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The Art of Dying
By S.N. Goenka, Virginia Hamilton
Pariyatti PublishingCopyright © 2014 Ontario Vipassana Foundation
All rights reserved.
My Mother's Death in Dhamma
In 1985 a student asked Goenkaji whether it is possible to feel sensations at the time of death. In reply, he related the following story about his adoptive mother's death (previously published in the April 1992 issue of the Vipassana Newsletter).
I am one of six sons. I was adopted at a young age by my uncle and aunt, Mr. Dwarkadas and Mrs. Ramidevi Goenka, who at the time had six daughters but no son.
My adoptive mother was a devoted student of my teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. She made great progress in her years of practicing Vipassana under Sayagyi's guidance, and Sayagyi was quite fond of her. As far as is known, she was the only student of Sayagyi to die in his presence.
In 1967, when my mother was about 70 years old, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of liver cancer. We in the family did not know how long she had suffered because she never complained. It was only a week before her death that she casually spoke about some pain in the area of her liver. When her daughter-in-law (my wife, Mrs. Goenka) asked her to describe the pain, she replied, "Well, the pain is similar to what a mother suffers when she gives birth — except this has no break."
By then she had been meditating very seriously for seven years. She went to the meditation center every time there was a course, whether for 10 days, one month, or any other period. Her bag was always packed. She also did self-courses at home. Although she came from a devout Hindu background, she was no longer interested in rites and rituals; she had left them behind.
From the time she was diagnosed with cancer until she died seven days later, she would not allow anyone to talk to her about her disease. She gave strict orders that only Vipassana meditators were to come into her room, and then only to meditate. They could meditate for a half hour, an hour or many hours, and then were to leave quietly.
In our Hindu community it was customary for the friends of a dying person to come to the house to pay respects. My mother was very popular and she had many people wishing to visit her in her final illness. For those who were not meditators, she gave instructions that they were welcome to visit but not come into her room. They could sit quietly outside her door.
My mother was not interested in receiving treatment, but as her son it was my duty to arrange it for her. Every day our family doctor and a specialist visited her. When they questioned her about her pain she said, "Yes, there is pain. So what? Anissa, anissa (the Burmese pronunciation of the Pali word anicca — impermanence)." She attached no importance to it.
One morning the specialist was concerned that the pain of the cancer might be interfering with her sleep. When he asked, "Did you sleep soundly last night?" she answered, "No, I had no sleep." He wrote a prescription for some sleeping pills that she took that night. The next day the doctor came and asked if she had slept, and she replied, "No." Again on the third day he asked, and again she responded, "No."
Even though she did not complain, the doctor was worried that she was not sleeping because she was suffering so much. Not knowing, because of drug shortages, which particular medicine would be available, he wrote prescriptions for three different strong sleeping pills intending that only one pill be purchased. However, all three were available and bought, and by mistake she was given a triple dose. Once more the next morning she reported that, although her eyelids had become heavy, she had not slept all night.
It then occurred to me that the doctor did not understand. To a Vipassana meditator sleep is unimportant, especially on one's deathbed. Despite sedation, my mother's strong determination had kept her alert. She had been practicing Vipassana every moment. I explained to the doctor that sleeping pills would not help, but he couldn't comprehend. He said, "I have given her this strong medicine and even it does not help her sleep. That must mean that she is in great pain." "It's not the pain," I replied. "It is Vipassana that is keeping her awake, aware of her sensations."
As we came out of her room he remarked, "There is something special about your mother. A woman of the same age in a neighboring house also has liver cancer. She is in great misery and cries out in pain. We feel so sorry to see her in this wretched condition, but cannot console her. And here is your mother who, when we come, just smiles."
The night she died, some family members were meditating with her. About 11 pm she said to us, "It's late. All of you go to sleep now." About midnight the nurse who was on duty noticed that there was no pulse in her wrists. She became worried and, thinking death was near, asked, "May I awaken your children?" "No, no," my mother answered. "My time has not yet come. When it does, I will tell you." At 3 am she told the nurse, "Now is the time. Awaken all the family members. I have to go now."
And so we were all awakened. We came and discovered there was no pulse in many parts of her body. We telephoned Sayagyi and the family doctor, who both came quickly. When the doctor arrived, he said she had only a few minutes left.
Sayagyi arrived shortly thereafter. My mother was lying on her back. There was no pulse in her wrists, as in death, but as soon as she saw her teacher she found the strength to raise her hands and fold them together, paying respect to him.
About five minutes before she died she looked at me and said, "I want to sit." I turned to the doctor who advised, "No, in a few minutes she is going to die; let her die peacefully. If you move her, her death will be painful. She is already suffering; leave her." She heard what he said but again told me, "No, let me sit." I thought, "This is her last wish. She doesn't care about the pain, so what the doctor says is unimportant. I must help her sit."
I placed some pillows at her back. With a jerk she sat erect in a meditation position with folded legs and looked at all of us. I asked her, "Do you feel sensations? Do you feel anissa?" She raised her hand and touched the top of her head. "Yes, yes, anissa." She smiled ... and in half a minute she died. In life her face was always aglow. In death, too, there was a radiant glow on her face.
