Meditation on Death
by Visu Teoh
(feedback, questions, comments welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org)
It is good to keep the thought of death uppermost in our mind as a skillful reminder for us to lead a meaningful life.
Every time the thought of death arises we are reminded of how we want to live our life – kindly and wisely.
Thus, it is skillful, as we go about our everyday life, to now and then think about death. In fact, the Buddha asked us to often reflect on five themes, one of which is death.
The five themes are:
1. We are subject to aging. No one is exempt from it.
2. We are subject to sickness. No one is exempt from it.
3. We are subject to death. No one is exempt from it.
4. There will be parting and separation from everyone and everything that are dear and agreeable to us.
5. We are owners of our karma (deeds) and, whatever good or bad we do, thereof we will reap the results.
We can see the benefit of reflecting along these themes. They are sobering reminders to us to live a good life and to accept the reality that we will all be separated through death.
Death is not a pretty thought. We might like to push it away. Yet we are reminded of death all around us every day. We have loved ones and friends who have passed away. We read about people dying every day in the news. Death comes via many doors, such as accidents, disasters, wars, sickness, old age, murders and suicides.
Actually we can’t help but be reminded of death. According to the Ecological Global Network, going by statistics collated in 2011, worldwide 151,600 people die a day, which works out to 6,316 each hour and 105 each minute.
Reflecting on death, pertinent questions arise: How do we want to live? What constitutes to us a meaningful or beautiful life? How do we want to spend our precious time on this earth?
Perhaps these may be some of the considerations on your list:
1. To live kindly. To serve. To do whatever good we can. To spread happiness.
2. To be generous, to give and share liberally.
3. To abstain from unkindness and cruelty.|
4. To spend time with loved ones and friends.
5. To work conscientiously so as to earn enough to support the family.
6. To develop our talents and skills to realise our full potential and for the benefit of society.
7. To study good teachings that can spiritually enrich our life.
8. To meditate to calm and purify the mind.
9. To develop spiritually and realise our spiritual goals.
10. To live a value-oriented life.
11. To live lightly, peacefully and cheerfully.
12. To smile and laugh a lot.
13. To let go of grudges, ill will, anger and all unwholesome states of mind.
14. To not procrastinate and waste precious time.
15. To make the most of our life, to make a garland of flowers out of it, a garland adorned with the flowers of virtues and good deeds.
Every time we think of death, some of the above mottos or whatever is important for us will flash through our mind. Thus, thinking of death is helpful as it reminds us of our priorities in life and keeps us on track, especially if we have strayed too far off from the path that we have set for ourselves.
We realise that our time here is limited and precious and we don’t want to procrastinate, sitting on all those things that we ought to do until it is too late to do them.
Being able to think about death often and face the reality of our mortality squarely will also help us to overcome our fear of obliteration. We start to think of how we want to die, how we want to go, not railing and raging against death, but quietly, peacefully and serenely. Perhaps even managing a last smile: it is time and we are ready.
Even in the event of sudden death, having long formed a strong resolution to die peacefully, it is possible that even in those last few moments we are still able to collect ourselves and expire serenely. Our mind is an amazing instrument - it is more capable than we think.
The best way to prepare for death is to live a good life. When we look back on the good life we have lived we will have no regrets when we die. We know we have lived well, being kind and good to our fellow beings, and we can go with a peaceful heart.
We may not be perfect but we have tried our level best. And we trust that we will get a good rebirth or continuation till we reach the highest level of spiritual perfection.
For me, as a Buddhist, that will be a mind completely purified and stainless which, having no more craving or attachment, simply ceases at death, undergoing no more rebirth.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a practice of reflection on death (maranasati – lit., mindfulness on death). Below I would like to offer some suggestions as to how it can be done.
You can take your usual meditation posture, whether sitting on a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
Take a few moments to calm your mind, being mindful of your breathing and body and the mind itself.
Now, repeat this phrase that is often used in the Buddhist tradition for contemplation on death: “Life is uncertain. Death is certain.”
Then reflect on death along the following lines:
All who are born must die. There is no birth without death. Beings die in all ages, at all phases of life, from young to middle age to old. No one is exempt from death.
High or low. King or beggar. Mighty or powerless. Rich or poor. All must die. Death comes to all without exception.
