Meditating on death

Do Buddhists contemplate death? Gravely! And often.

The inexorable matter of impermanence and death within every life is very present in the Buddha’s teachings. Is this a cause for despondency? Not necessarily, the Buddha says. We can ignore or reject this truth and remain trapped in delusion, fear, and suffering. Or we can remember it, know it, and practice with it all the way to liberation.

For instance, in one of the Buddha’s discourses, monks are urged to consider before they retire at night that they may not live until morning. Possible causes of death are cited (including indigestion and scorpions). If death were near, what would their state of mind be? What lingering mental or emotional concerns should they have addressed while there was still time? Could they face death with confidence, knowing they had given their all to awakening?

Some Buddhist texts describe the process of dying—and beyond—in great detail so that we will be able to recognize what’s happening in real time. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is one famous (and actually rather impenetrable) example. Many Buddhists believe that with the proper training, the end of this life can be the gateway to liberation: the state of spiritual realization that is beyond birth, aging, sickness, and death.

The practice of contemplating death calls out the importance of using every moment wisely, while we still can. A Zen Buddhist evening chant expresses this perfectly:

Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken.
Take heed. Do not squander your life.
—Dogen Zenji


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