Kaiyum reviews Sheela Blackman’s book.
Talking about life, but above all death, is not easy for many people. But it takes little effort – especially for sannyasins! – to realise the enormous chasm between Western and Eastern cultures in their perception of death. Yes, there may be sadness when a beloved dies, but in cultures where a person ‘leaves the body’ there tends to be more celebration and awareness of a certain continuity than the ‘long faces’ and seriousness associated with Western death rituals.
While she herself was experiencing the last stages of terminal cancer, Sushila Blackman compiled and edited this remarkable book. The title itself evokes the essence of what the reader can expect to find between the covers and the subtitle emphasises what Sushila wants us to know: How great beings die.
Her work is a highly readable series of more than a hundred clearly-written anecdotes, some short, some considerably longer. One of the shorter anecdotes (number 45) is a fine example of what Sushila wants us to learn:
When the tenth-century Chinese Zen Master named Dasui Fazhen was asked, “How are you at the time when life-death arrives?” he answered promptly, “When served tea, I take tea; when served a meal, I take a meal.”
The stories are evidence of how these masters perceive death as an integral part of life; they know that, even though the body ceases to function, they continue to exist. In other words, they know that they are not their body, nor their thoughts nor their feelings and emotions.
You can read a wide variety of stories from across the centuries telling how precisely the masters choose their moment of departure… and many more fascinating and even intriguing aspects of how they die. For those with any curiosity concerning life questions and the art of living and dying, then this is a delightful, entertaining and thought-provoking read.
In conclusion, the first four lines of the introduction serve as a taster for the subsequent pages:
In that marvellous Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata, the sage Yudhistira is asked:
‘Of all things in life, what is the most amazing?’
Yudhistira answers: ‘That a man, seeing others die all around him, never thinks that he will die.’
Sushila Blackman (birth date unknown, died in 1997) was a student of the Hindu master Swami Muktananda, and was present at his ashram in India during his death. A few months before she completed her book ‘Graceful Exits’, Blackman learned that she had advanced lung cancer. She died a month and a half after finishing the book.
Available at amazon.com