The stats pages for this blog inform me that posts on the subject of Death consistently receive fewer hits than average. Evidently people do not like the subject of Death very much. But I don't care, and am obstinately writing about it again, as is appropriate for a bhikkhu.
The texts of Pali Buddhism encourage monks (presumed to be the most dedicated and advanced practitioners of Dhamma) to spend time at cemeteries, contemplating corpses. Of the forty meditation methods standardized by Theravadin tradition, a full 25% of them involve the contemplation of dead, decomposing human bodies. Add to that the practice of maraṇānussati, or recollection of death itself, especially one's own, and the total of standardized meditations emphasizing death becomes 27.5%. On the other hand, the total of meditations emphasizing birth on the list is 0%. Of the thirteen dhutaṅgas, or optional ascetic practices, one of them is the cemetery-dweller's practice, i.e. living in a cemetery. Each dhutaṅga, according to the Visuddhimagga, has three levels, easy, medium, and hard; and the cemetery-dweller's practice at the hard level involves the monk living in a place where he can easily hear grieving and crying.
(Perhaps it should be pointed out that cemeteries in ancient India were a far cry from cemeteries in the modern West. American cemeteries more closely resemble parks or golf courses than they do an old-fashioned Asian graveyard. In addition to the standard graves, tombs, and cremation grounds, the ancient Indian version would also include a charnel field—a place where people too poor to afford a decent burial or cremation were simply flung onto the ground to decompose and be eaten by animals. These charnel fields were the places where monks were advised to go and stay. Modern Burmese cemeteries are at an intermediate position between ancient India and modern America: they are often relatively desolate, unkempt areas strewn with tombs, underbrush, and the occasional human bone. Poor people are buried in shallow graves, without a coffin, and either with a wooden marker which is promptly eaten by termites or with no marker at all; when the grave is fresh it is covered by a kind of bamboo lattice, the purpose of which I used to wonder about. Finally I realized that it was to keep dogs and other animals from digging up grandpa. Eventually, after all signs of a grave there have disappeared, another poor person is inadvertently buried there, and the bones of the previous occupant may simply be tossed aside, which accounts for the aforementioned strewing of bones. On the outskirts of the town of Kani in northwestern Burma there is a really deluxe cemetery with a big wooden shelter where monks can stay, and plenty of bones…but I'm getting way ahead of myself.)
Of course, sitting around looking at rotting corpses is one of the aspects of Theravada that has not been enthusiastically adopted by the American Vipassana movement. Advertisements for meditation centers in the Buddhist media are much, much more likely to stress the scenic beauty of the place than to say things like, "A view of human remains from every cabin!" This is partly because we Westerners are a little bit freaked out about death. We may have some interest in watching it on TV, but we don't like to get too close to it, or to contemplate our own mortality and inevitable demise very often.
Largely because of this aversion for acknowledging death, and a tendency to keep it decently concealed whenever possible, before coming to Asia I had never seen a human corpse—except in photographs, on TV, in the form of mounted skeletons in biology classrooms (and even most of those are plastic replicas), and as a mummy in a display case, which now I can barely remember. I had never even attended a funeral.
So after becoming a bhikkhu at a Burmese monastery in California, and learning about recollection of death and its advantages, I became more inspired to contemplate a corpse. A Burmese monk told me that in Thailand, and possibly in Burma also, monks are allowed to observe autopsies at hospitals. The venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw himself, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained, is said to have attended a few of these. I also was told that another, slightly famous sayadaw, whose name I won't divulge, accompanied Taungpulu Sayadaw to an autopsy and fainted during the course of it. With the approval of the senior monks at the monastery, I called the Santa Cruz county coroner's office and requested permission for a small party of Buddhist monks to observe an autopsy. The fellow at the other end of the line said, with a voice like lead, "I wouldn't recommend it," and that pretty much ended the attempt in America. It wasn't until coming to Asia that I saw a real dead person.
