the Spiritual Friends of Supaporn Pongpruk
The bulk of this essay is the death diary of a Thai lay woman named Supaporn Pongpruk, who was the Executive Secretary of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists from 1991-93. It was recorded by her kalyanamitta 善知識 John McConnell, an English Quaker, yet a serious student and practitioner of Buddhism as well. We have also included observations by other key kalyanamitta, such as the two people with her when she died, her mother and long time friend Surapee Chootrakul, as well as Ven. Phaisan Visalo, an eminent monk who had been friends with Supaporn since their student days. Phra Phaisan is now involved in a spiritual dying network of health care professionals, NGOs workers, and religious professionals in Thailand. This group of kalyanamitta reaffirms the practice of intersubjective death. It is through these intimate relationships that we can see the remarkable possibilities to live ancient Buddhist teachings in our present world. There is a companion video to this diary available here.
Supapon came of age in the student movement days of the 1970s when Thailand was still struggling to form a stable democracy. A significant force in this democracy movement were progressive Buddhist leaders like Buddhadasa Bhkkhu and Sulak Sivaraksa, INEB’s leading founder. Like a number of other students and NGO workers, Supapon was deeply influenced by them and became a devout and serious practicing Buddhist in her 20s.
In 1992, at the age of thirty-five, she developed breast cancer, an illness now quite common amidst Thailand’s rapid development and industrialization. She immediately quit her work at INEB and embarked on a new life dedicated to confronting her sickness. After the initial diagnosis (which included a biopsy), she decided against modern forms of treatment. Instead, Supapon went on extensive yoga and meditation retreats, followed a strict macrobiotic diet, and used herbal rather than Western medicine. During this time, she came to confront in earnest her own mortality, and once when expressing confidence in her power to do so, she was admonished by the great Cambodian master Maha Ghosananda who told her, ”Those who say they don’t fear death don’t really know what it is. If they do, they will not say so. Indeed, most human sufferings arise from this fear of death. To make merit [by serving a monk] seven times is not equal to building a temple. Building seven temples does not amount to one period of meditation, and seven periods of meditation are still less than one contemplation on death.”
Within two years, through her new way of life, she was basically much healthier and happier than before, and there was no sign of cancer. Indeed, as a way of life, this meant not returning to the harried NGO activist life in polluted Bangkok. Instead, she moved back to her hometown, Hatyai, in southern Thailand in 1994, far away from Bangkok, where she taught yoga, translated books (especially by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh), wrote about self-healing, and grew a remarkable garden in the new house she had built next to her mother’s in the center of the city. Together with her friend, John McConnell, Supapon began a series of workshops that used meditation and Buddhist psychology as a basis for self-healing. Participants came to include nurses and doctors as well as many cancer patients. Occasionally, she ventured back north to lead these workshops on self-healing or to aid John in their workshops on conflict resolution.
In 1998, following a particularly hurtful life-event, the cancer reappeared. Supapon renewed her decision to treat it in a natural way. Symptoms remained under control and Pon continued to live normally and happily until basically a year before her death. In fact, through this experience and her diligent dharma practice, she came to find a new brightness in her life and commented that the last years of her life were her happiest:
“For six years I have been living with a good feeling towards my cancer. I do not suffer that much compared to other cancer patients. Other cancer patients have been in and out of the hospital for treatment. I have lived my life normally and been quite healthy. This is partly because I already learned the lesson that life is impermanent. We don’t know when we are going to die. We should remember that. When the cancer came back, I felt, ‘Oh! Life is uncertain; even tomorrow life is not sure.’ After looking at it carefully my mind gradually became more and more stable. This is called upekkha in Dharma language – meaning the mind is balanced in equanimity.”
“Everyday I have to clean the tumor. It’s a good chance to contemplate the body. We can see impermanence and the decline that is taking place. I talked to my friend over the phone. She said, ‘It’s strange that you sound happy and cheerful.’ That’s because my mind is working in a different direction from normal. Usually, we get depressed when we think about death. Not me! I feel my mind has become fresher and clearer. I feel this is because I understand things better and because I accept them. If it happens the way we want it’s good, but if not, it’s also good.”
By June 2003, the cancer had spread to the bone, and Supaporn’s condition began to seriously deteriorate. It is here that we begin John’s diary of the final 6 weeks of Supapon’s life, to which comments by various kalyanamitta have been added including recorded reflections by Supapon herself.
September 3rd, 2003
I arrived in Thailand, yesterday, and am staying in Hatyai, helping look after our good friend Supapon. I have to tell you that her symptoms have worsened. She is now confined to bed, and is nearly paralyzed on her left side. She is subject to build-ups of wind in the gut, and this affects her breathing until they are cleared. Pain rotates around various parts of the body. Her weight is down to around 75 pounds. The doctor who is tending her believes that the original tumor has metastasized, and that there are secondary tumors in her abdomen and possibly some in her vertebrae. He is clear that she is in the last stage now.
