(Adapted from a workshop at BCBS on November 20, 1993)
Meditation on death awareness is one of the oldest practices in all Buddhist traditions. In the words of the Buddha, “of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead was one of the first and most popular books to attract the attention of Buddhist practitioners in America in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. The tremendous popularity of Vajrayana Buddhism in America has led to a great deal of interest in bardo states in particular and death meditation in general. Sogyal Rinpoche’s new book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is but the latest in a long line of Buddhist books dealing with death and its related aspects.
According to Edward Conze, the noted historian of Buddhism, “If we can believe Buddhaghosa (the author of the ancient classic Visuddhimagga), two only among the 40 meditational practices are always and under all circumstances beneficial—the development of friendliness, and the recollection of death. ‘As a result of the recollection of death one reflects on the fact that one is sure to die, gives up the search for what is unworthy, and steadily increases one’s agitation until one has lost all sluggishness’. This agrees fairly well with Plato when he says in his Phaidon (64A) that they are the “true votaries of knowledge” who “practice nothing else but how to dieor meet death.” Few things indeed are as salutary to a Buddhist as to meditate on death, the inevitable sequel of life governed by craving and ignorance.”
There are many forms of maranasati (death awareness) that have had a very prominent place since the time of the Buddha. Our culture does not encourage us to face death while we are still very much alive. This culture is inside us, so without knowing you I can assume, perhaps safely, that there may be some obstacles, some resistance to taking on a contemplation of this sort. I don’t think it can be put any better than in the “Hollywood wisdom” of Woody Allen, who in one of his movies says, “It’s not that I’m afraid of dying; it’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens!” I would say that for vipassana yogis it’s the opposite: we openly acknowledge our fear of dying and we really want to be there when it happens! Many of us are not paying much attention to the obvious fact that we will die; we are trying very hard to have a good time in the midst of this avoidance.
So why formally contemplate our own death while we are still alive? Why are we preparing for our own death? Formal meditation can be very helpful in arousing and letting go of the fears which are latent in us, especially the fear we all have of dying and with which we may not be in touch.
Death awareness has been a very important practice for me and I’ve done it off and on, sometimes very intensively, over the years. My first contact with this meditation was in an informal and natural way almost 30 years ago. I was studying with Badrayana, a teacher from India. We spent three months together in a small Mexican town, isolated from everything. One evening, as I was sitting in my room doing breath awareness practice, he enthusiastically approached me and said, “Drop everything you’re doing and come with me.” It turned out that one of the local workers, while drunk, had fallen into the bay and had drowned. His dead body had washed up on the beach. For some religious reasons which were obscure to us, the villagers refused to touch his body; all they had done was put the body in a box with ice. They wanted us, as outsiders, to sit with the body until the dead person’s relatives and a priest could come from Mexico City the next day. So we sat with the body through the night. I couldn’t figure out why it was so important for me to go through this. The teacher was doing this not as a favor to the villagers but because he felt than an
Our culture does not encourage us to face death while we are still very much alive. This culture is inside us…
extraordinary opportunity had dropped into our lap. So the two of us sat all night with this bloated, blue and festering corpse with a really bad smell. I went through phases of fear, nausea, resistance, and tremendous doubt about the necessity of this project. Who was he anyway? Why was he inflicting this experience on me? He watched me very carefully and whenever he saw a strong reaction, he’d say, “What are you experiencing right now?” I would tell him my experience and he’d say, “O.K. Sit with it.” Sound familiar? Be with your breath and sit with it.
We sat with the corpse until the next morning when a Catholic priest and the dead person’s family took over. Through the night, my teacher would periodically remind me that I was not exempt from this lawfulness, that if something appears, it must also disappear, that this dead body was not some kind of chance occurrence, that it was something to which we are all subject, that it’s the great leveler. And he would remind me again and again to reflect on this corpse as my true teacher; to see it as if it were my own body. I finally calmed down and was able to give full attention to the dead body and my reactions to it. His deadness became more clear; my own aliveness did too. Looking back, that experience, though mostly unappealing at the time, was invaluable. It arouses in me a deep interest in death and dying in the Buddhist tradition.
In learning more about death awareness meditation, we learn how to shine the light of death on life. It’s not meant to be an exercise in morbidity or self-pity, or in terrorizing ourselves. In fact one often feels light, happy and unburdened after directly acknowledging the truth of our inevitable death. One way in which it is extremely invaluable is that it flushes out fear. It gives us an opportunity to work very carefully with fear. Now remember, what we’re afraid of is not really death but our idea of death. And this is one of the things to learn, that it’s a very powerful idea.
