Mindfulness of the Body: Death and Impermanence

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 69-78) 

Once the Buddha was speaking with his disciple Ananda about the causes of death. The Buddha asked, “If there were absolutely no births of any kind anywhere— that is, of gods into the state of gods, of celestials into the state of celestials, of spirits, demons, human beings, quadrupeds, winged creatures, and reptiles each into their own state— if there were no births of beings of any sort into any state, then, in the complete absence of birth, would we discern aging and death?” “Certainly not, venerable sir,” Ananda replied. “Therefore, Ananda, it is clear that there is one cause, source, origin, and condition for aging and death. Namely, birth!” Maha-nidana Sutta DN15 (tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Death is inevitable

If birth happens, death happens as the Buddha noted above.  The moment that you are born, you begin to die.  Accepting the inevitability of death is the way to freedom.  Otherwise, we become attached to the delusion of not dying (permanence).  As Bhante G. notes:  practicing mindfulness of death is the best way to overcome fear and prepare for a peaceful death.  As the Buddha taught:

Mindfulness is the path to the deathless,

Negligence is the path to death.

The mindful do not die,

The negligent are dead already

-the Dhammapada 21

Three Kinds of Death

Impermanence is experienced by the rising and falling away of all conditioned things.  Death is the falling away.  The Buddha taught three kinds of death.  There is momentary death; constant change that is occurring every moment.  Nothing stays the same.  We age, our blood cells die, our thoughts die, our memories die, etc.  As noted above, the moment that you are born, you begin to die.  In a longer-term sense, there is conventional death when our bodies die.  Lastly, there is eternal death when the cessation of suffering need not arise again; this is liberation or total freedom.

Mindfulness of Death

Mindfulness of death is paying attention moment to moment to the possibility of death.  We constantly keep aware of impermanence particularly when we get trapped into delusion.  We pay heed to the clear comprehension of non-delusion: all conditioned things are impermanent, unable to give lasting satisfaction and are of selfless nature.

The Corpse in Decay

The final contemplation exercise in the First Foundation of Mindfulness:  Mindfulness of the Body is reflecting on what happens to our body after death.  In this way, we can truly be reminded of and experience impermanence.  Previously we have noted impermanence in mindfulness of breath, the four postures, clear comprehension, body parts and elements and now the ultimate fate of the body:  decomposition.

The Buddha described it as thus:

“Again, monks, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground—ground— one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter . . . being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kinds of worms . . . a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews . . . a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews . . . a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews . . . disconnected bones scattered in all directions . . . bones bleached white, the color of shells . . . bones heaped up, more than a year old . . . bones rotten and crumbling to dust— he compares this same body with it thus: ‘This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’

 “In this way, in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body internally . . . externally . . . both internally and externally. He abides contemplating the nature of arising . . . of passing away . . . of both arising and passing away in the body. Mindfulness that ‘There is a body’ is established in him to the extent necessary for bare knowledge and continuous mindfulness. And he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. That too is how in regard to the body he abides contemplating the body.  Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 368-369).

Practicing Mindfulness of Death and Impermanence

The Buddha recommended reflecting on the decay of the body.  In Asia, there are charnel grounds where bodies are reverently placed to decompose and to be eaten by vultures and bacteria. There are no opportunities for experience this in the West.  Our funeral practices emphasize avoidance of seeng the body in other than a pristine state.  As a practice, re-read the Buddha’s description above or observe the bodies of animals killed on the road in various states of decomposition.

An alternative practice suggested by Analayo from the Maranasatti Sutta (AN III 306) is to reflect on the possibility of death coming unexpectedly and to prepare for it by checking to see if there are “any evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by me that would be an obstruction for me were I to die in the night”:

“There is the case where a monk, as day departs and night returns, reflects: ‘Many are the [possible] causes of my death. A snake might bite me, a scorpion might sting me, a centipede might bite me. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me. Stumbling, I might fall; my food, digested, might trouble me; my bile might be provoked, my phlegm… piercing wind forces [in the body] might be provoked. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me.’ Then the monk should investigate: ‘Are there any evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by me that would be an obstruction for me were I to die in the night?’ If, on reflecting, he realizes that there are evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him that would be an obstruction for him were he to die in the night, then he should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities. Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities. But if, on reflecting, he realizes that there are no evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him that would be an obstruction for him were he to die in the night, then for that very reason he should dwell in joy & rapture, training himself day & night in skillful qualities.

“This, monks, is how mindfulness of death is developed & pursued so that it is of great fruit & great benefit, gains a footing in the Deathless, and has the Deathless as its final end.”

Practicing mindfulness of breathing “has the potential to be used for recollecting death as the next breath may not come.  Whatever approach one may decide to use, recollection of death helps to stir up effort in order to avoid and eradicate unwholesomeness, and can ultimately culminate in realizing the “deathless.”  Analayo

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • Off the cushion, note the decomposition in animals killed on the road or in other circumstances. Be reminded of impermanence!

Meditation

  • Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and be with whatever arises about death, decay, and impermanence.

Next: Mindfulness of the Body: Summary Previous: Mindfulness of the Body: Parts and Elements