Spiritually, she is fine. She meditates when she can, and is so aware of the first “arrow” of physical suffering that the mental suffering of the second is actually quite small. She understands her condition very well and accepts the daily changes it brings. Often, when I have called from England, she has listed the day’s symptoms, then said, “For me it’s fine.” I feel there is a tremendous strength in those words and the attitude that lies behind them.
She is still a joy to be with, still interested in others, still finding her own ways to practice Dharma, and still able to laugh and smile with friends. She cries too, occasionally with stabs of pain, or the shock on an event that symbolizes the loss of some faculty, but not in self-pity, and not in despair. I feel she is handling this most difficult situation marvelously. She has good support from her family, her network of friends, and the alumni of the workshops we have run (among whom are the palliative care team who visit her).
Surapee reports that this group, whether it be just one of us or more, continue to meditate and to do a morning and evening chanting service for supporting Pon’s spiritual well being. This is a basic service conducted in most monasteries of taking refuge in the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It also includes a special reflection of spiritual urgency on the impermanent nature of our beings. The Buddha taught that our beings are made of five aggregates (khandha): form, feeling, perception, thought, and consciousness. One of Pon’s main spiritual practices has been to contemplate these as impermanent and to let go of them in preparation for their dissolution at death. This chanting was something she would do together with visitors over the past months, but now that she is immobile, we do it for her while she lies in bed and practices mindfulness meditation.
September 5th, 2003
Yes, Pon understands her situation, and she does not despair. She is more or less paralyzed now, and needs to be helped with all the basic life functions. There is someone with her all the time, and Surapee, Janyaa and I take turns to sit with her throughout each night. Her energy is very limited and talking takes a lot out of her. Nevertheless, she manages both to be fully involved in her treatment and to relate very meaningfully to the people around her. Each day she has at times smiled and laughed. A fragment of discussion from a couple of nights ago suggests her attitude:
“John, I never thought I would get like this.”
“Do you regret any of the decisions you made?”
“No, not one. It is just anicca (impermanence). It is OK.”
Two days ago, Pon said she felt the life force decreasing in her, and even without pain relief drugs, she feels very, very sleepy. Her meditation is mindfulness of breathing, then “welcoming all experiences”, letting them be, and letting them go.
Levels of discomfort vary day to day. The last few days have been not too bad, and she has managed without pain relief, which can make her confused and more sleepy. She had a good night last night, some discomfort and stiffness, but no real pain, and a lot of good sleep as a result. This morning she looked better. I asked, “How do you feel this morning Pon?”; and she said, “Happier today.”
September 19th, 2003
Pon has become weaker over the last few days. Two nights ago she experienced numbness in her diaphragm area. Breathing has become shallower, and the heart-beat is high, probably as a result. Today her voice is very weak, too weak to talk on the phone. We are trying to compensate by giving her more oxygen. She has it more or less continuously now and has agreed the next steps with the palliative care doctor. There is someone with her all the time, and I stay awake, meditating (sometimes with a cup of tea) beside her bed each night.
Spiritually, she is very well indeed. We meditate together many times each day and night, and we experiment with meditation for each difficult situation that arises. Turns of her body, which can be painful, begin with saying, “slowly, mindfully, and with lots of loving-kindness.” When spasms impact on her chest, she immediately becomes mindful and just meditates through it. The pain control drugs, provided by the doctor sit in their box, available but mostly unused. In fact, Pon responds with meditation to many situations that would normally be treated with drugs.
She finds guided meditation helpful, progressively letting go of attachments and resting in awareness, right here and now. Sometimes we extend loving-kindness, wishing that all comes into harmony – for ourselves, for the lovely circle of friends of whom we are a part, and for all beings. In these guided meditations, we pick up many of the insights and Dharma teachings in your e-mails and from Phra Phaisan’s suggestions when he came. We try to attune them to what is possible at the time, for though Pon’s spirit is good, her energy is sometimes very, very low. All your advice has been listened to intently by Supapon, and all has been helpful – thank you.
However short the meditation sessions, her awareness is deepening, and there are many times of serenity and of insight. A couple of nights ago she said, “I have always been a fighter, but now is the time to let go of struggling and fighting. It is like a toy that I need to put down.” Then, last night, she told us that she thought the end was close. She anticipates difficulty talking in the near future, and she had some instructions for us, her carers. Most importantly, she wants an atmosphere of mindfulness around her.
