I have always been intrigued by the relationship between life, death and practice that is offered in Buddhism. When I was young, I would meditate at a Soto Zen temple in San Francisco at 5:30 in the morning. On the wooden block used to call one to practice was written: “Great is the matter of Birth and Death. Life passes swiftly and is quickly lost. Awaken! Awaken! Do not waste your life!”
This was how Buddhism and dharma practice greeted me. I love that greeting. In a world driven by valuing money, work, business and busyness, the Dharma offered a different orientation. The “great” connection between birth and death tells me that the whole Dharma is right here, right now, embodied in the mystery and magic of our aliveness. This aliveness, the aliveness which is reading these words right now, is made sacred by the temporality of our lives. Our lives are precious because we die.
Many of us live with the illusion that we won’t die. We know it, but only as a conceptual reality. Or we believe that it will happen later . . . or to someone else!
I almost died a few years ago. I was riding on the Buddhist Bike Pilgrimage (BBP). Coming down a long steep descent, I lost control and crashed. I broke a lot of bones, had a head injury, and had to be airlifted to a hospital. I spent the next five weeks in three hospitals and the next year recovering from a mild traumatic brain injury.
I didn’t die physically (although they weren’t sure what would happen in the first few days), but I lost my life. I lost who I’d been. I lost the usual way I knew myself and many of the basic capacities I’d developed over my life. Living through that experience became part of my practice. I didn’t make it my practice, but it was clear that there was nothing else to do. Nothing else made sense except to be aware, kind, and patient with the way things were.
Most of us have an aversive relationship to death. In contemporary culture death is a bad thing. But maraṇasati, mindfulness of death, is considered a primary practice for mindfulness and awakening. It is said that the Buddha declared: “Of all the footprints in the jungle that of the elephant is supreme. Of all the mindfulness practices, Mindfulness of Death is supreme.”
In the story of his awakening, the Buddha describes his experience of letting go of the intoxication with youth, with health, and with life itself. Intoxication is a drunkenness, an ignorance of the way things are. Here’s how the Buddha described it:
I lived in refinement, utmost refinement, total refinement. My father even had lotus ponds made in our palace: one where red lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Varanasi. A white sunshade was held over me day & night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, damp and dew.
I had three palaces: one for the cold season, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season. During the four months of the rainy season I was entertained in the rainy-season palace by minstrels without a single man among them, and I did not once come down from the palace...
Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: “When an untaught person, subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, and disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I—who am subject to aging, not beyond aging—were to be horrified, humiliated, and disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.” As I noticed this, my young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away.
(Sukhumāla Sutta, AN 3.39, tr. Bodhi)
He then continues this same contemplation on aging with health and life, concluding:
If I—who am subject to illness, not beyond illness—were to be horrified, humiliated, and disgusted on seeing another person who is ill, that would not be fitting for me. As I noticed this, my healthy person’s intoxication with health entirely dropped away.
If I—who am subject to death, not beyond death—were to be horrified, humiliated, and disgusted on seeing another person who is dead, that would not be fitting for me. As I noticed this, my living person’s intoxication with life entirely dropped away.
When our intoxication drops away, we become objective, we see things as they really are, and we are able to respond to reality fully. Our intelligent heartfulness becomes available to us as mature, embodied human beings. To let go of intoxication means to see clearly. We let go of our reactivity toward death as a bad thing. We see that everyone and everything dies. And we see how completely normal this is.
Maraṇasati is a paradoxical practice. With meditation we get closer and more intimate with the natural condition of life and death. With our contemplative experience we see that it could be as close as the next moment. As we stay present and aware, we are surprised to find death disturbing yet enriching. Part of the paradox is that contemplating death can bring a richness and vibrancy to our life, our relationships, and our work. The inevitability and ordinariness of death reveals a living Dharma that is available to each of us that can be realized in our human life.
We can be surprised that ordinary life has the power to reveal the Dharma, the profound truth that the Buddha taught. But as we practice being here, now—present and awake in each moment—we discover that our lives are changing each moment. Life begins and ends moment by moment. This is the truth of impermanence.
Letting go of intoxication with life
Here are a few practices I’ve used to explore bringing the reality of mortality and impermanence alive here and now. When we practice closely with death in these ways, it helps awaken us from intoxication. It also helps us wake up to what’s important and how we want to live our lives.
In your meditation practice, pay particular attention to beginnings and endings. The meditation begins and ends. Also, each breath, each sound, every thought, feeling, sensation, mood, and reaction begins and ends. Everything in your sensory experience arises and passes away.
As you walk around in the world, be aware that everyone you see will die. And also be aware that everyone is alive right now. How does this impact you—in the moment and over time?
In both meditation and daily life, consider: This could be my last breath. This breath brings me one breath closer to death. What happens as you take on this practice experientially?
Visit a cemetery. Walk, sit and hang out there for a while. Consider that this will also be true for you. What happens?
Read obituaries in the paper or online. Find someone who has died who is similar to you in some way—their age, occupation, family, geography. How is it to bring the truth of death in closer?
Write your own obituary.