Encounters with Yama, the Deity of Death

The 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen said once, “birth and death are the everyday practice of the Buddhist Way.” Today, someone dies every 15 seconds from Covid 19, that is 250 people per hour and 5,900 per day, according to Reuters Press. The statistical evidence is staggering. On our hand-held screens, laptops, and desktops the sheer numbers show up daily. But Dogen’s maxim is not an invitation toward data driven calculation, nor to remain an aloof witness to the parade of birth and death, but rather, whole-heartedly, to experience it directly.

For students of yoga and anyone who inquires into the magnum mysterium, a brush with death through some circumstantial event, in a dream, or standing at a hospital bedside, serves to amplify the experience of living. Bearing witness to death heightens appreciation for life.

The sister science of yoga, Ayurveda, is used to help vivify and sustain life. Ayur means life and veda means knowledge, and thus Ayurveda with its tinctures, herbal concoctions, and dietary regulation is medicine to prolong life. If Ayurveda is the study of life, then yoga is the discipline of death. This is most evident in the story of Nachiketas, the protagonist in the narrative of the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, a young boy around age 14, who is sent to the Deity of Death, Yama, to receive instruction on yoga. In the way that the profound quiescence gained through śavāsana guides the yogi toward letting go, death becomes the teacher. Śavāsana is the last pose, outside all other poses. For those who make a spiritual pilgrimage in this lifetime, the guru, the guide, the shaman, the witch, stands on the margin outside the city gates and direct encounter with a borderline figure is essential for transformation on the path. Nachiketas is sent to death and finds himself in a liminal bardo, akin to the Roman Catholic purgatory, and he is made to wait on the threshold of death’s door for three days, because Yama is busy out on the town making his rounds (surely Yama today, like the remarkable, “diehard” frontline pandemic workers face-to-face with Covid 19, is working OT). 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead compiled in the mid 14th century, details four states of bardobardo being a kind of limbo, an “in-between” state, like a buffer zone between two countries.

Bardo #1

essentially the life you and I live now, in between birth and death

Bardo #2

the span of time in the run up to death and including the very last breath

Bardo #3

the zone of time post death when mind experiences sound and light and

Bardo #4

the interim between death and rebirth in a next life.

Loosely put, bardo is a gap, a fissure in time, one that we no doubt find ourselves in now, not only in light of the massive run up on deaths in the past nine months, but in the quarantine-asana where our collective lives have been put on hold indefinitely and we are made to wonder, how will things be in time ahead?  Waiting on the stoop of Yama’s front door, Nachiketas, is poised to download the profound, inscrutable, ego shattering instruction on yoga. (Given both the relentless and possessive dominion of the ego, only a state that resembles death, when the ego is down and out, can yoga be fully realized.) By the way, Yama does not offer instruction on how to rotate the front leg in Triangle pose, but rather, “The unitive state cannot be attained through words or thoughts or through the eye. How can it be attained except through one who is established in this state himself?”

Yama is the Great Restrainer. All beings at some point fall under the Deity of Death’s sway. The word yama is proliferant in yoga—five of the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga are governed by yama—yama, niyama and dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi collectively referred to as saṃyama. The word yama means a bridle or rein and like an equestrian coach, the Deity of Death teaches the boy to clasp firm the reins of his horse-mind in order to reach the destination of yoga: 

When one lacks discrimination
And his mind is undisciplined, the senses
Run hither and thither like wild horses.

The “hither and thither” asana scatters and distracts. In the era of the pandemic, in this time of global bardo, with death all around, it is an opportune time to coalesce, to concentrate and realize Yama’s yoga. Great loss emulsifies the hardened heart and makes us ripe for tender heartedness and mercy.

Hidden in the heart of every creature
Exists the Great Soul
Subtler than the subtlest
Greater than the greatest
Without willful desire
One perceives the creator’s grace
The grandeur of the Self.