So, friends, we cannot know the time, but our dear friend Supapon edges gently towards release from the suffering of this world. And she does so with great grace and dignity. Her mind is inwardly at peace – of that I am sure. Thinking of support over the next few days, phone calls are difficult. She can listen, but not speak. Letters and cards are always welcome. However, the most effective form of support is surely to sit down and meditate in the way that puts you most in touch with reality. Then extend loving-kindness to wish that all comes into harmony for you, for her, and for all beings. Each moment is a time of suffering and transcendence for all of us.
September 24th, 2003
Things are quite good here. Since my last letter, Supapon’s condition has stabilized a bit. Her breathing is a little worse, but not as bad as Pon expected. She has more strength in her voice now, though still not enough to manage a conversation on the phone I guess. After a period of several days when she would take only fruit juice, she has begun to eat food once again.
As any of us would, Pon experiences frustration at her current situation and at the mistakes of those around her. I feel this is healthy too. It occurs in the context of a daily routine which includes many times of meditation. It offers the opportunity for her carers to be more mindful, and for Pon to be aware of and let go of her anger. So we have put up signs to remind ourselves to close the bathroom door gently, for example. Pon is becoming more detached: “I decided to let things go now.”
She has been reviewing episodes of her life, remembering student days at Thammasat University (“How free I was then”) and enjoying many memories from childhood. Her broad feeling is that, “Life has been rich – so many tastes, so many places, so many lovely people.” Lovely people come to visit her too, and while Pon’s energy is terribly limited, each visit is meaningful – evoking smiles and sometimes tears. After a few minutes, she slips into meditation, and her visitors can enjoy meditating with her awhile.
September 28th, 2003
Pon has become progressively weaker over the last few days, with feelings of heaviness in the arms, numbness in the fingers, and breathing ever shallower. We are up to five liters of oxygen per minute, so a cylinder that would last three days just a fortnight ago is spent in just a day.
I wrote last time of Pon’s frustration and of how this is an opportunity to let go of her anger. I am very happy to say that this is happening. There have been some good discussions, some apologies, and a real change of attitude on Pon’s part – an opening of the heart. She is becoming more gentle; it’s lovely to see, actually.
We, too, are becoming more mindful, and taking much more care, where before we were rather clumsy. I found mindfulness of closing doors, so the sound/vibration does not impact on Pon, at first a challenge, but now a pleasure. I close doors with mindfulness and with loving-kindness. It is lovely to do.
One can see very clearly the value of meditation, using the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (bojjhangas). At a time when body-systems are collapsing and when each day brings discomfort and pain, Pon meditates through it. Beginning with #1 mindfulness of breathing (sati), she brings mind to the present struggle of the body. Then with #2 keen investigation of the dhamma (dhammavicaya), she observes any self-centeredness (clinging or resistance) that is there, and works with it, just meeting it with awareness and letting it go. From this, #3 energy (viriya) arises, and then there is often #4 concentrated serenity (piti) about her face that reflects #5 an inner tranquility (passadhi). For considerable periods, #6 her concentration (samadhi) enables her to face her condition with #7 equanimity (upekkha), at ease with the dis-ease, just resting in awareness of this present moment, and letting the flow of life take place unobstructed. There are other times when the craving for continuation of life is there, and leads her to experiment with a new treatment. But she is not deluded.
For myself, this shared experience is the most marvelous and profound Dharma teaching I have ever had. Pon and I have been spiritual friends (kalyanamitta, Jp. zenchishiki) to each other for some years, but I feel I have never benefited so much as now. I cannot adequately express my gratitude. Friends, do please hold us in your thoughts and prayers. Wish that all things may come into harmony for Pon.
October 1st, 2003
Life here is very difficult, but deeply meaningful. Movement of Pon’s arms has decreased and she needs help to position them as we turn her body. Breathing too is shallower. We are up to seven liters per minute, so we have four large oxygen cylinders to make sure there is always enough. We keep them clear of the windows, so the little garden is still visible.
Parallel with the body’s decline, there is a process of spiritual rounding off and renewal taking place. Old patterns of attachment are surfacing in present or remembered situations, offering the chance to be more wise and more aware, essentially offering the chance to learn from the experiment of life. Pon now finds it easy to meditate for long periods as she is mindful of the stream of remembered experiences from her youth. She said, “As if I were there again. I can see so clearly the stream of lobha (greed), one thing to another. I try to concentrate on breathing, but it’s very frustrating. I keep getting carried away. It’s better just to be mindful of the present moment, and use it to let go of the lobha.”
A couple of nights ago there was a dream to do with anger and fear. She said, “I dreamed I had harmed a woman earlier, and she bore a grudge, waiting for a chance to hurt me. She said I will have problem in my breast and in my back.” I responded, “How do you interpret that? Is it a memory from a past life, or the mind giving you the chance to be aware of its resentment?” She replied, “The chance to be aware of anger. I could be mindful, extend loving-kindness, and chant the Metta Sutta.”
