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e19.jpg (7717 ­Ӧ줸) Dear Dharma Friends,

Today we'll discuss the process of death and what happens after death. It is not an easy subject. If I were to tell you that there is much suffering after death, you might be fearful of the pain you have to face after death. In such a mindset, you cannot comprehend the true nature of death. If I were to tell you that life after death is serene and peaceful, you might misunderstand me and think that death is wonderful and that it is a means to be liberated. Hence, I can only say this, "Life is not necessarily joyous, and death is not necessarily miserable."

Once, there was a rich man who had a son in his later years of life. When the boy was born, the house was filled with guests who came to congratulate the new father. Among the guests was a Ch'an master who was totally unmoved by the festivity around him. Before long, he even started to cry. The rich man was puzzled and asked, "Master, is there anything wrong? Why are you so sad?" The Ch'an master replied sadly, "I cry because you have added another name to the ranks of death in your family."

An enlightened person sees birth as an extension of life, and death as the start of another life. Birth is not just about living, and death is not just about dying. When we look at birth and death as one, what is there to rejoice over or to grieve about?

When we see someone who is one hundred years old, we often congratulate him by saying, "May you live to be one hundred and twenty." Every year, on Remembrance Day (September 9th, a holiday in Taiwan), the government honors local elders and celebrates their longevity. Let us think about this for a moment. Is the occasion of someone reaching the age of one hundred and twenty really a cause for celebration? If a man were to live to be one hundred and twenty, his one hundred-year-old son might one day become sick and pass away. One after another, his eighty-year-old grandchild and his sixty-year-old great-grandchild might also pass way. This old man could no longer enjoy the happiness of spending time with his grandchildren. As he lived through the death of his children and grandchildren, he was left all alone. In a person's life, there is nothing harder to bear than the death of a child. So, longevity does not necessarily mean happiness. Often, with longevity come loneliness, helplessness, and physical debility.

Just as we should not be obsessed with longevity, we should also not fear death. The mentioning of death often provokes many frightful images in people. In Chinese culture, the dead are often portrayed as being punished, as having to climb mountains of knives or being drowned in pots of boiling oil. If we can really understand death, we will see that dying is not unlike getting a passport that allows us to travel to another country. How free! Death is a path that we must all travel. How can we face death in such a way that we feel prepared and not overwhelmed? To do this, we must understand death, the nature of which I would like to discuss with you in the following four sections.


I. The Moment of Death and the State of Death

Though we all have lived and died through countless rebirths, none of us can recall the experience of death. We do not know what death is really like. According to the sutras, when we die, we are still fully cognizant of all that are going on around us. We may hear the calm voice of the doctor announcing our death or the sound of our family grieving. We may still be able to see people gathering around our body, trying to move our body that is now empty of heartbeats and breathing. We may still worry about the many things that still need to be completed. We may feel ourselves moving among our family and friends, wanting to tell them what they should do. However, everybody is overcome with grief, and no one is able to see or hear us.

In the Reader's Digest, there was once an article about one man's near-death experience. One day while he was driving, he had a severe accident; the car was totally demolished, and he was killed on the spot. When the ambulance, paramedics, the police, and his family arrived on the scene, his consciousness had already left the body, and he felt himself floating in the air. He could hear over the din a group of people arguing about how the accident happened. So, he went over to the police officer and tried to tell him what actually happened. But the officer could neither hear nor see him. None of the others took notice of his presence nor could they see him. At this time, he only had his consciousness and was no longer in possession of his body. He finally became aware that he was floating outside his body, looking at his own body like an onlooker. He then found himself passing, at an incredible speed, through a long, dark, and narrow tunnel.

Another person spoke of his near-death experience when he suffered a severe head injury and was brought back from the brink of death. He said, "I remember my head went boom,' and I lost consciousness. Afterward, I just felt warm, comfortable, and peaceful." This is because once one's consciousness leaves the body, the consciousness is no longer constrained and can therefore feel a level of comfort and serenity that it has never before experienced. Another person also has this to say of his near-death experience: "When I was dying, I had an extremely good, wonderful, and peaceful sensation." Another man described his experience this way: "I felt I was as light as a feather. I was flying freely toward a world of brightness!" Death is not as chilling and ghastly as we may have imagined.

