facing death

Surrender and a Lotus

By Ian Prattis After Thay's "Heart of the Buddha" retreat in the fall of 1996 at Plum Village, I went to India to teach and train in Siddha Samadhi Yoga, a system of meditation for adults and children. Committed to global religious harmony, program participants work to heal and transform deeply rooted schisms in Indian society—through rural development, civic responsibility, and anticorruption programs. and through praying regularly with all the religious communities in India. It also has a marvelous outreach to introduce meditation into schools. training colleges, universities, and factories. I was privileged and honored to experience so many treasures of India.

Then, in November and December of 1996,I became seriously ill in India. As I observed my body's systems crashing one by one, I knew there was a distinct possibility of death. I was surprised by my calm and lack of panic. As December drew towards its close, I totally surrendered. I will always remember Saturday, December 21, 1996. On that day, I let go of all attachments to my body. Throughout the day and evening, I read The Blooming of a Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh, from cover to cover, practicing those meditations that spoke to me. I felt at one with all my spiritual ancestors. I felt Thay's wisdom, love, and gentleness as a tangible presence. I was in a small ashram in the city of Mumbai, reserved for saints and holy men, and I also felt their grace close at hand.

The meditations in The Blooming of A Lotus took me deeply into my roots of being, and I felt very calm about the impermanence of my bodily existence. My heart opened wide. While I did the meditations on "Looking Deeply and Healing," I thought about my many mistakes, and chose not to deny them or brush aside the bodily pain in this moment, for I knew that the experiences of joy and freedom that were flooding through me were dissolving both. I felt very simple, that I was living properly. I was without panic and present with whatever arose. I did not fear death. This lack of fear gave me freedom and strength, and opened a huge door to send love and joy to all. I felt my true self, peaceful, not pulled in any direction. Despite all that was going on, I was solidly and timelessly present. I could freely share whatever gifts, skills and energies I had. I finally understood the real significance of the Buddha's words about the Five Remembrances:

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape ill health. I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.


To be with myself at this time—happy and content in the moment—was all I had, and it was enough. As I practiced this meditation, I felt that each moment of life was absolutely precious and somehow I was communicating this to all that I connected to. Before I slept that night, one last meditation secured me in the refuge of all my spiritual ancestors. Although the focus was on the Buddha, I felt all my teachers and guides throughout lifetimes gathered together inside and around me, without boundaries, and they stayed while I slept. When I fell asleep, I was content and happy.

mb26-Surrender1

The next morning, to my surprise and joy, I woke up! Over the next six months, I slowly recovered my health. Friends in North America who tune in to me very closely had booked airline tickets in December to take me out of India to recover. While I was touched by their love, I said no to their proposal.

Whatever the outcome, this particular journey was to be in India. I had written countless Christmas cards to friends and loved ones all over the world and signed them with "Blessings and Love from Ian." That is what I had wanted to send before my death. Then I lived! And I was even more happy that the cards were sent.

I am glad that at the last moment before leaving for India I intuitively put The Blooming of a Lotus into my backpack. It has always been one of my favorite books, as it never fails to take me deeper into myself. I love it for additional reasons now. I can recommend it to people I meet as a "lifesaver," for it was exactly this for me—a Lotus that carried me through.

Ian Prattis, True Body of Understanding, practices in Canada


mb26-DiaryDiary Entries

Prem Kutir Ashram, Mumbai, India

December 20, 1996

Feel weaker than ever this morning. Could hardly make it from my bed to the bathroom. Hope the saints who have passed through this little ashram are casting a protective eye over me. Perhaps they can cheer up Chotolal, the Nepali cook here, who has become quite anxious, especially as I have not had the energy or inclination to eat the special dishes he prepares. He only has me to look after at the moment, and my state of health is not a good advertisement for the care he gives. He is watching me write in my diary, so I will change hands and write with my left hand so he can laugh and feel less anxious about me. It worked! Is there some major purification going on in my body, is there something I do not see? What lessons are there in this for me? Or are my days drawing to a close in the silence of this ashram? My blood tests from the hospital show that I am low and deficient in just about every category, and the antibiotics and other medications only make me feel worse. So many questions and worries, yet they do not seem totally important. I ask them, then they fade away. It is a bit strange. A few days ago I collapsed and passed out while at dinner at Madhuma's house. I know she and her family would take me in, yet this saint's refuge is where I feel most comfortable right now. The quiet and simplicity of the place speaks deeply to me. I guess it allows me to prepare.

