Letting go of the Ego requires courage, because after Ego is gone, the Self is also dropped off and one goes, as Zen says, through the Great Death (Daishi, 大死). But, only then is one finally liberated and realises the Great Enlightenment. This “experience” is often described as a state in which nothing can move us (mountain-like) and yet, we can move easily whenever and wherever we want (clouds-like).
The Blue Mountains do not move
The white clouds come and go
The Great Death often happens during or after intense retreats. Since ancient times and in all traditions, at the certain spiritual maturity, the seeker would feel the urge to withdraw in the seclusion of the desert, the mountain or the forest. He/ she would remain there until experiencing the Great Death. According to records, these retreats usually took between 21 and 49 days, during which the seeker would engage in silent meditation, contemplation and fasting. The practice involved severe restrictions on food or water intake, but in some traditions, seclusion is combined with shutting off all senses too. This “hard discipline” served as a tool to “die once”, to encounter one's own nature, to communicate with God or to merge with the Tao.
In ancient times such retreats had been performed intuitively when the spiritual maturity was at a level that could sustain the power of Self-implosion. Nowadays, driven by the search for quick solutions, many seekers prematurely use this practice as an accelerator to get them to their destination faster. Unfortunately, modern people also tend to believe that accumulated information corresponds to true knowledge, what creates bias when assessing one's own degree of maturity. This often leads to engagements in practices they are not ready for.
However, when the timing is right, the practice leads to the state of no-time/ no-space/ no-self/ no-forms described by Dogen in simple and poetic words:
“The entire universe shatters into a hundred pieces.
In the great death there is no heaven and no earth
Once body and mind have turned over
There is only this to say:
The past mind cannot be grasped,
The present mind cannot be grasped,
The future mind cannot be grasped. “
The Great Death is recognised by the enlightened people as the gate through which we enter the state of the Great Enlightenment. But the Gate opens only when the Self falls away and non-duality is realised. This does not mean that one is throwing oneself into the abyss of emptiness, but rather one becomes Emptiness - There is nothing to face and nobody who can face it.
After the Great Death one comes back without Self, filled with compassion, love and eternal bliss, expressed as the Great Delight (Daikangi, 大歓喜). Everything becomes clear; mind fog lifts and finally vanishes. All previous doubts, fears and uncertainties dissolve and the body disappears. And yet, without constrains of the Self, the senses are at their most susceptible climax: one hears the softest or most distant sounds, sees without looking, tastes without eating and feels without touch. The transformation is complete and the search for answers finally ends.
The Great Death burns all illusions so that the “One Mind” can be experienced. The realisation of being part of everything is the moment when the Great Compassion is born. This rises in the awakened person the “desire” to share the knowledge of this unity and lead others to their own liberation and happiness. The path of the Bodhisattva begins.
The Great Death and the Enlightenment are temptations of the ancient and modern seekers. Many practices had evolved to support or accelerate the final breakthrough. Regardless whether the intentions are good, practices built around the Great Death experience are, due to their severity, only suitable for the rare, dedicated and highly mature practitioners. Engaging in practice pre-maturely has hidden dangers that cause harmful effects, that surface after a certain period of time (psychosomatic issues or physical harm) or immediately (i.e. nervous break-down or physical death). For this reason, it is essential not to romanticise extreme practices and to trust teachers who refuse to teach you if time is still not ripe.