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Death & Dying

Review of "Graceful Exits"

By Sushila Blackman (Editor)
Shambhala, 1997
Review by A. P. Bober on May 14th 2005
Graceful Exits

We in the West have more than great difficulty hearing without a smile the kind of thing Mantak Chia has regaled us with in his recent "bodhisattva" legacy of Taoist books written for our drive-up-window eyes. He tells the kind of "story," which may have been his, of the disciple who goes to the cave where his master is sitting having "left" his body to join the "immortals." The disciple goes there periodically to "dust the old guy off." Speaking very generally it seems to me that we in the West "verify" experiences by traditions of rational experiment and observation while Eastern adepts learn by augmenting received experiences of processes a Western reductionism could not even find. This does not mean that the entire armamentarium of intuitively perceived "meridians," chi/ki/prana energies, etc., has to be blindly accepted. (In my own experience, much of it has been "experienceable" in such practices as body work and Tai Chi Ch'uan.) In a similar way one could say that "scientists" and "artists" do "exactly" the same thing using different methods of immersion in concrete reality.

Sometimes you have to read a book as if the Afterword/Epilogue were the Introduction. It is in the former that disciple Blackman speaks of the experience of creating this book from the experience of gurus in her tradition, the dying of her father, and her own dying by metastasized lung cancer. More immediately she finds the motivation for the book in coming to terms with her own illness (p. 147): "I had, unknowingly, been busy compiling a training manual for my own 'graceful exit!'" This bleeds into the death of her master. "The medical reason Swami Muktananda (affectionately called Baba by his followers) left his body was a heart attack," she says (p. 143). Finally (p. 148),† the woman who took over from "Baba" advised her thus: "Die a little bit each day in meditation." All of the masters in this book go "somewhere" such that between disciple and master some sort of communication is often said still to take place. It is of this kind of "leaving," often with "lights" and "earthquakes," depending on the degree of the realization of the masters, that Blackman seems to be speaking as an insider. But the question never clearly and concretely answered is What exactly is it of "he or she" that "leaves" the "body?" Apparently all the Eastern folks out-Cartesian-ed Descartes long before he lived. That such things "occur," how they occur, when they occur, and that they occur more than once in a meditating (quasi-comatose?) adept becomes possible only within traditions of believings, whether Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist.

As an important part of the presentation this book makes much use of the notion of "karma," among other terms it usually defines, which has perhaps come down to the street as "What goes around comes around." You get to build up "merit" or "credit" (in your "account") toward the next "reincarnation." Students of the "Harappan" culture of India remind us that outside conquerors imposed the caste system with the result that even in a series of generational lifetimes traditional status in a subcaste could not be changed. Surely, karmic "ideology" offered "Curry-in-Nirvana-When-You-Pyre" hopes to those who'd see none down here where chalk lines would even be drawn on the floor in restaurants to separate subcastes according to what the sociologist Max Weber called "anti-commensalism."

More than most books, with its more than 100 reports of the deaths of "Eastern" masters, this one underscores the notion of "perennial philosophy," in general that at very least "mystical" traditions have a common core. The specific reports of these livings and dyings reveal an extraordinary range of unique personalities. One, called "Gadge (p. 133)," got that name from the broken earthen pot he wore on his head like some latterday Quixote wearing a barber's brass basin; another, a great Shaivite teacher (p. 132) "walked into a cave followed by twelve hundred of his disciples, and none of them ever walked out again." Even Ghandi's dying is mentioned (pp. 119-20). There are too many masters to comment on, even if limited to favorites, in this buffet of gurus, so I restrict myself to Suzuki Shosan (pp. 122-3), who was a samurai who became a monk in his 42nd year. Each occupation, he says, has its "way." Like so many, he tells us to look death in the eye, that that is the "entire doctrine."

These are not perfect people. Some are petulant, call those who don't understand "stupid," and one, the Sixteenth Karmapa (p. 126) combines the typical compassion and care with an apparent popish hierarchical sense, as his bowing assistant seems to reveal in a photo (p. 127). We recognize a brotherhood with the Stoic school in many of the recurrent attitudes. And in my case I ended up writing my own 11-syllable "haiku" "death poem" in acknowledgement of the outside cats I abandoned on the west coast while vacationing on the other.


© 2005 A. P. Bober 

A. P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neurophysiology.

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