In the sutras, it is written that our life in this world is cumbersome and clumsy, not unlike a tortoise that is weighted down by its heavy shell. When we die, we are able to get rid of this burden and transform an existence that has been confined by the limits of the physical body. However, when we are faced with death, most of us still try to hold on to the seven worldly emotions and the six sensual desires. We still cannot let go of our sons, daughters, grandchildren, or our wealth. We do not want to die and cannot accept death gracefully. We think of dying as a painful experience, like tearing the shell off of a living tortoise. Buddhism does not share this view of dying. Buddhism teaches us that when we die, we are liberated from this body, and we feel extremely free and easy. It is like the relief of putting down a heavy piece of baggage. How light and free it is!

Whether we are smart or slow, good or bad, we all have to face death. Death is not a question of if, but a question of when and how. Even a powerful emperor like Emperor Chin-shih, who united the whole of China and became its first emperor, could not find any means to prolong his life. The mythical Peng Tsu might have lived to eight hundred years, but cosmologically, his life span was as short as that of an insect which lives only from morn till night. All beings that live must, without exception, also die. The difference lies only in the circumstances of death. The sutras divide the circumstances of death into four categories.


1. Death upon exhaustion of one's life span

This is what is called dying of old age. It is like a flickering flame that dies out naturally when its supply of oil is exhausted. We all like to live a nice long life, but a human life span has its limits. Life continues only with every breath we take, but as soon as we stop breathing, we die and are returned to the soil. There is a saying which goes like this: "Some only live from dawn till dusk. Others are born in spring or summer and die in autumn or winter. Some live for ten years, or a hundred, or even a thousand. Though we may live for a short or long time, is there really much difference?" What this says is that our life span has a limit, and no one can escape this reality.


2. Death upon exhaustion of one's merits

It is said in the sutras, "Humans do not understand life and death; human eyes do not discern [karmic] merits and demerits." Life is like an air bubble on the surface of water; when the air inside the bubble dissipates, the bubble no longer exists. After a rich man has squandered his wealth, he becomes poor. Similarly, when we have exhausted our merits, death will soon be knocking on our doors.


3. Death caused by accidents

This is what we call "premature death," which means that one dies when one is not supposed to. One may be killed in a car accident, ambushed in a war, murdered by an enemy, or attacked by a wild beast. Such deaths are sudden and unexpected. There is a Chinese proverb that is a fitting description of this kind of sudden death. It goes like this: "As long as one continues to breathe, possibilities abound. When death comes, everything comes to a standstill."


4. Death at will

The three circumstances of death described above are unpredictable and uncontrollable. On the contrary, death at will is without uncertainty and can be planned. In Buddhism, this is often referred to as "living and dying at will," and there are many great masters and Buddhist sages who can be born and die at will. They are not controlled by birth and death for they are totally in tune with the coming together and the breaking away of causes and conditions. Master Tao-an of the East Chin dynasty is a perfect example of such great masters. He was in total control of the passing of his life. On February 8th of the twentieth year of the Chien-yuan era, he assembled his disciples at the great hall of the Wu-chung temple in Chang-an. After praying and paying respect to the Buddha, he calmly told his disciples, "I am going to leave now! All of you should continue to spread the words of the Dharma and wake the ignorant up from their delusion."

Everyone was shocked and pleaded with the master, "Teacher, you are so healthy and strong. You should live for a long time to continue the work of the Buddha. How can you stop and leave us now? It is time for lunch; please have lunch first."

Tao-an answered, "Good, I'll have a little bit of lunch." Having said this, he ate his lunch as usual. After lunch, he returned to his room to rest, and he passed away while resting. Master Tao-an died at will, completely free of pain and suffering. If we practice the Dharma diligently, we can become free of karma, the force that binds us to death. We, too, can become enlightened and enter nirvana.