Verily, life is uncertain. Death is certain.
Life is short and fleeting. It is soon gone like -
a flash of lightning
a water bubble
a dew drop on a tip of a grass blade
a line drawn on water
for even if one were to live to a hundred years it is like a blip in time compared to eternity.
And death is like a murderer, ever stalking us, waiting for the opportune time to strike.
Life is uncertain. Death is certain.
The days and nights are flying past.
Like water in a tiny stream that soon dries up,
life is dwindling hurriedly away.
Like the sand flowing through the hour glass,
our life span is steadily coming to an end.
Every step we take leads but to the grave.
We are all approaching death.
With each passing day,
each passing moment,
each passing breath,
we are getting closer to our date with death.
Life is fragile. Death is but a breath away.
If I were to breath in but do not breath out
I am dead!
Or, if having breathed out, I do not breath in,
I am dead!
Death hinges precariously on the thread of a breath!
There is no bargaining with death.
The Grim Reaper does not take "No" for an answer.
When our time is up we have to go.
In between the above reflections, we can contemplate on how we want to live our life and the values and attitudes we want to cultivate. We can reaffirm our determination to live a meaningful and beautiful life. And where we have gone astray, we resolve to put ourselves back on track.
Then, we can bring to mind all those we know who have died, beginning with our loved ones, friends and their loved ones. We can think of acquaintances and even celebrities who have died. Thinking of the departed makes us even more aware of the omnipresence of death and our own limited time left on earth.
At this juncture we can combine our death contemplation with metta (lovingkindness) practice. If we are a believer in rebirth or do not rule out the possibility of some form of continuation of the consciousness after death, we can wish for the wellbeing and happiness of the departed ones wherever they have taken new existence.
It is wonderful that we can send them metta. We feel happy doing this, especially if we are particularly grateful to them for the kindness they have shown us when they were alive. We feel happy and comforted that though our loved ones, dear friends and benefactors have passed on, we can still stay connected with them through metta. They are not forgotten as we direct our metta to the continuation of their being. “Wherever you are now, in whatever new existence you have taken, may you be well and happy.”
In between thinking of the departed ones, we can continue to repeat at intervals the phrase, “Life is uncertain. Death is certain.”
At some point when we don’t want to reflect or dwell in thoughts anymore, we can just be mindful of our breath, body sensations and consciousness while repeating at intervals a simple phrase such as, “Life is uncertain, death is certain” or “All beings are subject to death,” or just the word, “Death, death.”
Bare awareness of the breath, body and consciousness while repeating a relevant phrase mantra-like conduces towards a stillness and calmness of mind.
One thing to remember when doing death contemplation is that it is not our intention to arouse fear or sorrow. If such states arise, we should note and dispel them as we want to accept death and come to terms with it. We want to cultivate courage in facing death and be at peace with it.
If sorrow arises when we think of our departed ones, we again apply wise reflection to accept the reality and inevitability of death. We accept and reconcile with their passing. The state of mind we are arousing in death contemplation is a deep and acute awareness of our mortality that makes us determined to live wisely, according to our values and priorities. The mind is sober, calm and concentrated.
Besides doing contemplation on death as a formal meditation, it is also important throughout the day to bear death in mind. This is not morbid but rather a skillful and constant reminder to us as regards how we want to live and our priorities in life.
We also keep our mind wholesome throughout the day by radiating metta, exercising wise reflection and cultivating positive mind states and attitudes.
Ever mindful of our mortality, may we live a meaningful and beautiful life. May we cultivate mindfulness of death which can inspire and bring about such great benefit in our life.
“I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?”
“As aging and death are rolling in on me, venerable sir, what else should be done but to live by the Dhamma, to live righteously, and to do wholesome and meritorious deeds?”
- Conversation between the Buddha and King Pasenadi from "In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon" by Bhikkhu Bodhi
“Just as a dew drop on the tip of a blade of grass will quickly vanish at sunrise and will not last long; even so is human life like a dew drop. It is short, limited, and brief; it is full of suffering, full of tribulation. This one should wisely understand. One should do good and live a pure life; for none who is born can escape death.”
“Now, when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be
This contemplation on death
Blessed with such mighty potency.”
- Path of Purification