Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die

Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die

edited by Sushila Blackman.
New York: Weatherhill, 1997. Paperback, 160 pages.

In Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die, Sushila Blackman has collected death stories of Hindu, Tibetan, and Zen masters.

Hindus believe that the last thoughts before death affect one's next incarnation. Hence, it is best to think of God on dying so that one will be forever liberated. A famous example is Mahatma Gandhi's last exclamation, "Sri Ram, Sri Ram, Sri Ram!" as he died from an assassin's bullets.

Tibetan monks practice meditations to Be performed immediately before and after death to effect final liberation or at least reincarnation in desirable circumstances. They study the texts we call the Tibetan Book of the Dead so they can properly navigate the various bardos, or stages between death and rebirth. As the dying person’s life-force leaves the body, a great clear light appears-the light reported in so many near-death experiences. Tibetan masters teach that if one can recognize and merge into that light, one is liberated from all separate existence.

Many of the stories in this book have to do with foreknowledge of death without fear or anxiety. In the Japanese tradition, Zen masters on the verge of death givetheir last words in the form of a death poem, or jisei. The beautiful death poem of Basho, the greatest of Japan's haiku poets, was "Sick, on a journey, yet over withered fields dreams wander on." Several death stories of Zen masters involve humorous behavior or nonsensical statements very much like Zen koans.

The afterword presents an unexpected poignancy. Shortly before completing this book, Sushila Blackman learned that cancer had metastasized to her bones. She had unknowingly been collecting these stories to prepare for her own death, which came a little more than a month after she wrote the afterword.

These stories make the point that death is just another passage in life, which we need not fear. We, like the great beings, can make a graceful exit.


Summer 1998