On each branch of the trees in my garden
Hang clusters of fruit, swelling and ripe.
In the end, not one piece will remain.
My mind turns to thoughts of my death.
—Seventh Dalai Lama

Image 1: Burial Raft, William Morris, blown glass, 1991. Photograph by Rob Vinnedge/Courtesy William Morris
Image 1: Burial Raft, William Morris, blown glass, 1991. Photograph by Rob Vinnedge/Courtesy William Morris

Many meditations focus on something associated with beauty or joy or peace. Perhaps some of you may puzzle over why a contemplation would focus on death. Actually, in the teachings of the Buddha, it’s a very important practice. It’s part of the general importance given to impermanence, change—and death is a dramatic case of that. Reflections on anicca—that everything that arises passes away—is central to wisdom practice.

 

A contemplation on death is neither an exercise in morbidity nor a dwelling on the unhappy side of life. In fact, when marana-sati (death awareness practice) is done properly, it’s quite astonishing how much stability and peace come out of it. Perhaps, not too surprisingly, this is because most of us are imbalanced when it comes to death. We haven’t come to terms with the nature of our bodies, and we don’t see death as a natural process. So we have all kinds of funny reactions to it: excessive joking, or avoidance, or preoccupation in a morbid way. Death awareness practice can bring us into balance.

The Sattipatana Sutta, where the Buddha laid out the essentials of mindfulness practice, includes a cemetery contemplation. At the time of the Buddha the yogis would go to actual cemeteries and sometimes live there for extended periods of time. Often the dead bodies were not buried or burned but just discarded, left in cemeteries, out of compassion for the animal kingdom, for vultures and other animals to eat. So yogis would observe the human body in various states of decomposition and work with what that brought up in themselves. The whole point for these yogis was to see that whoever this body belonged to had been subjected to the same law that they were subject to.

Meditation on death and cemetery contemplations are still done in the forest monasteries of Asia. In Buddhism it is our practice to make ourselves go through the fear of dying now, when many of us are quite young, so that later on it isn’t a problem, or it’s just less of a problem.

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