'... mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit, culminating in the Deathless, having the Deathless as its consummation ...' A 8: 74
'May I live just the length of time it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, so that I may attend to the Blessed One's teachings.' A 8: 73
Death is universal; the number of people who recollect it are few. Death rocks our boat. So it’s experienced as a tragedy that comes as a surprise. However bearing one's death, and that of others in mind, is the entrance to a deep inquiry into life. In the focus of mortality, we’re all equal; status and character disposition fall away and our customary self is powerless, seen as a curious detail whose claims and importance are embarrassing. And so ... some shrug and get on with their lives; some say that we are snuffed out like the flame of a candle; some believe that will be judged according to our deeds by an officer of the inscrutable Other, and those who are judged worthy will be awarded a place in the Deathless.
The Buddha was clearly aware of these views and was motivated to a spiritual quest to find his own resolution, a path to the Deathless. That, not an altruistic mission to relieve the world's suffering, was his avowed aim for Going Forth. What he realized as the first of three great knowledges on the night of his Awakening was a connection to previous states of being. Rebirth was not a universally accepted view at the time (the Vedas are largely concerned with welfare in this life, and four of the six prominent seers of the time held views close to that of the great 'snuffing out'), so this was a revelation whose practical import – the second knowledge – is an understanding of the significance of kamma. That is, how we act now determines how we will be in the future. If this truth is grasped in this life, then, as the Buddha subsequently taught, if there is an aware state after death, you go to a place that fits how you've acted; if there isn't, still you live free of corrupt conduct and associate with the wise – who hold you dear. In which case you've 'made a lucky throw on both counts' (M. 60). His presentation is characteristically pragmatic and empowering: no inscrutable Other, but one's kamma determines one's future in this life and the next. And this kamma is to be investigated, known, purified and transcended by oneself.
Careful attention: not me but my ‘self’
One of the requirements of this practice is to reflect on the topic of mortality with careful attention. Careful, or deep, attention entails taking dispassionate note of the details and the overall quality of an experience (such as its sight, sound, touch, or mental impact); whether it's agreeable or disagreeable, and what mind-states it triggers. This takes one deeper, into the realm of emotion, assumption and attitude – our subjective bias. This bias – the favoring and phobias, inclinations and addictions that cluster around, nudge and even become my 'self' are residual tendencies; they will direct our actions. And thus ingrain and perpetuate themselves. The nub of this is whether these tendencies have been acquired through our own intentions, or installed via that programming of others, they become material for our kamma, and our future. As Barack Obama recently tweeted: 'No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion ...' But plenty of people pick up the habit: yes, there is kamma that’s based on the beliefs of others. And we can act that out. So kamma, although its transpersonal, certainly creates us – and how we see others.
Hence the imperative is to clear it. This can't be done through the self mechanism that kammic tendencies have formed. This is where mindfulness of death can help. Bearing our death as witness, we can attend to acquired tendencies as they are, without struggling or judgement. Beneath their mobile voices and scenarios – ‘Why am I like this?’ ‘What should I do?’ ‘How do people see me?’ ‘Does that means she really likes me a lot?’ ‘What approach is best for my work?' (etc.) – are the instincts for self definition and reclamation. But Death isn't interested in that. So attention settles onto the direct and incontrovertible cause of what's stirring the mind: one is regretful, annoyed, anxious or desirous. Either that, or one is grateful and equanimous – and the stirring subsides. The presence of Death then offers a check-in with one's kamma: ‘if I am to die “on the next out breath” what do I need to do, what am I going to do about that mind-state?’ If it feels agitating, unresolved or nagging, bearing mortality in mind is of great fruit, because in death's doorway, letting go gets easier. Much easier than in the seemingly endless corridor of the future. (You know, that future might not happen. People die at all ages; some don't even make it out of the womb.)
On the other hand, if the mind feels serene and confident, then there can be a rejoicing in that state. Buddhist heaven, here and now. This is a fruition, but not the most complete.
No furniture, and no room
Because, how about the past? Why was the Buddha's awakening triggered by recollecting previous lives? Maybe it's because awareness of the range of personalities that grow around the citta over time reduces the significance of any one of them. For us who don't have that depth of insight, recollecting who one has been in this life is a substitute: the roles, the passions, the struggles, the plans that changed, the life that went through mysterious shifts and caused transformations to occur... who wrote this script? And who am I? With that non-answer, something deep can let go. This has all been a show, a throw of the kammic dice – what do you want to make out of all this?
If you've made peace with all you’ve been, you are released from the burden of having to justify or figure yourself out; you focus instead on the intentions that arise in the present. And if the person and his/her tendencies has been resolved, there need not be any more of them. And 'this is the Deathless, namely, the liberation of citta from the basis of clinging.' (M.106:13).
So don't look in the heavens, or fret over the past. All Dhamma practitioners that I have known who conclude their lives carefully express deep gratitude. Dying has helped them to affirm that dukkha has subsided. It's a natural thing. Carefully attending to what is most obvious, universal and inevitable is then of great fruit. Recollection of death may take the furniture out of our living room; but it can spur the relinquishment of grudges, instigate a review all plans and an assessment of one's state in the here and now. And it offers a way out of the room altogether. What a friend!
A guide for practice
The quotes above are for practitioners who are not in a terminal condition. Consequently such a recollection is for all of us, every day. Here are some suggestions.
- Find some time and place in the day to spend ten to fifteen minutes for the practice. Obviously, the setting should be quiet and free from intrusion; maybe the optimal time for a sustained focus is in the evening, after the day’s events.Take up a reclining position, feeling the solid support beneath your body. Settle your mind through a suitable means: mindfulness of breathing, or kindness and good will, or recollection of the Buddha are prime options.
- Be aware of the space around your body; get to feel sheltered and warmly wrapped in it. Relax your awareness of the visual and auditory domains. Let your mental awareness attune to the sheltered space around your body; then dwell in it until that quality wraps around your mind. Get your body to settle more deeply, keeping a straight awake posture with eyes open/half-open to guard against falling asleep.
- Having settled the present, scroll back through the day. Does anything stick? Is there anything you regret? Does anything cause you to leave your settled space? Taking that aware space around your mind as a foundation, contemplate the daily events: what's worth dwelling on? Can you bring to mind any events to feel grateful for? Or any non-events to feel relieved by? As for the difficulties: can you let them really be the past of a someone who’s passed? Notice what qualities and values arise as you do that.
- Let these qualities come to the fore. You may give then names like ‘compassion’ , ‘patience’ ‘truthfulness’ or just notice them as heart energies that keep you settled and open. As personally verified qualities, these are worth more than a mountain of ideals and theories; they enrich your aware space. Consider your life as fieldwork in cultivating real value.
- Consider the mortality of others. Notice what that brings up, with regard to those we admire and feel grateful towards and those we have difficulties with. Can you imagine that person dissolving into death? What remains with you?Let the review sweep back through time: is there anyone who debases your mind with resentment? Anyone who shines a light? What’s needed to gather your heart into a unified state? What is your practice, your 'Dhamma-body'?
- Dwell in that aware state, sensing any energies or moods, even if you can't name them. Stay light and open and let things unfold When there’s only the openness, the values that brought you to it remain as living guide.