— S.N. Goenka
Soon after his mother's death Goenkaji left Burma to bring the teaching of the Buddha back to India, the land of Buddha's birth. From India, with the help of thousands of Goenkaji's students, it has spread around the world.
Yoga ve jayati bhuri,
Etam dvedhapatham ñatva,
bhavaya vibhavaya ca;
yatha bhuri pavaddhati.
Truly, from meditation wisdom arises;
Without meditation wisdom vanishes.
Knowing this branching path leading to gain or loss,
One should conduct oneself so that wisdom may increase.
— Dhammapada 20.282CHAPTER 2
The Buddha's Wisdom
The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths, applicable to everyone. The First Noble Truth states that inherent in all things are the seeds of dissatisfaction that inevitably lead to suffering, both mental and physical.
This is so, the Buddha realized, because everything in the universe is changing, in a state of constant flux, impermanent and insubstantial. Nothing remains the same even for a moment.
On some personal level we, too, recognize this: a sense that everything is not right, that something is missing, or might be impossible to keep if acquired. Circumstances change; what we previously wanted no longer matters. Control is erratic, if not illusory. Fleeting pleasures give no lasting satisfaction; genuine fulfillment seems remote, elusive and ephemeral — beyond our grasp.
This insecurity impels us to search for something constant, dependable and secure — something pleasant that will guarantee permanent happiness. However, since everything is in perpetual flux, the quest is fundamentally futile. This fact of incessant craving for satisfaction is the Second Noble Truth.
Through his supreme efforts, the Buddha realized the Third Noble Truth: there can be an end to the suffering we experience in life.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path, the way that leads to real peace and real liberation. This Path has three divisions: sila (morality), samadhi (concentration, or mastery over the mind), and pañña (wisdom, or purification of mind).
Morality is a training to refrain from actions — mental, verbal and physical — that might harm others or ourselves. Making effort to live a wholesome life is a necessary base for learning to control the mind. The second division of the Path is development of concentration, a deeper training to calm the mind and train it to remain one-pointed. The third division, the acquisition of wisdom, is achieved through Vipassana meditation, the technique the Buddha discovered to completely eradicate the conditioning and habit patterns that reinforce our unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
The Buddha said that purification of mind is a long path, one that can take many lifetimes to complete. He taught that we have lived through an incalculable number of lives, cycles upon cycles of life and death — some full of bliss, some tormented, all laced with good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, all lived in reactive blindness to the reality within.
If we are fortunate enough to hear about Vipassana, if we are ready to learn, to make changes in our lives, we might take the practice to heart and begin to dismantle these patterns of reaction conditioned by ignorance. We notice that we seem happier and more stable, less reactive and more tolerant of others. We want to learn more. We begin to share the Dhamma with others. But common questions persist: How will I be at death? Will I be serene? Will I be strong enough to face death peacefully?
Death, the inevitable ending of life, is feared by nearly all. It is often mired in pain and suffering, of both body and mind. Yet the Buddha taught that death is a pivotal moment on the path to freedom from suffering.
At the moment of death a very strong sankhara (mental conditioning) will arise in the conscious mind. This sankhara generates the necessary impetus for new consciousness to arise in the next life, a consciousness bearing the qualities of this sankhara. If the sankhara is characterized by unhappiness or negativity, the new consciousness will arise in similar negativity and unhappiness. If, on the other hand, it is replete with virtue and contentment, then this rebirth is likely to be wholesome and happy.
Developing a balanced moment-to-moment awareness of the impermanence of physical sensations in our daily lives, even in the most difficult situations, also creates very deep sankharas — positive ones. If the sankhara of awareness with the understanding of anicca (the constantly changing nature of all things) is strengthened and developed, then this sankhara will arise at death to give a positive push into the next life. The mental forces at the instant of death will carry us, as Goenkaji says, "magnetically," into a next life in which Vipassana can continue to be practiced.
Walking on the Eightfold Noble Path is an art of living. Living a life in Dhamma — a life of virtue, awareness, and equanimity — not only enhances our daily existence, it also prepares us for the moment of death and for the next life. A calm awareness of anicca at death is a telling measure of progress in mastering the art of living, of progress on the path of peace, the path to nibbana.
Ao logom jagata ke,
calem Dharama ke pantha.
Isa patha calate satpurusha,
isa patha calate santa.
Dharma pantha hi shanti patha.
Dharma pantha sukha pantha.
Jisane paya Dharma patha,
mangala mila ananta.
calen Dharama ke pantha.
Kadama-kadama calate hue,
karen dukhon ka anta.
Come, people of the world!
Let us walk the path of Dhamma.
On this path walk holy ones;
on this path walk saints.
The path of Dhamma is the path of peace;
the path of Dhamma is the path of happiness.
Whoever attains the path of Dhamma
gains endless happiness.
Come, men and women!
Let us walk the path of Dhamma.
Walking step by step,
let us make an end of suffering.
— Hindi dohas from Come People of the World, S.N. Goenka
Yathapi vata akase vayanti vividha puthu;
Puratthima pacchima capi, uttara atha dakkhina.
