Smiling All the Way to Death
Rodney Bernier was born in 1944 in eastern Canada. His parents’ relationship collapsed when he was a young child and he ended up in an orphanage in England, with insufficient food and often bullied. Illiterate and with no skills, he left the orphanage while a young teenager and found work as a laborer. He fought drug addiction, which he eventually overcame. Considering the harshness of his early years, Rodney’s playful joviality, delightful sense of humor, and characteristically good-hearted nature were all the more extraordinary.
He traveled to India and in 1973 applied for a 10-day Vipassana meditation course with Goenkaji in Bombay. That first course had a powerful impact and he immediately attended two more. By the end of the second course, at only 28 years of age, he made a commitment to himself to practice Vipassana for the rest of his life. Meditation and the teaching of the Buddha became his cornerstones. One aspect of the practice, especially, resonated deeply: mettā.
Rodney eventually settled in British Columbia where he became a legendary tree planter, planting more than one million trees in 25 years. In middle age he decided to return to school to learn to read and write, and during this time he sat and served many Vipassana courses, including 30- and 45-day courses. He supported the local meditation community in Vancouver by hosting weekly group sittings and eventually, for almost three decades, daily 5 pm group sittings.
In May 2009 Rodney was diagnosed with metastasized liver cancer. He remained at home, but by July the tumors had spread to his spinal cord and he was unable to walk. He was hospitalized for the remaining five weeks of his life.
Rodney recognized when the end was near. He looked up at the pictures of Goenkaji by his bed and drew his hands together in a gesture of deep respect for his teacher. A friend sitting next to him asked if he wanted his hand held. Rodney indicated no; it was time to focus inwardly and prepare. At 5 pm he and his fellow meditators had their customary afternoon group sitting. Although he was awake throughout, as the sitting ended he slipped into a coma. For several hours a few Dhamma friends meditated with him as a recording of Goenkaji’s chanting played quietly. Rodney died in the early morning hours of August 13, 2009. A profound sense of calm and peace enveloped everyone present.
During his final weeks some meditators wondered whether Rodney’s seemingly extraordinary attitude toward death was merely bravado masking deeper fears; however, he continued to radiate joy and acceptance until the end.
A friend commented that Rodney had very few material possessions, no financial security, was the poorest of his friends—yet seemed to be the happiest. His last days and death only confirmed his approach to life: contented and grateful with whom he was and what he had.
Taken from an interview with Evie Chauncey, these lighthearted observations reveal Rodney’s down-to-earth perspective on life and on death.
I’ve had terminal cancer for more than a month now and it’s been one of the best times of my life, the best moments of my life. You know, as a meditator, you wonder what it will be like to die. You say to yourself, “I’m not afraid of death.” However, truthfully, if someone asks you, you can’t really know until you face it. But when they told me I had cancer, it was like telling me, “Oh, do you want some ice cream?” There was no negative reaction at all—nothing, not one bit of anxiety, not one bit of fear, not one bit of depression. Actually, a smile came on my face. Once they tell you you’re terminal, now you’re getting somewhere.
About five weeks ago I knew for the first time that it wasn’t just a tumor, that it was malignant, right? Previously I hadn’t really known how bad it was. I’m lying in the hallway of the hospital and I’m thinking, “I’m still not sure if I’m terminal or not.” And I’m thinking, “How many times in previous lives have I lain somewhere waiting for death?” It brought a big smile to my face. I looked around and saw all these people on stretchers, and I felt so much compassion for them. I didn’t want them to see me smiling at them because I didn’t want to upset them. I just felt such a big smile: “Wow, this is one more life.”
I got out of the hospital and a few days later went with my daughter and my friend Jerry to the G.I. guy (gastro-intestinal specialist). I walked in and we shook hands, but he seemed a little perturbed. He started off by declaring, “It’s too late, it’s too late.” “Too late?” I asked. “Too late for what?” He said, “It’s too late. I can’t even do chemotherapy on you. Your cancer has spread all over the place.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “Then maybe I should buy a new pair of shoes to wear into the next life.” The doc stood staring at me, not comprehending. I said again, “It’s really okay.” And I realized, hey, I’m not having any reaction. In fact, the only thing that’s freaking me out is that this doctor is freaking out. He said, “You’re a tough guy.” “Me? Tough? What am I tough about?” After we left the office Jerry suggested he was just trying to figure me out—Why is he not reacting? Next life?—because usually everyone reacts. But actually there was no fear, no upset, no depression.
