Vanity thought #1333. Buddhist death

I just read an account of the death of an advanced Buddhist monk and it was fascinating. I just don’t want it to go into recesses of my memory without making some sense of it. Writing helps to internalize things and understand them better, as they say.

This is not the first time I was interested in Buddhist experiences and it somewhat worries me. They are not devotees, never will be, perhaps in some distant lifetimes in the future, if they are lucky. Their hearts know no devotion and they are indifferent towards the Lord, we shouldn’t mix with those people, and yet they are fellow transcendentalists and very often of the no-nonsense type. It just so happens that they can be trusted more than māyāvādīs from a Hindu tradition.

Buddhists can be excused from not worshiping Kṛṣṇa or Nārāyaṇa, they know nothing about Him. Māyāvādīs, otoh, are not just indifferent, they are inimical and envious. When they hear of the Lord’s pastimes they want to experience them themselves and thus accept worship from other people. Therefore their attitude are far more dangerous for us.

It would also be nice if we had similar accounts about vaiṣṇava departure but nothing comes to mind. I’ll get back to that point in a moment, first let’s deal with this Buddhist lama.

I don’t know much about Buddhist hierarchy but he appears to have been a head of one of the major Buddhist sects, exiled from Tibet and headquartered in Sikkim, quite far away from the more [in]famous Dalai Lama. There’s a wikipedia entry on him and though it doesn’t reference this particular story it still corroborates it nicely. I don’t particularly care about the rest of his life, somehow or other he achieved what could be called liberation in our terminology and that is remarkable, how he did it is not, not for devotees anyway.

The story is written by the doctor who treated him for cancer. The doctor met him three times, during the initial diagnosis, then a few months later in Hong Kong, and then he was attending during lama’s last days in one of the American hospitals.

During initial cancer diagnosis they spent a considerable amount of time, I would imagine. They ran all the tests and prepared a course of treatment. Lama wasn’t very cooperative, however. Instead of telling medical personnel where he felt pain he’d just smile and ignore them. It wasn’t annoying or anything like that but very unusual and impressed everybody there.

He just didn’t treat his disease as ordinary people would do. He didn’t display any anxiety, no fear of death, no concern for his own well-being at all. It just didn’t register with him, his mind was elsewhere.

This attitude was even more prominent during their second meeting in Hong Kong. Lama lost a a lot of weight but his attitude didn’t change a bit. It was still just another experience for him, business as usual, something you do between brushing your teeth and taking a shower. He wasn’t concerned about being on the precipice of death at all and medical stuff in Hong Kong was just as impressed as the Americans.

The third time the doctor and the lama met was during his final days in Chicago and that’s the most detailed part of the story. The attitude was the same, but this time the body was really giving up, medically speaking. They had him monitored for blood pressure and heart rate and everything they could do in those days – it was 1981. Several times it appeared that the lama was a goner but it wasn’t his body that got to decide but his spirit and on those occasions the lama would just return to consciousness and behave as if nothing had happened. He was certainly not impressed by his body’s behavior and wasn’t taking cues from it. If necessary, he would jack up his blood pressure or speed up his heart, everybody would be amazed, lama would look around say a few words, and go back to his meditation.

He refused to sign a will and appoint a successor, something that caused a split in the community afterwards which is present to this day. I wonder if there was any significance to this. Was it a conscious decision? Was it an oversight? Did he not think of it as something important? Or did he simply saw the future and went along with it?

Sometimes we assume that things are ought to be clear but the universe might have other plans. GM didn’t stay united and didn’t succeed in post-Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura time and that enabled us, the ISKCON, to develop and preserve our own identity. With all respect to senior vaiṣṇavas from GM, nothing good came out of our cooperation ever and so their relative decline helped us to stay away and spare us more trouble. Well, maybe it’s not a good argument in favor of uncertainty but in any case GM failed not against Kṛṣṇa’s wishes but according to them. Maybe that school of Buddhism is going through a similar experience, too.

Then there was the day of death. Lama’s heart stopped, he was revived again, the heart stopped again. The doctor went with chest pumps to help the blood flow anyway for almost an hour, way longer than necessary, and everyone thought it was over. Yet a few minutes later the lama came back to life.

The doctor described this moment as a final check in. The lama returned to consciousness to see if his body was any good. It wasn’t. He hang around for a few minutes, accepted that the body was useless, and died.

Except he didn’t.

Against hospital regulations they kept the body in the same ICU room for three days because Buddhist monks accompanying their master insisted that he was still in deep samādhi. The doctor spoke about a change in the atmosphere around the body but the most amazing thing was that lama’s heart was still worm even if it wasn’t beating for days. Somehow they didn’t take temperature readings but the doctor tested it manually – the heart region was warm while the rest of the body wasn’t. The skin also didn’t feel like the skin of a dead person – it was still elastic and resumed form after being squeezed. This is a similar observation to the one about the body of a Buryat lama that is presumed to be still alive and in deep samādhi at the ripe age of 170+ years I wrote about last year.

After three days the samādhi was over and the lama finally left. Rigor mortis set in and the heart went cold, there was also a change in the atmosphere in the room.

Wikipedia article linked earlier describes a few more “magical” occurrences afterwards. Between death and cremation the body shrank to the size of a child. I don’t know if it’s normal, however, and whether it means anything. On the day of the cremation there were also rainbows and unicorns and two of lama’s healthy dogs left their bodies, too. Perhaps it shows that lama’s soul was still around and only the cremation broke the last bond. What was his next destination we do not know. I’d imagine it was some place where he could continue his spiritual practices.

Was he fully liberated? Maybe not, in a sense he was still connected to the body, but it could also be understood that he kept that connection on his own will, not forced by karma and the modes of nature. His consciousness was free from regular illusion affecting all of us, that’s probably the most important aspect.

Now, could this experience be relevant to the devotees? Most of the time nothing special like that happens to us. We just leave without displaying any siddhis. If we meet Kṛṣṇa upon death, it doesn’t usually register externally. Some devotees go out with a smile but that’s about it. I think Buddhists are still people of this world and their progress is charted in relation to this reality while devotees leave this place altogether without any trace and without any residues of attachment and connection to their physical bodies. I hope that’s what happens anyway.

We’ll all find out sooner or later.


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