The first part of this article which appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Insight ended with this quote from the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa:
“In brief, without being mindful of death, whatever Dharma practices you take up will be merely superficial.”
What was Milarepa suggesting? When we forget about our own death, we may also be more likely to forget the dharma? If we don’t recall death we will also lose the wish to train our minds in dharma? In forgetting about death do we become thoroughly lost in the busy concerns of life? Will dharma instructions lose their meaning and their value? Even if we don’t forget the dharma. wc may be more inclined to just think about practice, to put it off. In that mind space, “I won’t die today” seems to always ring true. Does it lead to complacency?
The truth is that wc are all singing and dancing on the Titanic but we behave as if it’s a cruise to Bermuda. Perhaps we don’t set our well-intentioned yearnings to practice in motion—and another day goes by. This is of course where the nine-part death awareness meditations wc are about to embark upon come in handy. Remaining mindful of our own death can leave a deep impression upon the mind, enabling us to engage in dharma practice with greater energy and sincerity.
Put positively, remembering death can have beneficial effects. It can give us a strong and clear sense of purpose, a frame of reference so that we don’t waste time, instead using our energy to extract the essence from this precious human life. In my own practice, when sleepiness visits me, I switch from vipassana to death awareness which usually generates some fresh energy. We vipassana practitioners hear so much about “letting go” but none the less we are overwhelmed by cravings for the perishable things of this world or the powerful influence of the “eight worldly concerns”; being happy if we receive gifts, and unhappy if we don’t: happy if comfortable, and unhappy if we aren’t; happy if famous, unhappy if not: happy if praised, unhappy if criticized. So much of our time and energy is used to construct a sense of “me” and “mine” out of these materials.
See what happens when all of this is seen in the light of death! Our priorities become clearer: attachments seemingly fashioned out of steel soften and sometimes even fall away. You may find yourself naturally become more generous with your wealth and possessions. If you have been meditating for awhile, you have certainly been encouraged to “be in the present moment” often enough. Has the profound simplicity and intelligence of this phrase as a guide for living really gotten through to you? If not, please allow death meditation to work on you and see what happens. Maranasati can be important at the beginning—for some it is an important factor in embarking upon the path of dharma. It can be important in the middle-acting as a condition to stimulate years of sincere devotion to meditation; it is important at the end—allowing us to be able to die happily, gracefully, with no regrets and the confidence that quite naturally develops from a lifetime of wholehearted practice, influencing our last moments.
I fled to the mountains because I feared death:
I have realized emptiness, the mind’s primordial mode of existence.
Even if I were to die now,
It would be with contentment.
Note: The meditations to follow have a precise and specific purpose. They arc especially geared for vipassana yogis—people already motivated to walk this path—who arc being urged to wake up to the urgency of dharma practice. If you are new to vipassana meditation, such a sense of priority and committment may be lacking. The exhortations may seem narrow, severe, and inappropriate. If you are in a state of great nervous tension, you may wish to relax and contemplate more pleasant aspects of the dharma instead. Please use your own good sense in deciding whether or not to take up death awareness practice right now.
The Nine-part Meditation
Practice on Death
This meditation has been adapted from the teachings of Atisha (980-1055). the great Indian Buddhist sage, and the personal instructions of Tara Tulku Rinpochc and Ajahn Suwat; it has three roots:
- thinking of the inevitability of death;
- thinking about the uncertainty of when you will die:
- thinking about how nothing can help you die, except the practice of dharma.
Three lines of reasoning are given for each root: there are nine contemplations in all. Let me suggest one way of practicing which I have found to be useful.
Take up the first line of reasoning, “everyone has to die,” then briefly move through the remaining eight. In nine sessions (i.e. one each day) you will have had the opportunity to go into each one of them in some depth. If you wish, you may of course begin again.
Begin each session with samatha (calm), allowing the mind to come to rest in the breathing. If you are already established in calm (e.g. access concentration or first jhana) you may omit this step. Then take the notion e.g. “everyone must die” or an image which evokes this for you, and “turn it over” within a serene and concentrated mind. If the mind is still afflicted by the hindrances, the contemplation is likely to be vague, easily disturbed.
