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LOVING AND DYING
Published for free distribution
Malaysian Buddhist Meditation Centre
355 Jalan Mesjid Negeri
11600 Penang, Malaysia
I have written this book to share some thoughts on death with anybody who may care to read it. Thoughts about how we can go about facing death - with courage and equanimity. With dignity. And if you like with a smile. Thoughts about how to cope with suffering, to live with wisdom and compassion, or with as much of it as we can muster, until we die.
But people generally do not like to talk about death. Whenever the subject is broached, they might start to feel uncomfortable. It is especially considered taboo on auspicious occasions such as a birthday or a New Year to talk about death. It is as if mentioning the word, death, on an auspicious occasion would mar that occasion and bring about bad luck or an earlier death! Of course, I do not agree with such notions. To me, it is just a superstition. I can understand, though, if people were to consider it bad taste to talk about death on auspicious occasions. But I think it is good and wise to reflect often on death and even on occasions such as a birthday or New Year, perhaps even more so on such occasions. Why? Because we can consider that we are not growing any younger but older, that each year brings us but one year closer to the grave. During such reflections we can take stock of our life, reassess our position and see whether we are going in the right direction - the direction of wisdom and compassion.
As a monk, I constantly meditate on death. It reminds me to lead a more meaningful life, not to waste my days away, though I must confess I still fritter away precious time from time to time; for the mind, as you know, can be very stubborn and lazy at times. Nevertheless by frequent contemplation on death, I am reminded that I must find more time to practise insight meditation so I can clean my mind of the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion.
The Buddha advised us to contemplate often on death, as often as daily or every now and then. It will arouse in us samvega - the sense of urgency to strive harder to eradicate the suffering that comes from a defiled mind and deluded mind. I like to talk about death. It's my favourite subject. (Am I morbid? It's all right. Go ahead. You can say I'm morbid and whatever you like. It's fine with me. I don't mind. People i.e. not only me but also you, must be allowed their basic human right to express their views and feelings as long as they do so in a legitimate, sensitive, non-imposing and non-violent way. No one should get angry with a person on account of his expressing his views in such manner, though unfortunately, sometimes we forget and get all heated up.) But coming back to the subject, I have always pondered, I have always wondered and am still wondering: "Why do we live? Why do we die? What is it all about? What is it all for? To what purpose? For what end?"
Many answers have been proffered, no doubt. And I'm sure there are many people who would be happy to offer me answers to these questions that have been asked ever since man began to think and ponder. But I cannot say I have been satisfied with all the answers that have been given. I am still seeking. These days I have become a Buddhist monk and taken up meditation. I subscribe to the Buddha's five precepts of not killing or harming, not stealing or cheating, not committing sexual misconduct such as adultery, not lying, and not taking alcohol and drugs. As a monk though I observe, in addition, celibacy and other rules for monks.
I cannot say I have as yet found all the answers to my questions, but I have found some solace, some comfort in the Buddha's dispensation. I can relate to the Buddha's teaching of mindfulness and loving-kindness. And I'm still meditating. Perhaps I might find all the answers one day. It will be nice if I can. But if I could not, it also doesn't matter. What matters is that I have tried. I will be glad even if I were to die trying. For at least I have tried. That way my life would still be meaningful, at least to a certain extent. And along the way, of course, I will try to spread as much good cheer and happiness according to my disposition and ability.
I have tried in this book to share my limited understanding of life and death. I feel that we need to discuss the question of death frankly. We should not be afraid to bring up the subject. Otherwise, how can we discuss and learn? When we can openly discuss and learn and understand, then it is good; for we can come to terms with death. We can know better how to deal with it. This is important; for the simple reason that all of us must die. There is no escape. And if we cannot relate to death now, how can we relate to it when we are lying on our deathbed, about to breathe our last? Might we not be overcome with fear and confusion then? So it's better to learn all about death now. It will surely stand us in good stead. Then we need not fear anymore. We'll have confidence, and when death comes we can go with a smile. We can say: "Death, do your worst. I know you and I can smile."
I have written this book in a forthright and engaging a manner as possible. I have tried not to be too academic or stilted. I wanted you to enjoy reading this book, to chuckle over those parts that might elicit a chuckle, and to pick up a thing or two which you might find helpful in living, loving and dying. Also I have written not so much as from a monk to a layperson but as from one human being to another human being. So I have written quite freely with the purpose of communicating, of reaching out to the heart. Though I cannot say how far I have succeeded or flopped! Only you will be the best judge of that.
As I'm a Buddhist monk, readers will find that the contents contain a lot of Buddhist values and concepts. Of course, some values, such as that of love and compassion, are universal. They belong to no one religion but to all. All religions teach love and compassion. They are all good religions. But it's we, the followers, who do not follow. So we kill and maim and hurt in the name of religion. Who's to be blamed but ourselves! Not the religions or their founders who always preached love, wisdom, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. If we can awaken to our ignorance, then we can love truly. We can live as brothers and sisters with tolerance, patience and understanding, with love and compassion.