Have been in an almost constant state of mediation for days now, a deep quiet silence. Making entries in this diary is almost an interruption to the silence. Yesterday, Tom and Bev phones from Tucson in the States and it was wonderful to talk to them. They know how ill I am and sent prayers from the desert. Another friend, Barbara, from Michigan also phoned. She tunes into me very closely and was sufficiently alarmed to offer to fly to Mumbai and take me back to the States to get well in her home. Their love and care is very moving, but I know that whatever is to happen is to be here in India. For sure.

Have sent Chotolal on an errand as he was moping a bit an needed something to do. I gave him some money and asked him to buy some cards and stamps for me. The cards are beautifully hand-painted ones on pipal leaves, and have pictures of the Buddha, Krishna dancing and other such scenes. Want to make sure I finish my Christmas list. Sending tons of Christmas cards to friends and loved ones. Feel such a calm about all this that would normally surprise the heck out of me. The calm is just there, sitting with me, just fine. I know there is a distinct possibility I will not live beyond Christmas and want to send out a Christmas message from India--"Blessings and Love from Ian." Guess there is some ego in that, but it is what I want to do. Just addressed a card of the Buddha to Thay Nhat Hanh in France. Writing and addressing the cards has exhausted me, but feel very satisfied and full--a sort of mission accomplished. Chotolal brought in a package of mail from Canada: letters and cards from family and friends. Made me very happy, also made me cry as I thought of friends I may not see again. Yet they were strange tears--not full of sorrow or anything, just tears as I thought of loving friends.

I keep falling asleep very quietly, then waking up very quietly. Sleep is like a light breeze that seems to visit now and then. Ate a little bit of dinner to allay Chotolal's anxiety, but it is my supply of rice malt and vitamin C that is keeping me going. Chotolal is usually very jolly but I think my poor health has caused him to become quiet. He left some fruit and water on the table by my bed, then left to spend the next day with Nepali friends in another part of the city, taking my pile of Christmas cards to post. Care and love just beam from his eyes and drip off his moustache. I am enjoying the silence and aloneness, now that he has left. Going to bed now, it is about nine o'clock in the evening and I am drifting off to sleep as though gentle wings are carrying me.

December 21, 1996

Waking up was easy, getting up was a bit of a struggle but did that in stages. The quiet and silence inside the ashram is quite palpable and almost visible--maybe the lack of noise from the kitchen. But that is not it. I remembered my shamanic training with White Eagle Woman. Had a dream about her during the night but do not totally recall all the details. I do remember that she told me to call in my guides, and construct a mental medicine wheel around me, and include all my spiritual ancestors. Did that  and feel an incredible constellation of energies, like millions of guardian angels from every conceivable dimension. This place is really hopping with energy. I just know that today is about surrender to Go'd wisdom, and I freely place myself in His hands. Feel a funny kind of delight inside me, want to dance to an imaginary orchestra, but do not think my legs would move too well.

Took some fruit and returned to my book of meditations and began to read. The book is by my Buddhist teacher and I feel so grateful to have been around long enough to receive his teachings. I read slowly, stop frequently to close my eyes and feel the words. Doing quite a number of the meditations and have no sense of time or space today, as each meditation seems to move me with its own measure and carry me along. Feel such a deepening in my heart, all the way inside my body. Aware that there is no fear or panic, just a sort of simple and happy acceptance. That is all that is there. I have never experienced anything like this. Have no thought of anything and feel deeply content for no apparent reason. is this surrender? Peace with God? No flashing lights, visitations or visions--only a quiet surrender and being with the inevitability of it all, whatever "IT" is.

December 22, 1996

I woke up this morning, heard the crows saying hello from the tree outside the window. Feel so happy to be alive. Chotolal is singing in the kitchen and rattling his pots and pans, so I will celebrate this new day with a little breakfast. That will make us both very happy. A clear insight that this "death" is a spiritual one, as is the "rebirth." I feel completely new this morning, as thought I have been rewired and plugged into sockets with a bigger voltage. Part of my preparation to continue moving along. I feel such gratitude to all the saintly energies, guardian angels and spiritual ancestors that supprted me thorough the most important experience of my life. I will eat a good breakfast for all of them.

PDF of this article

 

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

By Karen Hilsberg BRUCE L. HILSBERG, Strong Commitment of the Heart and True Courageous Inspiration, passed away on March 29, 2005. He was forty-five years old. Bruce and his wife Karen met in graduate school, where they both received doctorates in clinical psychology. Bruce’s most recent employment was as Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital, a locked psychiatric facility where he brought mindfulness training to the staff and individuals served.

Partners for eighteen years, Bruce and Karen have two children, Emily and Ben. The Hilsbergs began the thriving Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City in 2003.