Before coming to Burma the group I was with spent about three weeks in India, mostly for the purpose of making a pilgrimage through the main Buddhist holy places. When we were in Varanasi, alias Benares, I detached myself from the others and deliberately sought ought the burning ghats, where corpses are cremated by the Ganges River. Most of what I knew about the burning ghats, before actually arriving there, was derived from books by Ram Dass. He mentioned that at one time he was in Varanasi and was moved to pity by all the decrepit beggars lying by the road waiting to die. Around each one's neck was a little pouch containing just enough money to pay for the firewood for the cremation. Afterward he was amazed to realize that at the same time that he was pitying these dying people, they were pitying him, because they had made it—some Hindus believe that if you are cremated in Varanasi a deva descends to earth and whispers the highest name of God into your ear as your body burns (I don't remember the exact details), thereby guaranteeing your attainment to Heaven. Ram Dass also mentioned the simile of the corpse burner's stick, which is a metaphor for spiritual practice reminiscent of the Buddhist Simile of the Raft: The corpse burner uses the stick to make sure that the body burns correctly, and when it is all burned up the guy tosses the stick onto the fire and burns that up too. I didn't see the corpse burners actually doing this, though.
Because I was a monk I was allowed to stand up close and watch. The bodies were wrapped in white shrouds, and by the time the shrouds had burned off the flesh was pretty charred too, so I still didn't see a body looking like an actual human person, but what I saw was considerable. The fires were no bigger than was necessary for completing the cremation, and so the bare feet of the burning bodies would stick out of the fire, toes upwards. When the ligaments of the knee joints had burned through, the corpse burner would use his stick to knock the feet up and over and into the fire. Seeing the legs bending in exactly the wrong direction had a powerful shock value. It just didn't seem right watching people's legs bending forwards at the knee like that. Another shocker was when the head, after burning for awhile, would be smashed by the stick, causing the cooked brains, looking like scrambled eggs, to flop out and sizzle in the flames.
I remember, while watching, the corpse burners' children were running among the fires and corpses, playing and laughing. People can get used to anything. One of the kids ran past me and bumped into me, squealing and giggling, which irritated me at the time. A water buffalo, in the brainlessly placid, prehistoric manner of water buffaloes, slowly ambled among the fires eating flowers that had dropped from biers onto the ground. An Indian man offered me some kind of drug-looking stuff, which I refused. Later I was told that it was some kind of chewing tobacco. One strange thing that I remember was the smell of the place. Have you ever smelled something that very strongly reminded you of something else, yet you couldn't quite remember what it reminded you of? That was happening to me at the burning ghats. I knew that I had smelled that smell somewhere before, and was racking my brains trying to figure it out—when suddenly it dawned on me: A wiener roast! It smelled like a wiener roast there.
I've been told that seeing dead people lying by the side of the road is pretty common in India, but I didn't see any explicit human death there other than at the burning ghats. I didn't see more, in fact, until about a year and a half later, in Burma, when I was living at a big monastery near Mandalay. There I resumed my efforts to see the closest thing to a charnel field I could find, which I figured would be an autopsy.
There was a doctor living right across the road from the monastery in Amarapura, with whom I was on friendly terms, and he occasionally performed autopsies at his clinic, so I asked him if I could watch one someday. He always responded along the lines of, "Oh, certainly. No problem at all"; but he continued responding like this for a year without ever letting me see one. I was not exactly sure at the time what his reasons were, but long before the year had passed it appeared very likely that a trip to the general hospital in Mandalay, or more specifically its morgue, would be more conducive to contemplation of human death. So one day a Burmese monastic friend and I set out for Mandalay.
The morgue (or "ice building," as the Burmese term would be translated), was a small masonry structure detached from the main hospital building, situated near the back of the compound. My friend and I entered the wide-open door and found a single live person, a custodian, sweeping the floor. He was much too low on the bureaucracy's totem pole to be paranoid of strange foreigners wanting to look at dead people, so he invited us in with a big, friendly smile. (In Burma, especially in those days, the highest of the high and the lowest of the low could afford to be fearless; but those situated near the middle levels of the bureaucratic labyrinth, I gradually learned, were generally scared crapless to do anything conspicuous or unusual, for fear of losing their job, if not their head; and letting a big white foreigner into the morgue was both conspicuous and unusual.)
Stretched out on tables, all face up, were three young men, all of whom evidently had died of stab wounds to the abdomen, and a very peaceful-looking old lady. I observed one of the young men for several minutes, and observed another phenomenon which inspired me with a feeling of profound wrongness, much like the legs bending the wrong way in Varanasi: a fly was crawling all over his face. (In fact there were plenty of flies here, as the room was not refrigerated and the door was wide open, with, if I remember correctly, no glass in the windows either. Also there were little puddles of red or pinkish liquid scattered here and there on the concrete floor, which I was very mindful of, being barefoot.) That fly bothered me because it seemed that, even though the fellow was dead, he still shouldn't let that fly crawl on him like that. Being dead seemed an insufficient excuse for not brushing the fly away.
