“Aging, illness, and death are treasures for those who understand them. They’re Noble Truths, Noble Treasures. If they were people, I’d bow down to their feet every day.”
In my early thirties, I met a teacher who was to have a profound influence on my study of aging and death awareness, primarily because of one central experience. I have never identified this teacher, referring to him in talks as Badarayana, because he specifically requested that I not reveal his identity. He had no wish to be known or to teach a great many people. He had just four students when I knew him, but he felt that they were all potential teachers and that he would reach a larger audience through them.
I was still a university professor in those days, but I was trying to bring some of what I had learned from the Eastern tradition to my work. Badarayana attended a public talk I gave and came up afterward and offered himself as a teacher, saying he’d had a great deal of experience in both Hindu and Buddhist disciplines. I was suspicious at first, but he never asked for any payment, and his teaching seemed quite authentic.
We worked together for a number of years. At one point he suggested we go to a small Mexican coastal town where I had spent some time, Zihuatenejo, to do intensive work. We spent four months there, practicing yoga and studying.
One evening I was sitting in our cottage reading and Badarayana came in extremely excited, telling me that a major opportunity had come our way. Ten days earlier a Mexican laborer had gotten drunk and fallen into the bay. His body had not been recovered in all that time, but it had washed up on shore that afternoon. His priest was coming from Mexico City for the body the next day, but for some religious reason that I never understood, the locals didn’t want to sit with the corpse in the meantime. But they wanted someone to stay with it, and they thought of the two outsiders who were staying in town. They approached Badarayana, who was quite excited at the prospect.
The corpse was in a large box packed with ice, and was bloated and turning blue. We had agreed to be there all night.
Buddhism goes deeply into the practice of death awareness. Cemetery contemplations, for instance, are included in the Satipatthana Sutra, which I think of as the Declaration of Independence for vipassana meditators.
Buddhist practice is about liberation, awakening, nirvana. It is about coming to the deathless.
The Five Contemplations
2. I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
3. I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
4. I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for ill, to that will I fall heir.
Though these contemplations may sound morbid and depressing, working with them can have quite the opposite effect.
I didn’t understand his enthusiasm, and understood it even less when we got to the room. The corpse was in a large box packed with ice. The man seemed to have been big in the first place, but his corpse was also bloated, making him even bigger and distorting his features, and he was turning blue. There was a strong unpleasant odor. It was difficult even to enter the room. And we had agreed to be there all night.
Badarayana sat on one side of the box and I on the other. Soon he began teaching. “Not long ago this man was full of life. Now let’s look at him.” I, of course, felt a great deal of aversion, but Badarayana kept after me, insisting that I face this phenomenon and see what it brought up. There was fear. Nausea. Loathing. A strong wish to get out of the room. There was anger at Badarayana for putting me through all this.
We would be silent for periods of time, then he would check in with me, ask what I was really experiencing. That was the most valuable part of what we did. He also taught more directly. “This man was once alive. Now he is dead flesh. We too are subject to that lawfulness. What happens when you see that fact?”
I said that it was extremely painful. I didn’t want to dwell on it.
“No, no,” he said. “This man has a teaching for us. It’s extremely valuable.”
I wouldn’t say that I entirely understood what Badarayana was getting at, but I gradually grew more comfortable sitting there and gained some sense of composure. I would still have been delighted to leave the room at any time.
Finally Badarayana said, “Why was I so enthusiastic about coming here?” I said that it was to show us how precious life is. “That’s true,” he said, “but you can also go deeper. This is a great incentive to practice. It shows us that we don’t have much time. That we have no idea how much time we do have. This man didn’t know he would die when he did. Life is precious not just because it is life but because it is an opportunity to practice. That is the ultimate gift this man gives us. He offers us a strong motivation for spiritual practice.”
Buddhism goes deeply into the practice of death awareness. Cemetery contemplations, for instance, are included in the Satipatthana Sutra, which I think of as the Declaration of Independence for vipassana meditators. It boldly declares that deeply establishing awareness of the mind-body process can liberate us from suffering.
