Death and enlightenment

“I suspect that most people reach persistent non-symbolic experience through suicidal depression.”  — Jeffery Martin

“The soul must die to all things, and be in-formed in the height.” — Meister Eckhart

Given the connection between death and enlightenment, it is natural that many people have awakenings as a result of either a near-death experience or a decision to commit suicide. In truth, death is always an act of suicide: whether we are hit by a bullet or finally give up after a long illness, we have willed the bullet to hit a vital organ as much as we have willed our bodies to become ill.

When we are in ignorance, we are two: an ego, which is an accumulation of thoughts, feelings and memories (skandha), and a conscious being, which is pure. The former clings to existence and tries to run away from the Absolute, and the latter tries to return to it (picture Faustus standing on stage while a good angel and a bad angel engage in sword fights over the fate of his soul). Dying and almost dying are experiences that move us towards the Absolute. Therefore, though the ego rebels, our pure consciousness wills us to die again and again to all things, including our self or atman, to enable us to return home.

Eckhart Tolle took his first name from Meister Eckhart, an enlightened priest in the Dominican order of the Catholic Church in 13th-century Germany. Here is Tolle’s story (from Wikipedia):

One night in 1977, at the age of 29, after having suffered from long periods of depression, Tolle says he experienced an “inner transformation.” That night he awakened from his sleep, suffering from feelings of depression that were “almost unbearable,” but then experienced a life-changing epiphany. Recounting the experience, he says,

I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the “I” that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness,” just observing and watching.

Tolle attained enlightenment not as a result of consciously striving for it, but by being psychologically resigned to death.

Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher, had an enlightenment experience as a result of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 37 that would have killed her, but for her decision to “come back” to help others. Since the bleeding was in the left hemisphere, her thinking mind (manas in Sanskrit) shut down before her intuitive mind (citta), and so she was able to experience the shutting off of her manas, followed by a few hours of pure, unfiltered citta. Then her spirit left her physical body as well:

And a little while later, I am riding in an ambulance from one hospital across Boston to Massachusetts General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last bit of air, just right out of the balloon, I just felt my energy lift and I felt my spirit surrender.*

And in that moment, I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life, or this was perhaps my moment of transition.

When I woke later that afternoon [in the hospital], I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life. And my mind was now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire, and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise, and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expansive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free, like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria. Nirvana. I found Nirvana. And I remember thinking, there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

But then I realized, “But I’m still alive! I’m still alive, and I have found Nirvana. And if I have found Nirvana and I’m still alive, then everyone who is alive can find Nirvana.” And I pictured a world filled with beautiful, peaceful, compassionate, loving people who knew that they could come to this space at any time. And that they could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives. And it motivated me to recover.

[*The original meaning of Nirvana is “blown out”: vana, (blown) is the past participle of the root va (blow); nis means “out”. As Yogananda has explained in his Autobiography of a Yogi, kriya yoga consists of exercises to get one accustomed to not breathing, since yogis stopped breathing altogether when they entered meditative trances. Intentionally slowing the breath wasn’t limited to India but was mentioned by a Taoist sage, as told by Hakuin in Wild Ivy. However, the Indian saint Adi Shankara considered the practice to be of dubious worth.]

D. T. Suzuki (1965) commented on monks who experienced their first awakening when they were facing death, either physically or psychologically:

I was busy during these four years with various writings, including translating Dr. Carus’s Gospel of Buddha into Japanese, but all the time the koan was worrying at the back of my mind. It was, without any doubt, my chief preoccupation and I remember sitting in a field leaning against a rice stack and thinking that if I could not understand Mu life had no meaning for me. Nishida Kitaro wrote somewhere in his diary that I often talked about committing suicide at this period, though I have no recollection of doing so myself. After finding that I had nothing more to say about Mu I stopped going to sanzen (interview) with Shaku Soen, except for the sosan or compulsory sanzen during a sesshin. And then all that usually happened was that the Roshi hit me.

It often happens that some kind of crisis is necessary in one’s life to make one put forth all one’s strength in solving the koan. This is well illustrated by a story in the book Keikyoku Soden, “Stories of Brambles and Thistles,” compiled by one of Hakuin Zenshi’s disciples, telling of various prickly experiences in practising Zen.

A monk came from Okinawa to study Zen under Suio, one of Hakuin’s great disciples and a rough and strong-minded fellow. It was he who taught Hakuin how to paint. The monk stayed with Suio for three years working on the koan of the sound of one hand. Eventually, when the time for him to go back to Okinawa was fast approaching and he had still not solved his koan, he got very distressed and came to Suio in tears. The Master consoled him, saying, “Don’t worry. Postpone your departure for another week and go on sitting with all your might.” Seven days passed, but still the koan remained unsolved. Again the monk came to Suio, who counseled him to postpone his departure for yet another week. When that week was up and he still had not solved the koan, the Master said, “There are many ancient examples of people who have attained satori after three weeks, so try a third week.” But the third week passed and still the koan was not solved, so the Master said, “Now try five more days.” But the five days passed, and the monk was no nearer solving the koan, so finally the Master said, “This time try three more days and if after three days you have still not solved the koan, then you must die.” Then, for the first time, the monk decided to devote the whole of whatever life was left to him to solving the koan. And after three days he solved it.

The moral of this story is that one must decide to throw absolutely everything one has into the effort. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” It often happens that just as one reaches the depths of despair and decides to take one’s life then and there that satori comes. I imagine that with many people satori may have come when it was just too late. They were already on their way to death.

Ordinarily there are so many choices one can make, or excuses one can make to oneself. To solve a koan one must be standing at an extremity, with no possibility of choice confronting one. There is just one thing that one must do. (Early Memories, pp. xix-xxi)

Lester Levenson:

I was at the end of my rope. I was told not to take a step unless I absolutely had to because there was a possibility that I could drop dead at any moment. This was a terrible, shocking thing to suddenly be told that I couldn’t be active anymore, having been so active all my life. It was a horrible thing.

An intense fear of dying overwhelmed me, the fear that I might drop dead any minute. This stayed with me for days. I went through a real, horrible, low, spinning period there, in the grip of intense fear of dying or of being a cripple for the rest of my life in that I wouldn’t be able to be active. How could I take care of all that, and take care of myself!? I felt that life would not be worthwhile anymore.

This caused me to conclude with determination, ‘Either I get the answers, or I’ll take me off this Earth. No heart attack will do it!’ I had a nice, easy way to do it, too: I had morphine the doctors gave me for my kidney stone attacks.

After several days of this intense fear of dying, I suddenly realized, ‘Well, I’m still alive. As long as I’m alive, there’s hope. As long as I’m alive, maybe I can get out of this. What do I do?’  (Lester Levenson (1909-1994))


Levenson, Lester. Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Sedona Institute, 1993. ( (download)

Lester Levenson — The True Story.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. The Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text (Translated from the original Sanskrit). London, 1932.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk. New York, University Books, 1965.

Suzuki, D. T. (Richard M. Jaffee, editor). Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume I. Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2014.