An Interview with
Yvonne Rand by Dayna Macy of the Yoga Journal in the Sangha-E!
newsletter (on women's issues)
Sorry - undated, but she says herein that
she's almost 70 and she turned 70 in 2005. - dc
Everything changes. This truth is so fundamental to Buddhism, it's known
as the First Noble Truth.
Yet despite knowing this, some of us are surprised, and disturbed, when our
faces and bodies change. Though men may feel the sting of age, our culture
is particularly hard on women, many of whom derive a sense of power and
identity from their looks.
Beauty and aging are only one layer of a more complex web. Aging is a
prelude to dying, while clinging to youth is one way of obscuring the truth
of impermanence, and an impediment to waking up.
On a rainy spring day from my home in Berkeley, Calif., I spoke with Yvonne
Rand -- a preeminent American Buddhist teacher -- about women, aging and how
to grow older authentically and powerfully as our faces and bodies change.
Yvonne Rand is a meditation teacher and lay householder priest in the Soto
Zen Buddhist tradition. She began her practice and study of Zen with Shunryu
Suzuki Roshi in 1966. Her other principal teachers and mentors have been
Dainin Katagiri Roshi, Maureen Stuart Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
and the Venerable Tara Tulku. Her primary practice path is Zen, augmented by
practices and teachings from the traditions of Theravada and Vajrayana.
Here's what she had to say.
Q: We are bombarded daily by images in the media that youth and only youth
is beautiful, powerful images that can greatly affect how we perceive
ourselves. What can we do to move beyond them?
Yvonne Rand: There is a certain amount of bombarding from the culture that
one has some choices about. For example, I just don't watch television and I
don't read most magazines.
Q: Do you feel disengaged from the world because of this?
Yvonne Rand: No, it's not a disengagement from the world, but a
disengagement from marketing, from propaganda. A disengagement from being
told about how the world is, and instead, placing significant priority on
Q: What are some of the Buddhist teachings on impermanence that are useful
as people grow older?
Yvonne Rand: The possibility of the alleviation of suffering in the Buddhist
tradition has to do with focusing on what are called the three marks. The
fact that there is suffering, that everything changes, and that there is no
permanent, solid self.
Q: Then who are we?
Yvonne Rand: Well, we're not permanent and solid, but that doesn't mean
there isn't a self. There's a self, it's just not the self of the sort we
think exists. Meditations on impermanence can be a kind of access point to
the experience, not the intellectual understanding, but the actual
experience of no solid, permanent self. When we understand that all there
is is coming and going, that in itself brings about significant lessening of
[In Buddhism, there is also] a very clear graduated path for studying the
mind and training the untrained mind. The untrained mind is one that is
conditioned, and is flooded with both the mental and physical consequences
of reactions. Our reactive patterns arise from the early conditioning from
our family of origin, and from the conditioning from our society.
Q: Why do you think some people feel sadness or fear when their faces and
Yvonne Rand: Change is inevitable. And resisting this inevitability can
cause intense suffering. I mean, what can we do? Well -- there's a lot we
can do these days about wrinkles and sagging, but even those medical
procedures are not without suffering. And, you know, the bottom line is
that when we resist change, we are poorly prepared for our own dying or the
dying of those dear to us. And that means that we are far more likely to
die in a fearful state of mind than we are with a calm and happy mind. And
that's a huge difference.
For me, I learned a great deal on how it was possible to die as a
consequence of sitting with Suzuki Roshi in the last few months of his life,
and then subsequently sitting with people over the years as they were
dying. And I got to see the difference between turning away from
impermanence and turning towards it.
Q: What is the difference?
Yvonne Rand: Well, my mother, for example, was the polar opposite of Suzuki
Roshi. I remember when she began to age, she was very upset. And I said to
her, did you not ever know anybody who got old? And though she said yes,
she said she never thought it would happen to her. She was very fearful and
suffered incredibly in an effort to control what she couldn't control.
I know somebody who died of metastasized breast cancer when she was 57. And
she had the body of a 20-year-old. She'd had a lot of cosmetic surgery, and
she was very beautiful. And the doctors were just gaga over this beautiful
woman to the point that in some cases they weren't always to attentive to
what was going on for her as she was closer and closer to dying. And dying
was very hard for her because even though she was very beautiful, she was
Q: Of course, we all are.
Yvonne Rand: We're dying all the time. We have the minor dying when we go
to sleep and a kind of minor birth when we wake up. We have a kind of minor
dying when something ends, you know when you and I hang up the telephone, or
when someone we love comes to visit and then goes away. These are minor
dyings and if we don't turn away from them we begin to be more open to the
joy and beauty of experience that's not separable from sadness. Joy and
sadness are not separable.
Q: I see a great expenditure of energy in both younger women and older
women to maintain a fixed state of beauty. And it's an interesting choice
to make because that's an allocation of energy that could possibly be used
Yvonne Rand: there's something heartbreaking for me when I see someone older
who is trying to look younger. There's a huge amount of suffering in
resisting the fact of change.
