In the Abhaya Sutta (AN 4.84), a Brahman named Janussonin tells the Buddha that he believes that everyone who is subject to death is absolutely terrified of death. He does not believe that anyone can face death without fear. The Buddha agrees that there are those who are afraid of death. And there are those who do not live in terror of death. And then he teaches the difference between those who have conquered their fear of death and those who have not. Spoiler alert: clinging, craving, unskillful actions, and doubting the teachings lead to fearful deaths. Abandoning clinging, living a life of good deeds, and trusting in the Dhamma are the way to a peaceful death.
The Buddha teaches mindfulness of death in the Maranassati Sutta (AN 6.19). In the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), he used charnel ground contemplation to remind monks that their bodies are subject to break up and dissolution, and therefore clinging to the body is to be avoided. These are not light teachings. Nor should they be.
Getting to the point where you can mindfully acknowledge that death can arrive before you finish reading this sentence takes effort. You know it is worth it.
“The perception of death, when developed and pursued, is of great fruit, of great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end:” Thus, was it said, and in reference to this was it said.(AN 7.46)
If you are like me, some days a deep dive into the suttas is not within reach. Or you might benefit from other ways to become comfortable with death. It can be helpful to spend time understanding the beliefs that you hold about death and dying. And to notice the emotions that surface for you when you contemplate death.
Here are nine thoughts about death. You can use them as mantras, as an object for meditation, or as a way to start thoughtful discussions with family or friends. I invite you to examine this list, and to add to it or subtract from it in a way that supports you in your own practice.
1. Death is inescapable. You know this intellectually. Do you know it as part of your inner wisdom? Can you reflect upon this and remain undisturbed? You know, one plus one is two, everyone dies, two plus two is four, I will also die. Each of these phrases are facts, but even if you dislike math, the phrases everyone dies, and I will also die are probably the phrases that make you feel uncomfortable.
2. Death can seem capricious. When your 100-year-old grandmother dies, you can easily make sense of it. But there is also the newborn baby or the new father who stepped into the wrong intersection. There will be death, and beyond knowing that all living creatures die, it may defy logic or your sense of fairness. Stop expecting logic and fairness. Remember that each living being has his or her or their own karma.
3. Death is normal. Breathing is a normal bodily function, and it is also normal to eventually stop breathing. This does not mean it is to be trivialized. Normal does not mean insignificant. The death of someone you love is impactful. And the good news is that since death is not unheard of, you live in a world where there are medical, financial, emotional, and spiritual support systems in place to guide you.
4. Death is an integral part of life. Humans have many different milestones. And most of them are recognized and celebrated. In most cultures, we help children prepare to become adults, and we help adults develop to raise children. Sometimes, we help prepare one another to become elderly. But too often, we leave out the discussion and preparation for death. Which is why so many people are surprised by death.
5. Death is like a snowflake. No two are exactly alike. Every death is precious and unique. There is so much that we do not see. Most of the time, we see the exterior result; a heart stops beating, the breath becomes still. But every person has a unique final moment. Your ability to help someone experience peace during his or her last moment is invaluable.
6. Life is precious, and so is death. Those who live with an acceptance of death die with fewer regrets. Death teaches us to stop wasting time. Death teaches us not to become caught up in petty squabbles.
7. Death is not evil or bad. Consider this an invitation to practice equanimity. Starting with this short declaration is a big step.
8. There is more than one way to celebrate a life. This is not the time for you and your family to argue over prayers, songs, and memorial services. Just be flexible and celebrate your loved one in the best way possible.
9. Everyone grieves differently. Work on being non-judgmental. I have seen loving, crying, praying, laughing, and so much more. The best advice? Don’t harm yourself or others. Be patient and practice self-compassion. Even those who prepare for death will experience grief.
The goal is that by contemplating these ideas you become less fearful and more comfortable. As you go through the list, pay attention to your initial reactions to each of them. What surfaces? Do you feel resistance, anger, fear, sadness, something else? What is going in your body? You might even do some journaling, writing your responses the statements that elicit your strongest feelings, and capturing why some of the statements are easy for you to process.
Each day you can work to develop and pursue your perception of death. Some days you will have the time and energy to enter a deep mindfulness of death practice. When that is not possible for you, work with thoughts like the list provided here to continue growing, and to make your death practice even more accessible.