Meditation and Death

Theodor Kittelsen

“The modern world maintains its existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.”
—Gary Snyder

“Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning — already gone —
thus should one regard one’s self.”
― Ikkyu

Maraṇasati is a Buddhist practice encouraging meditation on death. It helps produce ‘right effort’, one of the Noble Eightfold Path’s facets, and brings us close to the heart of life. Life emerges from death and returns to it. Our human bodies emerge out of nature and dissolve back into it. Why are we so scared of this inevitable, immutable process?

Modern culture has thoroughly conditioned us to turn away from death. Modernity is the ideological heir to the Enlightenment, which reasserted the divine providence of rational, empirical man after the collapse of feudal piety. It’s why we’re obsessed with unquestioned scientific, economic and social progress— but at what cost? We have wealth, but infinite greed because we don’t know the value of things. We have time, but infinite boredom because we’re so easily distracted. Each generation of every modern people further sheds its vibrant and unique cultural identity, in favor of a bland globalized consumer culture. We should be grateful just to have a brief opportunity to experience the gifts of nature, family, honest work and simple pleasures, and yet we produce an endless output of greed, plasticity, waste and suffering.

The rational Western reaction to this is to phase out the suffering. Deny it or embrace it; the point is to eradicate it, right? That’s the same toxic framework that caused our problems. But what if we meditate on what we fear most? What if we remember our true nature? This is what Maranasati helps us do. In Theravada Buddhism (the tradition descended from Buddha’s direct teachings), there is part of a famous Sutta elaborating on this meditation on death. There are 9 contemplations:

A corpse that is “swollen, blue and festering.”

A corpse that is “being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms.”

A corpse that is “reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons.”

A corpse that is “reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons.”

A corpse that is “reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood.”

A corpse that is “reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions.”

A corpse that is “reduced to bones, white in color like a conch.”

A corpse that is “reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together.”

A corpse that is “reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust.”

No folks, those aren’t death metal lyrics— those are guidelines from one of the oldest ancient guidelines to mindfulness meditation in existence. This except from the Satipatthana Sutta invites us to meditate on this conclusion: “This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.”

You’re made of flesh. Flesh rots. You will die, and you will rot, like the billions and billions of others before you. There’s nothing separating you from the plants and the animals. You will transform back into the Earth, become one with it, return to your primordial roots. The painter Edvard Munch said, “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them, and that is eternity.” Sounds like the opposite of a squeaky-clean cubicle space, an Ikea house or a private suburban community. Most of our modern problems feel made-up and silly when we contemplate death in this mindful way.

We have a natural aversion to death, but that’s because we’re meant to be alive. In avoiding thinking about death, in forgetting about nature’s totality— the powerful all-encompassing womb from which we emerge— we squander life. We aren’t plopped into the world by a benevolent God; we emerge out of everything and back into everything. All of existence conspires to bring us in and out of life, the entire ecosystem supporting itself in perfect synchronicity. This is why people experience profound humility and gratitude after returning back to ‘regular life’ following war, disease, famine and near-death experiences.

Without the contemplation of death, we get too comfortable. We start doing things we don’t really respect or wish for ourselves. We get greedy. We get lustful. We start to thirst for the eternity of desire instead of appreciating the eternity of acceptance. This causes a great majority of the world’s problems.

Aim for gratitude, not greed, less, not more, simplicity, not complexity, contentment, not mindless progress, acceptance, not growth. The progress and growth you do achieve come from the inner-strength you cultivate by embracing simplicity and self-control. Many modern spiritual traditions have sanitized and sterilized the ancient spiritual teachings the way modernity tends to turn everything we experience into grey mush. The original untainted teachings remain for us, though, if we search them out.

Luckily most of my work here is already done for me. In the Tibetan tradition,  the teacher Atisha is said to have said to his students that if a person is unaware of death, their meditation will have little power. He wrote another series of 9 contemplations about death: 

  1. Death is inevitable.
  2. Our life span is decreasing continuously.
  3. Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
  4. Human life expectancy is uncertain.
  5. There are many causes of death.
  6. The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
  7. At the time of death, our material resources are not of use to us.
  8. Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
  9. Our own body cannot help us at the time of our death.

Meditate on these today. Then maybe go listen to Slayer.


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