After this we entered the cooler, which actually was refrigerated. There were two large wire racks, several shelves high, up against the near wall, on either side of the entrance to the cooler. Immediately upon entry I was confronted by two dead babies, of different sizes, on a shelf to my left. Beyond them was a young woman, apparently in her late teens or early twenties, lying on a lower shelf. She/it was wearing nothing but a chemise, and naked from the waist down; and as soon as I noticed this I quickly looked away. I've never been inclined toward necrophilia, but her form, which was all that was left of her, was young and pretty, and I am a man, and a primitive urge to stare resulted in an immediate backlash in the opposite direction. So I looked toward the other side of the room and saw, lying on his/its back on the concrete floor, the body of a man who obviously had undergone a complete autopsy. He looked like he had swallowed a hand grenade. His chest was a gaping, empty cavern, and the top of his head was missing, with the place where his brain should be containing just a little puddle of pink goo. On the lowest shelf of the rack right next to him was another young man, whose hand was dipped into a bucket full of dark red glop which I assumed had been taken out of the exploded guy. This inspired more feelings of unnatural wrongness: even though he was dead, at the very least he should pull his hand out of that bucket of glop. Needless to say, although I say it anyway, the experience of visiting that morgue was an intense one for me.
One of the primary purposes of contemplating death in Buddhist practice, probably the primary purpose, is to inspire a sense of samvega, a feeling of spiritual alarm and an urgent need for spiritual practice, without wasting any time about it. I was feeling plenty of samvega as I left that morgue and reentered the hot, bright sunshine of an ordinary day in Mandalay. Children were running around playing, teenage girls walked hand in hand, happily chattering about nothing in particular, a bikeshaw driver squatted next to his machine, intently working on it, a young man spoke flirtatiously to a smiling young woman, and people simply went about their lives as though they would live forever. But I felt like shouting to them, "Why are you laughing? Don't you know what's in that building right there? We're all going to die!" But I didn't shout it. Instead, my friend and I entered the main hospital building in search of the coroner, to ask permission to watch autopsies.
When we found the coroner, he was hardly any more enthusiastic than the one in California had been. He gave the impression of being harassed and sorely overworked, which he probably was, and he was furthermore high enough in the bureaucracy to wish with all his heart to avoid strange foreigners. Not surprisingly, he politely passed the buck, in accordance with good Burmese manners, and didn't say No; instead he said that we would have to get permission from the medical superintendent of the hospital. So we went to his office next.
On this trip we didn't even get to see the medical superintendent. Instead, we informed one of his underlings of our mission, and he went into the superintendent's office to relay the information. After a few minutes he came back out and informed us that in order to see an autopsy we would have to receive permission from the governor of Mandalay division. I got the impression that his further passing of the buck onto the governor, who also was a military general in those days, was just a polite Burmese way of saying, "Hell no you can't see a freaking autopsy." With that, we terminated our mission and returned to our monastery in Amarapura.
But karma works in mysterious ways; and, just a few weeks after our adventure, who came to our monastery but the governor of Mandalay division himself. After hearing of his scheduled arrival I went to "my sayadaw," also technically my teacher (although he delegated authority to others in that regard), who was on friendly terms with the governor and who had, at that time, the ecclesiastical rank of aggamahāganthikapaṇḍita which, in the hierarchy of the Burmese Sangha, is roughly equivalent to a brigadier general. The venerable sayadaw asked if I needed anything, and I requested that he pretty please ask the governor for permission for me to see an autopsy in Mandalay. He appeared a little surprised by the request, but he said he'd take care of it.
About two days after the governor's visit, right after I had eaten my daily meal, an official hospital car unexpectedly pulled up outside my cabin, and I was informed that I was to see an autopsy that day—in fact, in about an hour. I wasn't expecting things to move this fast. Also, it was a blazing hot day toward the beginning of the furnace-like upper Burma hot season, and I had just eaten; so I was apprehensive of the discomfort and possible puking that might become a reality soon. But, I wasn't about to back out of the deal, and besides, it was a safe assumption that the concrete floor in that morgue had been exposed to lots worse things than the contents of my stomach, so I got into the car. My friend from the first visit came along too, as did a young anunāyaka sayadaw, the leader of the section of the monastery where I lived. This young sayadaw was rather a tough, macho monk, and seemed really enthusiastic about seeing an autopsy.