Now that we have discussed the circumstances of death, let us turn our focus into another aspect of death. What are the sensations of death? The sutras tell us of three sensations experienced in death. They are:

1. The imbalance of the great earth element: When one dies of a disease of the body, one feels a sinking sensation as the body feels like a big piece of land sinking into the ocean. Slowly and gradually, the body is immersed and the person feels suffocated. The sensation associated with this kind of death is described as "the great earth element being taken over by the great water element."

2. The imbalance of the great water element: When one dies of circulatory diseases, one initially has a sensation of being submerged in water, feeling wet and cold. Later, this gives way to a burning sensation, and the person feels very, very hot. The sensation associated with this kind of death is described as "the great water element being engulfed by the great fire element."

3. The imbalance of the great fire element: When one dies of pulmonary diseases, one feels a burning sensation, like a wildfire burning at dusk. Then the body feels a biting pain as if being blown into pieces by strong gusts and being scattered about like ashes. The sensation associated with this kind of death is described as "the great fire element being swallowed by the great wind element."

We will next turn our discussion to what it is like immediately after death and before our next rebirth. The sutras tell us that because our body is transformed from a finite and bounded form to a limitless and formless state when we die, the way we feel immediately following death is not all bad. This may seem a bit surprising, but there are three good reasons to explain this.

1. The limit of time and space: When we are alive, we are limited by time and space. We cannot travel simply by willing to be at a certain place, and we cannot revert the aging process that the passage of time brings upon us. Upon death, [and before our next rebirth,] we are liberated from the limits of the physical body, and our true nature can move about freely through the three realms of existence.

2. The burden of the body: It is said in the Dharmapada, "The physical body is the cause of all the sufferings on earth. The sufferings of hunger and thirst, hot or cold, anger and fear, lust, desires, hatred, and tragedyXall these stem from the existence of the body." When we are alive, we spend a lot of time taking care of our body. When we are hungry, we have to eat; when we are cold, we have to put on more clothing. When we are sick, we have to endure the pain. If we pause for a moment and take stock, we will notice that a lot of our concerns do pertain to the body. After death, the consciousness is no longer constrained by the confines of the body and all the problems associated with a physical body also vanish with it. There is no more hunger or sickness; a huge burden is lifted from our shoulders.

3. The supernatural element: While we are alive, our faculties are limited by our body. After death, we are no longer bound by the laws of physics. We will be able to see things that cannot be detected by the human eye. We will be able to hear sounds that cannot be heard by the human ear. We will be able to float freely in the air, as the force of gravity does not apply to us anymore. In this state, walls will not be able to stop us, and we will be able to travel simply by willing it.

Death is not an end; it is not a finality. On the contrary, it is the beginning of another new existence. When we die, the physical body ceases to function, but the consciousness lives on. During the time after death and before the next rebirth, the consciousness is in a state referred to in Buddhism as the "intermediate being" state. Depending on the cumulative karma from previous lives, an intermediate being will be reborn into one of the six realms. Once reborn, all memories of past lives will be lost. This is called the "confusion of rebirth." Thus, we cannot recall any memories of our past lives, and when we are reborn in our next life, we will not recall any of the memories of this present life. A poem written by Emperor Shun Chin says it well, "Before I was born, who was I? After my birth, who am I? If this grown man is me, then who is the fellow after death?"

Actually, it is not important for one to know one's past or future lives. From the Buddhist teachings, we learn that one never dies. What dies is the physical body, a combination of the four great elements. While the physical body dies, the consciousness continues without interruption. When we learn that the physical body is as lasting as a water bubble, then we begin to see the illusiveness of the world around us. We can then accept death without reservation.


II. Judgement After Death and the Next Rebirth

We often think of the departed and wonder what kind of situation they are in. In Chinese Buddhist culture, it is customary to pray for the dead when we celebrate a new year or at various holidays. It is all very well if this is done out of concern and respect for our departed parents or loved ones. Most people, however, have the misconception that when their parents pass away, they become ghosts in hell, and so they often have prayer services for their parents hoping that their parents will rest in peace. This is actually quite disrespectful of their parents, for only those who have committed grave transgressions will be reborn as hungry ghosts or hellish beings. Does it mean that we think of our parents as less than virtuous? Why can't we suppose our deceased parents have gone to the heavenly realm, or are reborn in the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss?