Then there was a dream about fear of dying. In the dream, Pon was working at a machine, but knew it was dangerous in some way. Her nephew came along, and Pon was so anxious to save him that she was electrocuted. Then, realizing she was dying, she started being mindful of the dying process and just watched it. She said, “I was OK.” I responded, “So what started out with fear of dying, led to mindfulness and ended happily?” She replied, “Yes.”
We all have layer upon layer of self-pictures, self-clingings and self-protectiveness. These perhaps originate with specific self-judgements, perhaps with unthought responses to particular situations, perhaps just taking shape incrementally. To use a computing analogy, it’s like having bugs buried in our software. Little packets containing distortions of information and clumsy command sequences which foul things up without our knowing. We aren’t aware of them normally, but sometimes in meditation, and certainly at this stage, it all comes bubbling up into consciousness.
This review of life, from infancy onward, is both intense and urgent, at the moment. There is a need to round things off with truth, to at least learn the lessons of our ignorance even if we cannot go back and do things with wisdom. It is as if the mind wants to discern the harmony that could, or should, have been and to learn lessons from the disharmony, within this phase of being. But why? For some evolutionary purpose, a last sharing of wisdom with the next generation, or something far more subtle and far-reaching?
This is in contrast with the present struggle, fought within close confines. First there is pain, some of it originating in the body, some in the nerve centers invaded by the cancer. Sometimes distraction is possible, and Pon focuses on the sensations as we stroke her arms. Sometimes she keeps attention on the breathing. Her mother notes that, “When she is lying in bed she meditates; even when she feels pain, she meditates. She uses the time that she has to lie in bed to meditate.” Then, Pon has two pictures of the Buddha aligned so she can see one whichever way she lies. Following Phra Phaisan’s advice she has started to visualize them. They are not strong images yet, but she is developing them. Then, as the various dimensions of the paralysis affect her, she is mindful of the four elements.
At the moment, her main “defense” against pain is meditation using the Seven Factors of Enlightenment; that is, to be mindful of the pain, observe resistance and avoidance of it, and keep letting go. After all, the pain is not her fault, not her responsibility, and not really her pain at all. In reality, it is empty of self. It is the pain of being, the pain of the universe. Knowing it as impermanent and not-self, Pon just keeps letting go. The night before last she had pain but told me, “I practised the Seven Factors of Enlightenment: practiced sati (mindfulness), and dhammavicaya (discernment of the present state). I spent quite some time with dhammavicaya and then viriya (energy) arose, but I went to sleep before piti (rapture) came.” Actually, already her samadhi (concentration) is much deeper, already she has considerable upekkha (equanimity).
When the pain is too great, she uses drugs which are always available for her. But not in a sort of absolute way. It isn’t a complete change. In this interim period, she uses a mild opiate called Tramadol. The way we use it is that I prepare a Tramadol for her, and she will say, “OK, John. I will mediate for 20 minutes.” Then with the Tramadol and a glass of water sitting there as a security, she meditates. Often, she simply falls asleep and does not need the Tramadol. She then wakes up a few hours later refreshed – far better than she would have been with the drug. She herself has said:
When I experience pain, I take it as a warning of what is to come. I think it is an opportunity to prepare ourselves. We should use it to work out ways to face pain. When we actually face a very painful feeling, we do not have a chance to think about anything else. So to prepare ourselves in advance is very important. For example, when I practice to look at my pain, I sometimes tease it, for example, I will say, “Oh! Today I’m already so tired. Please give me compassion. Do not hurt me so much.” In this way, we can learn to talk to our pain. We can create a positive attitude to the pain. The pain is still there, but it will not dominate our life. There are many other beautiful things in our lives, loving kindness from others and the beauty of things around us. Even the feeling of facing the truth has a kind of beauty. For example, we might think, “Oh! This is how life is now.” This also has its beauty.
I think we may not be able to eradicate the pain, because the pain is real and still there. There are also other things that come to nurture and push away some pain. For example, when we feel pain, we see our mother. She has tried to help us in every way she can. She even wants to take the pain for us. Then there are relatives and friends who are giving support. I think all these come to replace the pain and have pushed some pain away.
Then there is the paralysis, with its impending crisis. She said, “The paralysis has moved fast. Cannot move my arms or hands now, and breathing more shallow every day. I decided to stop struggling, and let the body return to nature. Soon, breathing will be very difficult.” With the paralysis ever advancing, poor Pon’s breathing is pitifully shallow. Ahead lies the crisis of finally being unable to take in the oxygen we are giving her. Of what use is mindfulness then?
