When I first learned of the death meditation traditions of Buddhism, I wondered how to reconcile this with the Judeo-Christian ethic I had been taught, to “choose life” over death. Upon deeper study it became evident to me that these two seemingly opposite guiding principles are really not so clearly opposed as first appeared. In Buddhism, it is believed that a person’s state of mind at the moment of death can be more decisive than any virtuous deeds. For this reason, meditation upon death is considered to be the most valuable spiritual practice. The Buddha himself said, “Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ethical maxim of “Choosing life over death,” is of supreme importance whether it is the mere act of surviving and persevering in the face of suffering (such as survivors of the Holocaust), preserving the life of an unborn fetus or person on life support, or whether it is condemning suicide or assisted suicide in the strongest terms. All creatures of God live under the divine imperative to preserve and protect the bodily form which is on loan from God for the duration of our lives. So coming from a Judeo-Christian background, it is understandable that the very thought of a type of meditation that conjures up images of decaying corpses, putrid smells, rotting flesh or the thought of going to sit in meditation at a cremation ground might seem taboo, at best, unholy or heretical necromancy, at worst.
At the heart of Buddhist death meditation is the truth of the impermanence of all things (Pali: anicca). Buddhism teaches that life and death are present in all the cyclical nature, an unending stream of cause and effect, arising and passing away. The physical world, as we experience it, is constantly coming into being and constantly dying; nothing has any permanence. As living human beings, it is normal to hold an aversion to death and conversely to hold a craving for life. Images of rotting or decaying flesh and bones are not meant to be pleasant, but conjuring these images can help us to transcend deep set fears and aversions. Such distasteful imagery used as a deterrent can also be helpful in transcending unruly cravings for things of pleasure. Buddhist meditation emphasizes achieving a state of equanimity in the presence of both cravings and aversions. Equanimity means observing and taking note of changing sensations within the self while not reacting (becoming attached to or repelled by them). Once one develops the discipline to observe these changing sensations without reacting, one can witness in a dispassionate way, suffering arising and passing away, pleasure arising and passing away. These seemingly opposite sensations can then be viewed for what they really are like water constantly flowing down a waterfall or changing currents in the ocean. It is only when we observe this phenomena with equanimity that our higher purpose in life becomes apparent.
If one properly practices Buddhist death meditation, it instills a deeper understanding of the real value and higher purpose of life. Despite his father’s efforts to shelter him from the sick and dying, Siddhartha (the historical Buddha) left the princely palace, encountering first a diseased man, next decaying corpse, and finally an ascetic. This led him to contemplate the process of suffering, sickness, and ultimately death itself. The Buddha’s experience teaches that the more we think about death, analyze, and accept it as a natural part of cyclical existence, the more we can understand how precious time is, and we can make good use of it. As has been so eloquently articulated by the 13th Dalai Lama Gyal-wa Tub-ten Gya-tso: “Each day provides us with the ability to extract the milk of goodness and joy and to spit out the ways of negative being that lead to frustration and misery.” Every moment we are presented with a choice: on the one hand to engage in negative unwholesome activity, on the other, to engage in good deeds and spiritual practice.
To be born as a human is considered a rare opportunity to attain enlightenment. Human life can be useful to ourselves and others, wasting it on worldly concerns is considered careless. According to Buddhist cosmology, we may not get another chance to be born in a human form for a long time. At the time of death, nothing but spiritual training is of any value. Even though the state of mind at the moment of death is of the utmost importance in Buddhist thought, it would be difficult (but not impossible) to die with a positive state of mind (characterized by possession of clarity, control, love, wisdom and non-attachment) if one spent one’s life engaged in evil deeds or worldly pleasures. As lama Ge-she Nga-wang Dar-gye warns: “Lying between the jaws of death, the time for practice is only a memory.” No friend or relative can assist us. All possessions, even our own body, will ultimately have to be abandoned. Nothing but our stream of consciousness and the positive and negative seeds of karma will carry over.