Saraja araja capi, sita unha ca ekada;
Adhimatta paritta ca, puthu vayanti maluta.
Tathevimasmim kayasmim samuppajjanti vedana;
Sukhadukkhasamuppatti, adukkhamasukha ca ya.
Yato ca bhikkhu atapi, sampajaññam na riñcati;
Tato so vedana sabba, parijanati pandito.
So vedana pariññaya ditthe dhamme anasavo;
Kayassa bheda dhammattho, sankhyam nopeti vedagu.
Through the sky blow many different winds,
from east and west, from north and south,
dust-laden and dustless, cold as well as hot,
fierce gales and gentle breezes — many winds blow.
In the same way, in this body, sensations arise,
pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral.
When a meditator, practicing ardently,
does not neglect the faculty of thorough understanding,
then such a wise person fully comprehends all sensations,
and having fully comprehended them,
within this very life becomes freed from all impurities.
At life's end, such a person, being established
in Dhamma and understanding sensations perfectly,
attains the indescribable stage.
— Pathama-akasa Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 1.260
Ahankara hi janma ka,
jara mrityu ka mula.
Ahankara mite bina,
mite na bhava-bhaya shula.
Self-centeredness is the root
of birth, decay and death.
Unless ego is removed,
the torment and fear of becoming will not end.
— Hindi doha, S.N. GoenkaCHAPTER 3
As It Was / As It Is
On June 27, 1986, assistant teacher of Vipassana Graham Gambie died after a short illness.
Graham was among the earliest Western students of S.N. Goenka. After his first Vipassana course at Bodhgaya in 1971, Graham remained in India. From the time Dhamma Giri was purchased in November 1974, he lived, served and meditated there for the next five years. He was one of the first assistant teachers appointed by Goenkaji and, after returning to Australia in 1979, he worked tirelessly to help develop Dhamma Bhumi, the first Vipassana center "down under."
Graham was known to meditators around the world, many of whom he inspired with his Dhamma insight and enthusiasm. What follows is a brief memoir by Graham about his growth in Dhamma.
The thought arises that nearly twelve years have now gone past since my first tremulous arrival in India. Twelve years. Difficult to understand how it all happened or even what actually happened — but one thing is certain, and that is that it did happen. Twelve years.
Who was that person who arrived, driven out of his sanity by all the horrors of Western life and by his own loveless existence as well, with so many disappointments, with so many failed romances, with such a high opinion of himself, and with such a monstrous collection of memories and fears? What happened to that ape-like ancestor? The question often arises. It does not seem possible that he disappeared. That would be too much to hope for. It seems more likely that he never existed at all beyond the bundle of miseries and false hopes. What actually disappeared were the sufferings of yesterday, and what remains are the sufferings of today: the decay into middle age, the inability to adjust to reality, the shoddy burden of failed ambitions, the passions, the talkativeness.
But over the years has it become any easier to accept the anonymous nature of these miseries — to see that the present person is as unreal as his ludicrous predecessor? Oh no. Who gives in willingly to his own ego death? Who gives up the ghost smilingly, without a struggle? Perhaps that is why there is so little love in the world. All we know are those two phantoms, "You" and "I," and not the dissolution of both, which is love.
Excerpted from The Art of Dying by S.N. Goenka, Virginia Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 Ontario Vipassana Foundation. Excerpted by permission of Pariyatti Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
About S.N. Goenka,
The Passing of the Day,
About This Book,
About Vipassana Meditation,
My Mother's Death in Dhamma - S.N. Goenka,
The Buddha's Wisdom,
As It Was / As It Is - Graham Gambie,
Graham's Death - Anne Doneman,
What Happens at Death - S.N. Goenka,
Patticca Samuppada — The Law of Dependent,
Origination - S.N. Goenka,
Tara Jadhav: An Exemplary Death - S.N. Goenka,
Questions to Goenkaji I Supporting Loved Ones at the Time of Death,
Susan Babbitt: Only the Present Moment - Virginia Hamilton,
Kamma — The Real Inheritance - S.N. Goenka,
Rodney Bernier: Smiling All the Way to Death - Evie Chauncey,
Questions to Goenkaji II Preparing for Our Own Deaths,
Ratilal Mehta: A Life and Death in Dhamma - Vipassana Newsletter,
Parvathamma Adaviappa: Equanimity in the Face of Terminal Illness - S. Adaviappa,
The Flood of Tears - C.A.F. Rhys Davids,
The Deaths of Our Children,
An Invaluable Gift - Gabriela Ionita,
Undying Gratitude — John Wolford and Laurie Campbell,
Work Out Your Own Salvation - S.N. Goenka,
Hiding from the Wisdom of Anicca,
Ambapali's Verses - Amadeo Solé-Leris,
Questions to Goenkaji III Ethical Questions in the Age of Modern Medicine,
Terrell Jones: Facing Death Head-on - Virginia Hamilton,
70 Years Are Over - S.N. Goenka,
The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation - S.N. Goenka,
The Practice of Metta Bhavana in Vipassana Meditation - S.N. Goenka,