The Buddha recognised that all physical bodies are born, exist and then die. This logical observation serves as the foundation of the Buddha’s Teaching. It is an inevitable process that every living-being must experience. An individual will be born, will live their life in any number of ways, and will then pass away through natural (old age) or unnatural (illness, injury or accident, etc) causes. According to the Buddha, the state of an individual’s mind is responsible for the ‘willed’ (volitional) actions performed through the body. The frequency of these decisions can be ‘healing’ and ‘compassionate’ or ‘debilitating’ and ‘horrible’ - it all depends upon the past conditioning (karma) of the individual mind (and body).
By permanently ‘stilling’ (and ‘expanding’) the mind, all karmic production is eradicated. This is a moment of karmic purification of mind and body. The ‘ridge-pole of ignorance is destroyed forever’ as the Buddha states in the Dhammapada. This is the experience of nirvana whilst still inhabiting a human-body – and when death arrives the body will ‘fall away’ - revealing the state of experiencing ‘nirvana’ without inhabiting a body. Through adhering to the Vinaya Discipline – this strict regulation of the mind and body in the environment has a beneficial effect with regards to health. This is because every rule is designed by the Buddha to ‘remove’ a particular negative (karmic) trait that causes ‘suffering’ in the mind and body of the individual and which permeates out into the environment if not ‘checked’ through the deployment of purposeful discipline.
This is how the Buddha strives to reduce suffering in the mind and body of the individual (and in the world). This process is cemented by emptying the mind of greed, hatred and delusion – whilst directly ‘perceiving’ the empty essence of the perceiving (and ‘non-perceiving’) mind. This is how the Buddha strives to eradicate all ‘illnesses’ (and illness generating ‘delusion’) from the mind, body and environment through the application of a strict discipline. This is why Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was of the opinion that the Vinaya Discipline is a vital (foundational) element of ALL genuine schools of Buddhism – and refused to follow the example of Japan in ‘abolishing’ the Vinaya Discipline as a guide for monks and nuns. If a person wants to live longer and in a healthier manner – then follow the Vinaya Discipline!
‘Drdhamati, even while dwelling in Surangama Samadhi, I am in the trissahasramahasahasralokadhatu and, eventually, in Jambudvipa, I practice, as the case may be, the perfection of (paramita) of giving (dana), morality (sila), patience (ksanti), vigour (virya), absorptive meditation (dhyana) or wisdom (prajna), /In Jambudvipa I am, as the case may be, a recluse with the five superknowledges (pancabhijnarsi), or again, a layman householder (grhastha) or a monk (pravrajita).’
Buddha - Surangama Samadhi Sutra (Lamotte – 1998 – Page 197)
We all experience birth and we all experience death. These are two guaranteed events in our lives that apply equally to everyone regardless of our genetic inheritance or the life circumstance we are born into. Death can be further subdivided into a) natural and b) unnatural. Natural death to that shutting-down of the biological life-sustaining processes at the end of a long life, or at anytime on life's journey that does not originate from accident, illness or violence, etc. A 27-year-old, for instance, can pass away quite peacefully in their sleep simply because their particular genetic clock decides to 'switch' their heart off. This may be to do with the past evolution of human-beings when our distant ancestors did not live much past twenty. An 'unnatural' death is a demise due accident, illness or violence.
This is when an individual's life-span is cut-short due to a malfunctioning body (as in any number of genetic illnesses), or suffers the destruction of organs due to an accident. Violence committed by other humans can often account for many such deaths such as through pointless attacks within civil society, murder, acts of terrorism and acts of war. This category can be extended to include economic violence where people are deprived of work, income, food, clothing, education and medical assistance, etc, due to an ideology that privileges a few over the many. This also includes the the concept of 'psychological' violence which can serve as the base cause of all types of mental illnesses and later aberrant actions premised upon their numerous cognitive dysfunctions. Buddhist philosophy adds another layer to all this in the form of individual and collective karma.
