John White – USA
[A Practical Guide to Death and Dying was originally published by QUEST books in 1980. This particular version was previously published in the Theosophical Digest, y1992 v4 i2-p90.]
Dying the Good Death — The Final Hours of Saints and Heroes
In 1963 an extraordinary East Indian spiritual teacher named Govindananda died at age 137. He had lived an incredibly strenuous life, actually journeying around the world by foot. Many heads of state were his friends, yet he lived humbly in a small jungle hut. When he became aware that it was time to die, he spoke quietly to a few disciples with him, gave a final blessing – “Live right life, worship God” – lay down, rested his head on his right palm in his usual sleeping position, and simply stopped breathing.
One of the remarkable things about saintly people is that even their deaths are often acts of inspiration and love. After showing us how to live – selflessly and in service to others – they show us how to die – fearlessly and with dignity, strong in faith to the end.
Gautama Buddha, well into his eighties, continued teaching and preaching to the end. When he felt himself dying, he told his faithful disciple Ananda, who began to weep. The Buddha admonished him, “Have I not already, on former occasions, told you that it is the very nature of things that we must separate from them and leave them? The foolish man conceives the idea of ‘self [personal self or ego], the wise man sees there is no ground on which to build it!”
Disciples gathered around the Buddha and he delivered his Dying Sermon. He ended his farewell address with these words, “Behold now, brethren, I exhort you by saying: Decay is inherent in all component things, but the truth will remain forever! Work out your salvation with diligence.” Those were his last words. Then the Buddha fell into deep meditation and entered nirvana.
St. Francis of Assisi, as his life neared its end, was taken to the palace of the Bishop of Assisi. A doctor was fetched to treat him. St. Francis, wanting to know how long he had to live, asked the doctor, who avoided a direct answer for some time but finally said that the disease was incurable and that he might die soon. St. Francis, overjoyed, raised his hands and cried, “Welcome, Sister Death!” He bade farewell to his friends and friars, and dictated some letters. A few days later, near to death, he asked the doctor to announce the arrival of Sister Death. “She will open for me the door of life,” he explained. Then, following his instructions, the Franciscan brothers spread a coarse cloth on the ground, placed their mentor on it, and sprinkled him with dust and ashes. St. Francis was heard to mutter faintly the 142nd psalm. After that, he struggled to sing his own “Canticle of the Creatures,” which contains these lines.
And Death is our sister, we
praise Thee for Death,
Who releases the soul to the
light of Thy gaze;
And dying we cry with the last
of our breath
Our thanks and our praise.
But St. Francis’ voice failed at that moment. He died singing the praise of death.
In his book The Wheel of Death, the Zen Buddhist teacher Philip Kapleau tells us that many Zen masters actually anticipated their “final” hour, meeting it with equilibrium and even laughter, sometimes sitting in the full cross-legged lotus posture or even, more rarely, standing on their heads. In fact, Kapleau says, the Zen masters were so intimately involved with the wholeof existence – meaning they experienced life and death as an unbroken continuum – that they found overinvolvement with any of its parts, death included, to be a misplaced concern. “Why do you want to know what will happen to you after you die?” the Zen masters told inquiring disciples. “Find out who you are now!”
Kapleau describes the death of Roshi (meaning “teacher”) Yamamoto. Almost blind at the age of 86 and no longer able to teach or work in the monastery, this Zen master decided it was time to die, so he stopped eating. When asked by his monks why he refused food, he replied that he had outlived his usefulness and was only a bother to everybody. They told him, apparently out of love for the old man, “If you die now when it is so cold, [it was January] everybody will be uncomfortable at your funeral and you will be an even greater nuisance, so please eat.” Yamamoto thereupon resumed eating, but, Kapleau reports, when the weather warmed again he stopped, and not long after quietly toppled over and died.
Two other stories from The Wheel of Deathare worth consideration here. The first concerns Master Et- sugen. Shortly before he died, Etsugen called his monks together. It was December 1. “I’ve decided to die on the eighth of this month,” he told them. “That’s the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment. If you have any questions left about the Teaching, you’d better ask them before then.” The master continued with his regular duties during the next few days. Some of the monks therefore thought he was having a little fun at their expense. Most, however, were struck with grief at the imminent loss of their teacher.
On the evening of December 7, Etsugen assembled the monks and taught them for the last time about Buddha’s enlightenment. Then he arranged his affairs and went into his room. At dawn, he took a bath, put on his ceremonial robes and, sitting erect in lotus posture, composed a death poem. Then, shutting his eyes, and still sitting, he died.
The death of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen is equally moving. On the eighth day of the seventh month, Kapleau tells us, the master said to his monks, “Gather round me. I have decided to leave this world in
the eighth month.”
When the monks heard this they wept openly.
“For whom are you crying?” the master asked. “Are you worrying about me because you think I don’t know where I’m going? If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t be able to leave you this way. What you’re really crying about is that youdon’t know where I’m going. If you actually knew, you couldn’t possibly cry because [you would be aware that] the True-nature is without birth or death, without going or coming.”
Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson, during their research into postmortem survival in India, found an extraordinary case of a yogi who, like Govindananda, died the good death. As they report it in At the Hour of Death:
“A faculty member of a medical school in Benares described the death of his grandfather, who had practiced yoga. He was a philanthropist, having helped many persons in his vicinity, and was very religious. People came to him for a general uplift. In his case, the rise in mood [elevation of feelings] started forty-eight hours before death, which the doctor described as perfect consciousness with tranquility. He seemed to have a premonition of death, for which there were no sufficient medical reasons. He ordered a load of wood for the funeral pyre, sent a telegram to his son, and on the last day at four o’clock, asked the family members to eat something, since he would die at five thirty, and in accordance with Hindu custom, nobody would then be permitted to eat. The premonition came true, and he died at five thirty-five. He had performed Hindu purification procedures in order to prepare for death. He didn’t show the slightest anxiety and was seen counseling relatives who were crying. He said to the weeping people, “You should be happy because I am going.” He was perfectly unafraid, and tranquil. He described, step by step, how the body was dying. He told how his legs were becoming stiff and could be pricked without his feeling it, and how limb after limb was becoming numb and no longer a part of ‘the eternal self.’”
To be continued