Many religions believe that when we die, we will be judged on how we have led our lives. Chinese folk religion believes that after one dies, one appears before the Yama King, who will pass judgement on us. Christians believe that when we die, we will appear before God, who will decide if we should be welcomed into heaven or condemned to hell. Buddhists believe in judgement after death, too. The difference is that we will be judged, not so much by the Buddha, the bodhisattvas, or the Yama King, but by our own karma. The collective good and bad karma of our past actions will determine in which realm of existence we will be reborn and the conditions in which we will be reborn. In the Buddhist teachings, we learn that our happiness or misery is not controlled by deities, but is in our own hands.

Where does one go after death? Some people believe that death is the final chapter of one's life and there is nothing after death, let alone that one will be reborn. To them, life is short and fragile. Because of their view about death, they look at life with skepticism and anxiety. Instead of treasuring life and making the best use of it, these individuals look at life as a means to indulge in pleasures and satisfy the senses. As they do not look at life and death in the context of the Law of Cause and Effect, they are willing to do everything, legal and illegal, to further their own personal goals. Such a view about death, and therefore about life, is erroneous and can lead us astray. Although Christians differ from Buddhists in their way they look at how judgement is metered out, they also believe in the existence of heaven and hell and that there is life after death. In Buddhism, we believe that after we die, we will be reborn into one of the six realms of existence. In fact, there is a verse which can help the living relatives of the deceased to assess in which realm their loved ones will be reborn. It goes like this, "The enlightened emerge from the head, and heavenly beings rise to the heaven through the eyes. Humans emerge from the heart and hungry ghosts from the stomach. Animals leave from the knees and hellish beings from the feet." What this verse means is this: The last part of the body to remain warm indicates the realm of rebirth for the deceased. If a person dies, and his feet are the first to feel cold and the head is the last place to remain warm, this means that the deceased has attained the holy fruit of enlightenment. If the eyes are the last parts to remain warm, this means that the consciousness has left through the eyes and one is reborn in heaven. If the heart is the last part of the body to remain warm, one will be reborn as a human. If the belly remains warm the longest, one has fallen into the hungry ghost realm. If only the knees remain warm, one will be reborn as an animal. If the feet remain warm at the end, one has fallen into hell.

Which realm of existence will we be reborn into? How is this decided? This all depends on our cumulative good and bad karma of our past actions, just like this saying: If you want to know about your future life, all you have to do is reflect on your present life. There are three kinds of karmic forces which determine the realm and the conditions of our next rebirth. These karmic forces are shaped by:


1. The relative weight of our good and bad karma

The way how this karmic force works can be likened to how a bank auditor goes through the accounts of bank customers; those who owed the most money must be pursued first. When one dies, the relative weight of the good and bad karma will determine the person's rebirth. A person who has done a lot of good deeds will be reborn into a good realm, while a person with a lot of bad karma will be reborn in one of the three suffering realms. The principle behind this is as simple as the saying, "Good begets good; ill begets ill."


2. Our habits

In Buddhism, we believe that a person's habits can affect his or her rebirth. If one has the habit of chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha, one's mind is most likely to be on Amitabha. If this person meets with an accident and remembers to chant the name of Amitabha Buddha at the moment of his death, then this one utterance can help him to be reborn into the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.


3. Our thoughts

A person's rebirth is closely linked to his or her daily thoughts. If a person is dedicated to the ways of the Buddha, then he or she will be reborn into a pure land. If a person is committed to going to heaven and practices accordingly, the person will be reborn into the heavenly realm. Thus, in our daily practice, it is important to discern the kinds of thoughts on which we anchor our mind.

No matter if it is the weight of our karma, the force of our habits, or the power of our thoughts that directs us to our next rebirth, we should always hold the right thought, practice good, and avoid inflicting harm. This way, we do not need to fear neither judgement nor death.