There is a sutra where a monk, the Ven. Assaji, is distressed by difficulty breathing, saying to the Buddha, “Formerly, Lord, I kept trying to calm down my sickness, but I am still much troubled by my breathing. I cannot win balance of mind. But though I cannot win balance of mind, I say to myself, ‘Yet I do not fall away.'” The origin of Assaji’s despair lay in the fact that trouble with breathing was making him lose the balance of mind he prized. He could put up with the physical discomfort, but this disturbance of his meditation was unacceptable. Perhaps he had cherished the belief that this deep meditative state would be with him to the end, and difficulty with breathing was making it impossible to achieve. The Buddha asked Assaji just to be mindful of the experience of “losing balance”, of the feelings that arise, and to see their impermanence. In this way the hard shell of self, which wants to cling to “balance of mind” as part of itself, would be eroded.
The Buddha said, “Those who deem balance of mind as all in all, when they cannot win that balance of mind, say to themselves: ‘May I not fall away.’ Now as to this, what do you think Assaji, is the body permanent or impermanent?” He replied, “Impermanent, Lord.” The Buddha further explained, “So it is with the other factors, and consciousness. If one feels a pleasant feeling, painful feeling, or neutral feeling, he knows it as impermanent; he knows it as not clung to; he knows it has no lure for him; he feels it as one unattached. If he feels a feeling that his bodily powers and his life have reached their end, he knows that he so feels.”
The Buddha taught that Assaji should be mindful of his changing mental condition. Mind is, after all, as impermanent as physical being. Pushing the experience away he had become tied in mental knots, thinking, “Will I regain balance of mind or not?” But just by being mindful of what was happening, a new equilibrium was achieved. The experience itself, there and then, became the opportunity to let go.FN
Then there is also the story of Mahanama who had enjoyed meditating and discoursing with the Buddha. He was afraid that if he died violently, perhaps attacked by robbers, perhaps trampled by an elephant, all his accomplishments would be lost. The Buddha replied using the simile of a pot of ghee smashed underwater in a pond. The clay smashes and sinks, but the ghee floats inevitably to the surface. Though the body is wracked by struggle and violence, the refined spiritual energy rises free. In our discussion, we thought of dying as a bit like that, floating free from the struggling, broken, body-mind. Leaving self and all its entanglements and edifices behind, just meeting everything with awareness.
There are still times of joy, each day. On the night-shift, the early morning is one. Last night, at 3 a.m., Pon said, “Everything is so quiet, so still; feels special.” Then, as dawn sends its gentle light across this part of the world, she takes great delight in the changing patterns of light in the little garden. The garden, as most of you will know, is a work of art, a reflection of Pon’s love for life and creativity. It is a joy to watch the morning light suffuse it, first with blue-grays, then greens and pinks. Birds sing in the trees. Pon can’t talk to visitors now, but she still welcomes them. Somehow they, the presence of carer-friends, and your mails, symbolize good karma coming back to help her at this difficult time.
October 10th, 2003
Visits are more problematic now. With her breathing so frail, meeting people is more demanding. In the past too, she has been upset on occasions when people walked in without invitation. In general, therefore, we try to consult her about each visitor, and ask them to stay on the verandah until she feels ready to meet them. The key factor in her decision is her energy level at the time. So please do not be offended if she has chosen to remain alone. Also, we’d like to apologize to anyone who feels we have obstructed their visit. Our sole concern is to avoid pressure on her. Sorry if we were too careful.
A couple of nights ago Pon said she did not want to meet any more visitors, but then she was very happy to meet a group from the Wongsanit Ashram, where she used to work and live. Actually, she appreciates visitors greatly. So now we just use our judgment and warn people not to try to engage her in conversation. Mostly she manages some moments of eye-contact, a smile, and perhaps a few words, before drifting back to a kind of mindful sleepiness.
From this you will have gathered that Pon’s physical condition is much weaker than before. The paralysis goes right to the neck now, with virtually no movement in the left arm, over which she still had some control when I wrote earlier. Breathing is weaker too, and we are at the top of the scale of the oxygen regulator, that is 16 liters per minute. We had another event of the body too. We discovered that poor Pon had been bleeding from the finger tips of her right hand, the wounds having opened up from the inside. The doctor thought this was due to low blood-platelet level, and so we are alert for signs of internal bleeding. So far, thankfully, there are none, and the bleeding has stopped.
Anticipating a time when she cannot breathe in enough oxygen and the struggle is difficult, Pon began experimenting with drugs that might help. She tried Lorazapam, a fast-acting sedative, but found it confused her. Morphine, which would help distance her from the body-condition, was much better. She said, “Morphine is not as bad as I thought, not so many side-effects, and my mind is not confused. I can be mindful with it. I feel very peaceful actually.”
