Wednesday, January 09, 2008
meditation on death
The Buddha said, “Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.” Death awareness meditations allow us to more deeply comprehend that we will die. In the Buddhist tradition, death awareness practices are divided into four categories: 1) Meditations to help us contemplate that death is inevitable, that the time of our death is uncertain, and that our bodies and our lives are both impermanent and fragile; 2) meditations to help us understand the process of dying and visualize the body’s physiologic systems shutting down as our body dies; 3) meditations to help us understand and visualize the decomposition of the physical body during the days, weeks, months and years following our physical death; and 4) meditations concerned with consciousness transfer at the time of death and the process of rebirth into our next cycle of existence. Consciousness transfer refers to the ability to influence our rebirth by controlling the mind at the time of death.
To someone unfamiliar with these practices, an initial reaction might be perplexity or apprehension. Why devote time and energy reminding myself that I will die, rehearsing what the dying process may be like, and envisioning what happens to my body after I die? We might assume that being more conscious of death would make us fearful of dying or depressed about living. Yet according to the Buddha, it is awareness of death that helps us wake up from the delusion that causes so much suffering in this life. Keeping death always at our side dispels the myth that we might live forever. Death awareness is really about living. It is about becoming more intimate with the truth of our lives. It is about realizing that every moment counts, that what we choose to think and say and do is important. Awareness of our death calls us to live in a more meaningful way, in accordance with our most authentic values.
When we contemplate death in this way, we understand it not only in our mind but also in our body and our heart. This is intuitive knowledge. It naturally blossoms into wisdom. As wisdom increasingly informs our life, we become happier and more peaceful beings. We give and receive love more freely. We are motivated to act with kindness, and to respond with compassion to the suffering of others. Although gradual, there is a certain inner transformation that influences our relationships, our families, our communities, and our world. As the Buddha reminds us, “Life is as fleeting as a rainbow, a flash of lightning, a star at dawn. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?”
Awareness of death also increases our commitment to spiritual practice, precisely because we are acutely aware that our lifespan is both indefinite and finite. This phenomenon, known as samvega in Pali, is translated into English as “spiritual urgency.” Larry Rosenberg describes samvega in his book Living in the Light of Death:
“The urgent need to practice…can grow out of a heightened sense of the perishable nature of life. It can include a real feeling of shock and a sense not only that life doesn’t last forever but also that the way we have been living is wrong. It might turn our world upside down, sending us off to a whole new way of life. Even if it doesn’t have so dramatic an effect, it can light a fire under our practice. We get much less caught up in power, prestige, money, lust, the acquisition of goods. Dharma teachings start to make real sense to us, and we begin to live them instead of just assenting intellectually. Samvega leads to a conversion of the heart, from an egocentric existence to a search for that which is timeless, vast, and sacred.”
Taken from: Tricycle - Helping our children understand death
You may also want to read: Buddhist Reflections on Death by V.F. Gunaratna
Another recommended reading: Tibetan Book of the Dead - electronic version
Or you can purchase your own copy: Tibetan Book of the Dead @ Amazon
Picture by f_lynx@Flickr