On each branch of the trees in my garden
Hang clusters of fruit, swelling and ripe.
In the end, not one piece will remain.
My mind turns to thoughts of my death.
—Seventh Dalai Lama
Larry Rosenberg sent us a tape of a guided meditation on death awareness, along with a practice outline which is the basis of the meditation. On the back of the outline he had scribbled in pencil that he’d led this meditation recently, that we were welcome to publish it, but that he couldn’t be reached for the next two months—he was on a personal retreat. This is often the case with Larry. He has a deep commitment to intensive practice. When he’s not at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, where he’s the guiding teacher, Larry goes on many long solitary retreats. Over the years he has also practiced in monasteries in Japan and Korea, and studied with a number of teachers such as the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, the Thai masters Achaan Buddha Dasa and Achaan Cha, and last year—in a forest monastery—Achaan Maha Boowa.
In recent years Larry has done extensive work in marana-sati, death awareness practice.
“I’ve been contemplating the skeleton a lot in this practice—not an actual skeleton, but an image of it in my mind. It’s quite astonishing how much peace comes out of it—stability and peace and balance. It’s sobering in a good way. I feel more real. It’s as if I’m really walking with my feet on the ground.”
We are pleased to share the following excerpts from Larry’s guided meditation along with the practice outline.
— Barbara Gates
Many meditations focus on something associated with beauty or joy or peace. Perhaps some of you may puzzle over why a contemplation would focus on death. Actually, in the teachings of the Buddha, it’s a very important practice. It’s part of the general importance given to impermanence, change—and death is a dramatic case of that. Reflection on anicca—that everything that arises passes away—is central to wisdom practice.
A contemplation on death is neither an exercise in morbidity nor a dwelling on the unhappy side of life. In fact, when marana-sati is done properly, it’s quite astonishing how much stability and peace come out of it. Perhaps, not too surprisingly, this is because most of us are imbalanced when it comes to death. We haven’t come to terms with the nature of our bodies, and we don’t see death as a natural process. So we have all kinds of funny reactions to it: excessive joking, or avoidance, or preoccupation in a morbid way. Death awareness practice can bring us into balance.
The Sattipatana Sutta, where the Buddha laid out the essentials of mindfulness practice, includes a cemetery contemplation. At the time of the Buddha the yogis would go to actual cemeteries and sometimes live there for extended periods of time. Often the dead bodies were not buried or burned but were just discarded, left in cemeteries, out of compassion for the animal kingdom, for vultures and other animals to eat. So yogis would observe the human body in various states of decomposition and work with what that brought up in themselves. You’re looking at an actual corpse, sometimes just a skeleton or sometimes just part of a skeleton with some flesh remaining. The whole point for these yogis was to see that whoever this body belonged to had been subject to the same law that they were subject to. The reflection has to do with this understanding: “Lawfully, I’m not exempt from death. It applies to me.”
This contemplation of the dead, decaying, half-eaten bodies was a training that some people undertook at a certain point in practice. Meditation on death and cemetery contemplations are still done in the forest monasteries of Asia. It is important to note that not everyone does the cemetery contemplation, and not every one of you will want to do this death contemplation. That’s fine. Do it only if you find it beneficial.
In Buddhism it is our practice to make ourselves go through the fear of dying now, when many of us are quite young, so that later on it isn’t a problem, or it’s less of a problem. The normal way is just the reverse. We avoid thinking about death for our whole life, and then toward the end it’s an enormous problem, because we haven’t dealt with it for ourselves, for our families or friends. But, inevitably, it’s something that we all have to deal with.
The contemplation of death is a wisdom practice. Wisdom has to do with seeing clearly, seeing things as they are, that is, coming to terms with the way things are. “Perfect seeing” is one translation of vipassana, of insight. What’s implied is that to begin with, we don’t see very clearly, and we certainly don’t look into the process of life and death very clearly. This contemplation is a wisdom practice in that it begins to direct and cultivate thinking that’s in alignment with the way things are and, in particular, the way our body is, the lawfulness that our body is subject to.
So death-awareness practice can contribute to wisdom and bring great peace of mind. It also brings many other benefits. In fact, the contemplation of death can lead to the decision to practice in the first place and can greatly increase our commitment to a spiritual life. Spiritual literature, not just Buddhist, is quite rich in stories about people that finally woke up to some path after an experience of death, such as the death of a parent. Suddenly spiritual teachings which had been available before became really alive to them, and they started to practice.
You may find that death contemplation motivates you tremendously and takes you through very hard times in practice, such as restlessness, sleepiness or pain. In my own case, if I feel sleepy when I’m sitting, I just reflect on my own death and it wakes me up very quickly! Or if I get caught in some pettiness, a resentment or preoccupation, again I reflect on my death. Very few things stand up when you shine the light of death on them. As Don Juan suggests, take death as your advisor.
In the Dhammapada, another great teaching of the Buddha, it is said that people would never fight or argue if they fully realized that they were going to die. If we’re all going to die anyway, what’s the point of getting revenge on some enemy, what’s the point of murder or war? Just be patient, they’re all going to die anyway. As we contemplate on death, we can also learn compassion for our enemies. We see that we are all comrades. It softens the heart when we recognize that we all have the same fate.