I wrote this book mainly for Buddhists. But non-Buddhists too might read and find some benefit, some common areas of agreement, appreciation and understanding. At the very least, they would know the Buddhist point of view, the Buddhist approach and understanding. It's good to know each other's viewpoints; it leads to more tolerance, understanding and appreciation of each other's approaches and beliefs. There is no desire on my part at all to convert anybody. That should be very clear. Let everybody practise their own religion and let them do so well; for as has been well put by Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, compassion is, after all, the essence of all religions.
I have tried to share my understanding to the best of my ability. But I have no doubt that there will be some shortcomings here and there. Or some areas where there may be differences of interpretation or understanding. You may not like or agree with certain things I say. Or you may not like the way I put it. You might think it is improper, flippant, insensitive, sentimental, abrasive, distorted, absurd, or whatever. It is all right. This is natural. As long as there are even two persons, there will be some disagreements. You can just reject those things you do not agree with, throw them out, so to speak. You need not have to accept everything I say. Why should you? Of course you have a good mind of your own, and you can (and must) think and decide for yourself. We can agree to disagree, without getting upset or angry. We can agree to disagree and still remain good friends. Can we not? That is the most wonderful thing, the quintessence of mental maturity. It is for each of us to decide sincerely and honestly for ourselves what we can relate to and what we cannot. We need not believe everything or anything.
The Buddha himself said it's better that we carefully consider, investigate and verify for ourselves before accepting anything. Even the Buddha's own words too should come under the same intensity of scrutiny. After all, the Buddha made no exception whatsoever. He never believed in blind faith. He never told us to simply believe what he said and to simply reject what others said. But he told us to investigate, practise and verify for ourselves. If we find that a certain teaching is good, that it is wholesome and leads to the eradication of greed, hatred and delusion, then we can accept it. If not, we should reject it. It's excellent advice. And, therefore, taking a cue from the Buddha, I always like to say: Believe nothing. But I think, practise and verify for yourself. That's to me the best and safest approach. But as for any mistakes on my part in the writing of this book, I do apologise and ask for forgiveness.
May all beings be happy. May we all find the wisdom and happiness that we seek, each in our own way. And happy reading!
HELLO DEATH GOODBYE LIFE
One day when I die, as I must, I'd like to die with a smile on my lips. I'd like to go peacefully, to greet death like a friend, to be able to say quite cheerfully: "Hello Death, Goodbye Life."
I can imagine myself having a conversation with death. Perhaps it might go this way: "Hello Death! How are you? I have been waiting for you a long time. All my life I have been anticipating you. Are you coming for me at long last? Is it time for me to go already?
"Yes, yes, Death I am coming. Be patient. I'm ready. Can't you see I am smiling? Since a long time ago I have been planning to welcome you with a smile. Yes, Death, I understand. You don't have to apologise. I know you've got a job to do. I hold nothing against you. No hard feelings. It's nothing personal, I understand.
"As I have said, Death, all my life I have been waiting for this moment. To see whether I can meet you with a smile. To see whether I could, at least, inspire in death, if not in life. You are now giving me this opportunity and I thank you for it.
"Yes, I have heard a lot about you. That you wait for no man. That you come like a thief in the night. That you'll bargain with nobody. That you'll not take no for an answer.
"Death, it's all right. I'll come with you gladly. I'm tired. This body is like a broken shell. It had seen better days. It has outlived its use and time. As you can see I'm already almost dead. And I have been enduring all this pain, trying to smile at all these many visitors calling on me. Death, to tell you the truth, you should have come earlier. After all the pain, you are a welcome respite, like a godsend. But enough of this talk. Death, let's not dally. Let's go. Come, hold my hand."
And I'd go, as I have always dreamt, with a smile on my lips. What a beautiful way to die! All the people who have gathered around me need not cry. They can be happy because they can see I'm smiling. They'll know that I'm all right. Death is nothing to be afraid of. Treat death like a friend. Be ever ready to say hello to death and goodbye to life.
Of course no one is spared from death. All of us have to die. As the Buddha said: "Life is uncertain but death is certain". While we live we suffer the separation that comes with the death of a loved one. Both my grandparents have died. I do not remember my grandfather. He died when I was very young. But I do remember my grandmother. She was very kind to me. She was also very poor. She preferred to live in the countryside while my parents resided in town. I remember once when she visited us, I asked her for five cents. She immediately took out her purse, dug out five cents and gave it to me. In those days, there was purchasing power even in five cents: you could get an ice-ball or a glass of iced drink with five cents. If you drink the coconut water served by the Indian man you could even have two glasses for five cents! And for five cents too you could get five sweets.
My father died when I was 10. I remember visiting him for the last time one night at the General Hospital as he lay there dying from tuberculosis and other complications. I remember my mother telling him: "Ah Beh, this is your son Johnny come to see you." My father couldn't speak. He had an oxygen tube inserted in his nose. He seemed to look at me weakly. I was young. I didn't know what death was about then, though I know better now. My poor mother suffered the most. She had seen so many deaths and had a most difficult life from young. Definitely, life was no bed of roses for her.