When our capacity to pay attention is limited, the significance of a given contemplation does not sink deeply into the heart. There is no substantial change in the way we relate to life and death. In a serene mind thinking can be quite sharp and pliable. We can direct our attention with precision and focus. Our reflection can be uninterrupted. It has the powerful support of samatha, which enables us to remain emotionally engaged, keenly interested.
Our mind in this state is very receptive; it is not necessary to do lots of active thinking about the subject. Richness of meaning reveals itself. Stay attentive to your experience as it tells its own story. Allow the truth of contemplation to affect you. Experience inevitability of death with your entire being!
If you continue to work with this nine-part death meditation, you may find that one of the themes is especially fertile. Feel free to walk through such doors which open up in your practice. The creative process may take you somewhere outside the progressive and systematic arrangement of this scheme. It may be useful to follow this up.
For example, when I was working with the “inevitability” root, one evening after formal practice, I turned to an old, late-hour movie from the 1930s featuring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and many other actors familiar to me. Probably because the contemplation was still on my mind, I noticed an obvious and fascinating fact. Everyone in the film was now dead! The producer, the director, musicians, actors etc. were all dead. I looked with keen interest at the virile, sensual, highly energetic performers—all DEAD. I then took the impact of this realization inside, lived with it for a while, opened my eyes and examined them living out their lives on film again—and went inside again. I continued this way for a while because this “made in U.S.A” method was fruitful.
Let’s move through the practice outline.
THE INEVITABILITY OF DEATH
- Everyone has to die.
The first of the nine-part sequence of thoughts concerning death is to contemplate the obvious fact that no one can stand up to death. Nothing can prevent our death. Death is a logical consequence of birth. Death begins to work on life at the moment of birth. The inevitability of this truth is as obvious as the “emperor’s clothes”—the emperor has no clothes—and we are going to die. There are no exemptions. Differences in wealth, education, physical strength, fame, education, moral integrity, spiritual maturity are irrelevant. All distinctions are leveled. Although this event is the only one that is certain, do we plan on it? Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga offers us some help here. Compare yourself with others of great fame, merit, strength, supernatural powers and understanding. Reflect on how death inevitably caught up with each outstanding person, “so how shall it not at length overtake me?” My first teacher, J. Krishnamurti, is someone I contemplate in this way. His inner clarity, strength and immense vitality drew me to him. A very active life of teaching ended only two weeks before his death at age ninety—but it did end.
The Buddha put it this way:
Young and old,
foolish and wise,
rich and poor, all keep dying.
As a potter’s clay vessels, large and small, fired and unfired, All end up broken, so too life heads to death.
- Our life span is decreasing continuously.
Our movement towards death is inexorable—it never stops. We walk hand in hand with death. Our life is slipping away. With every tick of the clock we move closer to the termination of life as we know it. The great Indian master Atisha used the sound of water dropping as a support for this contemplation.
Look intently at your breathing; time is elapsing with each breath, even as you read these remarks. From breath moment to breath moment we are being moved closer and closer to the end of our life here on earth, and there is nothing that we can do about it. Can you bring your attention to this sense of the uninterrupted flow of time transporting us to death? It is like falling from a tree. We will definitely hit the ground. What thoughts or feelings does this realization bring up? When the time comes to die what can we do? Just die!
After our birth we have no freedom to remain even for a minute.
We head towards the embrace of the Lord of Death, like an athlete running.
We may think that we are among the living, but our life is the very highway of death.
— The Seventh Dalai Lama
- Death will come regardless of whether or not we have made the time to practice dharma.
The essence of this contemplation is nicely put by Gungtang Rinpoche: “I spent twenty years not wanting to practice dharma. I spent the next twenty years thinking that I could practice later on. I spent another twenty years in other activities and regretting the fact that I hadn ‘t engaged in dharma practice. This is the story of my empty human life. ’’
The amount of time spent during our life to develop the mind is very little. Life is so very short—most of us will probably die before we get around to practicing dharma in any substantial way. So much time spent sleeping, so much time spent eating; so much time just spent “puttering around.” Perhaps half our life is spent this way. More? Have you already reached a time in your life where you regret having planned so much and done so little? It is not too late. Wake up! The central thrust of these reflections on the inevitability of death is to strongly encourage us to live and breathe dharma. Time is so easily consumed by other pursuits until, without warning we die. It is too late to negotiate with Death. To plead for more time because we are now finally ready, is useless. Death awareness meditation can help us develop a sincere wish to practice, to alter our daily routine so that it includes more time for practice and finally to make dharma our highest priority. This contemplation can arouse a fear of dying unprepared—an appropriate fear, because many of us truly are not prepared for death.