For the last several weeks, I’ve been getting only accolades. People come and say, “Rodney, you’re amazing.” Now I know what the word “amazing” is: It’s Rodney. (He laughs) I’m watching this to make sure that I’m not getting into a big ego trip about it, because you really don’t want your final journey to be an ego trip. (Laughs again.) Another impurity, right?
Most of the time I’m content. I’ve gained a lot more tolerance for people who might be difficult to deal with. If I’m talking to someone and I find he’s getting upset or agitated or something, I just change the subject. He won’t even notice. You know, I don’t have time for anger.
There’s such a lot of mettā from everyone—their body language, the way they look into my eyes, the way they talk to me, the way they touch me—everything they do tells me it’s very different than it was before. It’s on a much softer, much gentler level. People who send me e-mails and call me—I can feel it in the air, the mettā.
Sometimes I sit quietly and I can feel my whole body dissipating, the pain getting quiet and my mind being quiet. The pain can be pretty intense sometimes, but pain is pain—it all depends on your state of mind in the moment. You can have a little bit of pain and it seems really intense, especially if there’s a lot of negativity around. Or you can have a great deal of pain, but because the positive vibrations are so strong you don’t feel it.
Though I don’t feel sick, my body feels like it’s breaking down. But my mental state is not. I feel the vibrations here in the hospital have really gotten a lot stronger, especially because people have been coming to visit and to meditate so much. There have been times, like at 11 at night, when I’m just sitting here and my whole being goes quiet. No pain. No suffering. My mind is quiet. My body is quiet. Everything is just so quiet. Wow! People are sending me mettā. I’ve become quite in tune with that now since I’ve been sick. Mettā works!
When I was in the bush tree-planting, or anywhere, and I’d see birds or other animals, or dogs, or even a fly in the toilet and I’d put my hand in to get it out, I always wished them to be happy and to have a better birth in their next life: “Too bad you’re like this now. May the rest of your life be happy and your next life be better. May you be peaceful and happy.”
My son asked me, “How’s your mental state, Dad?”—not how is your physical state? How is your mental state?—which is really great. He’s been here when Dhamma friends have been visiting, and they’ve been talking. It’s taken a little while, but now he’s really getting to understand that it’s the mental state that’s most important.
He’s realizing how good it’s been during this time we’ve had together, rather than being sad that someone is leaving. He told me, “Dad, you know, maybe years down the road I might get myself into a situation and I will think, ‘Now, how would Dad deal with this?’” So, to me, that was very good. Now he can see that the Vipassana practice is the most important thing.
He once inquired, “Dad, if someone was killing me, would you kill him?” I answered, “No, if you die in that situation, that’s okay. My commitment is not to destroy life. I would do everything in my power to protect you, but I would not cross the line of killing or stealing or lying or anything against my Dhamma practice, because that’s even worse than you getting killed. Even if you are killed, it’s just one life, and I’m not going to take that step backwards.”
Reading things by Sayagyi U Ba Khin about death—it’s very encouraging. It’s encouraging because he talks about how important it is to keep your sīla, and give dāna, which helps you into the celestial planes. On top of that, you have your meditation and you have your equanimity, and that’s like being in a car carrying you forward in high gear, speeding ahead. You’re driving the car, going through all this Dhamma stuff, and all this mettā is racing toward you all the time. And you have a big smile on your face.
In the past, I remember telling people, “I’m not afraid of death.” But I really didn’t know. You can’t really know how it’s going to be. Now, when I see it coming, it’s like, “Wow! This is how I thought it would be.” I wasn’t sure, but Dhamma gives you so much strength.
The nurses say that the early part of the illness is the hardest. Towards the end, near death, we come to accept it. But I’ve accepted it right from the beginning. I haven’t seen any change in my mind in all the time I’ve been going through this. I watch it to be sure, to see if there’s any change, but there isn’t.
So, what’s happening is I’m facing death. I have no negativity at all, none at all. I have the Dhamma with me; I feel the strong vibrations of Dhamma around me. It feels good—it feels really good. I’m smiling all the way to death.
Sukha dukha apane karma ke,
avicala vishva vidhāna.
Tū terā Yamarāja hai,
tū tāraka bhagavāna.
Happiness and misery are the fruit of your own actions. This is an immutable, universal law. You are your own lord of death; you are your own savior.
—Hindi doha, S.N. Goenka