One of my brothers died while still a baby. Another died at 23 together with his fiancee. It was tragic. They drowned. I can still remember seeing their bodies in the mortuary. My mother was wailing her heart out. It was very painful for her to lose a beloved son in such a tragic way. I was quite stunned and just didn't know what to make out of it all. I was 16 then. I tried to appear nonchalant, casual. I kept away the tears. I spoke and behaved as if nothing had happened, as if death was to me an everyday affair, and there was no need to grieve. I made light of it, trying to put on a cool exterior.
But in private I cried. I cried bitterly. And after the funeral I went back to the cemetery. I cycled there with a cangkul. I dug the ground and planted flowers around the grave of my brother and his beloved's. I carved on his wooden cross the words: "Greater love than this no man hath that he should lay down his life for his friend", as he had died while trying to save his fiancee. And I spoke to God. I asked Him: "Lord, why do you do this to me? Why do you take away my brother? Is it your will, your desire? Then if it is, let your will be done. I accept it." For you see, I was a good Christian then. And God's will must precede all others. It must not be questioned. Though as a Buddhist now, I believe I understand a little better. Yes, no God took away my brother. If we accept life we must accept death. Death is part and parcel of life. As the Buddha said, it is ignorance that makes the world of suffering go round, and we fare on from life to life according to our deeds. Good begets good and bad begets bad. I must confess I can relate better to the Buddha's way of looking at things.
Later in life I saw more deaths. As a journalist, I had seen bodies - people who died from accidents, gang-fights, suicides, samsu poisoning, etc. I wrote dramatic, touching or tragic stories about how people died. There was the man who kissed his little daughter goodbye and then shot himself in the head. Then there was a young couple who was found in a suicide pact on a hotel bed. The girl died from the poison they took; her boyfriend survived. And there was the notorious robber gunned down by police on a New Year's day. He was a marked man, who could not live to see the end of the first day of a new year. But for me it was just another story. I never thought very deeply about death then. I was quite numbed by it all. All I wanted was to get the best story for the front page of the newspaper. There was little feeling or compassion in me for the poor victims. I was quite a hard-hearted and selfish person then, just interested in my own well-being.
Still much later on, as a monk, I encountered deaths - this time with more feeling and compassion. When I visited the sick, I could feel sympathy for them. I tried as best as I could to console. To the Buddhists, I recited the suttas, the Buddhist scriptures. I told them what the Buddha said: "The body may be sick but let not the mind be sick." We may not be able to do much for the body but we can do something about the mind. We can keep it steady even when we are sick. We can be mindful. We can watch the rise and fall of the pain, how it comes and goes in waves. We can understand the nature of suffering. We can meet it and learn from it. It is there as a test - of how well we have understood the nature of life, how well we have understood that there is no permanent self here but only constant change of arising and passing away, like the ceaseless flowing of a river; how well we have understood that it is our ignorance, craving, attachment, anger, fear, etc, that are the cause of our suffering.
In that understanding, we can rise up to meet the pain. We can take it in our stride. We can remain calm and cool. Without even the slightest bit of depression. Yes, we can smile, even at our pain. We can say: "Hey pain, you are really trying to do me in. Are you not? Another person might succumb to you but not me. I have been training and steeling myself for you. The Buddha teaches that I should respond without anger or aversion. So I'm trying to respond to you now without anger or aversion. I understand that with mindfulness and peace in my heart, I can rise above you. I can smile at you. You teach me that life is suffering. But you also teach me that I can rise above you." And you can smile at the pain. You will feel immediately better.
Life is mostly froth and bubble,
As I'm writing now, I recall that just yesterday a fellow monk died. He had been suffering from terminal cancer for eight months. When I was by his side at the hospital a few days before his death, he was in pain. I tried to feed him some broth but he could not eat. He looked quite gaunt and grim. He could hardly speak. The cancer had ravaged his body and it was no easy task for his mind to bear up. I urged him to note or observe the pain as he would do in normal meditation, to remain as calm and equanimous as possible. He was a staunch meditator and I am sure he meditated to the very end.
I remember another occasion when I visited a kind old man who had leukemia. He too was in pain. It showed on his face. There were beads of sweat on his forehead and face. I took a towel and gently wiped away his sweat. I whispered into his ear and tried to soothe him. This man too was a meditator and again I reminded him to maintain mindfulness, to observe the pain as calmly as possible. I was happy when the look of pain disappeared from his face. Shortly after, his relatives came and I left him. A few hours later he died. I was glad I was able to help him a little before he expired.
Although there is happiness in life, there is also suffering. The happiness seems so fleeting - gone in no time only to be replaced by sorrow and discontent. Life itself, because it ends in death, is a tragedy. Someone once said life is like an onion: you peel it crying. The Buddha says birth is suffering because it leads inevitably to decay and death. We should understand this well. If we accept life we must accept death. If we want to cry when somebody dies, then we should also cry at his birth. For the moment a baby is born the seed of death is in him. But we are happy when a child is born. We laugh and we congratulate the parents. If we understand birth - that it must lead to death - then when death comes we should be able to face it with a smile.
