The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”
Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”
— SN 22.102 (2)
Started practicing Buddhist-style meditation in 2001.
Apparently, death meditations are a big thing in Buddhism.
The Buddha identified three qualities that pervaded existence
( “The three characteristics” ) of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not self.
Investigation and conscious experience of these qualities is key to the end of suffering.
The fact of death powerfully examples impermanence, as well as the unsatisfactoriness of life.
Death meditation; meditation on the ultimate example of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. This will end. This is limited. This passes quickly.
There are a variety of Buddhist death meditations.
The two which were practiced most often from here:
1. Imagine a death scene at the end of this life, as vividly as possible.
Sit with this image and note the feelings that arise.
2. Imagine the decomposition of this body as it decays, stepwise,
from the moment of death until the bones are scattered and wear down into dust.
If a monk sees a corpse dead one, two, or three days—swollen, blue and festering—he should think: “My own body is of the same nature; such it will become, and will not escape it.”
His mindfulness is established, and he lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world.
And if a monk sees a corpse thrown in the charnel ground, being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms—
Or a body reduced to a skeleton, with some flesh and blood attached to it, held together by the tendons—
Or a skeleton, blood-besmeared and without flesh—
Or reduced to disconnected bones, scattered in all directions—here a hand bone, there a foot bone, a shin bone, a thigh bone; the pelvis, spine and skull—
He should apply this perception to his own body.
~ Satipatthana Sutta, I:1:6:
[” Preferably, you should go to a charnel ground,
where corpses are dumped to rot or be eaten by wild animals.
Examine the bodies closely, in these various stages of decomposition.
If you can’t get to a charnel ground,
high-resolution photographs are the next best thing”.] (5)
In Thailand, an essential part of each meditation retreat consisted of the live viewing of an autopsy – the closest modern way to physically approach the fact of dead human bodies.
Once, while in Chang Mai Thailand, walked up to a crematorium oven. Thai temples often have crematoria onsite right near where the funeral rites are conducted. The oven had a trace of thin grey ash which felt greasy; the residue of former bodies. Imagined the process of electrically cooking a corpse to ash.
The function of death contemplation in this experience has been to develop a richer, more mature relationship with death.
The results took numerous forms:
- the acceptance of the impending death of my mother from cancer;
- a more realistic sense of this quickly passing life that is here now;
- it helped with several years of Hospice work, open-heartedly standing with the families of those close to death, serving their caretakers in any way that was needed, and keeping the dying company;
- it led to more straightforward, clearer life choices.
One of the most valuable spiritual practices in this life: contemplation of death. This practice focuses our day to day life into a more realistic view. Living life from the sense of its temporary, limited nature leads to a different valuation of what matters, how actions will be conducted, and of what does not surprise when it happens.
Death is not something which only needs to be accepted but once properly assimilated, it can become an inspiration to live. Below is what Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Inc said in his insightful Stanford commencement speech:
“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like:
“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”
It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” (1)
(1) Quote from Steve Jobs from here:
(2) The opening quotes from the Buddha, and three characteristics of Buddhism described:
A treatment of several approaches to death meditation in Tibetan Buddhism is : http://www.lamayeshe.com/index.php?sect=article&id=378
The painting of Buddha teaching is from here: http://chandawimala.blogspot.com/2010/09/buddhist-pantings-life-of-buddha.html
The picture of Steve Jobs is from here : http://www.meshworking.com/home/2011/10/25/who-is-your-steve-jobs.html
Another relevant quote encouraging death meditation practice:
“Looking into death needn’t be frightening or morbid. Why not reflect on death when you are really inspired, relaxed, and comfortable, lying in bed, or on vacation, or listening to music that particularly delights you? Why not reflect on it when you are happy, in good health, confident, and full of well-being? Don’t you notice that there are particular moments when you are naturally inspired to introspection? Work with them gently, for these are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience, and your whole worldview can change quickly. These are the moments when former beliefs crumble on their own, and you can find yourself being transformed. (4)
~Sogyal Rinpoche, Glimpse of the Day