This time we got to meet the elusive medical superintendent, and I swear to gawd he looked almost exactly like Spock's father on the old TV show "Star Trek." The facial features were the same, the hair, the eyebrows—practically the only difference was that the medical superintendent didn't have pointy ears like Spock's dad did…but this is one hell of a pointless digression. The resemblance was really remarkable though.
We accompanied the coroner, who, like the superintendent, was much more sociable this time, back to the "ice building," where the body to be dissected was already laid out, face up, on the slab. He was a young man who had died in the hospital before a doctor had had the chance to examine him, and it was hospital policy to perform an autopsy on all such cases. On a large table nearby were three dead men in prison inmate uniforms who looked like they had come from a concentration camp—shaved heads, grimacing black teeth, and extreme emaciation. I don't know what the cause of death for those guys was, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was starvation. I suppose I could have asked the coroner, but everybody in the room was pretending like they didn't see them, so I went along with it and didn't say anything. The coroner very obligingly told me that I could pick up and handle any of the organs that were removed. The rubber glove supplied for the purpose was about five sizes too small for my hand, though, and I didn't know what disease the person had died from, so I didn't take him up on the offer.
In the Buddhist texts, analyzing the various parts of the body one by one, as opposed to contemplating dead bodies in general, is more associated with asubha kammaṭṭhāna, or the meditation technique of contemplating the foulness of the body. The Vijaya Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta would be a good early example of this. Considering the glop and gooey muck that fills our skin sack is supposed to help cure us of attachment to the human body, including identification with "our own" and lust for that of another person. (As my father once told me, "My son, when you kiss a girl you're sucking on a tube thirty feet long, the bottom two-thirds of which are full of shit.") But I have a degree in biology, and am fascinated by life, especially animal life; and I consider the delicately balanced organic system of the human body to be more of an amazing miracle than anything to be disgusted at—at least, that is, when I'm examining it in a more or less scientific manner. All fear of puking was gone, and I was really interested. So were the other two monks. Go figure.
When they started cutting the guy open, one of the first things that really struck me was that subcutaneous fat looks like partially melted Velveeta cheese. Sometimes to this day I still reflect on the notion that the soft, rounded, beautiful curves of a woman's body are filled out with this same slick-looking orangeish cheese.
The coroner found significant amounts of fluid in the dead man's lungs, which indicated pneumonia. Also he noted that the spleen was enlarged, which is symptomatic of chronic malaria. So he had enough information to make the diagnosis that the man died of pneumonia as a complication of chronic malaria. Even so, he gave me the full tour and had the top of the man's head removed. The way they did it was interesting: First they cut through the skin around the head and pulled it back to expose the bone, and then an assistant used a hacksaw to cut most of the way through the skull all around, and then they used a hammer and chisel to pop off the top of the skull, as though it were the lid of a paint can. After the brain was removed I took the liberty to poke at it a little with a probe; and it was then that I realized just how soft a human brain is—it's hardly any firmer than pudding. Since I tend to be rather brain-oriented ("My brain? That's my second-favorite organ!" —Woody Allen), that realization also has stayed with me over the years.
After the autopsy was finished the coroner politely invited me to come again if I wasn't satisfied. I was thinking of maybe one autopsy every two months or so, as part of my practice; so two months later we went back to the hospital for another one. This time was a case of arriving very much at the wrong time—the coroner's office was thronged with police officers and other importunate people, and the coroner evidently was being thoroughly harassed over some relatively important death. When he came out of his office and saw me standing there his Burmese politeness failed to materialize, and he immediately got a look on his face like he had just sucked an extraordinarily bitter lemon. He asked me, "Weren't you here just a few days ago?" I reminded him that it had been two months, and that he had invited me to come back for another autopsy if the first one was not totally sufficient. He acquiesced to this; and since it was almost time for him to perform another autopsy anyway, within a few minutes we adjourned to the morgue.