III. Burial Customs And The Way to Look At Death

Different cultures have different ways of attending to the body of the dead and varying burial customs. Some of the different ways of preserving the body include freezing, dehydration, dissection, or mummification. Some people bury the dead in the ground while others cremate them. Some people practice burials at sea; others observe open burials.

The way Buddhists attend to the dead is largely similar to some of the cultures described above, with two major distinctions. First, Buddhists advocate the practice of not moving the body until eight hours after death. Second, Buddhists recommend that we should not cry loudly next to the body, as our cries will disturb the dead.

Why should we not move the body until eight hours after death? Actually, there is a scientific basis to this Buddhist custom. After the lungs have stopped breathing and the heart has stopped beating, the nervous system may still continue to function. Also, some awareness may still be left in the person's sub-consciousness. Though the person may be clinically dead, the person is not yet completely dead. Therefore, when someone passes away, we should not move the person regardless if the person is lying down, sitting, or half-reclining on the bed. If we try to move the body, we may be causing the deceased discomfort who will in turn be resentful and angry. Since the state of mind of the deceased can influence his or her rebirth, it is advisable that we do not move the body for eight hours after death.

In Buddhist literature, there is a story about how disturbing the body of the dead can lead to some unintended, often unfortunate, consequences. Once a king, who was a devout Buddhist, passed away. The royal family gathered around the body and took vigil. It so happened that a mosquito landed on the nose of the king. One member of the royal family tried to shoo the mosquito away, but missed and ended up slapping the king. The king was very annoyed and anger rose in him, causing him to be reborn as a python.

There is another reason why we should wait eight hours before moving the body of the dead. It is possible that when one does sitting meditation, one may enter a state of meditative concentration in which the pulse becomes almost undetectable. To others who are not familiar with the practice of meditation, the person in meditative concentration may appear dead. There was a story of an old monk who entered meditative concentration during one of his sitting meditation practices. When his young disciple felt his pulse and discovered that he was not breathing, he thought the monk had passed away. So, he had the body cremated. When the old monk came out of meditative concentration, he could not find his body. Later, people in the temple could hear the monk calling out day and night, "Where is my house? Where is my house?" People in the temple were unnerved by his crying, and they asked a good friend of the monk for help. The friend arrived in the temple and sat down quietly. When the old monk called out looking for his house (i.e. his body), his friend remarked loudly, "Just go. Why do you still want to be bothered with the house?" When the old monk heard this, he instantly attained enlightenment and never looked for his house again.

In the old days when there was no accurate way to ascertain if a person had died, this Buddhist custom of not moving the body of the dead for eight hours was a safeguard against mistakes. In a book titled The Truth of Death, there is a chapter about a man who was mistakenly taken for dead. Now, it was a Chinese custom to collect the bones of the deceased a few years after his or her passing. Many years passed, and the family decided it was time to open the coffin and pack up his bones. When they opened the coffin, they were horrified to find his head had turned and his limbs were bent in a fetal position. The family inferred that they had mistaken him to be dead when he had just fainted. What a horror it must had been when he woke up and found himself in the coffin. Thus, the Buddhist custom of not moving the body of the dead for eight hours is not without reason. It also allows the family a time to calm down and the dead a moment of peace and quiet.

During the eight hours of the waiting period, it is best if the family helps the deceased by chanting the name of the Buddha. In this way, the deceased can rest his or her mind on the name of the Buddha as he or she makes the journey to another rebirth. We should remember not to cry out loud near the deceased. If we cannot control ourselves and must cry, we should do so away from the deceased. Although the body may be stiff and cold, the consciousness may still be lingering. Our grief can cause a lot of heartache for the deceased and become a hindrance for the deceased to move on to another rebirth.

