glimpse (a Zen monk’s brush with death)

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One of the most interesting stories I heard Chong Go Sunim tell at Saturday Sangha was about a monk he knows who was staying in Haein Temple, when Zen Master Seong Chol was still alive. The monk left the temple to do a long retreat in the Jiri Mountainsand was living off what ever he could find in the forested slopes.

After eating something he shouldn’t have, maybe a poisonous mushroom or something else inedible, he became seriously ill and collapsed on the ground. He came to awareness back in Haein Temple, about 100km or more away and saw two of his friends in the hall doing what seemed like a death ceremony. They didn’t seem to notice him and he found it curious that instead of reciting the appropriate sutras, the monk with the mok-tak (a wooden percussion instrument) was repeating the word, “Chek, chek, chek…” (“Book, book, book…”) and the monk with the bell kept repeating, “Yeom ju, yeom ju, yeom ju…” (“prayer beads, prayer breads, prayer beads…”)

In a flash, he was in his mother’s house. He was standing next to her as she was loading wood in the fire. She didn’t notice him so he reached over and touched her shoulder. She let out a shriek and crumpled over in pain.

Just as he had found himself at the temple, then at his mother’s, he was standing back in the mountain. He noticed the scent of bulgogi, marinated beef, wafting up from the river bank and a group of men in white hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) calling, “Hey! Come down and join us, there’s plenty to go around!” Just as he was about to join them he remembered he is a monk and shouldn’t eat meat.

Making his way back into the hills, he came across an old man with an old fashion jigae, a wooden A-frame carrying rack, on his back. But instead of carrying wood, he was carrying a man down the mountain. He put the man down on the ground and the monk, thinking the man looked familiar, went over to take a closer look. As he stared at the man’s face, he couldn’t get over how much the man looked like himself. He touched the body and at that instant, his consciousness was sucked into the body, and he woke up with a jerk. He was laying near the village where he’d seen the old man put the body. He was also probably feeling a little disoriented from the strange experience he’d just had.

Returning to the temple, he went to his friends and told them about what he had seen. They replied that Seong Cheol Seunim spoke to them that he had died in the Jiri Mountains and that they should perform a death ceremony immediately.  He continued, telling them that they were chanting the words “book” and “prayer beads” instead of the proper sutra’s they should have been chanting. Surprised, the first one admitted that he knew the monk had a collection of really nice books and was wondering if he could have them. A bit ashamed, his second friend also admitted that he was thinking about the monk’s nice “yeom ju” and also wondering if he could have it. So, even though they were speaking the mantra, all that he could hear from them was their thoughts.

He visited his mother and told her of the experience. She replied that she remembered a sudden sharp pain in her shoulder.

Going back to the stream in the mountain, where he’d seen the men eating bulgogi, he found no remnants of barbecue. What he did see disturbed him though. Laying by the river bank was the corpse of a magpie, entirely infested with maggots. He realized that what appeared to him as men by the river were actually larva calling him to dine on the flesh of the dead bird. He wondered if he hadn’t reminded himself that he was a monk and had instead joined them, would he have been reborn as the larva of a fly? How difficult would it have been to work his way back to being born in human form again? When he left his body, he had no ears, no eyes, no nose, no tongue, no hands. All he was left with was his perception and his illusion of what surrounded him. He couldn’t hear words, only intentions.

I think our state of mind at the moment of death is very important. We must be aware, first that we’ve stepped out and second, where we are to go. Through the Dhamma, I’ve learned that all life is equal, but the human mind is most advantageous for developing liberation. When taking into account the number of beings in existence, from elephants and whales to single cell organism, it is actually extremely rare to be born human. We should recognize the opportunity we have in this form and do the best we can with it. When we die, we usually won’t in the best states of mind, perhaps sick, drugged, confused, or not even conscious. The more our mind is prepared now, the better we can deal when the moment comes.

8 responses »

  1. Very nice story indeed! As for your personal observation that the moments before death are important, that is very astute. There is a mind moment that arises for an instant just before death that conditions the next rebirth, be it as low as the hell realms or as high and blissful as the brahma realm. The object of this mind can be kamma, a sign of kamma, or of the next life. If one has performed heavy, unwholesome kamma in one’s life, like killing another being, chances are this will be remembered, thereby conditioning rebirth in a hell realm. Should one remember good deeds, chances are for a better rebirth.

    A friend of mine used to talk about his experiences in India. He had a good friend who was a Catholic, and they were talking about death practices and rituals in their respective religions. For Catholics, one typically remembers all one’s sins in order to ask for forgiveness and absolution, while a Buddhist tries to recall all the good deeds in one’s life to condition a better rebirth. My friend, the Buddhist and with the conditioning and learning that came from that upbringing and belief system, cringes when he thinks about recalling horrible deeds upon one’s deathbed – it was the equivalent of asking for a ticket on the express train to hell!

    Now, can any of this be proven in the moment? Does knowing this relieve suffering in the moment? No to both. But as we have confidence in the Buddha’s teachings, we can know what is in store for us, and of course, will come to know it through personal experience when the time, or the awakening, arise🙂

    • Thank you for a great comment.
      It’s nice to have the words and insight of a practising Bhikkhu.
      I’m usually a little timid about what can be proven or what feels true to me, but taking refuge is a good way to solve that, thank you,
      and thank you for reading^^

  2. Hi,

    Wonderful! I also remember that story from Chong Go Sunim too – thank you so much for posting it Joseph!

    I guess that one of the great benefits of mantra practice is that at the time of death it will be second nature to repeat the mantra and so – hopefully! – orientate the mind in the right direction.

    Thank you so much for the wonderful story and the great reminder.

    Namu Amitabul,

    Marcus

    PS – excellent picture too!

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