Just the other night I came across a very beautiful story about Saint Francis, a Buddha.
Saint Francis of Assisi lay on his deathbed. He was singing, and singing so loudly that the whole neighborhood was aware. Brother Elias, a pompous but prominent member of the Franciscan order, came close to Saint Francis and said, ‘Father, there are people standing in the street outside your window.’ Many had come. Fearing that the last moment of Francis’ life had come, many who loved him had gathered together around the house.
Said this brother Elias, “I am afraid nothing we might do could prevent them from hearing you singing. The lack of restraint at so grave an hour might embarrass the order, Father. It might lower the esteem in which you yourself are so justly held. Perhaps in your extremity you have lost sight of your obligation to the many who have come to regard you as a saint. Would it not be more edifying for them if you would, er, die with more Christian dignity?”
“Please excuse me, Brother,” Saint Francis said, “but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can’t help myself. I must sing!”
And he died singing. In the whole Christian history, he’s the only one who has died singing. Many Zen people have died singing, but they don’t belong to Christianity. He is the only Zen master amongst Christian saints. He didn’t care a bit about Christian dignity.
Now what happened? This brother Elias wants to prove to people that Saint Francis is a saint. Now he is afraid that people will not think that he is a saint; they may think he is mad or something. A saint has to be sad by the very definition. Christians believe only in sad saints. They cannot believe that Jesus ever laughed. That is below Christian dignity. Laughter? — So human, so ordinary? They know only one thing, to put Jesus there high above humanity — but then all that is human has to be taken out of him. Then he becomes just a dead, bloodless thing.
This brother Elias is worried. This is the last moment, Francis is dying, and he will leave a bad name behind him. People will think either he was not a saint or he was mad. He is worried because he wants to prove. In fact he is not worried about Saint Francis; he is worried about himself and the order: “It will be very embarrassing for us later on. How are we going to answer these people? What happened in the last moments?” He is worried about himself. If the master is mad then what about the disciple? He is a disciple.
But see two different planes, two different dimensions together. Elias is concerned with public opinion. He wants to prove his master to be the greatest master, to be the greatest of saints, and he knows only one way to prove it — that he should be serious, that he should take life seriously, that he should not laugh and should not sing, should not dance. They are too human, they are too ordinary. Ordinary mortals can be forgiven, but not a man of the stature of Saint Francis.
But Saint Francis has a different vision — he is just ordinary. He says, “Please excuse me, Brother, but I feel so much joy in my heart that I really can’t help myself. I must sing!” In fact, it is not that Francis is singing, Francis has become the song. That’s why he cannot help, he cannot control. There is nobody left to control it. If the song is happening it is happening. It is not within control, it can’t be, because the controller has disappeared. The self, the ego, no more exists. Saint Francis does not exist as an individual. There is absolute silence inside. Out of that silence this song is born. What can Francis do? That’s why he says, “I can’t help it. I must sing!”
And he died singing. And there can be no other better death. If you can die singing, that proves that you lived singing, that your life was a joy and death became the crescendo of it, the culmination.
Saint Francis is a Buddha. The characteristic of a Buddha is that he is ordinary, that he has no ideas about himself of how he should be, that he simply is spontaneous, that whatsoever happens, happens. He lives on the spur of the moment, that is his authenticity. You can call it his characteristic, but what kind of characteristic is this? It is simply that he has no character, he has no strait-jacket of a character around himself, he has no armor, he does not live from the past, that he does not know what Christian dignity is. He lives in the moment like a child.
From The Diamond Sutra, Discourse #7
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