Seeing how people die in pain, their body wracked by disease, and seeing how all life must end in death (a fact that is driven home to me every time I went for funeral chanting), two resolutions arose in my mind: First, when the time comes for me to die, I want to die with a smile on my lips. I want to be able to be very mindful and serene. In other words I want to keep my wits about me. I want to be able to smile at my pain no matter how excruciating it may be. I want to be able to smile at all the visitors that may call on me. I want to be able to smile at all the kind doctors and nurses who attend upon me. I want to be able to smile at my fellow patients and to help in whatever way I can in the hospital, whether to inspire or to console.
Instead of the doctors and nurses asking me how I am, I want to ask them: "How are you doc? How are you Sister? How is your day today? You know, you are doing a great job. We are very lucky to have you. Please keep up the good work. Thank you very much!" And to my Buddhist visitors, I will speak Dhamma [*1]. I'll say: Look at me. I'm half-dead. Finished! You know, it's not easy to meditate when you are half-dead. So while you are still healthy, make the most of it. Meditate! Practise the Dhamma! Have no regrets later. Don't wait until you become fatally ill. It will be too late then. But if you have been doing your meditation practice now, then when you fall sick it won't be so difficult to face the pain. You can observe and even transcend it.
You know, the Buddha tells us that everything is impermanent. If we meditate hard enough, we can understand the fact of impermanence more deeply, such that we will not be so attached to this mind and body. We will know for certain that this body is not ours; this mind too is not ours. Understanding, we will be able to let go. We will not be so attached to the gross sensual pleasures of life. We can live more wisely. We can grow old gracefully. And we need not fear death.
The Buddha says suffering is inherent in life. And we must learn how to live with it and to transcend it. Only by applying mindfulness in our daily life and by meditating can we penetrate the truth of suffering. When we have understood suffering deeply, we will strive to remove the cause of it, which is our craving, our attachment to life, to the sensual lure of pleasant sights, pleasant sounds, pleasant smell, pleasant tastes and pleasant touch. We will try to purify our mind and heart of all defilements.
According to the Buddha, when our mind is purified of greed, hatred and delusion, we will overcome all suffering. We will never again respond with attachment or aversion to anything. Instead there will be only wisdom and compassion in us. Just this is the end of suffering. Clinging no more we can never suffer. Even physical pain brings no mental suffering as the mind does not respond with aversion or anger. The mind can be calm and peaceful. There is acceptance and understanding. And when we die with this kind of wisdom and peace, the Buddha says that will be the end of suffering. No more rebirth, no more coming back to this cycle of birth and death. If we do not take on any new birth, there will be no decay and death together with its attendant suffering. Finished! The curtain falls! This mass of suffering is extinguished. And we can then say, just as the saints of old had said, "Done is what is to be done. Lived is the holy life."
Of course, right now we may still be far from the goal. But as they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So I'm an optimist. Yes, I'm a Buddhist and an optimist. (Who says a Buddhist is a pessimist?) And I believe that every step we take on the path of mindfulness shall bring us one step closer to the goal - the goal of Nibbana, the end of all suffering. And being an optimist, I like to think that we will reach it sooner rather than later.
Saying it with flowers too
And so as I'm lying on my hospital bed, I'd like to speak Dhamma to all those who call on me, or to anybody who cares to listen. And furthermore, I can send flowers to all my friends out there. I might include a card with a message that can go something like this: "Hello there! How are you? Do you like these flowers? Are they not beautiful? Do you have time to pause and appreciate the beauty of a flower and breathe in its fragrance? And when you look at a flower, do you also see the shining eyes of your loved one or your child? And do you feel and understand their hopes and their fears? Or are you too busy, too preoccupied with your own worldly plans and ambitions, your pursuit of fame and wealth?
"Have you considered well the nature of impermanence, my friend - how all must fade and die? And how, while we are alive, we ought to live meaningfully so as to have no regrets later. By the way, like the flower that is fading, I too am dying. But I'm sending you good wishes. May you be well and happy! I hope you do find time for your loved ones and for the practice of meditation. You know, making money, acquiring luxuries, enjoying sensual pleasures is not everything. They may feel good for a while, but actually being kind and loving is more important: it will give you more satisfaction and happiness. Forgive me for preaching such platitudes but do give some heed to the words of a dying person. Allow him to say his piece. Yes, while you are alive, you should try to spread as much good cheer and happiness as possible. Forgive everybody. Do not harbour any grudges or consider anybody your enemies. Always remember, life is short and soon we will all be dead. And love is giving, not taking. Love gives without attaching any conditions. Love expects no return. Try to cultivate this beautiful kind of love. Be happy!" And I'll end with a PS - "Take good care. You need not visit me. But you can be happy for me. For I'm smiling and I'm happy that I can die with a smile on my lips. Cheerio and good luck!"