Buddhism teaches it is pointless to fear death. Lama Ge-she Nga-wang Dar-gye, explains, “If a dog rushes out to bite you, there is no value merely in experiencing fear or apprehension…. Similarly, there is no point merely in fearing death. We should use the apprehension of death as a prodding rod to inspire us in the practice of the Dharma.” Physical birth is not a beginning; physical death is not an end. Life and death exist alongside each other in a co-dependent dynamic relationship. Death does not extinguish the flame of life; it merely changes its form and direction. When the world is seen as without permanent substance, the end of life is seen as peace or as an end to suffering. Any apprehension felt over death should be transformed into a mandate to make the most of our lives and, from a Buddhist point of view, that means living by the Dhamma.
The purpose of death meditation is to establish urgency for the present, encouraging the practitioner to utilize every moment by leading an ethical life (sīla), practicing meditation (samādhi), and cultivating the wisdom of non-attachment (paññā). One of the early Tibetan Ka-dam-pa masters commented, “If on waking up in the morning one does not meditate on death, the entire morning will be wasted. If we don’t meditate at noon, the afternoon will be wasted. Similarly, if we don’t meditate on death in the evening, the night will be lost to meaningful pursuits.” By always keeping the thought of death present in our mind-stream, life becomes increasingly purposeful, ethical sensibility grows, and wisdom takes hold.
Lama Gyal-wa Tub-ten Gya-tso has said we must prepare ourselves for death the same way we plan to travel to a foreign country: “we first gather the necessities of the journey. As it is definite that we must travel to the land of death, we should prepare ourselves through study, contemplation and meditation upon the path.” Meditation is meant to cultivate mindfulness in thought, speech and action, and firmly establish wisdom. This is how one lives by the Dhamma.
Training in mindfulness of death is practiced in all Buddhist traditions. The meditation is based in three roots: the definite nature of death, the uncertainty of the time of death, and that, at the time of death, nothing but spiritual training is of any value. It does not matter whether one is young or old, death can come at any time. Our bodies are very fragile and easily destroyed. The causes of human life are slim, and the opportunities for death are many. If we practice death meditation, death will not come as a surprise, and there will not be fear or regret at the moment it occurs. Reflecting upon the definite nature of death, the uncertainty of the time it will come, and the value of spiritual practice at the time of death is thought to lead the practitioner to the conviction to practice Dhamma as intensely and purely as possible.
If one keeps ever-present awareness of how easily one could pass at any moment, one becomes more mindful about the activities in life they choose. The yogin and mahā-siddhas of ancient India ate their food out of bowls made from human skulls not to scare people, but to maintain awareness of death. Even nowadays many Buddhist temples hang a painting of the Lord of Death holding the entirety of cyclic existence in his mouth. This image is not simply decorative but a reminder to visitors of the impermanence of existence.
There are both external and internal ways to practice death meditation. An external technique is to go to a graveyard (or charnel ground if in a country like India or Tibet) and to contemplate and observe the stages of decomposition there, focusing the mind on the fact that this will be the fate of one’s own body sooner or later. An internal means is to visualize oneself lying on one’s own deathbed. If we imagine ourselves from the perspective of death, we often find ourselves contemplating the things we most regret. Everyday problems that threaten to overwhelm are often revealed to be completely unimportant when viewed from our own death. It is in this way that this practice helps us to separate what is truly important and wholesome in our lives from that which is wasteful and unwholesome. These practices, both internal and external, act as the powerful opponents to delusions of the mind. If one recollects death whenever a delusion takes hold of the mind, that delusion is instantly dispelled. For instance, the Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah suggests if we are plagued by obsessive lustful thoughts, a powerful meditation is to imagine the object of that lust as a decaying putrid corpse staggering towards us. We will find the feeling of lust for that person will automatically be obliterated.
Buddhist belief holds that we are nothing but a heap of five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and space. When we die, the body disintegrates back into these elements. We can meditate on our body’s physical dissolution, and this leads to the realization that there is no person, no self. The mistaken belief in permanence of the self is believed to be one of the root causes of suffering in cyclical existence (saṁsāra). Mindfulness of death is considered one of the most powerful remedies to this misunderstanding or cause of ignorance. Tantric practice involves the envisioning of the breaking apart of the body until only the space element is left. At this point, a further series of dissolutions occurs. First a “whitish appearance,”’ followed by a “reddish increased appearance,” a “blackish near attainment,” and finally there is a culmination in the full experience of inner radiance called “the attainment.” It is said that advanced yogin can meditatively induce a state almost identical to the actual experience of death and the subsequent dissolution of the gross levels of energy and consciousness. At the moment of death, consciousness and energy are stripped to their most subtle non-dual level. The practitioner visualizes transforming death, the intermediate state (bardo) and rebirth into him or herself, and both the physical and mental fields dissolve into inner radiance.