Later, as I got involved in Buddhist practice, I began doing some meditations on my own death, with Thai, Sri Lankan, and Burmese monks. Maranasati—or death awareness—is a standard, highly respected, and highly valued practice in these countries, and meditators commonly practice it. It hasn’t caught on much in this country because American teachers haven’t emphasized it, but it clearly has real value.
Sooner or later we all have to face the fact of death. We think of life and death as opposites, life as happening now and death as something that will happen at the end of the road, preferably an extremely long road. There is a certain unconscious arrogance that goes along with this attitude. Other people may be old; others may be ill, dying or dead; but we are alive and well and (comparatively) young, and we’ll deal with those problems when the time comes.
Our culture is particularly culpable in this regard. We put young people on pedestals, sick people in hospitals, elderly people in nursing homes; we sanitize the dead in funeral homes, trying to make them look attractive and alive, and do everything we can to keep death out of our consciousness. We put all of our energy into acquisition—of material possessions, knowledge, titles, land, friends, and lovers. We think we want these things for themselves, but we are using them to create and enhance our sense of self. This life of acquisition seems to shield us from the bedrock realities of aging and death. Our things become who we think we are.
The truth is that we are aging from the moment we are born, that we have no idea when we may grow ill and when we will die. No one is guaranteed even one more breath. Death will take all our acquisitions away, including our sense of who we are, of everything we identify as self. Death is not waiting for us at the end of the road. It is walking with us the whole time. We are fascinated by disaster epics, like the story of the Titanic, but the truth is that we are all on the Titanic, right now. We just imagine it’s a pleasure cruise, just as the people on the Titanic did.
At the same time, we harbor a huge amount of unfelt fear about sickness, aging and death, and that fear robs us of vitality, partly because we expend so much energy avoiding and repressing it. Bringing up this fear and facing it—as I did with Badarayana and other teachers—is a great enhancement to our lives. Really facing death enables us to appreciate and make the best use of our life in a whole new way.
Finally, of course, Buddhist practice is about liberation, awakening, nirvana. It is about coming to the deathless. The attachments we form when we live, and that we will have to let go of when we die, are actually what make us suffer while we are here. The Buddha was quite clear on this subject: clinging to things, especially to a sense of self, is what creates suffering. The knowledge that we have to let go of our attachments in death might enable us to let go of them now and save us a great deal of suffering. If we die to our attachments now, we won’t need to later and won’t feel so much fear of death when it comes. The shining light of death can liberate our life.
In addressing the practice of death awareness, the Buddha left us five contemplations, which he advised us to reflect on frequently.
1. I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
This isn’t the cheeriest set of reflections in the world, and most people, when they first hear them, feel some resistance. They don’t mind contemplating the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence in the world around them, but this is getting a little close to home. What is being asked of us as meditators is to come face-to-face with the law of impermanence in an intimate way.
These reflections have not been a major part of Buddhist practice in this country. In the sixties, when Buddhism first got popular here, people were coming to it out of the drug culture, looking for another way to get high. They weren’t looking for anything as heavy as death awareness. They just wanted to feel better.
But in the Asian countries where Buddhism has been established for centuries, the practice of death awareness is an ancient and venerable tradition, and many meditators work with it. In fact, there are some who regard death awareness as the ultimate practice. The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. “Of all the footprints,” he said, “that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”
Though these contemplations may sound morbid and depressing, working with them can have quite the opposite effect. Students often report—and I have experienced myself—a certain lightheartedness that comes from practicing them, a feeling of calm and ease. Many of us are carrying around a great deal of unacknowledged fear on the subject of death, and like any other fear, it weighs us down. Practicing death awareness helps flush out this fear, enabling us to face it and showing us that it too is an impermanent formation that is empty of self. The fear lingers in our consciousness when we don’t acknowledge it and let it live out its life.
Death is a fact of existence, one that we all must face sometime. And death awareness is a real aid to practice. A deep understanding of mortality can often lead to awakening. Seeing that we don’t have forever becomes a real motivating factor.
In Pali this phenomenon is known as samvega: the urgent need to practice that 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.