Micro-Meditation on Death

Last Saturday I went Enoshima, one of the most popular oceanfront destinations in the Tokyo area. 32°C and sunny on the last day of May. Yeah!

Arriving at the beach, I stuffed my shoes in the backpack and shuffled through warm sand. Ahhh… cool water on ankles, calves. Lots of playful folks at water’s edge. A few deep sighs later, I was really there. The ocean has such a powerful calming effect.

Later I went up the traditional shopping street filled with animated people and omiyage (souvenir) shops. Felt really good to walk in bare feet. I ascended more stone steps, passing temples and dense trees, until I reached a viewpoint looking out over the ocean. High above the cliffs, tobi (falcon) soared on the thermals, searching for prey.

Next I was on my way down the steep steps on the far side of the island. Finally got to the rocky plateau along the coastal edge of the island. Still barefoot and slowly stepping over the sharper rocky formations, past people gazing into the tide pools, careful of feet on barnacles. Finally, standing at water’s edge, feet firmly on the rock, facing the majestic Pacific. At the same time, I could see dozens of people capturing images with their cameras, phones, and iPads. Just as I was thinking, “Don’t take a photo, it’ll last longer,” a wave crashed on the rocks and splashed my face and chest. I laughed and wiped seawater from my eyes, tasted salt on my lips. “Ha Ha! The sea says ‘wake up!'”

I continued my walk along the path, below the cliffs. Then rounding another corner, I came across something that stopped me in my tracks—a white, bloated carcass in the water. I saw it was a dead sea turtle, unmistakable from the flippers and bird-like beak. And pretty sizeable—about 50-60cm across the chest, 110-120cm from snout to tail. It was floating belly-up in a semi-enclosed tidal pool, moving slowly as seawater rushed in and out of the mini-cove. A shocking sight, but I approached—this was a very rare chance to get a close look at such an animal.

With some trepidation I got down on the rocks right beside, fascinated with the form yet repulsed by a dead thing; a part of me feared the stench. The huge, bloated neck still had some flexibility in it, so when the carcass bumped against the rocks, the head moved up or down. The eyeballs were already sunken into the skull, and a delicate fan of intestinal tissue billowed in the currents under the water (the belly and chest were completely intact, so this must have come out from the tail area).

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are many practices for facing one’s own mortality. One of these is meditation, in which we can let go of our sensory/mental activity and rest in the formless, empty space that may await us after death. Another traditional practice was for the monks to visit charnel grounds and meditate while sitting next to (or even on) a decomposing human body. They would experience death with the senses, see all the thoughts and emotions that arose in themselves, and explore the reality of impermanence. “That is me. I am that. And this is all there is.”

My practice here was a beginner’s version of same.

I crouched for several minutes observing many details of the physical object in front of me. The water lapped gently on the rocks at my feet. A young couple came out to get a closer look. But they stood at a respectable distance.

Then it struck me: I knew I had to touch the dead turtle.

I asked the couple if they wanted to join me in doing so. “This is a chance of a lifetime!” I smiled. “No, no!” came the nervous laughter and shaking of heads.

I turned back to the bloated carcass. This is it. I started to move my hand in closer, but hesitated…why am I so scared to touch this thing? Was I afraid that it would suddenly jump to life and bite me? Guess I watched too many horror movies as a kid.

Finally, as the carcass floated closer to me, I reached out and placed my fingers on the broad, white chest. It was a bit slippery, like you would imagine a healthy dolphin skin would be. Where was this turtle hatched? How did it die? And how long will it take to completely decompose? I imagined birds and crabs feasting on the carrion, and the turtle gradually returning to the sea from whence it had come.

I refrained from taking “selfies” with the carcass so I could really see it. But 10 minutes later, I took one shot of the young couple with the object in the background.

enoshima turtle



Working with Disgust, Part Two

Later that night, arriving at my home station, I saw passengers skirting a wide path around a pool of chunky vomit on the platform. I kept looking at the splatter as I walked by; beyond my initial disgust there was something that held my attention.

I knew I had to do it…

A little self-consciously (because this isn’t about shocking others, but about questioning and breaking my own conditioning), I reached down and touched the liquid. There. That was easy compared to touching a dead animal.

(Note: this was evidently alcohol-spew from a weekend drinking party, so I wasn’t concerned with viral infection. But I did wash my hands thoroughly ASAP…)


© 2014 Patrick D. Mitchell