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Mindfulness of death is a vipassanā practice that the meditator should develop while holding the perception of impermanence, suffering and the phenomenality of selfhood in mind. It is one of the four subjects grouped among the ten recollections that are most suitable for a person of intellec­tual disposition. In the context of rebirth, death is defined as the cutting off of the life-faculty of one form of existence. Therefore, the word is not intended to denote any of the following three types of death: complete cessation of life, that is the passing of the Arahant's final manifestation in the world of change; momentary dying, that is, the moment to moment breaking up of the mental and physical processes; the death of non-breath­ing objects, an expression commonly used in speaking of a dead tree, inert metal and so on.

Mindfulness of Death: an extract from the book Emptying the Rose-Apple Seat

According to the Abhidhamma, the advent of death is fourfold:

  • Through the expiration of the life span (āyukhaya). This is the kind of death that comes about for beings in those realms of existence where the life-span is bounded by a definite limit. In the human realm this should be understood as death in advanced old age due to natural causes. If the productive kamma is still not exhausted when death takes place, then the kammic force can generate another rebirth on the same plane or on some higher plane according to how one has lived previously.​

 

  • ​Through expiration of the productive kammic force (kamma-khaya). This is the kind of death that take place when the kamma generating rebirth expends its force though the normal life-span and there are otherwise favourable conditions for the prolongation of life.

 

  • Through the simultaneous expiration of both (ubhayattha).

 

  • Through the intervention of a destructive kamma (upeccheda-kamma). This is a term for the death that occurs even before the expiration of the life-span.

 The Method of Meditation

Both kinds of death are contemplated m this practice and then recollection constitutes mindfulness of death. In order to develop it, one should sitin seclusion and focus attention on the thought, ‘death will take place, the life-faculty will be cut off’, or more simply ‘death, death’ (maraṇaṃ, maraṇaṃ). The repetition of any of these terms will form the preliminary exercise. To practise rightly, one's mindfulness should be accompanied by a sense of urgency, as of a ‘life or death situation’. One should avoid recalling the death of individuals, whether loved ones, enemies or those towards whom one was indifferent. Sorrow arises in recalling the death ofbeloved ones; gladness or an unsympathetic feeling arises in recalling the death of hostile persons; the feeling of urgency does not arise in recalling the death of people towards whom one is indifferent; but fear arises at the thought of one's own death. By proceeding in the right way, the hindrances disappear, mindfulness is established with death as its object and, ace concentration is attained.

 If this is of no benefit, one may contemplate death in these eight ways:

  • It should be borne in mind that just as an armed murderer comes upon one saying ‘I’ll kill you’, so death approaches and threatens all living beings.

 

  • Or one may consider, ‘As all prosperity and achievement m this world comes to an end, so too does a prosperous life’.

 

  • One may infer one’s own death from that of others. ‘All the great ones in the past who had magnificence, merit, might, power and learning, have passed away in death; those who attained the highest state of spiritual progress, like Buddhas and Arahants, have passed away too; like those, I myself have also to die.’

 

  • ‘At all events, death is inevitable because this body is subject to all the causes of death, such as the many hundreds of diseases as well as other external dangers. At any moment any of these may beset the body and cause it to perish.’ Thus death should be recollected by way of the body and its liability to many dangers.

 

  • The life of beings is bound up with inhalation and exhalation, with the four postures, with the proper temperature and with food. Life continues only while it is supported by the regular functioning of the breath; when this process ceases, one dies. Life proceeds while it is supported by walking, standing, sitting and lying down; it also requires just the right measure of heat and cold and it must be supported by food. If any of these conditions are unbalanced or fail, life comes to an end. Thus should death be recollected by considering the frailty of life and its dependence upon these things.

 

  • Life in this world is uncertain because it cannot be determined as regards time, cause, place or destiny. It cannot be reduced to rule. Life may fail at any point or any moment. Sickness also cannot be determined, as for example ‘Of this type of sickness alone beings die but not another’, for people die of any kind. The time of death is also unknown since it cannot be determined. The place where the body should lie is also unknown and the place one will take rebirth. Thus death should be recollected by considering that these five things are uncertain.

 

  • The life of human beings is of short duration. Even if one were to live to a hundred, it still comes to an end.

 

  • The life of a living being lasts only for the period of a single thought moment. As soon as that thought has ceased, the being is said to have ceased.

Life, personality, pleasure and pain

Are joined in a single conscious moment;

Suddenly it passes, never to return.

(Visuddhimagga VIII.38)

As long as continuity of consciousness lasts, the continuity of a life proceeds. When the consciousness ceases to function in an individual organism, life also ceases. Thus should mindfulness of death be developed by concentrating on the nature of consciousness and the little deaths and births it brings moment by moment.

 

When the meditator contemplates death in one of these eight ways, mindfulness is established with death as its object; the hindrances disappear and the jhānic factors bring tranquillity. Death being a natural occurrence, and often the cause of anxiety, mindfulness of it is productive only if access concentration and the jhānic factors do not lead to absorption. Even a moment of this meditation practice with proper attention bears great fruit. One who devotes himself to this meditation is always vigilant and takes less delight in the phenomenal world. One gives up hankering after life; one censures evil doing. One is free from craving as regards the requisites of life; one’s understanding of impermanence becomes lucid. In consequence of these things one realizes the suffering and impersonal nature of existence. At the time of death one is devoid of fear and remains mindful and self-possessed. If one fails to attain to the deathless (nibbāna) in this present life, upon the dissolution of the body one is bound for a happy destiny.

Dr.Rewata Dhamma Sayado: from the book Emptying the Rose-Apple Seat