The Buddha stated that not everything we personally experience and suffer has a root cause in volitional karma. Cancer, for instance, can be the product of a poor lifestyle and deficient choices in diet, activity and social setting, etc, but it can also be the product of the simple misfunctioning of a body cell with no input whatsoever from volitional karma. In the latter case, Cancer is a 'naturally' unfolding process. This is like the changing of the seasons or the rising of the sun, not much can be done about it at the individual level other than to 'observe'. Furthermore, at the point of full enlightenment, the Buddha states that the ridge pole of ignorance is forever broken and that the concept of karma (and notion of rebirth) comes to an end. Following all the quarantine and cleanliness rules in this current climate will help increase the chances of us as individuals not contracting, passing on or possibly dying from Covid19. From a Buddhist perspective, it is that simple.
The Phowa technique involves the expansion of consciousness from being confined to the inside of the head and body - to fully embracing the entire external world. The 'inner' and 'outer' are fully integrated - but not limited to this 'integration'. This is reflected in Stages Four and Five of the Cao Dong Prince and Minister Schemata. Therefore, the individual consciousness can only pass through the Brahma-Chakra (at the top of the skull) at the moment of physical death if full enlightenment (and an all-embracing mind) has been realised by the practitioner beforehand. Charles Luk sought-out a Mongolian Lama to clarify this issue as most Chinese Ch'an Masters remained 'indifferent' to questions of 'death', 'dying' and 'after-life', etc. Although Phowa is interesting, and represents a realised state that is part of the full Ch'an enlightenment - it is not required as a separate teaching. How to transition between the apparent states of 'living' and 'dying' is clearly exhibited within the Ch'an Records Charles Luk translated. However, as individuals we are 'free' to seek spiritual instruction from whatever spiritual tradition suits our needs at the time of enquiry. For instance, it strikes me that 'humility' is the spiritual power behind genuine 'internal' martial arts - and represents a vast reservoir of universal power above, beyond and below the entirety of existence - and that's just my preference!
‘...After my death, if you carry out my instructions and practise them accordingly, my being away from you will make no difference. On the other hand, if you go against my teaching, no benefit would be obtained, even if I continued to stay here.’
Then he uttered another stanza:
“Imperturbable and serene the ideal man practises no virtue.
Self-possessed and dispassionate, he commits no sin.
Calm and silent, he gives up seeing and hearing.
Even and upright his mind abides nowhere.”
Having uttered this stanza, he sat reverently until the third watch of the night. Then he said abruptly to his disciples, “I am going now,” and in a sudden passed away. A peculiar fragrance pervaded his room, and a lunar rainbow appeared which seemed to join up earth and sky. The trees in the wood turned white, and birds and beasts cried mournfully.
...The Patriarch inherited the robe when he was 24, had his hair shaved (i.e. was ordained) at 39, and died (sat upright) at the age of 76. For thirty-seven years he preached for the benefit of all sentient beings. Forty-three of his disciples inherited the Dharma, and by his express consent, became his successors; while those who attained enlightenment and thereby got out of the rut of the ordinary man were too numerus to be calculated.
The Altar Sutra of Hui Neng (Chapter 10 – His Final Instructions)
When Master Xu Yun gave up his body in 1959 – he was 119-years-old and well within his 120th year of life – whilst being in his 101st year as an ordained Buddhist monk following the Dharma and Vinaya. As this was his ‘last’ incarnation’, he decided to die like the Buddha lying on his right-side (which he did without trouble in-front of Master Ti Guang). Many other Ch’an monastics and lay practitioners, however, attempt the tradition of ‘seated transformation’ (坐化 - Zuo Hua) - whereby an advanced Buddhist practitioner attempts to leave his or her body whilst sat upright in the crossed-legged meditation position. History records that some Masters have been able to leave and re-enter their bodies at will- even some days after being pronounced ‘dead’. It is said that a true Dharma-Successor is able to perform this feat as a demonstration of their enlightened realisation, and is often used as a method of quality-control even within modern China (where a surprising number of devout Buddhists still ‘die’ sitting-up in the proscribed manner). As Dharma-Practice requires a completely honest and compassionate mindset, all genuine Dharma-Successors are expected to at least try and pass away in this manner. This is my intention if conditions allow (with my partner photographing the process). Of course, there is no guarantee this process will unfold as intended, but the point is that I am willing try.