And it can be very humbling to reflect on your own death. When you look around and you realize that no matter what you think you are and no matter what you think other people aren’t, we’re all subject to death. The most wealthy, the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the kindest Mother Theresa, the most heinous murderer or rapist—all have bodies that end in the same way; they give out. Death is a great leveler.
While there are many benefits that can come from death-awareness practice, the main value from the point of view of “dharma life,” life in practice, is to get our priorities in order. Here you are running around doing all kinds of things, spending many hours sleeping or eating. Just the simple invitation made here, to reflect on your death, can help you assess how you spend your energy. Given that you don’t have “forever,” perhaps you will decide to radically alter your priorities and give your practice much higher consideration.
Now, it’s crucial to understand that death-awareness contemplation makes sense only in the context of a broader spiritual practice. It’s part of a comprehensive path. In the Buddhist teachings, the really important death is not the death of the body but the death of the ego—the death of me and mine. Attachment to the individual ego is the source of suffering. The path of liberation leads beyond the attachment to the self to what is called the deathless state, the unborn, the unconditioned or nibbana. If death-awareness practice is taken out of a spiritual context, it’s like anything else that’s denatured. It’s distorted and can even be destructive. An isolated preoccupation with death can lead to discouragement, desperation and despair.
Just picture what might happen if a random group of people wandered into the meditation hall and I started to remind them, “Life is uncertain, you can die in so many ways,” and they truly woke up to their own death. Do you think that their first impulse would be to hit the cushion and start to meditate? Probably it would be to go to Acapulco or Las Vegas or do something desperate, having to do with sex or money or food or travel. “I just got to get that in before it’s too late.” It doesn’t follow that because you recognize that you’re going to die, you necessarily become very spiritual. So I’m not talking about a contemplation of death alone. It’s death plus dharma. Please understand that.
The Inevitability of Death
The Uncertainty of the Time of Death
The Fact that Only Insight into Dharma Can Help Us at the Time of Death
HOW TO DO IT
Many of you who have been practicing vipassana may never have done a contemplation of this sort, because the emphasis in our practice is on the direct perception of what’s happening in the moment. When you’re practicing vipassana, you’re not encouraged to think. But in death-awareness practice you learn that there’s a way of using the thought process itself very creatively so that it’s an aid to the development of wisdom.
It’s helpful to begin by becoming mindful of the breath or making use of some other technique that enables you to become calm. Sometimes keeping a light connection with the breath throughout the practice can soothe and steady the mind and actually deepen the reflection.
Take perhaps twenty minutes a day. Don’t overdo it—you’ll know what feels right. First find your own way to calm the mind. Select one of the possible contemplations and go into it in some depth. When you are finished with your contemplation, skim over the others on the outline so that, in some way, they become part of what you learn that day.
Here’s a possible scenario: You take up a thought, let’s say, “Everyone has to die.” Then you have license to bring that thought inside, to reflect on it, to contemplate on it. This is where the practice can become very creative. Each person can do it in their own unique way. You can, in a sense, have a conversation with yourself: You can speculate, you can draw on the richness of your own life experience, you can call up specific images, objects, people. You can visualize yourself dying, or people you know who are already dead; you might visualize your family plot at the cemetery or perhaps your own skeleton. The degree of samadhi, the degree of calm and concentration that you bring to the contemplation, has a great deal to do with the quality of it and the fruit you receive from it. If you have a strong samadhi practice already, you will pick up a thought and the thought will become very rich. You can question, reflect and play with it.
Now, while you’re doing this reflection, from time to time, a certain feeling will come up. For example, if you are contemplating the inevitability of death, as you take the thought inside and go deeper and deeper with it, a kind of intuition may arise. Ideally it’s not in words—it’s a feeling or a strong conviction that impresses itself upon the heart. Suddenly you feel, “Wow!” You already know this. At that point, drop all of the creative thinking, analysis, investigation and reflection, and just bring your samadhi to bear on the feeling. Mix whatever degree of concentration or stability of mind you have with the feeling. Soak it in the calm. This makes it more alive, gives it more depth, more fullness, more meaning. Then be with it. That’s your object of contemplation.
Now you are doing a kind of one-pointed meditation. Be with it as long as you can. In the beginning this may be just a few seconds. It may fade, but don’t struggle to retrieve it. At this point you might go back to the more creative aspect of the practice or you might take a break. You can just drop it and end the session! If you wish to continue, you might initially choose to return to the breath or go back to some other practice which calms the mind. You can go back and forth like this for a while—samadhi and vipassana, samadhi and vipassana.
As you continue to do this practice, you may find that the creative process takes you somewhere you don’t find in this systematic arrangement. Or you may find that a particular reflection really is a key for you. If so, you can focus on that.
We can’t control what’s going to come up. It’s possible that at the end of a session you may feel depressed or discouraged. Or at some point during a session you may start to feel sweaty or clammy or jittery. Look at it, and if you want to stop, stop. If you find that you are particularly shaken, perhaps you shouldn’t do this contemplation, or wait until some other time. You know best.
Remember, in death-awareness practice, as in vipassana, we are trying to understand impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self, only now it’s through a kind of disciplined use of thought. It’s a focused use of thought so that thought becomes an ally, rather than an enemy, of dharma.