So morphine is the drug of choice, and lorazapam is the drug of last resort when instant sleep is the only thing that will help.
As it happened, around that time, but before taking the first dose of morphine, pain levels around neck and shoulder increased significantly, more than Pon could easily bear. Now she is on a fairly comprehensive pain-control regime: neurontin for nerve pain, ibruphen for bone pain, and morphine to help make the pain a little more distant. None of these work perfectly, but I am glad to be able to say that, broadly, she is much more comfortable – and she still is able to meditate. Times are shorter of course, but there are still the insights.
Our guided meditations follow the lines I explained earlier. However, now they have come to include the process of progressive detachment in Ven. Sariputta’s advice to Anathapindika when he was dying. Here is part of the sutra. “Then, you should train thus: ‘I will not cling to the eye, and my consciousness will not be dependant on the eye. I will not cling to the ear, to the nose, to the tongue. I will not cling to the body. I will not cling to the mind, and my consciousness will not be dependant on the mind.’ Thus should you train……You should train thus: ‘I will not cling to sounds, odors, flavors, tangibles, mind-objects, and my consciousness will not be dependant on mind-objects.'” So in our meditation we try to make the moment of awareness of anything that preoccupies the mind, of the senses, of consciousness itself, the time to let it go. Each moment is a moment of living, and a moment of dying. In Pon’s words, “I let everything go now. While it be in my mind, I let it go.”
Earlier I mentioned the intensive review of memories that was taking place. I quoted Pon’s comment about the continuous stream of lobha (greed), told of her efforts to be mindful of it, and asked what purpose this kind of process might have. I got an answer yesterday, out of the blue. She said, “John, the stream of lobha (greed) has stopped, stopped completely.” Then, with a smile she said, “Only dosa (anger) now.” I’m sure there is some moha (ignorance/delusion) to come too. Through mindfulness, the review of life is becoming part of the process of liberation. On the night-shift, the early dawn is still a special time. This morning Pon said, “I look at the plants near the window, and everything comes into harmony. But then I fall off into sleep. Can’t keep the awareness.” I responded, “That’s a lovely metaphor for living and dying.” She replied, “Yes. It’s the nature, just the nature.” This morning Pon has been tired, but also very peaceful.
October 15th, 2003
After seven weeks with Supapon, I left to meet my family in Sri Lanka on the 15th. Surapee returned on the 12th so we had some days to hand over. Surapee was a chosen as a special kalyanamitta to Pon and is a natural nurse. She is a very gifted and compassionate one actually. So, while leaving was difficult, I felt it was OK with Pon. The night-shift on the 14th was peaceful, with some lovely words being said, words I will remember all my life, and we watched the dawn together. Light coming into the little garden had, over the weeks, become a thing of quiet but immense joy. So simple, so beautiful!
Towards the end, when it became clear that end was not so far, she became a bit afraid of what would become afterwards. I said to her “No one can know. No one can tell. But the thing we can be clear about is that actually you handle it in the same way you have handled everything. Just being mindful. Just being aware. Not resisting, not clinging. But just being aware of it and transcend it.”
Phra Phaisan was by her side too during these last days. She was very attentive to his advice about the process of dying and how to handle the states that would arise. For me, it was good to find that our approaches, while expressed in different concepts, shared much in spirit. This is something that Pon noted too. These are his own comments below on his communication with Pon.
I think that not only Theravada Buddhism but also Tibetan Buddhism tries to make best use of the last moment of consciousness for attaining nirvana, since the last moment is full of all possibilities. I myself believe the possibilities of heaven, though I don’t know what it looks like. From my limited knowledge, I think that a pure land is a kind of heaven, so it’s inferior to nirvana. I don’t think that being born into a pure land is automatically a step toward nirvana. If one’s merit expires, one is likely to depart from a pure land or heaven for another realm which may be a lower realm.
I was not there when Pon passed away. I left her two days before her death. She was already in a coma when I left. I had been with her four days, two of which she was still conscious. I tried to remind her to understand the suffering due to attachment to body and mind, and how to detach from it. Normally, I don’t discuss these matters with ordinary people who are dying since they don’t have a solid background in Buddhism. For them, I just help them to be relieved of anxiety, guilt, or unfinished business; and then turn to positive things, like the Triple Gem (Buddha-Dharma-Sangha), the merit they have done in the past, and the confidence of their goodness. Since Pon had no problem with that, what she needed and asked for was advanced guidance toward deliverance through a deep understanding of not-self (anatta, Skt. anatman). I was sure that in an ordinary situation Pon would go to heaven, but I thought that she could do more than that. So I tried to help her let go of “me and mine” or any attachment to the idea of self, since that would help her move closer to nirvana or to nirvana directly. I told her the following.
