In AN 6.19, the Maraṇasati Sutta, the Buddha calls his monks together and says to them:
“Mindfulness of death, when developed and pursued, is of great fruit and great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end. Therefore, you should develop mindfulness of death.”
Next, some of the monks speak up and describe the various ways in which they are practicing mindfulness of death. One is contemplating that he might just live for a night and a day, another that he might live for just a day, another for the duration of his meal, one to at least chew four morsels of food, and still one more thinking to last just long enough to chew a single bite. Yet a different monk expresses his mindfulness of death as contemplating just one breath.
After listening to these replies, the Buddha instructs all of them:
“Whoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, ‘O, that I might live for a day and night . . . for a day . . . for the interval that it takes to eat a meal . . . for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up four morsels of food, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal’—they are said to dwell heedlessly. They develop mindfulness of death slowly for the sake of ending the effluents.
“But whoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, ‘O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food . . . for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal’—they are said to dwell heedfully. They develop mindfulness of death acutely for the sake of ending the effluents.
This entire discussion takes place between the Buddha and his monks. Many important teachings from the Pāli Canon take place between the Buddha and his monks. And this has led more than person to ask me: “Are these teachings relevant to laypeople?” There are definitely times when the Buddha was teaching specifically to his monastics. The Vinaya is a good example. And there are teachings that he gave to laypeople. The Sigālovāda Sutta, is one of the most common examples of a discourse that is specifically meant to help laypeople.
When the Buddha taught and only his monks were present, does that mean that laypeople need not be concerned with these teachings? If these lessons were only for the monastic community, why then did his monastics travel and share the teaching that they had committed to memory? With all of the collaboration and agreements that came from the early councils, if these lessons were not meant to be shared, it seems that there would have been stricter controls around keeping the teachings secret, or definitively segregating monastic teachings from teachings for the laity.
The Buddha taught suffering and the liberation from suffering. We are all going to die, we will all benefit from having a peaceful death. And to be born into the human realm is a rare gift, not to be squandered. And to me, this means that, yes, we can all access the teachings of maraṇasati.
If you find it overwhelming to contemplate that you might die in the midst of your meal. Start small. You do not have to immediately go right to “I am going to die!” Although some of you might.
Many of us, can benefit from truly reflecting upon the truth that there is suffering and the source of that suffering. Start by considering the Four Noble Truths. We suffer, and the source of that suffering is known: wanting things, people, and outcomes. And also, aversion to certain things, or people, or outcomes.
Now consider impermanence. Things are always changing. And the more we hang on to perceptions of how things must be, the more difficult our lives become. You can start by looking at your plans for the day. Sometimes things go exactly as you imagined, and other times the entire day is a disaster. Or is it? When our plans fall apart, we are presented with an opportunity to embrace impermanence.
Those broken plans are a representation of death. Something you relied upon goes away. An assumption becomes invalid, a cherished thing breaks, a relationship ends. Pay attention to your emotions as you watch your plans die. Pay attention to your emotions as you begin to watch your plans die—with acceptance. As you begin to become comfortable with how uncertainty is always a part of your daily life, you can begin to project beyond your daily plans.
The plans you have made for your week, your month, your year—all of this is built on a perception of control and an illusion of certainty. Yet plans help us navigate our lives. Keep making plans, and as you do, acknowledge that there will be impermanence. Some of your plans, or elements of your plans, will die. And when this happens, call it death. Remind yourself that this is a type of death. Now, you are living with death.
As soon as you can, move from the death of things and ideas to the recognition that you and your loved ones are also subject to impermanence. Allow yourself to entertain the thought, “One day I will die.” Or “Today could be my last day.” Bring these thoughts to your meditation and notice how it feels. Be aware of the emotions that arise, and work to study those emotions. Try to be nonjudgmental. You think what you think, you feel what you feel. Just be with it. Consider reading and chanting the Five Recollections each day. As you spend time following impermanence all the way through a natural progression from plans that died to your death, and the death of your loved ones, eventually you will develop more ease.
Five Recollections (AN 5.57)
1. I am of the nature to grow old; I am not exempt from aging.
2. I am of the nature to become diseased; I am not exempt from disease.
3. I am of the nature to die; I am not exempt from death.
4. All that is mine, dear, and delightful will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my karma; I am born of my karma; I live supported by my karma; I will inherit my karma; whatever I do, whether good or evil, that I will inherit.
Now you are ready to consider that you might chew one more bite, but you also might not chew one more bite.