Meditation and Death

In his elaborate survey of Buddhist meditation methods, the Ven. Dr. says this of the meditation on mindfulness of death: “It virtually belongs to the Vipassanaa meditation, for the disciple should develop it while holding the perception of anicca, dukkha, and anattaa.”[3]

When the Ven. Somdet Phra Vanarata, the then Vice-Patriarch of Thailand, visited Wat Dhammapadiipa, Hampstead, London, on 23rd October 1968, he spoke on the subject of death. He said that we are fortunate to be born in the human condition, in full possession of all our faculties, as this gives us the possibility of hearing the Dhamma and practicing it. This is an advantage we should not neglect, because birth in the human state is a rare thing. If people are born blind or deaf, or without other faculties, this is the result of kamma. They may have to wait for another opportunity. We should always remember the inevitability of death. The awareness of this should make us cease from clinging too much to worldly things. If we constantly keep the thought of death before our minds, this will be an instigation to work hard on ourselves and make good progress.

The standard Meditation on Death is given by Buddhaghosa in Chapter VIII of the Visuddhimagga (“Path of Purification”). It may be summarized as follows: Buddhaghosa begins by stating the kinds of death he is not considering: the final passing of the Arahant; “momentary death” (i.e., the moment-to-moment dissolution of formations); or metaphorical uses of the term “death.” He refers to timely death which comes with exhaustion of merit, or the life-span, or both, and to untimely death produced by kamma that interrupts other (life-producing) kamma. One should go into solitary retreat and exercise attention wisely thus: “Death will take place, the life faculty will be interrupted,” or “Death, death.”

Unwise attention may arise in the form of sorrow (at the death of a loved one), joy (at the death of an enemy), indifference (as with a cremator), or fear (at the thought of one’s own death). There should always be mindfulness, a sense of urgency, and knowledge. Then “access-concentration” may be gained — and this is the basis for the arising of Insight.

“But,” says Buddhaghosa, “one who finds that it does not get so far should do his recollecting of death in eight ways, that is to say: (1) as having the appearance of a murderer, (2) as the ruin of success, (3) by comparison, (4) as to sharing the body with many, (5) as to the frailty of life, (6) as signless, (7) as to the limitedness of the extent, (8) as to the shortness of the moment.” Some of these terms are not quite self-explanatory: thus (3) means by comparing oneself with others — even the great and famous, even Buddhas, have to die; (4) means that the body is inhabited by all sorts of strange beings, “the eighty families of worms.” They live in dependence on, and feed on, the outer skin, the inner skin, the flesh, the sinews, the bones, the marrow, “and there they are born, grow old and die, evacuate, and make water, and the body is their maternity home, their hospital, their charnel ground, their privy and their urinal.” (6) means that death is unpredictable, (7) refers to the shortness of the human life-span.

Buddhaghosa concludes: “A bhikkhu devoted to mindfulness of death is constantly diligent. He acquires perception of disenchantment with all kinds of becoming (existence). He conquers attachment to life. He condemns evil. He avoids much storing. He has not stain of avarice about requisites. Perception of impermanence grows in him, following upon which there appear the perceptions of pain and not-self. But while beings who have not developed mindfulness of death fall victims to fear, horror and confusion at the time of death as though suddenly seized by wild beasts, spirits, snakes, robbers, or murderers, he dies undeluded and fearless without falling into any such state. And if he does not attain the deathless here and now, he is at least headed for a happy destiny on the break up of the body.

Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be
This recollection about death
Blessed with such mighty potency.” [4]