This time the "patient" was a vagrant-looking person who had been found lying dead by the side of the road. He had already been dead for a few days, so that his skin was starting to bubble up with big blisters as gases percolated out of the body. The coroner remarked that recently a Buddhist monk had likewise been found by the side of the road, and that it appeared that he had been killed by another monk—Mandalay monks are notorious. I don't remember what the diagnosis for this one was, although I remember he wasn't murdered; possibly something to do with heavy drinking. After the procedure was finished, the coroner took aside one of the Burmese monks in attendance and earnestly entreated him that I never, ever, ever come back for another autopsy. So that was my last one, and my last trip to the Mandalay general morgue.
Without question the first trip to the morgue, before I saw any autopsies, was by far the most conducive to profound samvega. During the second and third trips I didn't inspect the bodies on the other tables, or the racks in the cooler, but only observed the autopsies being performed, accompanied by the coroner. The autopsies turned out to be almost more like anatomy lessons than evocative contemplations of death. Also, naturally, the first time makes the biggest impression, in visiting morgues as well as in other things.
In later years my search for human remains to contemplate was pretty much limited to bones. A Burmese lady offered me a skeleton, with its bones connected together with wires, which she bought from a medical college for 27,000 kyats, or approximately $25 US. I called it Mr. Death—I knew it used to be a guy because of the shape of the hip bones—and kept it sitting in full lotus posture in front of my cave until 2011, when I gave it away to a forest monk who craved it droolingly, shortly before my return to the West. Also I have owned a few skulls, which are obtainable for free from unmaintained, weed-, ghost-, and monster-infested Burmese cemeteries. You can just go and pick them up. Sometimes, especially with the meditating skeleton, I would do a little maraṇānussati in the form of regarding it and thinking, "As am I, so was that. As is that, so will I become." But, as was mentioned above, a person can get used to just about anything, including a memento mori staring and grinning at him from a shelf or a bamboo mat. After awhile it just becomes part of the background, like a picture on the wall that you hardly notice anymore. After looking at it about fifty times it stops making much of an impression.
I did take a skull back to America with me though. I had it in my checked luggage on the plane; and when I was given one of those little customs forms to fill out I was in a bit of a quandary—it asked if I had any animal products to declare. Well, are human remains an "animal product"? From a biological point of view, of course we are animals: we're hominoid primates, a kind of mammal. But most people consider animals to be different from people, probably including customs officials at airports; so I checked "No." Luckily, the customs guy at the SeaTac Airport just waved me through and didn't open any of my bags. The skull is presently in storage at a Burmese monastery in California, very patiently awaiting my return.
Over the years I have also seen a few more dead people, not sought out but as unplanned visitations, including one dead friend and one dead teacher and benefactor. I even finally encountered one in America—a deceased elderly Chinese man lying in a fancy coffin, all dressed up in a blue suit and tie, apparently wearing makeup, and looking very healthy. Symptomatic of the aforementioned American urge to deny death, except on TV.
APPENDIX: The Discourse on Victory (Vijaya Sutta, Sutta Nipāta I:11)
Whether going or standing, sitting or lying down,
Contracting or extending, this is the agitation of the body.
Connected with bones and tendons, plastered with hide and flesh,
The body, covered over with epidermis, is not seen as it really is,
Full of intestines, full of the stomach, of the mass of the liver, of the bladder,
Of the heart, of lungs, of kidneys, and of spleen,
Of snot, of saliva, of sweat, and of grease,
Of blood, of lymph, of bile, and of fat.
And from its nine passages impurity always flows:
Eye excretions from the eye, ear excretions from the ear,
And snot from the nose; when there is vomiting from the mouth,
One vomits bile and phlegm; and from the body itself, sweat.
And then there is the head full of holes, filled with brains.
A fool, with ignorance set before him, imagines this to be beautiful.
Yet when it lies dead, swollen up and turned bluish,
Cast away at a cemetery, the relatives have no regard for it;
Dogs eat it, as do jackals, wolves, and worms;
Crows and vultures eat it, along with whatever other creatures there are.
The mendicant, having heard the words of the Buddha, possessing understanding herein—
He truly understands; he sees it as it really is.
As is this, so is that; as is that, so is this;
Subjectively and objectively one should detach oneself from desire for a body.
He is detached from desire and lust, this mendicant possessed of understanding herein;
He has attained the deathless, peace, Nibbāna, the unchanging state.
This two-footed, impure, bad-smelling thing is borne about
Filled with various sorts of offal, trickling out from here and there.
With regard to a body such as this, who would think to exalt himself,
Or would despise someone else—what is this other than blindness?