The Art of Dying
S. N. Goenka
Virginia Hamilton, Editor
This dying business is no simple routine. One doesn't just lie down, close your eyes, open your mouth, and gasp out your all. Preparation is the order of the day. Or as Krishnamurti once said, we spend our lives in anticipation of death ... and the moment it finally arrives, we must then forget all we have thought (or thought we had learned) about it.
The Art of Dying is three books on the subject of death and dying. First, it is a memento mori to the guru Satya Narayan Goenka who died in the fall of 2013, at his home in Mumbai. He was ninety years old, had "served half of his life as a teacher of Vipassana meditation." Vipassana teaches the importance of three things: learning to do no harm, experiencing the art of meditation by counting the breath, and figuring out --- finally --- that death does not exist. I mean, it's there, and it's an event, but it's one that disappears as soon as it appears.
Thus we have here the impermanence of life; and equally important, the impermanence of death. As Goenka wrote, life is a continual flow of becoming, and it reaches its end much as a train coming to its destination. "It reaches the station of death and, after slightly decreasing speed for a moment, carries on again with the same speed as before."
It does not stop in the station even for an instant. For one who is not an arahant [liberated], the station of death is not a terminus but a junction where 31 different tracks diverge. The train, as soon as it arrives at the station, shifts onto one of another of these tracks and continues.
"This speeding train of becoming, running on the electricity of the kammi --- karmatic --- reactions to past deeds, keeps us traveling from one station to the next, on one track or the other --- a continuous journey that goes on without ceasing." Thus you die and, within an instant, have come back to life in the form of yet another being.
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The initial teachings of the Buddha are the groundwork of Vipassana, but one is always free to think of the four noble truths in more relevant terms. For instance, as one of my friends would have it, Life is, essentially, a Royal Pain in the Ass. This Royal Pain comes about because of the mad-making routine that drives most of us for most of our lives: we are either trying to capture those things we crave (love, passion, riches, health, glamour, power); and, at the same time, we are trying to shove away things that give us misery (hateful objects, old age, sickness, weakness, powerlessness, the uglies). It's a never-ending merry-go-round, although it ain't very merry.
The divergence of Vipassana from other Buddha belief systems comes from its emphasis on the impermanence of everything (anicca), the non-existence of self (anatta), and the unsatisfactoriness of all (dukkha). Once we get to the truth of these three, we can begin on the road to nibbana. Goenka wrote,
In practicing Vipassana the present is most important. Here in the present life, we keep generating sankharas --- mental habits or traps --- and thus continue to make ourselves miserable. One must break this habit to get the hell out of misery. If you practice, regularly, and certainly, a day will come when you will be able to say that you have eradicated all the old sankharas, have stopped generating any new ones and so have freed yourself from all this crazy (and useless) suffering.
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The last third of this book is given over to nine testimonials from various people who have lived through the terminal stages of cancer by practicing Vipassana meditation each and every day. Their stories have various hopeful titles like "Undying Gratitude," "Equanimity in the Face of Terminal Illness," and "Facing Death Head-on." This last tells of Terrell Jones, and his wife of thirty years, Diane. In interview, he says "The way Diane and I are dealing with it [his cancer] is actually --- we are very happy. Crazy as it sounds, we've found the cancer to be a gift because it has shown us so much that we were previously unaware of in our day-to-day life."
In this experience we're having with death right now, I can't exactly say ... I can't really say in words what isn't there any more. Whatever it was that used to make me react with fear to the thought of dying is no longer there. I can't explain it, except that somehow all the years of meditation have eliminated that, have cut the problem off at the root. It's wonderful.
An even more extreme case is that of Susan Babbitt, a professor at Queen's University in Ontario. She was diagnosed with "an aggressive form of cancer" in August 2003, and later, with a tumor near her heart. She had several surgeries, being treated while she was continuing to teach and practice Vipassana. She reported, "I found that I was living my life without watching myself live my life, without telling myself mental stories about how and why I was living my life."
I just watched these feelings, and after a long time I felt somehow comforted, for what I was seeing and accepting at that moment was just the nature of our human reality --- utter insecurity and aloneness, with nothing to hang onto but the present moment.
"I had a sense of freedom and peace that night, feeling that I was then at the real center of my life, fully in touch with the entirely uncertain reality of my existence."
Thus, there is throughout The Art of Dying the knowledge that here we are on the front lines, going through it with those who are going through it ... intimately involved in the dance of death, thrown on whatever resources one can muster in order to make it through to the other side without falling in the usual traps.
I mean, if it were me, and I had one of those brain tumors they talk about here, I'd be there quick as a fox to commit suicide the easy way: being fitted with one of those auto-narcotic injection kits that let me slip out from under my pain every hour on the hour with a big fat juicy shot of morphine ... to carry me over to the last moments with a simple, easy, chicken-shit methodology given the imprimatur of universal approval by the American Medical Association --- helping me to bow out of this vale of tears with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart in the easy arms of Morpheus. One of those decidedly unheroic, pain-free deaths on demand, so beloved of 21st Century Americans.
I will admit without caveat that the alternative chosen by Babbitt, Jones, and the others interviewed on these pages is far more brave, and it's not for me to decide whether or not they are fooling themselves, because, in the final main: judgment just doesn't work here. What they have chosen to do is to follow an honorable and ultimately brave path out. It even may one that would be ridiculed by the majority of your card-carrying, cross-bearing Christians as "heathen," "pagan" or worse ... but for some of us, I think it is the ultimate sign of humility and inner joy.
Because what the nine interviewed here are doing is to look at a most painful death squarely in the eye and saying to it screw you, buddy. It's my body, it may be in extremis --- but since I choose to look at it as nothing more than an off-shoot of my ego, perhaps evan a delusion of all egos, since I choose to see it as such, I'll forge ahead, meditating deeply, just take this pain in hand and see it for what it truly is: that is, nothing more than a manifestation of a lesser part of me, that part of me that's lousy with delusion.
As I say, these nine have chosen an extremely brave path to follow, and this book is a proper tribute to them and their belief that there are better --- far better --- ways to get to that land out from which, as we know, few if any have ever returned.--- Richard Saturday