And if I could not speak because I was too ill, then still I could smile to show that everything was fine, that the disease was only getting my body and not my mind. In that way one can inspire even when one is ill. People might then appreciate the Dhamma more and practise even harder. Of course, if I am addressing my non-Buddhist friends, I must not impose my religious views upon them. I can express my views but in no way must I impose it upon them. Just as I would not want them to impose their views on me, so too must I not impose my views on them. We must give due respect to each other's religious views and have loving-kindness for each other. In this way, there will be peaceful co-existence.
COPING WITH DISEASE - THE RIGHT ATTITUDE
We should not look on disease and suffering as something which will destroy us completely, and thereby giving in to despair and despondency. On the contrary, we (i.e. in the case of Buddhists) can look upon it as a test of how well we have understood the Buddha's teachings, how well we can apply the understanding we have supposedly learnt. If we cannot cope mentally, if we break down, it shows our understanding of the Dhamma, our practice, is still weak. So, in this way, it is a test and an opportunity for us to see how well we have mastered our practice.
Then also, disease is an opportunity for us to further enhance our practice of patience and tolerance. How can we practise and develop paramis [*2] (perfections) such as patience if we are not tested, if we are not put under difficult and severe conditions? So, in this way, we can look at the disease as an opportunity for us to cultivate more patience.
We can also look at health as not just the mere absence of disease but the capacity to experience a disease, and to learn and grow from it. Yes, such a novel definition of health comes from certain medical experts, such as Dr Paul Pearsall, of the Sinai Hospital, Detroit, USA. Seeing how disease can never be completely eradicated and how we have eventually to succumb in one way or another, these doctors have come up with a definition of health that can help us to adjust to disease when it comes. It is true, isn't it? - that no matter how many sophisticated machines, procedures and drugs we may come up with, people still succumb to cancer, AIDS, heart disease and a host of other ailments. Ultimately there is no escape. We have to understand and accept the fact, so that when it comes and we have to go down, we can go down gracefully. No doubt, we will treat the disease as best we can, but when despite our best efforts, we fail and the disease continues to progress, we have to accept and reconcile with the inevitable.
In the final analysis, it is not how long we live but how well we live that counts, and that includes how well we can accept our disease, and finally how well we can die. In this regard, Dr Bernie S. Siegel, in his book, Peace, Love & Healing, wrote:
"Exceptional patients don't try not to die. They try to live until they die. Then they are successes, no matter what the outcome of their disease, because they have healed their lives, even if they have not cured their diseases."
And he also said:
"A successful life is not about dying. It is about living well. I have known two-year-olds and nine-year-olds who have changed people and even entire communities by their ability to love, and their lives were successful though short. On the other hand, I have known many who lived much longer and left behind nothing but emptiness."
So it can be quite wonderful after all that our life can be healed even though our diseases may not be cured. How? Because suffering is a teacher and if we learn our lesson well, we can become surprisingly better persons. Have we not heard accounts of how people after having gone through great suffering, emerged changed and better persons? If they had been impatient, selfish, arrogant and thoughtless before, they might become more patient, kind, gentle and humble. Sometimes they remarked that the disease was a good thing for them - it gave them an opportunity to reconsider their lifestyle and the more important values in life. They come to appreciate their family and friends more, and they now value the time they spend with their loved ones. And if they were to recover, they would find more time for their loved ones, and to do the things that are really more important and meaningful.
But even if we were to succumb to the disease we can still learn and grow from it. We could understand the precariousness of life and how true the Buddha's teaching was - that there is an essential flaw in life. We could become kinder and more appreciative of the kindness we have received from people. We could forgive those who had hurt us. We could love more richly, more deeply. And when death comes, we can die with acceptance and peace. In this way, we can say that our life is healed because we are reconciled with the world and we are at peace.
We can meditate
When we are sick and bedridden, we need not despair. We can meditate even when we are in bed. We can observe our mind and body. We can obtain calmness and strength by doing breathing meditation. We can observe our in-breath and out-breath, knowing as we breathe in and out. This can give us a calming effect. Or we can observe the rising and falling of the abdomen as we breath in and out. Our mind can follow the rising and falling, and become, as it were, one with it. This too can give us calmness. And from such calmness, understanding can arise. We might see the transient and dissolutary nature of all phenomena, and be able to reconcile with the fact of impermanence, unsatisfactori-ness and no-self. If we have learnt mindfulness or Vipassana [*3] meditation, we can pass our time quite easily. There are many objects we can observe in any posture, whether lying down, sitting, walking or standing. We can know our posture as it is, and feel the sensations that arise in our body. We can observe them with a steady and calm mind. And, of course, the mind is also a subject for observation. So we can also observe the states of our mind. All can be observed - sadness, depression, restlessness, worry, thoughts - and they would all pass, giving way to equanimity, peace and wisdom. Wholesome and unwholesome states will come and go. We will be able to watch them all with understanding and equanimity.
Sometimes we can radiate metta (loving-kindness). Again and again we can wish for all beings:
May all beings be well and happy.