Actually, is it necessary for us to grieve over the death of a person? We can think of dying as going away for a vacation, and we can rejoice for the happy and pleasant trip waiting for the deceased. When our loved ones pass away, we can think of them going to heaven or becoming a buddha. We can think of dying as moving to the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss, a land where suffering is nowhere to be found. Is this not wonderful? In Buddhism, we look at death as the beginning of a new life, like a chrysalis metamorphosing into a beautiful butterfly, or a chick breaking out of its shell. Why do we, who are alive, try to hold on and feel such sorrow for those who die?

As for funeral arrangements, Buddhism supports cremation. It is both convenient and sanitary, especially in densely populated areas. Unlike a burial in the ground, cremation does not require much space; it is also relatively inexpensive. I remember an elderly monk once said to me, "After I pass away, please throw my ashes into the ocean for the fish and shrimp. This way, I can build some good causal relationships with the creatures of the sea." This is such a free way to look at life and deathXa stark contrast to the egocentric tendency most of us have. Some people are very selfish and greedy. When they are alive, they want to acquire this plot of land or that plot of land for themselves. When they pass away, they want to compete with the living for the best and most spacious burial ground. How ridiculous!

Some of you may say that a Buddhist funeral is dignified, but overly simple. How do we show our love for the deceased if we do not have an elaborate ceremony or do not bury the dead in an elegant gravesite? I guess the answer to this question really has to do with one's view of death. If we can let go of life and death, we will not be restricted by social customs concerning what is appropriate for funeral arrangements. Chuang-tzu, a famous ancient Chinese philosopher, was one who did not feel restricted by social customs. When he was dying, his disciples gathered to discuss his funeral arrangements. Chuang-tzu, who overheard the discussion, laughed and said, "The heaven and earth are my coffin, the sun and moon are my treasures, the stars are my gems, and I have the whole world to accompany me in my burial. Are these not enough? Is there anything more grand?"

The disciples were in disbelief and answered, "We cannot do that. If we leave your body out in the open, the crows and eagles will come and peck at your body. It is better if we use a suitable coffin."

Chuang-tzu smiled and said, "What difference does it make? If you leave my body out in the open, the crows and eagles will come and peck at my body. If you bury my body in a coffin, the ants and maggots will still come and feed on my flesh. Why do you rob the crows to feed the ants? Why are you so unfair?"

It is not enough just to have proper funeral arrangements; we should also have the proper perspective about death. If we can cut back on an elaborate funeral arrangement and use the money for charity, we can help the deceased to leave his or her love behind for the living. If circumstances allow, we should not hesitate to participate in organ donation programs to save the lives of those in need. When we have the right perspective about death, we will then be able to handle funeral arrangements with wisdom and in such a way that both the living and the dead are helped.

How do and don't Buddhists look at death? Buddhists do not look at death as annihilation or eternal sleep. Buddhists look at death as moving from one house to another or from one environment to another. In the sutras, there are many similes about death.


1. Death is like being born again

Death is the beginning [of another life]; it is not an end. The process of death can be likened to the making of oil from sesame seeds or the making of butter from milk.


2. Death is like graduation

A person's life can be compared to a student's education in school, and death is the graduation. When we graduate from school, the grades we receive depend on how good a student we have been. Similarly, when we die, the circumstances into which we are reborn depend on the good and bad karma we have accumulated.


3. Death is like moving

When there is birth, there is death. Death is like moving out of an old house into a newer house.


4. Death is like changing clothes

Death is like taking off old, worn-out clothes and putting on new ones. When we understand that all experiences of life are floating clouds passing before our eyes, we will then see that the body is nothing but an article of clothing.


5. Death is renewal

Our body experiences metabolic processes every second. New cells are created when old ones die. The cycle of birth and death is like the process of creating new cells to replace old ones.

When we have the right perspective about death, we will not be fearful of death. What should concern us is not when we die, but what follows after we die. Most of us, when we are alive, can just think of enjoying ourselves and having a good time. We spend our time going after fame and fortune, without a clear view of where we are heading. Without a clear sense of purpose and direction, life is without meaning. What is fame and fortune when we lay dying on our deathbeds? When we know how to live our life, then we know how to handle our death. Confucius once said, "If one does not understand life, how can one comprehend death?" We should not be consumed with the fear of dying, which in itself is a physical process. What is more tragic is living our lives in delusion and ignorance; we may be alive in body, but dead in spirit. For this reason, I have chosen to speak about death. I hope that our discussion today can help each one of us to wake up from the nightmare of death. The urgent task at hand is to see life and death in the context of impermanence, suffering, and emptiness. If we do, we will be able to find meaning in life and death.


