“Not only great teachers die enlightened deaths. Gisela had been through two rounds of melanoma, and the doctors finally told her there was nothing more to be done. At seventy-five, she had been a committed student of meditation for many years and was a genuinely altruistic person; though her illness sometimes made her sad, she also seemed to have a strong attitude of realism and acceptance. When she heard that her bone marrow had been overwhelmed with cancer, Gisela said quietly and lightly, “Bummer.” Afterward, in talking with me, she shared, “This is not as hard as I thought it would be.”
Every encounter in the short six days between her terminal diagnosis and her death was marked by peace and joy. From time to time, she lifted out of the deep waters of dying to express joy to those by her side. For those of us who sat vigil through her last days, we could clearly see her riding towards death with natural courage and deep ease. Her body unbound itself smoothly, and the moment of her death was radiant; rainbows appeared in the sky over her house as she died. After her death, we sat with her for three more days. Her body remained unusually fresh and beautiful, a smile gracing her lips. We felt something extraordinary had transpired in her death; her liberation was palpable.
One who is free of fear knows that at the deepest level of realization there is no suffering, no birth, no death. Each moment is new and complete – right now being born, right now dying. All phenomena are in flux. Riding the waves of impermanence, the elements come together as form and dissolve into formlessness. In some sense we are never born; we will never die.
The Tibetan yogi Milarepa was afraid of death because he had once lived a harmful life, and had killed other people. He understood that dying can bring up everything we fear, and he feared that the harm he had caused others would besiege his life and determine his rebirth. He longed to realize his true nature before it was too late. In the end, after much practice, he was able to say that the fear of death had led him to the snowcapped mountains where he meditated on the uncertainty of the moment of his death. In this way, he reached the eternal refuge of the true nature of mind, and his fear vanished into the distance.
At that point, Milarepa experienced a real triumph over terror. When we realize our true nature – the absolute space free of birth and death – it is possible to dwell in this relative body without fear of loss. We can leave behind fearfulness, denial, sorrow, defiance, and even acceptance, to reach toward true liberation. This is our practice for a realized death.”
~ Roshi Joan Halifax