In this way too, we can pass our time quite happily even if we are bedridden. We can radiate metta to the doctors, nurses and fellow-patients. We can also send our metta to our loved ones, relatives and friends. Moreover, we can reflect on the Dhamma from time to time, recollect what we have read, heard or understood. Reflecting thus, we can respond to our suffering with wisdom and equanimity.
The instruction of the Buddha was to cultivate the mind, to meditate, and to do so even when we are sick. In fact, it is at such times that we need to make even more effort to summon up our mindfulness. Who knows, Nibbana or the highest wisdom, may be attained even as we breathe our last! In the scriptures, the Buddha cited the case of a person who was sick - afflicted with painful bodily feelings, grievous, sharp, racking, distracting, discomforting that drained the life away. But that person was not disheartened. He felt samvega - a sense of urgency to strive even in his last hours. "He makes effort accordingly," the Buddha said. "His mind being intent on Nibbana, he realizes with his own person the supreme truth, he sees it by penetrating it with wisdom."
True it is, true it is, householder, that
you are sick; your body
TRIBUTE TO KUAI CHAN
I'd like to tell you about a brave yogi who died peacefully from lung cancer with the word, Nibbana, on her lips. Her name is Kuai Chan and she passed away on December 18, 1992 at her home in Kuala Lumpur. She was 43. Her husband, Billy, told me how she coped with the disease. Finding the account most inspiring, especially for yogis (meditators), I asked him for permission to relate it in this book, and I thank him for agreeing to it.
Kuai Chan was first diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1989. At that time she had already practised Vipassana meditation for about a year. She took the diagnosis calmly. "My wife accepted that it was her kamma [*5]," said Billy. "She did not blame anybody or anything. She was not bitter nor did she fall into any depression. She was remarkably steady and remained quite so till her death." Kuai Chan underwent an operation to remove the affected breast. Then after three months she had to be operated upon again when the cancer cells were found to be still growing in the area. After that she underwent radio- and chemo-therapy with minimal side-effects. Throughout her treatment for her breast cancer, and in the last six months of her life after she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she declined to take any pain medication. "She didn't want any painkillers," said Billy. "Even when the pain was excruciating, she refused to take any paindrugs, not even a panadol. She was a very determined person, very strong and admirable."
Her decision to go without the pain medication was because she wanted to keep her mind as clear and alert as possible. She was a yogi, and all yogis value their mindfulness. They wouldn't want any drugs that can dull their mind and impair their meditation. So if they can take on the pain they would do so. Kuai Chan was prepared to face the pain, so she declined the painkillers. She only agreed to the radio- and chemo-therapy for her breast cancer because they might have led to a cure. But later when she had lung cancer and was told that it was terminal, she declined the radio- and chemo-therapy recommended by a hospital for alleviating her suffocation. And when a doctor offered to administer pain medication, such as morphine, she rejected it too.
Billy said that in her first bout with the breast cancer, Kuai Chan had little problem with the pain she felt after the operation. As a yogi, she was able to note the pain quite well and it would disappear. But the lung cancer was a real ordeal for her. The pain was terribly acute at times but still she refused drugs. There were times she just collapsed and lay prostrate on the floor when the pain struck. But still she held on. She also had a wracking cough which persisted for many days and nights. Billy was by her side and when she could not sleep night after night, he tried to soothe her pain and cough by rubbing ointment, massaging and other traditional remedies. He took her to see Chinese physicians and obtained many kinds of herbs and brewed them for her to drink.
Billy said it was Kuai Chan's faith and meditation that enabled her to face her suffering with a remarkable degree of serenity and composure. Both of them had meditated with Venerable Sujiva at a Retreat in Taiping in 1988. Subsequently Kuai Chan continued to attend regular Retreats at the Venerable's Santisukharama hermitage at Kota Tinggi, Johor.
When she was diagnosed with lung cancer after a coughing spell in July 1992, the doctor gave her one month to live. Showing Kuai Chan and Billy the x-ray, he pointed out how the cancer had spread all over the lungs. He even expressed surprise that Kuai Chan could still be walking around and looking quite healthy, given the condition of her cancer-ravaged lungs. But the doctor didn't know that Kuai Chan had a mind of steel. She survived for six months. For her then it was not so much a battle to stay alive as to die with dignity. When she and Billy saw me at the Wisdom Centre in Petaling Jaya where I was visiting in July, they asked what could they do. I told them: What could a yogi do but meditate! If I were her I would meditate to the very end, I said. They were encouraged and Kuai Chai was determined then to spend the rest of her days meditating in her home. Billy said he would support her all the way.
But she didn't reckon the pain could be so terrible. She told Billy she never knew there could be such pain. It was especially severe in her lower back, burning and cutting into her. She summoned all her mental strength to note the pain but still she would lose out. It was too much. There were times when she could only lay there helpless without being able to note the pain anymore. She was sheerly enduring. But she would not take any paindrugs. She consulted her meditation teacher Ven Sujiva who advised her to do metta (loving-kindness) and in-breath out-breath meditation to soothe the pain when she could not tolerate it anymore. This gave her some relief. Coming out from such relief, she could continue her vipassana meditation. One day after three weeks of battling with persistent pain, she had a unique experience. She told Billy that while noting the sharp pain, she observed it becoming finer and finer until it vividly disappeared. She said she felt as if all her senses were cut off, as if there was no nama-rupa (mind and body) at that moment, that her mind and body had disappeared together with the pain. She told Billy she felt that this was like a Nibbanic experience, and she felt a great joy came over her. After that experience, she never encountered that kind of excruciating pain anymore.
