A celebrated master of a spiritual community, deep in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, was nearing his death. He had a vision that he would drop his body in one month’s time.
In the weeks leading up to his passing, Master Changing Winds, as he was affectionately known by the whole community, chose three of his wisest and most beloved disciples (out of a pool of 94) to put through a battery of tests to determine who would succeed him. Following the tradition of his ancestors, he would then select one among the three, based on the qualities of courage, devotion, discipline and humility.
Over the course of three-and-a-half weeks, the three disciples were put through a series of tests that included some of the following: martial arts, a six-day fast, 10 days of solitary meditation in the high mountains, three days of intensive volunteer work in the community and the recitation of 102 sacred mantras. All three seekers performed at the very highest level of a bodhisattva, or an enlightened and compassionate soul.
Nonetheless, after so many tests and still no clear successor, Master Changing Winds wasn’t the least bit worried.
A vital question
On the day before Master Changing Winds was to die, the venerated sage lined up his three devotees, looked them each in the eyes and prepared to put them through their final test. He called each one forward and asked them one question, to which they had to offer an immediate reply.
He addressed his first devotee, Timeless Seasons, by saying, “Death has arrived, now what shall we do?”
Timeless Seasons summoned all the courage within him and replied, “Death has arrived, so let us dance, play and sing!”
Master Changing Winds smiled warmly at Timeless Seasons. He then called upon his second devotee, Flowing River, and asked her the same question: “Death has arrived, now what shall we do?”
Flowing River quickly collected her thoughts and replied, “Death has arrived; now, let’s pray together for favourable births in our next lives, so we may serve all sentient beings!”
Once more, Master Changing Winds smiled warmly at his devotee, and motioned for his third and final disciple to come forward. He asked the same question again: “Death has arrived, now what shall we do?”
Like Timeless Seasons and Flowing River before him, Silent Mountain bowed to his master and began to speak. “Master, has Death arrived? If so, where did it ever go? Has death not always been present among us, like the changing winds, the timeless seasons, the flowing rivers and the silent mountains?”
The old master beamed with delight and exchanged bows with Silent Mountain. Very suddenly, his body began convulsing, and he fell to the floor and died. Timeless Seasons and Flowing River ran immediately over to Master Changing Winds and began sobbing, “Master, please don’t leave us! How can we go on without you?”
As Timeless Seasons and Flowing River struggled to process the passing of their beloved teacher and sage, Silent Mountain stood in stoic silence. He knelt to the ground, wiped a few tears from his eyes and quietly recited a prayer that his now-late master had once taught him.
“As we all grow old, the ocean tides, they come and go,” recited Silent Mountain. “Life is an eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. May the heavens always guide our souls through the darkness of night, only to awaken again in light.”
To the complete astonishment of all three disciples, Master Changing Winds opened his eyes at the exact moment Silent Mountain stopped speaking. Staring in disbelief, Flowing River stammered, “But how can this be? Your breathing ceased before us! Let us all behold this miracle!”
Master Changing Winds got to his feet and spoke in a calm and gentle tone: “What you just witnessed was an ancient practice to curtail one’s own breath. The monks of old practiced this technique for the purpose of mastering their own minds. The faking of my death and your reactions to it was your final test. I wanted to see which one of you would display the greatest degree of acceptance and equanimity in the face of our greatest existential fear.”
The successor is chosen
The old sage paused again, and then turned and bowed to each of the devoted seekers, as he continued to speak. “You’ve each made me proud and honoured to be your teacher. I regard each of you as a holy being. Tomorrow, I will depart this world and go beyond the Void once more, to commune with the spirits of our ancestors. And, according to tradition, I must choose a successor to carry on the sacred teachings.
“I’ve made my decision who that person will be. Silent Mountain, please come kneel before me. In the face of my dying, you perfectly demonstrated both the acceptance and equanimity of a fully realized being.
“Tomorrow, I’ll hold a farewell gathering with the entire community present, as is customary for the passing of a spiritual leader. Tomorrow, I’ll also introduce you, Silent Mountain, as the next leader of our community. May peace and goodwill be your candle and flame, as you humbly guide your brethren to enlightenment.”
Silent Mountain bowed to Changing Winds, Timeless Seasons and Flowing River. All four wept out of joy, hope, sorrow and relief, knowing that the ancient teachings would continue on.
A celebration of life
The following morning, the whole community gathered in a beautiful, lush green valley cradled by majestic blue mountains. They were there to celebrate the life and imminent passing of their beloved teacher through song, dance and storytelling.
As Master Changing Winds’ final moments drew near, the entire community formed a large circle around him, and began chanting and tossing flower petals upon him. The old holy man sat cross-legged in the middle of the circle, smiling radiantly at all of his disciples.
Keeping with tradition, he then motioned for his successor, Silent Mountain, to sit down beside him as he removed his white robe and swapped it for his successor’s red one. The two put on their new robes and bowed to one another as Master Changing Winds returned to the Lotus position, closed his eyes, took three deep breaths and passed away.
Within moments, Silent Mountain turned to his community and back again to his beloved teacher. He solemnly read aloud the same prayer he’d recited to himself only the day before, when he thought his master had died: “As we all grow old, the ocean tides, they come and go. Life is an eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth. May the heavens always guide our souls through the darkness of night, only to awaken again in light.”
Just as the bridge of life connects the mysterious cycle of birth and death, so too did master and disciple come to share the thread of cosmic awareness.
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