[But grasping can come in many forms]. I had an incredible experience with a
particular rose that grows in our garden. Someone had made a bouquet of the
honey colored blossoms and put them in a white milk pitcher. And it was
just unbelievably beautiful. And I ran to get the camera to take the
picture. And in the middle of it, I stopped myself and realized, oh,
grasping. So instead, I let the bouquet sit on the altar, and as the roses
began to fade, the petals fell off. We let it stay for a month. That was
So there's this impulse to capture, to grasp, to hang on to, that comes out
of our conditioning to grab and grasp.
I think that [a lot of people, because they're afraid, have] that impulse to
freeze a moment, to hang on to something that delights us, instead of
experiencing the delight that includes the momentary nature of whatever it
is that delights us.
Q: What if someone looks in the mirror and says well, my aging has caused me
to suffer so if I change my face or body, I will alleviate the cause of my
Yvonne Rand: I don't think it's an accurate statement. I think it's that
tendency to say that my suffering is caused by something outside and not
recognize that the suffering I experience is happening in my mind. It has
to do with my reaction to the wrinkles, it's not the wrinkles themselves.
It's my reaction to them. And the difference between reaction and response
Q: And how do you feel when you look at yourself and see yourself change?
Yvonne Rand: Well, I use that as the occasion for returning to [the fact
that] everything changes, nothing remains the same, including skin. I mean,
I've actually done meditations on hair, nails, and sagging skin -- taking on
as a focus for noticing change where I might want to turn away. Okay, for
the next week or ten days I will bring my attention to standing in front of
the mirror and noticing, bringing attention to oh, sagging, impermanence of
the body. And I won't linger with that attention on sagging long enough to
get caught with storytelling about it. I'll notice and come back to the
present moment by bringing attention to the alignment of the head, heart
center and hara, and the breath.
Q: What would be an example of getting lost in storytelling?
Yvonne Rand: Look at that belly sagging. Oh I need to exercise more. I am
such a slob. Why am I so lazy? What's wrong with me. I'll never change.
Q: Oh right. The Judge.
Yvonne Rand: Yes. And for Americans, habitual judgment is very, very
dominant. Every Asian teacher or Buddhist teacher I've ever talked to has
commented on how fearsome we seem to be in this culture with respect to
judging ourselves and everything else. You know, self judgment directed
towards oneself that gets projected out.
And it's a significant hindrance to the cultivation of one's capacity to be
present. It's a very serious obstacle. Some years ago during some of the
mind/science meetings at Harvard with his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, his
Holiness had a very hard time believing how pervasive judgment is for us
Americans. It was like, how can this be?
Q: What is the foundation of fierce judgment?
Yvonne: I think it's essentially based on fear. If you drop deep enough
under a judgment, there's fear.
Any reaction, if it's deeply set, has become a habit. And it's important to
understand that the very nature of a habit is that it's tenacious. So
dismantling a habit requires some willingness to see the pattern and to then
doggedly and determinedly keep noticing and coming back into the present
moment. Because if you notice the pattern and linger, you're going to get
caught in the storytelling and that re-energizes the very reactive pattern
that you're seeking to dismantle.
Q: Does becoming enlightened mean that you don't have reactivity?
Yvonne: Yeah, I think so. My experience being with people who are
significantly awake is that they are people who are sublimely present. And
presence and reactivity don't go together.
Q: What does it feel like to be in an enlightened person's presence?
Yvonne Rand: Vastly spacious. It's one of the reasons why I say to various
people I practice with if you ever have a chance to take teachings from his
Holiness the Dalai Lama, please do so that you will have the experience of
what it's like to be in the presence of someone who is deeply awake and
There's a word in Tibetan called kundun, which means "The Presence." And,
you know, one of the extraordinary experiences as a Buddhist practitioner is
to be with practitioners who have cultivated significant capacities to be
awake, to be fully present. It's a way of having a taste, if you will, for
what you're aiming towards, what you're seeking to cultivate. And I think
having that taste experientially is incredibly useful.
Q: What are some other classic meditations on impermanence?
Yvonne Rand: That death is inevitable; that death can come at any time;
meditating on the actual dying process, or what I call my dress rehearsal;
and the meditating on what happens after one dies.
There's another meditation recitation called the Five Remembrances. "I am of
the nature to have ill health. There is no way to avoid having ill health.
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I
am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear
to me, and everyone I love is of the nature to change. There is no way to
avoid being separated from them. My deeds are my constant companions. My
deeds are the ground on which I stand. I am my own protector."
Q: What do you find joyful about growing older?
Yvonne Rand: Well, I have some sense and some degree of cultivation of the
mind. I'm grateful for each day and what comes. I actually have a vivid
sense of impermanence. You know, I'm not that far away from 70. So, a sense
of the impermanence of this body and of this life is quite vivid. And for
that I'm quite grateful.
I do not put things off as I did when I was younger. And the result is that
I have less that I regret. To live without regret is quite sweet.
Dayna Macy is the communications director of Yoga Journal Magazine. She is a
writer and musician, and lives with her family in Berkeley, CA.