Numerous beings have provided invaluable friendships and spiritual support along the path, sharing the gifts of love and non-fear. In lieu of flowers, please offer support to the Touching and Helping Program, c/o Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.

mb39-Making1

Many people use the word “lemon” to refer to something that is no good. For example, a car that frequently breaks down is called “a lemon.” But a lemon is a beautiful fruit. The blossoms of our lemon tree fill our garden this very morning with an indescribably sweet fragrance. People have said many things to us during this past year and half of our experience with illness: “This is a trag­edy;” “What is happening to your family is terrible;” and “I hate cancer.” Our response has been to see this time as a wonderful opportunity to develop spiritually, to practice mindfulness, and to learn about true love and non-fear. The depth of closeness and trust that we have nurtured and developed in our marriage and our family this past year has been priceless.

It is one thing to study the teachings in the abstract, philosoph­ically, but quite another to live them day in and day out. For Bruce, that meant facing his own inescapable death; for me, it meant facing the inescapable death of my partner of eighteen years; and for our children, it meant facing the illness and loss of their daddy.

We have been taking refuge in the three jewels, practicing weekly with our Sangha, frequently visiting our teachers and broth­ers and sisters at Deer Park, and practicing with each other, with our family, and with friends. In the process, we have experienced letting go—letting go of our careers and professional personas, of our attachment to Bruce’s physical health, of our possessions, of our so-called independence, even of eating and drinking, and most important, of many long-held notions and beliefs.

In the letting go, remarkable things have been happening. We have touched deeply experiences we had only dreamed of—giving freely of ourselves to our loved ones, receiving the generosity of others, openly communicating with one another. For us, the real­ization that our spirit truly continues on, healthy and vital, even after our body has de-manifested “like a worn out, old shoe,” has been liberating.

Together, as a family, we have been able to transcend feelings of fear and despair and to touch the ultimate dimension when we enjoy simple pleasures like the garden, the flowers, the wind, the birds, the full moon, the laughter and tears of each other and our children, hugging, touching, breathing, moving our bodies sleeping peacefully. Simple pleasures mean everything when we realize that we are all “on death row.”

Just as we enjoy picking lemons from our lemon tree, squeezing them, adding sugar, then water, and tasting the fresh and delicious lemonade, we have taken this experience of cancer that has manifest­ed in our family and added our practice of mindfulness in order to touch the beautiful and refreshing truths taught by the Buddha 2,600 years ago. In doing this, we transcend our suffering and touch peace, solidity, freedom, love, and non-fear in our everyday lives.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives with her children in southern California, near Deer Park Monastery

 

Letter to Bruce and Karen Hilsberg

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hilsberg,

Whether Easterners or Westerners, young or old, we are always very fearful when we are facing death. Even when we are so ill that our breath is irregular, we still don’t believe that we are facing death. We don’t accept that this physical body is disintegrating because of beliefs that lie deep in our consciousness.

But there is an ultimate truth, which you can understand with deep awareness. Life is a cycle of manifestation, and death is a cycle of de-manifestation. We are the awareness that is no birth, no death.

In the winter, the leaves fall from the trees and the branches are bare. But during that time the trees are not dead, because the living energy still exists. We know that in springtime the young shoots and new leaves will return and develop very fast. Our human life is a thousand times more miraculous than the cycle of the trees. As the trees use the cycle of rest to grow, human beings should look at the life and death of this physical body as a cycle, in which they can mature spiritually. When you look deeply into your own mind you won’t have any worry, fear, or despair.

I am not a good practitioner, and I have much suffering when I see that my loved ones are very sick and I cannot help them; when I have to face many of my friends leaving, and I do not have the power to hold them back. But because of the practice, eventually I can transform the fear and suffering in my heart. I have a strong faith that the life and death of this physical body is only a cycle of the manifestation and de-manifestation, while the nature of our true self, is no birth, no death.

Bodhisattvas and Zen masters come to this world and leave this world very peacefully and freely. They can say goodbye to this life with joy because they know that they are not truly gone. We are no different than these bodhisattvas and Zen masters, if we have a strong belief that our true self is never gone.

I sincerely hope that you have strong faith in your Buddha nature that is no birth no death, so you can overcome despair, worry, sadness, and suffering. And I pray that the Three Jewels in the Ten Direcitons will always protect you so that you will have strong faith in yourself.

Venerable Phouc Tinh

The Venerable Phouc Tinh of Deer Park, wrote this letter shortly before Bruce Hilsberg’s death. Translated by Van Khanh Ha.

PDF of this article