fascination with death and our fear of it.
In some ways, the kind of turning away from death so prevalent in our culture today may be recent. If you look at the history of how relatives were taken care of in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this country, the usual place to put the body was on the dining room table. Family and friends came and went, brought food for the family, but the body was kept visible in the midst of the living.
IM: That was where the baby was born, too. Many years ago my grandmother told me that she was born on her mother’s dining room table.
YR: It’s the all-purpose dining room table! I think some of our turning away from death is tied to when we started to have hospitals, since until then all this had to happen at home.
IM: So in this current culture, where there is so much fear of death and ignorance of the dying process, you are a midwife for the person who is dying.
YR: I do experience myself as a kind of midwife, supporting and assisting a person’s transition out of this life—especially if I’m with the person in the late stages of dying. There’s a certain point where the dying person frequently goes into the same breathing pattern that a woman goes through in the late stages of labor. The similarity is quite striking. My primary intention has been to be as present as I can with the person who is dying. And even if I haven’t known him or her, I’ve done practices for the deceased for up to a year after the death.
IM: So your work with the mysteries and practicalities of dying and death somehow led you into collecting and watching the dead critters. How did that happen?
YR: The critter collection started long after I began sitting with dying people, but the process feels entirely parallel. For some while, in the 1980s, I kept finches of different kinds, and as they aged, one after another, they died. I put the bodies on an orange lacquer tray.
Not long after the finches began to die, I led a weekend retreat on the theme “everything changes; nothing remains the same.” I wrote the phrase out and put it on the altar. Every time one of the students (who happened to be an artist) would walk by the altar and see the sign, she would say, “No, nothing changes; everything remains the same.” Of course, she quickly realized that would be worse. You can try it for yourself: look at the world through the lens of “nothing changes, everything remains the same.”
During a subsequent retreat I put the lacquered tray with the dead finches into the zendo, along with a big handheld magnifying glass. I knew the artist in that student couldn’t resist looking up close. During that retreat she spent an enormous amount of time picking up the magnifying glass and looking. Because by then maggots had moved in; the decomposition process was utterly in evidence.
Recently this student drew five big images of a cedar waxwing that had flown into the window of her studio and died. After her initial resistance to change, she turned toward decomposition as a theme in her artistic work. Of course, what’s resulted is a huge difference in her meditation practice. Because, in my experience, fighting the fact of impermanence defines suffering.
So, to recapitulate, I initially started looking at and watching all these creatures out of my own keen interest in all the different phases of decomposition. At some point I took an old Japanese water jar with a piece of round glass sitting on top, and I put dead critters there to view. You know, death shows up literally every day; there seems to be an endless supply of dead beings.
Our puzzled Latina housekeeper asked somebody who speaks Spanish, “Why?” And he tried to explain to her. She doesn’t quite get it, but she’s not as freaked out as she used to be. [Laughter]
I don’t expect anybody to join me in collecting dead critters—unless they just happen to stumble into it with the critters themselves. For, at least up to a certain point, dead animals are smelly, they’re oozy, they’re not entirely attractive. And for a while there are maggots all over them!
IM: Ahh, the maggots! Maggots seem to be in star roles in this process.
YR: My first encounter with maggots happened one night when I woke up and checked on my beloved old dog Mazie, who was dying. I had put her out in the sun in the afternoon in hopes of drying up her bedsores. When I looked at the sores that night, I saw a tangle of white moving wormlike things. I realized then that flies had laid maggot eggs in Mazie’s wound when she was out in the sun and that what I was now seeing were maggots cleaning up the wound. I then remembered that maggots have been used for this purpose for centuries.
IM: Do you encourage your students to actually investigate maggots and smell the stench of decay?
YR: The process is not for everybody. At the same time, there’s always an open door if someone wants to join me in contemplating decomposition. As you know, a central tenet in the Buddhist teachings, especially in Zen, is “no picking and choosing.” The smelly part of decay goes hand in hand with the sweet smell of the spring roses. They’re inseparable. In our culture we keep trying to skew to what we want, what we like, what smells nice. We shun being present with whatever is so in each moment.
I’ve learned an enormous amount from my fascination with these different dead bodies and watching the decomposition process. My husband, Bill, will say to me, “Yvonne, if we are going to have a sitting in the zendo, you might think of removing so-and-so from the altar, because the smell is rather strong.” But I decline. I see no need to take the corpse of a bird or a sturgeon off the altar on account of a little unpleasant smell. The stink goes with the territory.
It is a conscious decision on my part not to turn away from any aspect of the process. I see this as consistent with sincerely following the Buddha’s teachings. There are places in Thailand where the monks will build a high platform and sit with a corpse for the number of days equal to the number of years the person lived. That means that if I were to die today, they would sit with my body for seventy-two days! As you can imagine, they would go through a full gradation of experiences in the changing appearance of the body, how it looks, how it smells, how it disintegrates. . . . It’s a classical meditation.
IM: What is liberating about that experience?
YR: The cogent meditator ceases to be afraid. I give up turning away and cease picking and choosing. In turning toward what is initially repellent, I’m cultivating a capacity to be present with whatever arises in any given moment.
Any parent knows that you have a different relationship to your own baby’s feces than to the feces of someone else’s child. The difference flows from the sense of connection. So if what we are training for in our Buddhist practice is the capacity for relationality with all beings and things, then training in becoming able to be present is essential.
Part of what I’m interested in with the critters project is that through the beauty Dianne and John have been able to capture in their photographs there is a way to draw people in. I see the pictures as gateways to what’s important to be in touch with. It’s a little bit like the resistance of my artist student to the ubiquity of impermanence, to change, until she got a magnifying glass and couldn’t resist looking again and again.
IM: Yes, one of the things that is so profound about this book project is that through seeing these photographs people may develop a stomach for grief or a stomach for looking at what is—because the beings that you are showing are beautiful and familiar. They suggest the whole process of life into death into life. And since they are also somewhat removed from us, we can actually turn our attention to what is right there before us, observe the transformation that is happening, and be able to take it in.
Your own capacity for this kind of observation and perseverance in looking and truly digesting what you see is rare. Can you tell us what it is that makes this exploration so irresistible for you personally?
YR: The whole thing. The whole thing. I see my connection with these creatures as part of an ongoing process of studying conditioned mind in service of dismantling conditioned patterns. If I keep opening the box and sitting with a dead fox every day, a certain kind of reactivity arises and is available for examination. I give myself access to the reactivity so that I can bring more awareness to it. And if I can see what the reactions are, change occurs, just in the very seeing of them.
IM: So what is left, finally, as one continues to dismantle the reactivity, is a kind mind.
YR: Yes. I think that’s correct, if I understand what you mean by “kind mind.” I think the four immeasurables, without declaring so up front, are what we are going for in this project. The immeasurables sponsor our capacity for being fully alive, fully present. If I’ve cultivated lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, the resulting capacities of mind will serve the dismantling and fading away of unconscious habitual conditioning. I’ll have more access to what we call the unconditioned. This is another way of talking about presence.
I can’t emphasize enough that what interests me is completely connected to being alive. There is no separation. Part of being alive is being open to dying, death, decomposition. We are ourselves part of the cycle, though not everyone wishes to know this.