How to Die Peacefully:
Wise Words of Thích Nhất Hạnh
In four days it will be 11 October 2020. Thích Nhất Hạnh, known affectionately as Thấy, by his students, will turn 94. An interview by Eliza Barclay of Vox.com from last year of Phap Dung, a senior disciple, recently caught my attention. So, I thought to post a few excerpts and make some comments about death, since familiarity with death is an altered theme of 2020. Death is no longer a privilege for the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, for populations of underdeveloped countries, or for people who have not been intimately connected with and supported by our global market economy. In 2020 Death visits the wealthy, those with secure lifestyles, first world nations. So let’s visit this subject death, grief and loss.
Eliza Barclay: So he is 92 and his health is fragile, but he is not bedridden. What is he up to in Vietnam?
Phap Dung: The first thing he did when he got there was to go to the stupa [shrine], light a candle, and touch the earth. Paying respect like that — it’s like plugging in. You can get so much energy when you can remember your teacher.
He’s not sitting around waiting. He is doing his best to enjoy the rest of his life. He is eating regularly. He even can now drink tea and invite his students to enjoy a cup with him. And his actions are very deliberate…
Has the pace of your life changed since the onset of this COVID-19 period? Do you remember life being fast-paced before? Do you remember an inability to stay focused, to concentrate, to practice completing one thing at a time, instead of multitasking? Have your personal connections and conversations changed now that governments have limited the possibilities for interactions? Have you been able to slow down and be in the moment? Have you noticed a new or renewed ability to enjoy periods of your day?
Sometimes there is confusion about mindfulness: deliberate and intentional action. We can become more deliberate and intentional by focusing on the breath, focusing on the functions of the body, the parts of being that we take for granted, the parts we think we know. Becoming more aware can be a consequence of deliberate and intentional action. Its easiest to learn this with the self first, by increasing physical and emotional competence. We become skilled when we are able to practice deliberate and intentional action in the presence of others.
Eliza Barclay: But you are also in this process of letting him go, right?
Phap Dung: Of course, letting go is one of our main practices. It goes along with recognizing the impermanent nature of things, of the world, and of our loved ones.
This transition period is his last and deepest teaching to our community. He is showing us how to make the transition gracefully, even after the stroke and being limited physically. He still enjoys his day every chance he gets.
My practice is not to wait for the moment when he takes his last breath. Each day I practice to let him go, by letting him be with me, within me, and with each of my conscious breaths. He is alive in my breath, in my awareness.
Breathing in, I breathe with my teacher within me; breathing out, I see him smiling with me. When we make a step with gentleness, we let him walk with us, and we allow him to continue within our steps. Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you, and to see that he is more than just a physical body now in Vietnam.
I remember when my feline companion Ellie taught me this. Presence often came in the form of pre-mourning. Years earlier I’d made a commitment to share my home with a little kitten. Eventually the time for me to move arrived. Ellie taught me the impermanence of everything. She taught me how to stay present with my grief. She taught me the release of my attachment to her, and how to embrace the grief months before my moving day.
I could actually feel the layers of her presence in my life. And even now, I feel her in my breath and movement. I feel her essence near mine. I remember the life-long lessons she taught, and the support she gave.
Eliza Barclay: What are some of the most important teachings from Buddhism about dying?
Phap Dung: We are aware that one day we are all going to deteriorate and die — our neurons, our arms, our flesh and bones. But if our practice and our awareness is strong enough, we can see beyond the dying body and pay attention also to the spiritual body. We continue through the spirit of our speech, our thinking, and our actions. These three aspects of body, speech, and mind continues.
In Buddhism, we call this the nature of no birth and no death. It is the other dimension of the ultimate. It’s not something idealized, or clean. The body has to do what it does, and the mind as well.
But in the ultimate dimension, there is continuation. We can cultivate this awareness of this nature of no birth and no death, this way of living in the ultimate dimension; then slowly our fear of death will lessen.
This awareness also helps us be more mindful in our daily life, to cherish every moment and everyone in our life.
One of the most powerful teachings that he shared with us before he got sick was about not building a stupa [shrine for his remains] for him and putting his ashes in an urn for us to pray to. He strongly commanded us not to do this. I will paraphrase his message:
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”
Even though I had the luck of first world membership by birth, my life has been touched by death multiple times. In 1993 I was told to read the book, The Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior. There is a poem in the book that also speaks of death and grief.
Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there I do not sleep…..
The poem in the btook helped me to understand how seamlessly interconnected all of life is. So much so that we can find our loved ones who have transitioned in our mindful breaths and peaceful steps.
You can find the full interview Thich Nhat Hanh’s final mindfulness lesson: how to die peacefully by Eliza Barclay on Vox.com.