Death - Dwelling on death
by Roozbeh Gazdar
Of all footsteps, that of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.
The perceived end of life as it were, the acceptance of death in fact lends a certain poignancy to our lives, increasing our appreciation of the present life. Death being inevitable, the time of its arrival uncertain, a certain urgency graces one's quest; if you don't know how long you will live then each moment counts.
For many of us impending death is like a persistent malevolence dogging our steps through life till it finally claims us. Paradoxically enough, awareness of death and impermanence can afford us a glimpse into our immortality.
Meditating on death is a way to pierce the illusion of the body. During life, physiological functions maintain the body, along with the attendant thoughts, feelings and sensations. With death it is only this body: a collection of ever-fluctuating molecules and a host of fickle thoughts and emotions that perish. As one persists, one is conscious of a deeper entity, the Higher Self that is witness to this ceaseless activity of the body and the mind. Thus non-identification with the body, mind and emotions, a state similar to that of death, frees one from the restrictions of the senses, the intellect and emotions to realise the majesty of the undying, unchanging real self or universal consciousness. Robert Aitken, in his book of essays, Original Dwelling Place mentions the “ultimate kind of koan”. Asks the Buddhist teacher Tou-shuai: “When you are freed from birth and death, you will know where to go. When your elements scatter, where do you go?” Explains Aitken, “Understanding (this koan) involves cutting your bondage to the endless fluctuation —cutting your attachment to the sequence of your movie and finding your home in its particular frames.”
Awe-inspiring and enigmatic, that it is, awareness of death is central to all religions and meditating on it is an integral part of the Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, as well as the Hellenic, Roman, Hebrew and Islamic spiritual traditions.
Death was the fourth of the startling ‘sights’ that spurred the Buddha’s search for freedom from the wheel of samsara. Death and impermanence were also part of Buddha’s first sermon on the four noble truths. Death remains an important theme in the various schools of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhist literature stresses on the value of death for a full appreciation of the precious opportunity of human birth. John Powers in Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism explains how mindfulness about death can be created by awareness of its inevitability.
Milarepa, one of Tibet's most revered holy men, awakened to his impending death after killing many others. Reformed, he practised the dharma so assiduously that when his clothes fell apart while meditating in a cave, he let them be saying, “If I were to die this evening, it would be wiser to meditate than to do this useless sewing.”
Writes Powers “… the meditator considers the uncertainty of the time of death and decides that it might occur at any moment, which should lead to a resolve to begin practising dharma immediately. Practice should not be put off until the future, but should begin right now. … A person who wishes to make real progress must feel a strong sense of urgency, like a person caught in a burning house looking for a way out.”
The next stage in this process is to understand that at the time of death only spiritual accomplishments will be of any worth. Material possessions, friends and relatives, worldly acclaim and power all vanish at the time of death, leaving nothing behind. None of these can be carried over into the next life. Moreover, one’s future birth will be determined by one’s actions in this life, and so one should resolve to practice meditation and other religious activities diligently.”
Since Hinduism and Buddhism consider human birth a rarity, the significance of this life for the practice of the Dharma is greatly increased, as there is no guarantee of such an opportunity in a subsequent lifetime.
(Source: Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism by John Powers)
In The Zen of Living and Dying, Philip Kapleau writes, “Masters of old advise, ‘Stick the word death on your forehead and keep it there.’ In the beginning it is effective to harmonise the inhalations and exhalations with the soft vocalisation of the word death. Later the word may be uttered only on the exhalation. One need not visualise the word itself, unless picturing it helps keep it in mind. The mind should be fully concentrated on the meaning of the word death; care should be taken to avoid a mechanical repetition of it.”
This meditation can also be done using a string of beads. You can concentrate on death, fingering each bead while focusing on the word. Kapleau considers this meditation as suitable for beginners as well as the advanced.
(Source: The Zen of Living and Dying by Philip Kapleau)
Yamamoto Tsunemoto’s Hagakure or ‘hidden by leaves’, published in 1716, is a collection of Samurai, Zen and Confucianism. Tsunemoto, a samurai soldier, writes, “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.
There is a saying of the elders' that goes, “Step from under the eaves and you’re a dead man. Leave the gate and the enemy is waiting.” This is not a matter of being careful. It is to consider oneself as dead beforehand.
(Source: Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunemoto)
The objective of Christian meditation is to empty the self to experience the fullness of God, signified by Jesus’s invitation to disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Easter celebrates ‘dying’ to rise to the New Life.
Writes John Main OSB in Death and Resurrection, Moment of Christ, “St Benedict told his monks, ‘Always keep death before your eyes.’ We don’t talk much about death in the modern world. But what the whole Christian tradition tells us is that if we would become wise we must learn the lesson that we have here ‘no abiding city.’
John Main says that death is hard for the world to understand; worldliness is contradictory to our own mortality, which holds on to the fantasy of our immortality. Awareness of our mortality enables us to see our spiritual fragility, that all of us are profoundly aware of the need to connect with and open ourselves to God’s love.
Writes Main, "Meditation … is the way to understand our own mortality. It is the way to get our own death into focus. It can do so because it is the way beyond our own mortality. It is the way beyond our own death to the resurrection, to a new and eternal life, the life that arises from our union with God. The essence of the Christian gospel is that we are invited … to die to our own self-importance …We are invited to all this because Jesus has died before us and has risen from the dead. Our invitation to die is also one to rise to new life, to community, to communion, to a full life without fear … in meditation we lose our fear because we realise death is death to fear and resurrection is rising to new life.”
Main refers to meditation as entering the axis of death and resurrection. By going beyond our own life, we discover the mystery of God, which is the mystery of Infinite Love.
Main recommends the following meditation: Sit still, eyes closed lightly. Relax but stay alert. Silently, intone the prayer-phrase “Maranatha.” Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to it as you say it gently. Do not think anything—spiritual or otherwise. Thoughts and images will likely come, but let them pass. Just keep returning your attention—with humility and simplicity—to saying your word in faith, from the beginning to the end of your meditation.
(Source: John Main OSB, Death and Resurrection, Moment Of Christ)
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