Everybody has bodhi or buddhahood in one’s mind. This seed of bodhi needs constant nourishment. While a tree needs water, the seed and tree of bodhi needs mindfulness, peace, and wisdom for it to grow. At the moment, your seed of bodhi is growing. It is destined to grow as a tree. Please be mindful in every moment and at every breath. Be assured that your bodhi is growing with every moment of mindfulness. Any tree can transform the garbage and rubbish around it to be beneficial nutrients for its nourishment. With your tree of bodhi, you can transform suffering and pain into peace and tranquility. Suffering and peace are not separate from each other. In suffering, we can find peace. Similarly, any tree can transform the burning rays of the sun into cool shadows under which everybody finds comfort and takes rest. Burning rays of light and shadows are not separate. They stay together. Please use your tree of bodhi to transform the burning feeling into coolness.
Do you remember Ajahn Buddhadasa saying that in a melting pot is nirvana? We can experience the center of a melting pot. Try to experience nirvana in the midst of your physical suffering and extreme pain. Don’t let pain overwhelm you. Be mindful and see it just as an experience that occurs to the body, not to “me” or “mine”. In the time of the Buddha, there was a monk who got a serious sickness and was abandoned by the other monks, leaving him in a pile of his own excrement. Once the Buddha found out, he came to take care of this monk, washing him and cleaning his bed. His physical situation did not improve, but his mind improved. Then the Buddha told him this verse, “This body is impermanent. Once the consciousness leaves this body, the body just lays on the ground, abandoned by everybody. It becomes useless.” With this short verse, the monk became enlightened. His enlightenment would not be possible if he had not experienced pain and decay. So you can see that in the midst of suffering, one can find enlightenment.
Be mindful with the change of your body. Now the earth, water, fire and wind in your body are going to leave you. You sense that the earth element is departing, leaving you with less energy, unable even to sit. And the water element is going to leave as well. That’s why you cannot control the liquid in your body, feeling dry at the lips of your mouth. Now the fire element is in turmoil. You feel cold and dry in many parts of your body. Wind is leaving too, making you have difficulty with breathing. Not only body, but mind as well. First you feel exhausted, sleepy. Later you feel angry and frustrated. Now your memory is in decay. Don’t reject this situation. These elements are going to teach you the important lesson that everything is impermanent. Please accept their departure. Don’t try to stop them from leaving you. Don’t be upset with them. They have served you for a long time, enabling you to do goodness the whole of your life. Feel grateful to them and let them go. And learn truth from them. They are like a boat which is in decay. The only thing you can do now is to become willing to leave when it’s time and to continue your journey with other means toward the noble goal of life: nirvana.
Try to maintain your state of mindfulness. To be mindful is to be aware of anything that is happening to you, be it pain, anger, frustration, anger, clumsiness. Just be aware of it and let it go. Nothing more than that. When the demonic force of Mara came to disturb the Buddha and his disciples, either in a pleasing or frightening form, the Buddha and his noble disciples did nothing other than say to Mara, “I know you.” By just saying that, Mara became fed up and left. Mara is the main element that tries to keep you in samsara. Now that you are moving forward to liberation from samsara, Mara will try to lure you to cling to this world and to cling to “me” and “mine”. To undo this force, just remain mindful of anything that comes to you. Just be aware of it and let it go. Don’t regard it to be “me” or “mine”. Don’t regard that any pain is “mine”. Just see it. Don’t feel that you are the one who is in pain. The pain is there, but there is not an “I” or “mine” who is in pain. With this way you can experience peace in the midst of pain.
In the near future, you may experience visions in many forms. One of them is the vision of your past actions, both good and bad. Since you have done good all your life, the vision of your past actions will be positive. But some bad actions that you did in the past may appear to you, too. Don’t be frightened. Just see them and let them go. As for the beautiful visions that come from your good actions in the past, just be aware of them, too. Don’t be delighted or cling to them. Let them go. Later, another kind of vision will happen to you. It is the vision of next realm that you are destined to after this life. Since you are good person, the vision of the next realm will look fine, beautiful. Don’t be attracted to it. Just be aware of it. It may be a heavenly realm. Don’t let your mind be drawn to it. You have potential to go beyond the heavenly realm. The Buddha instructs us to aspire to nirvana. So try to let go of beautiful visions, be it a vision of past actions or a vision of the next realm. Just keep your mind in constant mindfulness.
In the last days, Pon’s capacity for communication declined considerably, but it was clear that much was taking place internally. I asked, “Were you dreaming Pon?” She replied, “No all that has stopped. Now things are getting into order.”