It is said that the yogi who gains this experience during his or her lifetime will be able to die while seated in meditation where he or she will execute the final transformation. He or she will transform the subtlest parts of consciousness into one of the kayas (bodies) of Buddha (Dharma-kaya, Sambogha-kaya or Nirmana-kaya). Those adept practitioners able to perform this at the moment of death are said to die in a state of intense bliss. The mediocre practitioner is said to die happily, and even the novice practitioner is said to die without fear or dread.
Even though there is special importance given to the event of death itself in Buddhism in terms of salvation or nibbana (nirvāṇa: Sanskrit), it does not follow that Buddhism places more value upon death than it does upon life. So though it may appear on the surface that the Buddhist emphasis upon the death meditation is in direct conflict with the Judeo-Christian ethic of “choosing life” over death, upon deeper analysis, the difference is that Buddhism, unlike the Judeo-Christian worldview, does not conceive of life and death in dualistic or oppositional terms. Rather life and death are co-dependent arising (paṭicca samuppāda), or two aspects of the same reality. Phillip Kapleau invites us to think of the Buddhist view of life and death as a single door with an entrance sign on one side and an exit sign on the other. “You can’t desire one without inviting the other. Clutching at life [in Buddhism] . . . means denying the reality of death.” Life and death are not separate but one single process. To be free from life and death is to be free from the delusion that life and death exist in fixed opposition. The purpose of death meditation is to train the practitioner to transcend the ordinary mind’s tendency to think of all things in dualist or oppositional terms.
As human beings, we are, by our very programming, preoccupied with the sensory gratifications we experience in the physical realm. Meditation upon death, in the Buddhist tradition is a practical way to counter harmful obsessions associated with cravings and aversions for the sensations of pleasure and pain. Death meditation can be a powerful antidote to the attachments we naturally acquire toward our own egos and the accompanying false belief that death is our enemy or that we must gain victory somehow over death. In Buddhism, it is because of this mistaken attachment to the physical or gross form of self, that we experience the most fear and anxiety over our own mortality and remain trapped in the cycle of rebirth.
The Buddhist tradition of death meditation is not meant to be a morbid fascination with the end of life or a nihilistic way of choosing death over life. It is meant to instill a sense of urgency and purpose in our unique human manifestation. Buddhist meditation on death is a practice, not an ethical maxim such as the Judeo-Christian principle of “choosing life.” The practice is meant to awaken the practitioner to the Dhamma on the deepest level of one’s being so it can bloom in all of one’s thoughts, speech and actions. This is not unlike the Christian meditative practice of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, which is meant to awaken the practitioner through sentir, a felt sense of gratitude, to their own unique gifts and talents in order to live a more purposeful life working for God’s Kingdom, not out of fear or guilt but of grace. If one lives by the Dhamma, without clinging, one will not die in a state of regret or live in a state of fear or anxiety of one’s own mortality.
Living with this kind of dispassion does not mean that we no longer feel happiness or pain, rather that when happiness (or dissatisfaction) arises, we recognize it for its true nature—fleeting with no inherent or fixed reality of its own. We no longer identify this “happiness” or that “pain” as belonging to us. In other words, it is no longer “my” happiness or “my” pain; happiness or pain is simply a state of consciousness I happen to be passing through. All states of consciousness ultimately arise and pass away as do all things, including my own body and what I have come to identify as my “self.” If we stop identifying sensations with our true identity, we find there is no longer any reason to cling or to fear. We simply observe these phenomena taking place (whether negative or positive), and understand whatever it may be, it too will pass. The continual practice of maintaining freedom from both attachment and aversion, equanimity (upekkhā: Pali, upekṣā: Sanskrit), is what allows us to exit the cycle of rebirth (saṁsāra), letting go of both our physical body and what we believe to be our “self” when the time of death comes in a peaceful state without fear, anxiety or regret. Thus, we arrive at the meaning of salvation in Buddhism, nibbana (in Sanskrit: nirvāṇa): remaining present and observing with equanimity as the flame of our beloved “self” is finally “blown out.”