Twenty years ago, I asked Anagarika Munindra about facing death. He immediately asserted that vipassana yogis are always attempting to remain mindful of the conditions of mind and body. Practice at the time of dying is no different. Of course the challenge is so much greater during our last moments. Is our capacity to pay attention adequate to meet this challenge? He then insisted that the time to get ready is NOW.
THE UNCERTAINTY OF THE TIME OF DEATH
- Human life expectancy is uncertain.
The life span for all of us living in this world is not fixed. If we are young we can fool ourselves into believing that we won’t die for quite some time; similarly we can be misguided if we are fortunate enough to be in good physical health. Death can come at any time; it doesn’thave to give us any warning. It is clearly not reserved for the aged and unwell. Yesterday I was informed that a Korean Zen teacher whom I knew well fell over dead of heart failure in the midst of an interview. He was in his early 50’s. People die in car accidents, while eating, sleeping, planning out their summer holidays. Some die in the process of being born. We see dead chipmunks lying on the road beside the Insight Meditation Society all the time. Death can come at any moment. This is a fact, but not one we have real conviction in. Most of us are confident that we will be around for awhile. Thousands die each day. I wonder how many expected to? The challenge of this contemplation is to be able to arouse a strong sense of the uncertainty of our time of death. Do you really know how much time you have left?
Spirits were high with expectations this morning,
As the men discussed subduing enemies and protecting the land.
Now, with night’s coming, birds and dogs chew their corpses.
Who believed that they themselves would die today?
—The Seventh Dalai Lama
- There are many causes of death.
Once again, from a slightly different angle, we attempt to impress upon ourselves the ever present possibility of death. In seeing that this possibility cancels out all other possibilities, do we question the meaning and significance of how we are actually living our life right now? Does such questioning propel our dharma practice into the forefront as a consideration for orchestrating our time and energy? In this, the fifth contemplation of the series, we reflect on the fact that there are a seemingly endless list of external and internal conditions that can bring about our demise. To turn on the TV news at any time is to be reminded of death coming from the “outside,” e.g., famine, earthquake, fire, pollution, war, murder, drowning, plane and car crashes… Do I need to go on? If you feel relatively protected from such causes, please think again! As for problems issuing forth from the “inside” which end our life, we have heart attacks, cancer, AIDS, and the long list of well established and new physical disorders which can result in death. In short, to be alive on this planet is to be subject to probably thousands of causes and conditions that result in our death. Virtually anything is a potential cause of death. Please contemplate this.
We maintain our life in the midst of thousands of conditions that threaten death. Our life force abides like a candle flame in the breeze. The candle flame of our life is easily extinguished by the winds of death that blow from all directions. —Nagarjuna
- The human body is very fragilc.
My uncle, while still in his early twenties and quite robust, cut himself on a rusty razor. He was dead within a few days. Our bodies are delicate and vulnerable, not made of an indestructible or diamond-strong substance. It is so easy for it to be wounded, to break apart, for a change in circumstances to change a healthy and energetic person to one who is helpless, weak, and then dead. A small microbe could do it. A blow to crucial parts of our body could do it. We are all so tender and susceptible to harm. Life provides us with so many concrete examples of how fragile our body is:
From the Visuddhimagga:
As to the frailty of life: this life is impotent and frail. For the life of beings is bound up with breathing… Life occurs only when the in-breaths and out-breaths occur evenly. But when the wind in the nostrils that has gone outside does not go in again, or when that which has gone inside does not come out again, then a being is reckoned to be dead.”
Drawing upon this simple observation, we have an equally simple method for contemplation number six: stay with the breath, see death in every inhalation and exhalation. Take up the subject of death to teach the mind with every inhalation and exhalation, until a strong conviction arises—our life is literally hanging by a breath. Please return to your cushion!