Ten days before her end, Billy admitted her to a private hospital as she was having difficulty breathing. The doctors put her on oxygen. X-rays showed that the cancer cells had spread further, aggravating the suffocation. That was when radio- and chemo-therapy was suggested, not as a possible cure but merely to alleviate the condition. But Kuai Chan didn't want her mind to lose its clarity, and so rejected the suggestion. After five days she asked Billy to take her home as she felt there was no longer any reason for her to stay in the hospital. Billy installed an oxygen tank in their home, took her back and put her on the oxygen to alleviate her breathing difficulty. For the next five days from December 13 to her death on Dec. 18, she seemed to be in some kind of sleep, waking up only now and then. Two days before her death, she could still remember her daughter's 17th birthday which fell on Dec. 17. She reminded Billy to boil two eggs for their daughter and to give her a red packet, which he did.
On Dec. 18 she woke up at about 9am with a smile. She asked: "Have I been sleeping?" Billy replied: "Yes, it's been five days already. Don't you know?" She was surprised. She appeared happy and was smiling. She said she didn't need to take herbal medicines anymore. She again remembered her daughter's birthday, and although Billy told her he had already given their daughter a red packet as instructed, she told him again: "Give her another ang-pow on my behalf."
At about 2pm, Billy said, Kuai Chan tried to say something to him but was too weak to speak. Billy reminded her to maintain a detached frame of mind, not to worry about him and the children, and to feel free to go peacefully. He said they had discussed this many times before, that if she should be cured it is good; but if that is not possible, it is all right also: she should be able to go gracefully, understanding the law of kamma, that all of us must separate one day.
At 3pm when her son, aged 15, returned from school and announced to her: "Mother, I am back," she understood although she could not speak. She nodded her head to indicate that she knew.
At about 3.30pm, Billy said, Kuai Chan managed with some effort to say very distinctly in Cantonese, "Woh yap niphoon", which literally means "I have entered Nibbana," which means to say she believed she had realized or experienced Nibbana. And she pointed to her abdomen. That was her last words, and she passed away peacefully about 45 minutes later. Billy said Kuai Chan, in her meditation, usually observed the rising and falling motion of the abdomen that occurred with every in- and out-breath. She found the abdominal rising and falling a good object to place her mind upon, and she used to encourage other yogis to stick to that object too. Whatever phenomena in the body or mind one applies one's mindfulness and concentration upon, one would eventually see the arising and dissolution of the phenomena and come to understand their impermanence, unsatisfactory and no-self nature. Such understanding can climax in the attainment of Nibbana, a state of cessation of sufferng. Defilements of greed, hatred and delusion are totally eradicated when Nibbana is experienced at the arahant level. [*6]
Billy said that as her end approached, Kuai Chan's face took on a kind of radiance, and when she spoke, her eyes were bright and clear. At about 4.15pm, Billy noticed that she had stopped breathing. "She looked very peaceful, very serene. She passed away very peacefully," said Billy.
At about 4pm that day, a Dhamma friend, Lily, who was staying about 25 km away in Petaling Jaya, had a sudden desire to radiate metta (loving-kindness) to Kuai Chan. Lily sat down to meditate, sending out thoughts of metta to Kuai Chan. And she said she had a "crystal-clear" vision of Kuai Chan, who looked serene. When she stopped her meditation, she looked at the clock. It was 4.15pm, at about the same time Kuai Chan had passed away.
Dying the way she did, it is clear that Kuai Chan had a good death. What better way to go than this - with her mind intent on Nibbana. Who can say what unique experience she might have undergone? Only she can know. But one thing is certain, her mind was even, to the last, inclined to Nibbana. I would like to think that she had attained her Nibbana. If she had not done so in this life, I would think that with her mind, being so firm and resolute, she would have undergone a good rebirth as a human being or deva (a celestial being) and would attain her cherished goal in that life.
As a Buddhist, she had instructed Billy to give her a very simple funeral, devoid of superfluous rites and rituals. According to her desire, Billy arranged for her cremation the following day. Several Buddhist monks, yogis and friends recited Buddhist suttas. It was all very simple, as she had requested. Billy collected her ashes and had them strewn at the bodhi tree at their teacher's meditation hermitage in Johor.
Recollecting their life together, Billy said Kuai Chan was the best wife he could ask for: "We were married for 22 years and she stood by me through thick and thin, through my many trials and tribulations. She had a cheerful and bright disposition. She was always loving and caring. Even when she was ill she was marvellous. She never complained. She was not depressed. There was no anger or bitterness in her. She remained calm and steady. She could still smile and laugh. She accepted all her suffering with grace. She would say that it was only her body that was sick but not her mind. Her mind was still fine and healthy. Her concern too was not for herself but for others. She said that if she could live ten years longer, she would do more Dhamma work. She was concerned too about me and the children.