IV. Unusual Deaths and Extraordinary Deaths

Some of you may ask this: How can death be wonderful and extraordinary? If we pause for a moment and think through this carefully, we will discover that the notion of a wonderful death is not at all far-fetched. When we have a correct understanding of the Buddha's teachings, we will see through the cloak of mystery about death and be totally at peace with both life and death. The Ch'an master Shan-chao of Fen-yang said it well, "One lives for all beings and dies for all beings."

There is a wonderful story about the way in which Shan-chao passed away. When Shan-chao was alive, there was a powerful magistrate by the name of Lee Hou. Lee had always wanted Shan-chao to become the abbot of Cheng-tien Temple and offered the position to the master on three separate occasions. When the master repeatedly declined the offer, Lee was furious. So, he ordered a messenger to go to the master and personally escort the master to the temple. As the messenger was about to leave, the magistrate told him explicitly, "Listen carefully, if you do not come back with the master, your life will not be spared!"

The messenger was petrified. He went to the Ch'an master and begged him to leave with him for Cheng-tien Temple. When the master learned of the predicament of the messenger, he realized he did not have much of a choice. He gathered all his disciples and told them, "On the one hand, I do not want to leave you all here to become the abbot of Cheng-tien Temple. On the other hand, if I take you all along, I am afraid you will not be able to keep up with me."

One of the disciples came up and said, "Master, I want to go with you. I can walk eighty miles a day."

The master shook his head and sighed, "Too slow. You cannot keep up with me."

Another disciple called out, "I will go; I can walk one hundred and twenty miles a day."

The master also shook his head and said, "Too slow, too slow."

The disciples looked at each other in puzzlement. They wondered: How fast can the master travel? At that moment, another disciple quietly came forward. He bowed to the master and said, "Master, I understand. I will go with you."

The master asked, "How fast can you walk?"

The disciple replied, "However fast you can travel, I can too."

Hearing this, the master smiled and said, "Very well, let's go!"

Smiling and without so much of a stir, the Ch'an master passed away. The disciple who had volunteered stood respectfully beside the master and passed away, too. How carefree it is to leave this world at will!

The Ch'an master Te-pu of the Sung dynasty was equally charming when he passed away. One day, he gathered his disciples around him and said, "I am about to leave you. Though I am curious about the kind of funeral arrangements you will prepare for me, I am not sure if I have the time to come back and enjoy your offerings. Rather than we all worrying about each other after I depart, why don't we spend some time together and enjoy the offerings now."

The disciples felt their teacher was acting very strangely, but they dared not disobey their teacher. They prepared the funeral service and paid their respects to their teacher thinking it was all a joke. The next day, Te-pu did indeed pass away.

Some of you may think it is very strange to have the funeral service before one passes away, but it is actually quite humorous and practical. There is an old Chinese saying which captures this sentiment well. It goes like this, "Offering a drop of water to a person while he is alive is better than offering him fountains of water after he departs the world." It is better that we are respectful to our parents while they are alive than to give them an elaborate funeral service when they pass away.

The Ch'an master Tsung-yuan of the Sung dynasty also looked at death without attachment. He was eighty-three when he attained enlightenment and was neither attached to life nor to death. When he felt it was time for him to leave this world, he did it with grace and dignity. He even composed an elegy for himself:

        In this world, none of us should live beyond our time,
        For after death, we all eventually become dusts in the grave.
        As I am now eighty and three;
        I write this elegy to bid my body farewell.

