Death and Buddhism

I am re-blogging this from a past blog as a sort of homage to a dear friend who just recently lost a parent.
Friday, November 13th, 2009
In the last seven days I have lost (quite suddenly) a dear uncle to cancer and today most likely my much-loved grandfather will die from long-term illness. It has been and continues to be a week of sadness, mostly of not being able to say goodbye in person but also to know that the people I love most are hurting deeply. For today’s blog, I’d like to share some thoughts on death and Buddhism, a passage from V.F. Gunaratna. I find this passage helps me to put death (and life) into balanced perspective.

Buddhist Reflections on Death
V.F. Gunaratna

To the average man death is by no means a pleasant subject or talk for
discussion. It is something dismal and oppressive — a veritable kill-joy, a
fit topic for a funeral house only. The average man immersed as he is in the
self, ever seeking after the pleasurable, ever pursuing that which excites
and gratifies the senses, refuses to pause and ponder seriously that these
very objects of pleasure and gratification will some day reach their end. If
wise counsel does not prevail and urge the unthinking pleasure-seeking man
to consider seriously that death can knock at his door also, it is only the
shock of a bereavement under his own roof, the sudden and untimely death of
a parent, wife or child that will rouse him up from his delirious round of
sense-gratification and rudely awaken him to the hard facts of life. Then
only will his eyes open, then only will he begin to ask himself why there is
such a phenomenon as death. Why is it inevitable? Why are there these
painful partings which rob life of its joys?

To most of us, at some moment or another, the spectacle of death must have
given rise to the deepest of thoughts and profoundest of questions. What is
life worth, if able bodies that once performed great deeds now lie flat and
cold, senseless and lifeless? What is life worth, if eyes that once sparkled
with joy, eyes that once beamed with love are now closed forever, bereft of
movement, bereft of life? Thoughts such as these are not to be repressed. It
is just these inquiring thoughts, if wisely pursued, that will ultimately
unfold the potentialities inherent in the human mind to receive the highest

According to the Buddhist way of thinking, death, far from being a subject
to be shunned and avoided, is the key that unlocks the seeming mystery of
life. It is by understanding death that we understand life; for death is
part of the process of life in the larger sense. In another sense, life and
death are two ends of the same process and if you understand one end of the
process, you also understand the other end. Hence, by understanding the
purpose of death we also understand the purpose of life. It is the
contemplation of death, the intensive thought that it will some day come
upon us, that softens the hardest of hearts, binds one to another with cords
of love and compassion, and destroys the barriers of caste, creed and race
among the peoples of this earth all of whom are subject to the common
destiny of death. Death is a great leveler. Pride of birth, pride of
position, pride of wealth, pride of power must give way to the all-consuming
thought of inevitable death. It is this leveling aspect of death that made
the poet say:

“Scepter and crown
Must tumble-down
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.”

It is the contemplation of death that helps to destroy the infatuation of
sense-pleasure. It is the contemplation of death that destroys vanity. It is
the contemplation of death that gives balance and a healthy sense of
proportion to our highly over-wrought minds with their misguided sense of
values. It is the contemplation of death that gives strength and steadiness
and direction to the erratic human mind, now wandering in one direction, now
in another, without an aim, without a purpose. It is not for nothing that
the Buddha has, in the very highest terms, commended to his disciples the
practice of mindfulness regarding death. This is known as “marananussati
bhavana”. One who wants to practice it must at stated times, and also every
now and then, revert to the thought maranam bhavissati — “death will take
place.” This contemplation of death is one of the classical
meditation-subjects treated in the Visuddhi Magga which states that in order
to obtain the fullest results, one should practice this meditation in the
correct way, that is, with mindfulness (sati), with a sense of urgency
(samvega) and with understanding (ñana). For example, suppose a young
disciple fails to realize keenly that death can come upon him at any moment,
and regards it as something that will occur in old age in the distant
future; his contemplation of death will be lacking strength and clarity, so
much so that it will run on lines which are not conducive to success.

How great and useful is the contemplation of death can be seen from the
following beneficial effects enumerated in the Visuddhi Magga: — “The
disciple who devotes himself to this contemplation of death is always
vigilant, takes no delight in any form of existence, gives up hankering
after life, censures evil doing, is free from craving as regards the
requisites of life, his perception of impermanence becomes established, he
realizes the painful and soulless nature of existence and at the moment of
death he is devoid of fear, and remains mindful and self-possessed. Finally,
if in this present life he fails to attain to Nibbana, upon the dissolution
of the body he is bound for a happy destiny.” Thus it will be seen that
mindfulness of death not only purifies and refines the mind but also has the
effect of robbing death of its fears and terrors, and helps one at that
solemn moment when he is gasping for his last breath, to face that situation
with fortitude and calm. He is never unnerved at the thought of death but is
always prepared for it. It is such a man that can truly exclaim, “O death,
where is thy sting?”

Leah Joy, The Zenful Blogger

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