Some are fettered
By renouncing things;
Others by these same things
Gain unsurpassable enlightenment.
In times of uncertainty many people are as inwardly unsure as their outer circumstances are changeable and unpredictable. Although we may all practice our various Buddhist methods, there comes a time when ideology must be superseded by enhanced loving-kindness and compassion. This must be boundless and permanently permeate the ten directions. Genuine human love has no objective, but is a continuous wave of healing energy that permeates from the deepest aspects of each individual mind and body. My view is that this is an expression of the cosmos operating through each individual life-form. The Ch’an method is necessarily harsh as it operates through a broader type of compassionate concern, and those who have approached for instruction over the years receive primarily a reflection of their own minds at the point of contact. This is to be expected and not feared. However, with regards to fear and anxiety, it is probably more conducive to healing if loving-kindness and compassion replaces this reflection process – after-all, it all manifests from the empty mind ground. If I state that ‘I Love You All’ without exception, it means that loving-kindness, compassion and wisdom emanate continuously from the empty mind ground through the mind and body I currently occupy. This process will continue when this mind and body fall away and this manifestation ceases. Unconditional love does not care for differences of opinion – we may agree or disagree on our definitions of life – as the universe keeps broadcasting its message of holistic healing, cooperation and transcendence.
Shuffling off the mortal coil, within the context of Chinese Ch’an Buddhist practice, is often associated with the male or female practitioner leaving the body whilst sat in the cross-legged, upright meditation position. Breathing slowly reduces until it can no longer be discerned, and the bodily processes come to a gentle halt. Chinese Ch’an literature is replete with recorded stories of men, women and children dying whilst standing, sitting or lying down, whilst retaining a particular posture. Some enlightened peasants have also passed away at a whim whilst working in the fields without a moment’s hesitation. Such an activity is inherently associated with the attainment of enlightenment and is still fairly common, even within Mainland China today. This is known as the practice of ‘Seated Transformation’ (坐化 - Zuo Hua), and is common in both advanced Buddhist and Daoist practice. By the time Richard Hunn passed away on October 1st, 2006, his body had been substantially weakened through months of spreading cancer and the effects of various radiation treatments – but he stated to me that he was going to die whilst ‘sitting up’, and that was that. As matters transpired, Richard Hunn passed away whilst sat-up in a Kyoto-hospital bed – and as his life-processes dissipated, he asked to go to the bookshop and buy some Wordsworth... I have researched both ancient and modern cases of ‘Zuo Hua’ in China and studied the photographs and eye-witness reports. The 6th Patriarch of Ch’an - ‘Hui Neng’ (坐化) - died in 713 CE and his body still sits upright in meditation, as does the body of Master Han Shan (憨山) who died in 1623 CE. There are many more – Daoist and Buddhist – scattered throughout the temples of China, and added to this are the hundreds and thousands of other ‘ordinary’ people who passed away sat-upright in-front of witlessness (often with written and photographic evidence). In my own seated practice, I understand that although the spine can be kept ‘buoyant’ whilst still consciously aware, the head inevitably drops forward when the sleep process is triggered, or the death process manifests. Many modern seated deaths end with the upper-body leaning (naturally) forward as the muscles completely relax. I am told that the alignment of the bones is the answer – (as in the advanced practice of Taijiquan). If the bones are aligned properly whilst seated, then the posture (I.e. ‘bones’) will be self-sustaining when all muscle-tension and control dissipates at the point of death. Elongating the vertebrae of the neck whilst pulling the chin slightly in should prevent the head from drooping at the point of death. Should my partner – Gee – be present when I experience ‘Zuo Hua’, I have requested that she photograph and film the experience for the progression of scientific understanding.