"In fact, she took her suffering better than I did. I could not bear to see her in so much pain. I tried to get her all the best herbs in the hope of a cure or some respite. Sometimes I asked why all this should happen to her. And I thought: Let her live 10 years more and I 10 years less. Let me give her 10 years of my life. But of course that's not for us to say. It's kamma that has the last say.
"She used to tell me: "It's my kamma, Billy. It's all right. I do not know what I might have done in my past lives. I must accept my kamma." Sometimes she would say: "I'm so sorry I give you all this trouble, Billy, all this suffering. You know, Billy, I owe you a lot in this life." I would tell her not to say like that. She doesn't owe me anything, I said. We are husband and wife, are we not? - and she has been a great wife to me. We have gone through thick and thin together, and now in her hour of need, I shall be by her side. We shall sink or swim together, I told her, I assured her.
"At other times she would tell me: 'Billy, this is the true teaching, the true path, I am very convinced of that,' and she reminded me not to neglect my practice of meditation, not to be complacent but to practise hard. We had been searching for some time for a teaching that we could relate to. And when we came across Buddhism and Vipassana meditation in 1988, we took to it. You know, we used to discuss the Dhamma together every night over a cup of tea. We had a great relationship."
Kuai Chan's cousin, Sati, once asked her whether she had any fear of the cancer, and she said no, she was not afraid of the disease. She was prepared to take on the pain without drugs. She was truly a heroic yogi, one who in the face of great odds, still persevered in her practice of the Dhamma. She made me wonder if I, as a monk, were to be in her condition, to have cancer, would I be able to bear up that much, to have that much courage and endurance? She is truly an inspiring example, a teacher by example to us all. I must thank Billy for foregoing his privacy to share with us this inspiring account so that we too can be encouraged in our practice and be more determined to strive harder.
Billy asked me to put on record his gratitude to Ven Sujiva and other monks and yogis for all the kind assistance they have given him and Kuai Chan. Fellow yogis from the Buddhist Wisdom Centre, PJ, had especially given much moral support and encouragement to Kuai Chan throughout her sickness. "I do not know how to express my gratitude to all the people who had helped us. Please tell them I wish to thank them all, to say: "Thank you. Thank you very much for everything you all have done for Kuai Chan."
[*1] Dhamma is what is. It is seeing things as they are. It is the teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha, in effect, taught: "Life is suffering but I have found the way out of this suffering, and I will show it to you." And the Buddha exhorted the people to practise generosity, morality and meditation.
[*2] The ten paramis are giving, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving-kindness and equanimity. All bodhisattas (ie. those aspiring to be Buddhas) have to cultivate these paramis. All Buddhists have to cultivate these paramis to a certain degree too before they can gain enligtenment under the dispensation of a Buddha.
[*3] Vipassana is Insight or Mindfulness meditation. In Vipassana, meditators employ mindfulness to observe the nature of mental and physical phenomena, perceiving eventually their characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self. For a simple introduction to Vipassana, and the practice of another kind of meditation, called metta or loving-kindness meditation, see "Invitation to Vipassana" and "Curbing Anger Spreading Love" both written by the same writer.
[*4] Details on the practice of metta meditation can be found in the book, "Curbing Anger Spreading Love".
[*5] Kamma is the natural law of cause and effect, or action and result. It works on the principle that good begets good and bad begets bad. So if we have done something bad in a previous life, the result of the evil deed may take place in this life. For example, one who kills a lot, will, if reborn as a human, have a short life. For a good explanation of kamma see "The Buddha and his Teachings by Narada", Buddhist Missionary Society (BMS), Malaysia; page 333ff.
[*6] As an experience of the cessation of conditioned phenomena during meditation, Nibbana can be experienced at four stages of sainthood. Although the experience of Nibbana as cessation of conditioned phenomena is the same at all four stages, Nibbana having only one "taste," that is the "taste" of peace, the results in terms of eradication of mental defilements are, however, different at each of the four stages.
At the first stage of a sotapanna (stream-winner), greed and hatred are dramatically weakened but not totally eliminated. These two defilements have been weakened to the extent that the sotapanna could no more break the five precepts of not killing (even an insect), not stealing or cheating, not committing sexual misconduct such as adultery, not lying, and not taking alcohol and drugs. At the second stage of a sakadagami (once-returner), the defilements are further weakened. At the third stage of an anagami (non-returner), sensual desire and hatred/anger are completely eliminated. But there is still a subtle trace of ignorance and desire of a non-sensual nature, ie. desire for rebirth in the non-sensual brahma heavenly realm. At the fourth stage of an arahant (a full saint), all desire/greed and ignorance are eliminated. The arahant lives his last life, there being no more rebirth for him.
Source: BuddhaNet, www.buddhanet.net
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last updated: 01-01-2005