THE FACT THAT ONLY THE PRACTICE OF DHARMA CAN HELP US AT THE TIME OF DEATH.
- At the time of death our wealth cannot help us.
Imagine yourself at your own deathbed. You grow weaker by the moment. All of your wealth, hard earned and cherished possessions are available, but useless to you now. It must all be left behind—bank account, book and tape collection, antique objects, clothing, delicious foods. We are separated from our belongings. Are these comforts and pleasures of the past of any importance as our life slips away? In your contemplation attempt to really feel your clinging to any or all of these things during most of your life—and how they are utterly useless now. Can you wholeheartedly feel this?
Letting go helps us die in peace. As soon as we die, our wealth and all these cherished objects will be redistributed to friends, relatives, strangers, thrift shops, the garbage. We have spent so much time and energy building up our collection of wealth and things. No matter how much we enjoyed a particular object, we can’t take it with us when Death snatches us away. Isn’t it a “sound investment” to give much more of our attention to dharma practice since the fruit of work on purification of consciouness is the only thing that travels with us?
Avoid works of little consequence; and seek the path to spiritual joy. The things of this life quickly fade; Cultivate that which benefits eternally. —Dulzhug Ling-pa
- Our loved ones cannot help.
It is only natural to turn to those who love us for help at the time of death. Despite our deeply shared bond, there is very little that can be done; we must face death alone. Strong attachments only make matters worse—our departure will be marked by torment. Grasping and peace don’t seem to go together. We came alone, and we must leave alone. Our loved ones are powerless when we need them the most. Part of learning to face death realistically is to face this stark truism right now. So, we must see that wealth cannot help us; neither can our friends arrest the process of dying. Only our dharma practice—the beneficial traces of the past, and our capacity to remain wakeful in our last moments—can be of real use.
While I am lying in bed, although surrounded by all my friends and relatives, the feeling of my life being severed will be experienced by me alone. When I am seized by the messengers of the Lord of Death, what benefits will my friends afford? What help can my relatives be? At that time the sole thing that will provide me with a safe direction will be the degree of purity of my mind-stream. But have I ever really committed myself wholeheartedly to such cultivation?
- Our own body cannot help.
This body that we have cherished for so long cheats us at the time when we need it most.
— First Panchen Lama
Most of our life is spent working on the body. Getting the body fed, watered, cleaned, and dressed takes up a great deal of time. We need to give it adequate rest and medical treatment when this is required. We exercise it, groom it with attractive clothing and in countless ways attempt to make the body attractive. Countless oils and creams are rubbed into the skin to give it a youthful appearence. Teeth and backs are straightened, eyeglasses and frames are carefully selected. Hair is straightened or curled, allowed to grow long or kept short. The body is scrubbed and cleaned, massaged and stretched. We put clothes on when it is cold; take them off when it is hot. We spend eons in front of the mirror evaluating the results of our dedicated efforts—and then what happens? It goes and dies on us anyway!
We die in this body that we have cherished so dearly. Can such a realization intensify your determination to practice dharma? I hope so, but please be careful. Don’t swing to the other extreme of bodily neglect. Advice given to me many years ago by J. Krishnamurti has been of immense help. He said that although we are not the body, we should care for it the way a cavalry soldier cares for his horse. He is not his horse, but proper care of its condition can make the difference between life and death in combat. There is this body, and although it’s not “me” or “mine,” its reasonable care is a vital aspect of our dharma practice.
This body with which we are so intimate has been our constant companion since birth. We have experienced so much pleasure and pain in it. We treasure it. At death it becomes feeble and of no use to us as we approach separation from this lifetime. Are you able to feel your dependence and attachment to it? Can you see how holding on can only result in torment? Simulate a sense of being at your own deathbed. You lose your job, relationships, home, money, etc.—all at once! Can you visualize the feeling of helplessness and loss, and amidst all this, remain awake? Can you remain as the knowing?
Finally, at the end of each session, save a few moments to make and reflect on the following determination: “Since it is true that I may die at any time, I will practice dharma right now.”
By the way—are you aware that you are breathing right now? How wonderful we are all still alive!