Many current Buddhist meditation practices in the West focus on objects associated with beauty or joy or peace—something desirable, attractive. Certainly death is mentioned frequently in teaching. It is obviously a vital part of the general importance given to the understanding of anicca, impermanence, change, uncertainty. Reflection on anicca, that everything which arises passes away, is central to wisdom practice. However, it doesn’t seem to have been taken up very often as a subject of formal contemplation in a systematic and sustained manner. Nine years ago I gave a talk at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center on Death Awareness. Towards the end of the talk someone bolted out of the hall,
…what most of us are afraid of is not really death but our idea of death.
obviously saturated with anxiety. This person later told me of the fear aroused by my remarks. Thich Nhat Hanh advised me to be careful in teaching maranasati, to avoid encouraging people in poor mental and physical health who are still strongly dominated by desire and aversion to take up this practice. Perhaps wisely, I pulled back and shared this practice with very few yogis. The times have changed and it now seems clear that death awareness meditation is too important not to be talked about openly.
Let me hint at a few ways in which we can benefit from bringing the idea of our own death into consciousness. Its full benefit can only be grasped if we decide to actually set maranasati into motion. To do so is to shine the light of death on life. Many aspects of how we live collapse when exposed to
…death awareness meditation is too important not to be talked about openly.
this light; others become even more precious. Let me briefly mention some ways in which the practice of death awareness has been of personal benefit. It has often brought fear out into the open—fear of the obviously finite nature of this physical body. Arousing the fear of death provides us with an opportunity to use sati-pañña—mindfulness with discernment—skillfully so that wisdom can take some of the potency out of this very natural source of anxiety. Please remember that what most of us are afraid of is not really death but our idea of death.
My impression is that there is now much more interest in the contemplation of death than there was just nine years ago. There has also been a dramatic increase in a number of sincere and commited practitioners willing and able to provide support. Naturally, it can be a great dharma practice. When working with Ajahn Suwat, a Thai forest monk, on what he referred to as “coming to terms with the true nature of the body,” I already had a deep commitment to five precepts, years of study and intensive practice, and the support of the sangha; most important was his loving and deeply equanimous presence in the face of all my strong emotional reactions to the ideas of my own death. He had faced his fears and was able to help me face mine. Nonetheless, I remain cautious. The practices mentioned here are simply meant to be an introduction. They have been invaluable for some practitioners in the past. Perhaps they will be of some interest to some of you as well.
What we are doing here is not attempting to arm ourselves with a new ideology, a “Buddhist” view of death to replace the discarded Judeo-Christian notions of an eternal soul or Marxist conclusions of total annihilation with the death of the body. We are rather more interested in how the idea of our own death is affecting us right now. Even when we are terrified (at some level) of dying, we usually put this inevitability far ahead of us, in some distant future. This is easier to do when we are younger—”we still have lots of time.” We don’t really know very much about our relationship to a profoundly obvious and fundamental fact—that we could die at any moment. Our life is literally hanging on by just one breath! We know lots about our relationship to sex, love, art, anger, food, money, clothes, politics but not very much about the personal meaning of our dying. There can be a huge gap between the obvious fact of an unavoidable death and the degree of reflection devoted to this important subject. We find many ways to avoid the emotional significance of our own death. Even Buddhist teachings can be used as a hiding place. The theory of rebirth can be quite comforting. How deep is your confidence in it? Does it cover up deep and unexamined terror? I asked Byok Jo Sunim, one of my Zen teachers in Korea, about what happens after death. He said that he didn’t know. I was disappointed by his answer. He saw this and simply added, “I haven’t died yet!” He was encouraging me to rely on my direct experience even more than the doctrine of karma and rebirth.The formal meditation practices that I would like to introduce you to shortly are actually invitations to our fear of death to come and visit us—to present itself in as vivid and immediate a way as possible. When the fear of our own death is evoked it is often happening to an image (it can be very subtle) of a dying that will take place in the future to somebody at that time; that “somebody” is of course you.
The fear is in regard to a notion of you who is going to die some time later on. This putting death off for a future time without realizing it can be very subtle. It can still arouse emotions that are poignant and sorrowful, and thus provide us with a valuable field of fearful energy to practice with. However, formal death awareness practices are designed to help us move closer to feelings that are convincing and which are more nearly approximate to moments of our actual death.
