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The deathless

A story about the last days of Vietnamese yogi, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī, who kept practicing despite her cancer.

Bhikkhunī Gunacārī is no more. Yet, the story about her keeps going on, inspiring and giving energy to those who are following the Buddha’s path, particularly Vipassana yogis. And I’m one of the beneficiaries.

Kyunpin Sayadaw (U Jatila) often says that to practice Vipassana one needs strong determination.

And for me, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī is a shining example of determination. She’s really a heroine to me.

By mid-2019, when I was practicing at Kyunpin, sometimes, when I was leaving the dining hall for my room I saw an old nun stopped midway, bending down with her hands holding her belly. It looked like she’s suffering from a great pain. Later I learned it’s Bhikkhunī Gunacārī.

According to a copy of her biography placed at her funeral, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī developed a malignant tumor in her stomach back in 2003 and in 2013 it’s already in metastasis. Yet, she took traditional medicine and the tumor became benign.

Since 2014, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī had come to Kyunpin Meditation Center to practice Vipassana meditation many times.

The last time she came was in 2018. During the final trip, her disease attacked fiercely. Sayalay Vivekaparami, who was the translator for her when she reported her meditation experience, says that sometimes Bhikkhunī Gunacārī could not eat because it’s too painful. “Sometimes she could not sit but had to lie down on the floor of the meditation hall,” says Sayalay Vivekaparami. “In spite of the pain she’s still spiritually strong,” adds Sayalay Vivekaparami.

Nevertheless, sometimes the mind got weak, telling her to quit, to leave. “Once she even had her ticket bought but then she cancelled,” says Sayalay Vivekaparami.

So, she kept practicing till July 2019 when she left for treatment at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh city.

“At the hospital it’s found out only 30% of her blood volume remained,” says Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī, who took care of her during her last days. During the later days, blood volume dropped to just 6%. “Although she writhed in pain, when she did sitting meditation she still sit one hour,” says Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī, who’s also a fellow yogi.

“When people came to visit, she still appeared normal and calm,” Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī adds.

“Without hard practice it must have been utterly tragic for her.”

Three weeks before her death, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī phoned Sayadaw in Kyunpin. “After she was encouraged by sayadaw, she thanked sayadaw and other people in the monastery,” says Sayalay Vivekaparami, who translated the talk. “She sounded very happy. Vivekaparami could not fathom out why she’s so happy. She was prepared for death,” she adds.

Kyunpin Sayadaw says after many efforts, finanlly, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī made progress in her meditation.

Just before her death, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī opened her eyes to look at a picture of the Buddha. “When she opened her eyes she’s very peaceful,” says Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī.

Then Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī told her to direct her mind to sayadaw and then to recollect her good deeds. Then Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī chanted metta. “Half way through the chanting she passed away.”

“She passed away peacefully. She looked as if she was sleeping,” says Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī.

“Her strength during the last hours triggers lot of faith in the practice of Vipassana and trust in sayadaw,” Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī continues.

Bhikkhunī Gunacārī was born in 1967 in An Giang province. She was ordained in 1982 and became a Bhikkhunī ten years later.

She passed away at 3.30am, 10th, October 2019.

Dhammapada sutta says:

‘Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless.

Heedlessness is the path to death.

The heedful die not.

The heedless are as if dead already.’

May I borrow the deathlessness symbol to describe Bhikkhunī Gunacārī’s determination to practice observing body and mind and also to describewhat she has left for other yogis.

For me, Bhikkhunī Gunacārī dies not.

Le Duc Tan

22 November 2019

Photos supplied by Bhikkhunī Visuddhacārī

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