Death Meditation as a Means to Realizing Life’s Purpose in Buddhism

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.1 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.2 For this reason, meditation upon death is considered to be the most valuable spiritual practice.3 The Buddha himself said, “Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.”4 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.5 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.

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