Larry Rosenberg doing walking meditation at the Jeta grove in Sravasti, India where the Buddha is said to have taught the Anapanasati sutta
Let us pause briefly: What does your breath feel like right now? Can you hear sounds? Silence? Smells? The shapes and colors that make up the room you are in? Any discomfort in the body? What thoughts, images, and moods are coloring the consciousness right now? Be as intimate with this moment as you are able to. When it is time to actually die it will be happening in an ordinary living moment just like this one. The process of dying will take place NOW. Death awareness practice can help us more nearly simulate such a moment and weaken or transcend the power of the fear it may release.
Death awareness is a valuable practice in many other ways. Every time we engage in some form of maranasati we help ourselves to acknowledge the impermanent nature of everything. It deepens our understanding of what it means to be alive. We are all companions in all old age, sickness and death—seeing this more clearly can help us see how precious each one of us is. The obstinate familiarity of everything that encloses our daily life can break wide open and yield a new freshness. There is no way to be exempt from death. Those we love must also die. Really seeing this can enable us to see everyone more sympathetically. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Life is impermanent, but that does not mean that it is not worth living. It is precisely because of its impermanence that we value life so dearly. Therefore we must know how to live each moment deeply and use it in a responsible way. If we are able to live the present moment completely, we will not feel regret later. We will know how to care for those who are close to us and how to bring them happiness. When we accept that all things are impermanent, we will not be incapacitated by suffering when things decay and die. We can remain peaceful and content in the face of change, prosperity and decline, success and failure.”
Deepening our understanding of death can radically affect how we live life. Priorities can change and we may not have as much of an investment in an imagined future—perhaps less accumulation of things; perhaps less of an obsession with unattainable security; perhaps less of a preoccupation with “becoming someone,” not so much living for the “future,” because there isn’t one. Is it possible to have fulfillment in this moment? To learn how to die is also to learn how to live. Death can serve as a “coach,” encouraging us to live completely in the present, with more confidence and less fear. When we shine the light of death on the yearning for power, fame, and money, they tend to lose of some of their magnetic pull. In the case of vipassana yogis this can mean a dramatic strengthening of the commitment to wholeheartedly engage in practice.
The contemplation of death has helped to take me through the “ups and downs” of practice—it can be an effective antidote to periods of mental dullness. We don’t have forever! Whatever our condition, whatever time and situation we find ourselves in—ideal for practice! When I get caught in pettiness or resentment towards others, remembering to turn towards thoughts of death, usually restores the mind to balance. In a dharma talk, Ajahn Maha Boowa told us about a forest monk in Thailand who found himself face to face with a tiger. He was able to manage his fear, and avoid being attacked, by reflecting on how he and the tiger were comrades in birth, old age, sickness and death. His fear was replaced by deep compassion. They observed each other carefully for a few moments, and the tiger walked away.
The message of our impending death can of course have a rather different outcome. An obviously dejected person approached me once after after a talk on maranasati. He was disappointed in himself, wanting to drop everything for the dharma—but actually preferring sex, drugs and rock-and-roll! What do we really value? Why were we born?
In brief, without being mindful of death, whatever Dharma practices you take up will be merely superficial. -Yogi Milarepa
Note from Larry Rosenberg: In Part II, we will “walk through” the following contemplative themes together. Concrete, specific suggestions will be offered as guidelines to practice. In the meantime, I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with these themes and reflect on them in your own way.
- Everyone has to die;
- Our lifespan is decreasing continuously;
- The amount of time spent during our life to develop the mind is very small;
- Human life expectancy is uncertain;
- There are many causes of death;
- The human body is so fragile;
- Our possessions and enjoyments cannot help;
- Our loved ones cannot help;
- Our own body cannot help; loved ones cannot help
(Charnel Ground Meditations from Mahasatipatthana Sutta)
- I see my body, dead for a few days, bloated, blue, festering.
- I see my dead body infested with worms and flies.
- I see that all that is left of my body is a skeleton with some flesh and blood still clinging to it.
- I further consider my skeletal corpse without any flesh, yet still spotted with blood and held together with tendons.
- All that is left of my dead body is a skeleton with no blood stains, held together by tendons.
- I see that now all that is left is a collection of scattered bones. The bones of the feet have gone one way, the bones of the hand an other. The thigh bones, pelvis, spinal vertebrae, jaw, teeth and skull have all come apart in different directions. They are all now just bare bones.
- All that is left is a collection of bleached bones.
- A year passes and I see that my dead body is reduced to being a pile of old bones.
- These bones decay and become dust; blown apart and scattered by the wind they cannot even be called bones any more.