Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. This month’s selection is a reflection on the practice of observing decaying corpses written by Thai Forest monk Ajahn Sumedho, the first Western disciple of the celebrated Thai teacher Ajahn Chah (1918–1992). Sumedho served as the abbot of Amaravati Monastery in England from its founding in the early 1980s until his retirement in 2010. This article originally appeared under the title “It’s Like This” in the Fall 2008 “Heavenly Messengers” issue. Be sure to check out the related articles in the archive, like “Being There: Wisdom of the Elders,” teachings on aging and dying from Lou Hartman, Ram Dass, Ajahn Sumedho, and Toni Packer, and “The Critters Project,” an interview with Zen teacher Yvonne Rand. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!
In certain hospitals in Thailand they allow Buddhist monks to attend autopsies and contemplate the corpses. One time we went to one of the big hospitals on a Monday morning because there are a lot of murders and accidents on the weekends. There are a lot of really grim, gruesome corpses to autopsy. The man in charge of the autopsy room said, “Oh, do I have something for you!” I thought, What does he mean by that?
He took me to a special room, and he opened the door. I nearly passed out from the odor of a putrefying human corpse before I could even see it. The smell was horrible. I felt myself not wanting to go in, but I forced myself. Inside the room was a bloated corpse that had been found in one of the canals. Worms were crawling in it. It was really hideous. When I looked up at the ceiling, I could see where previous corpses had exploded and guts had gone flying. I thought, I hope that doesn’t happen while I’m here!
This was a test of mindfulness, because the first reaction was, Let me out of here. Staying with it—observing the revulsion and aversion to this rotting corpse—I could be aware of the feelings. After a while, the aversion ceased. I became accustomed to the odor. I found it bearable. After I stopped reacting to the odor, I hardly noticed it. I was no longer suffering. It was very powerful to see a human corpse in that state, because you seldom get such an opportunity. It was hideous and grotesque. I didn’t know what age it was. It was probably a youngish male who had drowned in the canal. After the aversion and proliferating tendencies stopped, I really began to observe the decaying process.
Strangely enough, I found it quite beautiful—the way nature disposes of things. My judgments of beauty had been created on a conventional level, but in the here and now—being with the aversion and the disgust—I didn’t feel repelled at all by the process of decay. It was quite marvelous to watch how life consumes and takes away. The human body was being recycled into the ecosystem. Noticing the colors and the maggots and the worms, I began to appreciate the process of nature in operation. Not only can we learn from the joy that comes from beauty, we can begin to open ourselves to life itself and all that it includes—not just the nice side but also old age, sickness, death, decay.
Related: Death Awareness
So many of our modern societies want to deny death or shut us away from it. When my mother died, I was giving a retreat in California. I had to leave in the middle of it to go to the funeral. It was a Roman Catholic ceremony. When I got there, the coffin was covered with a nice cloth. The priest gave a nice funeral sermon, which made us feel good. He spoke of how wonderful my mother was and said that she was no doubt up in heaven with the Lord. That was also rather nice to think, since that’s where she wanted to go. Everything was very cosmetic. Nothing was depressing. We weren’t really looking at death or examining our feelings of loss. We were sentimentalizing—talking about how nice my mother was and about her reward in heaven.
Next we went in a procession to take her body to the Catholic cemetery. They had it all set up. The hole had been dug, with false green grass now covering it and the coffin propped above. The priest came, said a prayer and sprinkled water over the coffin. We were then told to leave. I decided I wanted to help bury my mother, so I stayed. The men in charge, the gravediggers, came over to me, and said, “You have to go.” I replied, “I’d like to help bury her.” But they insisted, “No, we can’t lower the coffin into the hole until everybody is gone. That’s the rule.” This is how Americans are treated—like it’s beyond our ability to endure such traumas. If we were to see the coffin going into the grave, we’d faint or have to spend the next twenty years in therapy.
Related: Every Day Is a Bonus
In Buddhist terms, death is a natural event. The Buddha encouraged us to observe, to contemplate. Funerals in northeast Thailand, where I lived, were very meaningful because we actually contemplated what happened. We could see the body, and it wasn’t made up to look beautiful. They didn’t put lipstick and powder on it. It was just a dead human body, and we meditated on that. We made conscious the reality: the death of the body is like this. This was not depressing or traumatic for me. When Ajahn Chah held these funerals, I didn’t faint. I found it a very powerful experience. I had never had such opportunities in the United States to really bring death and loss into consciousness and to look at a human corpse. We live in a society that wants to deny and cover it up. It’s not polite to even say the word death in public. We use euphemisms that make it less stark, less shocking. But awareness includes the whole process—from birth to death, from the peak moments of life to the worst, the climb up and the slide down. By reflecting and observing, we free ourselves from the fears, the reactions and the projections that we create around the flow of our lives, around our own bodies, around the loss of our loved ones.
When my own mother died, I stayed with the feelings of loss and grief. They can be witnessed. I wasn’t afraid or trying to ignore my feelings. They interested me. To have this ability to really accept my feelings, I had to train myself. On a cultural level, I’d been conditioned to suppress feelings, to deny or ignore them. It has taken intentional, deliberate effort to look, observe, and allow feelings of loss or grief into consciousness. This doesn’t mean a grasping of feelings or wallowing in emotions. It’s seeing things in terms of dharma. It is what it is. The death of one’s mother is like this.
Of course, now her death is a memory. But when it was still a shock, during the funeral experience, I was confident enough in meditation to use the experience of loss in terms of dharma. Instead of rejecting or denying the unpleasant side of life—death or decay, ugliness, unfairness, all the miseries that one experiences—I have found that all of these, when seen through awareness, are the most powerful learning and strengthening experiences one can have.
We really have to be determined to recognize that which is emotionally fraught, that which is very powerful, overwhelming, frightening, or threatening. Yet through the confidence of awareness, we begin to observe how these difficult situations affect the mind and the heart. What is the feeling? It’s not right or wrong. A feeling is what it is, and only we can know it. If we trust our awareness, we know it’s like this. We don’t need to have a word for it or define it in any way, because it is what it is. This is not cultural conditioning or the ego. It is direct knowing.
RELATED INQUIRING MIND ARTICLES:
- Being with Death and Dying by Yvonne Rand
- In the Back of the Beyond by Lynn Crawford
- A Black Hole by Bonnie O’Brien Jonsson
- Nursing Wisdom by Debra Kerr
- Nine Pearls by Jaune Evans
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