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American Soto Zen Pioneer Yvonne Rand Dies Aged 84

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Yvonne Rand. From facebook.com

Myo-on Yvonne Rand, an American meditation teacher in the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, died peacefully with her family on 19 August. She was 84 years old.

Rand was a lay householder Soto Zen priest and had been the guiding teacher of Goat-in-the-Road, a Zen center in Anderson Valley, California, as well as an occasional visiting teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was best known for her careful attention to the processes of death and dying, and her willingness to accompany the bodies of those who had passed away.

Rand began her practice and study of Zen with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco in 1966 and later studied with other teachers, including Dainin Katagiri Roshi, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Maureen Stuart Roshi, Shodo Harada Roshi, and Venerable Tara Tulku. Her teachings drew together Zen and Vajrayana traditions—along with Theravada thought and Western psychology—to guide those approaching death and those around them with care and a wealth of resources.

She was known in particular for her devotion to and teachings on Jizo Bodhisattva, known as a protector of women and of children lost in abortion or stillbirth. In 2017, Green Gulch Farm, affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center, dedicated a new Jizo garden in her honor. Rand had been a key planner and supporter of the Green Gulch garden there.

Writing of her experiences with Rand at the garden with Jizo ceremonies, lay teacher and author Wendy Johnson noted: “I was consistently moved by Yvonne’s presence and practice during these often emotional ceremonies, and by her empathy and capacity to engage a grieving community. Over the years the Jizo ceremony has evolved and deepened. I watched with respect as Yvonne shared her training with other Zen teachers eager to engage in Jizo practice. In particular, I remember Zen priest and physician Jan Chozen Bays Roshi working closely with Yvonne to learn and adapt the Jizo ceremony in both her medical and meditation practice.” (San Francisco Zen Center)

Additionally, Rand took up the practice of observing the decomposition of animal corpses. Describing an actual body in an interview in 2008, she said: “That’s a cat I found on the side of the road. I’ve been watching the body of that cat for about a year and a half. There are changes every single day.” (Inquiring Mind)

Rand also spoke in that interview of sitting with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi during his death process in 1971: “After he died, some of us sat with his body around the clock for a week. He had died on an early morning in December, right after the bell announcing the beginning of the traditional year-end Zen retreat. The bell rang and he passed.” (Inquiring Mind)

Continuing along with the full process, Rand and others accompanied Suzuki’s body to the crematorium: “The cremation occurred behind a beautiful curtain, and, much to the dismay of the mortuary people running the whole thing, we not only wanted to see the body but to go with the body and help put it into the oven. Mrs. Suzuki pushed the button that started the flame. We weren’t about to be left out of any of it (which the mortician and the crematorium people were not used to at all!).” (Inquiring Mind)

Yvonne Rand and Chris Fortin. From branchingstreams.sfzc.org
Yvonne Rand and Chris Fortin. From branchingstreams.sfzc.org

In 2002, Rand wrote about furthering her connection to Jizo Bodhisattva, traveling between Japan and California: “Back home, during the 1970s and 1980s, women had begun coming to me and asking if I could help them with their difficulties in the aftermath of an abortion or a miscarriage. In consequence, I began doing a simple memorial service for groups of people who had experienced the deaths of fetuses and babies. After many years of counseling both men and women I decided in 1991 to spend several months in Japan doing a focused study of practices around Jizo.” (San Francisco Zen Center)

Frank Ostaseski, Buddhist teacher and leader in the field of end-of-life care, wrote as Rand approached her own death: “Yvonne could genuinely be described as a force of nature, powerful, impeccable, with fierce compassion, great humor, and with a nonstop commitment to Dharma practice and the empowerment of women. Yvonne was a brilliant teacher of Buddhist and other teachings on death and conscious dying. She was instrumental in creating the Jizo garden at Green Gulch Farm. A peaceful refuge where we conducted many memorials. Her contributions [were] too many to count.” (Cuke)

Rand was preceded in death by her husband, Bill Sterling, who passed away on 1 December 2019.

Read more

RiP Dear Dharma Sister Yvonne Rand (Cuke What’s New)
Stories of Jizo: New Jizo Garden at Green Gulch Farm (San Francisco Zen Center)
Interview with Yvonne Rand: The Critters Project (Inquiring Mind)
Yvonne Rand (Cuke)
Bill Sterling (Anderson Valley Advertiser)

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