Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die

Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die (1997) is a non-fiction book, compiled & edited by Sushila Blackman, with death stories of Hindu, Tibetan Buddhist, and Zen Masters. ISBN 0-8348-0391-7.


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  • In that marvelous Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata, the sage Yudhisthira is asked: "Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?" Yudhisthira answers: "That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die."
    Two thousand years later, people still circumambulate the reality of their own death. In a recent New York Times article, infectious disease specialist Dr. Jack B. Weissman remarked, "What strikes me about our system is that more people are afraid of how they are going to die than the fact that they are going to die." When we do think of dying, we are more often concerned with how to avoid the pain and suffering that may accompany our death than we are with really confronting the meaning of death and how to approach it. We are in dire need of role models, people to show us how to face leaving this world gracefully and to place death in its proper perspective. (Introduction)
  • For this it is natural to turn to those most experienced in dealing with death (and with life): spiritual masters. The Tibetan Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and Hindu or Yogic traditions that are the focus of this book are deeply linked. One of these links is the extraordinary importance they place on the act of dying. To understand why, we need look no further than the principles of karma and reincarnation, which have been intricately woven into the fabric of life in the East since ancient times. (Introduction)
  • According to the law of karma, all beings experience the consequences of their actions—both mental and physical. The myriad desires and fears of each lifetime compel us to keep returning to earthly life to experience the fruits of our previous actions, whether bitter or sweet. ...the residual impressions of our actions in this lifetime accompany us to the next. The kind of life we come back into is determined, in large part, by how we live our present life. (Introduction)
  • Belief in reincarnation and the cycle of rebirth is not unique to the Buddhists and Hindus. For example, an ancient Egyptian hermetic text fragment states that "the soul passes from form to form, and the mansions of her pilgrimages are manifold."
  • In Matthew 17:13, Christ reveals his divine form to his three closest disciples, and then tells them that his precursor, John the Baptist, is actually an incarnation of the prophet Elijah....Origen, a prominent patriarch of the early Christian church, described rebirth in his De Principiis: The soul has neither beginning nor end... Every soul comes to this world strengthened by the victories or weakened by the defeats of its previous life. Its place in this world as a vessel appointed to honor or dishonor is determined by its previous merits. The concept was suppressed by the Emperor Justinian's Council of Constantinople in 538 ad.
  • The Hindu tradition speaks of voluntary reincarnations, called vyutthana, by fully enlightened masters who return to earthly life even after maya (illusion) and the operation of karma has ceased to bind them... Buddhists believe that bodhisattvas -the “enlightened beings" who are the embodiment o compassion—will defer their own final liberation, returning to assist all sentient beings in their struggle toward realization... real masters live well, not for anticipated personal gain, but for the love of God. Their lives are full of selfless service, because they understand that we are all one.
  • What happens to the aspirant, the seeker, who has set out on the path of union but has not become one-pointed at the time of death? In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna assures us that "Neither in this life nor the hereafter is there destruction for him, for no one who does good, dear friend, ever treads the path of woe." He tells us that such a seeker will enjoy the fruits of a heavenly plane for a while, then be reborn into a pure and prosperous family, or a family of yogis. There the soul regains the mental impressions that had been developed in its previous life, and with this as a starting point, strives again for perfection. p. 14-15
  • In the Zen tradition, to die is nothing special. In her foreword to Helen Tworkov's Zen in America, Natalie Goldberg tells a marvelous story which exemplifies the calm attitude of a great Zen master when facing the imminent prospect of death: When a rebel army took over a Korean town, all fled the Zen temple except the abbot. The rebel general burst into the temple, and was incensed to find that the master refused to greet him, let alone receive him as a conqueror. Don't you know," shouted the general, "that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?" "And you" said the abbot, "are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye!" The general's scowl turned into a smile. He bowed low and left the temple. p. 17-18
  • In his contemporary masterpiece, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche tells us that at the moment of death "the ordinary mind and its delusions die, and in that gap the boundless sky-like nature of our mind is uncovered. This essential nature of mind is the background to the whole of life and death, like the sky, which folds the whole universe in its embrace." As we see in some of the stories that follow, deaths of Tibetan masters are often accompanied by miraculous signs and portentous omens, such as rainbows, divine music or fragrance, flowers showering down from the sky, and earthquakes. p. 19
  • When an elder Buddhist master asked a group of meditators, "What survives when an enlightened being dies?" a man in the group replied, "When an enlightened being dies, nothing remains." The Master smiled and replied to the surprise of those assembled; "No. The truth remains." p.27
  • Neem Karoli Baba, also known as Maharaji, spent what was to be his final day at his ashram at Kainchi immersed in meeting his devotees, chanting, and prayer. Twice he put one of his Indian devotees into samadhi and brought him out of it by throwing his blanket over the man's head. At one point he said to those gathered, "He is your guru. He is young and I am old. He will live and I will die!" Maharaji hinted that he was leaving for several days and later announced: "Today, I am released from Central Jail forever." p. 28
  • When death finally comes you will welcome it like an
    old friend, being aware of how dreamlike
    and impermanent the phenomenal world really is.

    Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
  • Hakuin Ekaku, revered as one of the greatest teachers and artists in the history of Japanese Zen, lived in semiretirement for the last three years of his life. In the winter of 1768, he was examined by a doctor, who, as he felt Hakuin's pulse, remarked, "Everything seems all right." Hakuin grumbled back, "Some doctor. He can't see that in three days I'll be gone." At dawn on December 11, Hakuin awoke from a peaceful sleep, let loose a terrific shout, rolled over on his right side, and died. After his cremation, Hakuin's ashes were said to be the lustrous color of coral and as fragrant as spice. His final piece of calligraphy was his life statement: a giant character for "midst," with the inscription, "Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness." p. 32
Never forget how swiftly this life will be over—like a flash of summer lightning or the wave of a hand. Now that you have the opportunity to practice the Dharma, do not waste a single moment on anything else, but with all your energy and effort practice the Dharma.
  • Sensing that death was near. Master Kazan called everyone into the Buddha Hall and ascended the lecture seat. First he held his left hand open for several minutes. No one understood, so he told the monks from the eastern side of the monastery to leave. Then he held his right hand open. Still no one understood, so he told the monks from the western side of the monastery to leave. Only the laymen remained. He said to them: "If any of you really want to show gratitude to Buddha for his compassion to you, spare no efforts in spreading the Dharma. Now, get out! Get out of here!" Then, laughing loudly, the master fell over dead. p. 41
  • In 1947 Ramana Maharshi's health began to fail. When the doctors suggested amputating his arm above a cancerous tumor, Ramana replied with a smile: There is no need for alarm. The body is itself a disease. Let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it? A simple dressing on the affected part will do.... The sage, supremely indifferent to suffering, was quite unconcerned. He sat as a spectator watching the disease waste the body; his eyes shone as bright as ever, and his grace flowed toward all beings. Ramana insisted that the crowds who came in large numbers should be allowed to have his darshan [sight of a holy being]. The devotees profoundly wished that the sage would cure his body by using the supernormal powers. Ramana had compassion for those who grieved over the suffering, and he sought to comfort them by reminding them of the truth that Bhagavan was not the body. They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent that Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away, but where can he go and how?... The end came on April 14, 8:47 pm his breathing stopped. There was no struggle, no spasm, none of the signs of death. At that very moment, a comet moved slowly across the sky, passed over the summit of the holy hill, Arunacala, and disappeared behind it. p. 56
  • Shortly after returning to Bhutan, Khyentse Rinpoche again showed signs of illness, and for twelve days was almost completely unable to eat or drink. Four days before passing away, he wrote on a piece of paper: "I shall go on the nineteenth." Two days later his closest disciple and spiritual friend, Trulshik Rinpoche, arrived from Nepal and they had a happy meeting. The day after... the nineteenth of the Tibetan month... at nightfall, he asked his attendants to help him sit in an upright position and went into a peaceful sleep. In the early hours of the morning his breathing ceased and his mind dissolved in the absolute expanse.... As with other masters, his death was his last teaching, the teaching on impermanence:
    Never forget how swiftly this life will be over—like a flash of summer lightning or the wave of a hand. Now that you have the opportunity to practice the Dharma, do not waste a single moment on anything else, but with all your energy and effort practice the Dharma. p. 106
  • When the Taoist sage Lai was on the verge of death, another sage asked him, "Great is the Maker of Things! What will become of you now? Where will he send you?" Lai replied, A child who obeys his father and mother will go wherever they tell him to go—east, west, south, or north. Yin and yang, the elements of nature, are they not to a man like father and mother? If I were not to obey them now that they have brought me to the point of death, how wayward I should be. They are not to be blamed. The great earth burdens me with a body, forces upon me the toil of life, eases me in old age, and calms me in death. If life is good, death is good also. If an ironsmith were casting metal and the metal were to jump up and say, 'Make me into the best of all swords!' the ironsmith would regard it as a bad omen. Now that my human form is decomposing, were I to say: I want to be a man! Nothing but a man!' the Maker of Things would think me most unworthy. Heaven and earth are a great forge and the Maker of Things is a master ironsmith. Can the place he is sending me to be the wrong place?" p. 142

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