After slipping into unconsciousness over the 16th and 17th, Pon finally died on the 18th afternoon with her mother by her side. She said,”She passed away peacefully without any struggle. Just simply went away, quietly. It happened very quickly. She was lying in bed, looked around, then took a big breath for 2-3 times and stopped breathing. I called Surapee and she rang the bell to lead her away.” Surapee said that she whispered into Pon’s ear to remember the Triple Gem and to follow the sound of the bell. Pon had always liked bells, the sound of which brings us back to mindfulness. She had arranged beforehand that when she died it would be rung. So Surapee rang it for 15 minutes and then sat in meditation with Pon’s mother quietly sitting beside her.
This account of the death of a Thai laywoman strongly challenges a number of assumptions in Buddhist teachings. Within the context of traditional doctrine and practice, Supapon was extraordinary, because as a laywoman she practiced what are considered advanced meditative practices and contemplations thought to be only appropriate for male monastics. Certainly, Supapon was not a typical lay practitioner and had been a serious practitioner for many years before her sickness. However, her life and her death experience seriously challenge our assumptions about what any type of person is capable of and how the teachings are presented to people. John McConnell had a very important observation concerning this point:
“You look at Pon, and you see someone so accomplished, almost saintly. It seems she is so different from me, from the ordinary person. And that is an illusion. That’s looking at the end result of years and years and years of small changes, and then saying ‘Gosh, we can’t be like that!’ But the reality is that right here and now, we have suffering, maybe not cancer, but there will be some suffering. It’s how we handle that which creates a little determination, a little positive feeling about using mindfulness. Then the next day or some hours later, there’s another situation and then another chance. What we see as Pon’s extraordinary determination and extraordinary faith grew over many small choices and decisions. I know for a fact that was certainly the case with her fear. She was very fearful to start with. She couldn’t sleep. Her mind was going all over the place. Then gradually, she became as she was, at the end, not fearless, but certainly not compelled by her fear, not anxious, not despairing. So I think that the key thing is that we just practice today, with life as it is now; just be mindful and be still. When you see something you are uneasy about which seems unhealthy, you keep watching it and let it go. There is always wholesome (kusala) energy which comes in its place. We can practice that right now, and that gives us the strength and the resilience for tomorrow.”
Indeed, within the above diary, we can see Supapon employed three different forms of nenbutsu practice: 1) mindfulness (nen) of all that is, suchness (tathata). The Buddha was also called the Tathagata. Nenbutsu here means interiorizing the Buddha, acting as he would, being mindful as the Buddha would.; 2) visualization of the Buddha through images placed by her bed as recommended by Phra Phaisan. This was akin to the nenbutsu of the early Pure Land which emphasized visualizing Amida Buddha.; 3) chanting which her kalyanamitta eventually did for her in her final days. This chanting included a kind of original nenbutsu which focused on recollecting the life and qualities of Shakyamuni Buddha. Doctrine tells us that it is an either-or issue, between the Path of Self-perfection (shodomon) and the Pure Land Path (jodomon), between the exclusively chanted nenbutsu (senju-nenbutsu) and the visualized nenbutsu and various other Pure Land practices. But what if it is a both-and issue? That being an “ordinary fool” (bonbu) and finding Amida’s grace isn’t so much about the “foolishness” of what we can’t do or shouldn’t try. Rather, what if it is more about the “ordinariness” of what is unconditionally available to all? Both Shakyamuni Buddha and Honen Shonin sought to reclaim salvation from the discrimination of religious and political elites and to restore it as a fundamental right not just of all humans, but of all sentient beings. Nenbutsu – as awakened mindfulness, recollection of the Buddha, or calling on Amida – sits on its own merit. It needs no excuses or rationalizations. Lay or ordained, male or female, it is surely available to the unlearned, but at the same time it is full with wonderful complexity and richness. The key is to uncover the essential nature of nenbutsu rather than getting caught in a particular form. This essential nature seems to be a kind of critical awareness or mindfulness (nen) of an enlightened or awakened quality (butsu) – whether it be the calling on or visualization of an externalized Buddha, or the internalization and replication of that Buddha quality through mindfulness practice.
The essential aspects of Supapon’s death experience were sincere faith and practice in the Buddha’s teachings, specifically, 1) mindfulness meditation, 2) a caring and loving community (kalyanamitta), and 3) a supportive and inspiring environment. These aspects are not solely part of Theravada Buddhism. As we’ve seen, 1) mindfulness meditation is just a different sort of nenbutsu; 2) the care community which they call kalyanamitta is no different than the ancient Japanese Buddhist care community of zenchishiki (even using the same exact term through translation); and 3) the supportive and inspiring environment could be called “pure land”.
This essay was originally published in Never Die Alone: Death as Birth in Pure Land Buddhism. Edited by Jonathan S. Watts and Yoshiharu Tomatsu (Tokyo: Jodo Shu Press, 2008).