The manner in which the Ch'an master Hsing-kung passed away is also legendary. At that time, there was a ferocious bandit by the name of Hsu Ming. He killed many people and caused a great deal of suffering. Hsing-kung could not bear to see the villagers suffer, so he decided to go and plead with the bandit. Though he realized that his life was in great danger, he had no fear. While he ate his meal with the bandit, he wrote this elegy for himself:

        Faced with calamity in the midst of upheaval,
        I am a jolly and fearless fellow.
        There is no time more perfect than now,
        Cut me in half if you please.

Hsing-kung's compassion and courage converted the bandit, and many lives were saved because of him. Later, when the master realized the end of his life was at hand, he told his disciples that he wanted to die floating on the river. His disciples prepared him a tub and punched a hole at the bottom of the tub. The master climbed in with a flute in his hand. The tub floated down the river amid the music of the flute. The master also left behind a poem about why he chose to leave the world this way. The poem goes like this:

        A sitting or standing death cannot compare to a floating departure.
        It saves firewood and the ground is not disturbed.
        Leaving empty-handed is quite free and joyous.
        Who can understand me? Venerable Chuan-tzu can.

At the turn of the century, there was a monk in Rangoon, Burma by the name of Miao-shan. In 1934, Miao-shan became ill with heat stroke and malnutrition. Huge boils grew on his feet and back. Even so, he continued to make prostrations to the Buddha on the hot cobblestones. The boils opened and became infected, with pus and blood oozing out. He was unfazed by his condition and refused medical treatment. He did not even want to take a bath, and nobody knew what to do. On the day of his death, one of his disciples again suggested that he should take a bath. This time, the venerable nodded and replied, "I am glad that you asked me to take a bath; it is time." Having said this, he went into the bathroom and happily took his bath. The disciple, who was worried about the venerable, stood by the door and urged the venerable to take a real good bath to cool off his body. The venerable chuckled and replied through the door, "I know. I will take a good bath today as this is my last bath."

Several hours passed. His disciple could only hear the sound of running water, but the venerable was nowhere in sight. He pushed the door open, only to discover that the venerable had passed away. The venerable was still standing, but his heart had stopped. When we can let go of our attachments, we will no longer fear death.

There are many more examples of Ch'an masters dying peaceful deaths. The Ch'an master Tan-hsia Tien-jan died leaning on his walking staff. Venerable Hui-hsiang died kneeling down with a sutra in his hand. The Ch'an master Liang-chieh of the Tang dynasty had complete control over the timing of his death; he was asked to stay alive for seven more days and he did. The Ch'an master Yu-an came back to life after he had been in his coffin for three days. The Ch'an master Ku-ling Shen-tsan asked his disciples, "Do you know what soundless samadhi means?" When his disciples answered their master in the negative, the master closed his lips tightly and died instantly. The ways in which Pang Yun and his family passed away were even more varied and interesting. His daughter Ling-chao sat on her father's chair and passed away, while Pang Yun himself lay down to die. When his son, who was working in the fields, heard of their passing away, he put down his plow and died while standing. The wife of Pang Yun saw that all of them had passed away, so she pushed open a gap in a boulder and went inside. Before she went into the boulder, she left behind this verse:

        To die while sitting, lying down, or standing is not unusual
        Mrs. Pang simply let go and departed.
        With both hands she pushed open a seamless rock
        And left without a trace for others to see.

When we have the wisdom to see through life and death, we, too, can pass away as painlessly and effortlessly as some of the Ch'an masters we talked about today. With birth comes death. Whether we are Buddhists or not, we still have to face death one day. Hopefully, with the Buddha's teachings, we can understand life, and therefore death. We should not be fearful of death, for death is nothing but a natural phenomenon. When we are prepared in life, then we are hopeful of what follows after death.

We make provisions for everything in life. We keep a flashlight in case of emergency or blackout. We have an umbrella for rainy days. We pack food for long trips, and we change our wardrobes for the coming of a new season. Likewise, we should prepare ourselves spiritually for the day when death comes knocking on our door. Not only should we rest our hopes in the present, we should also be mindful of life after death. Amid the impermanence of life and death, we should keep in mind that the Dharma-body is eternal and the wisdom-life is timeless. Our buddha nature is everlasting!