As noted in the authoritative Buddhist online archive “Access To Insight“, the standard Buddhist Meditation on Death is given by Buddhaghosa in Chapter VIII of the Visuddhimagga (“Path of Purification”), summarized in the quote: “Now when a man is truly wise, his constant task will surely be the recollection about death . . .”
In the classic text, it is suggested that “one should go into solitary retreat and exercise attention wisely thus: ‘Death will take place, the life faculty will be interrupted,’ or ‘Death, death.'” Indeed, one famous Western Zen teacher, Phillip Kapleau, remarked that the old masters recommended that the word “Death” be stamped on the disciple’s forehead, to keep them always focused on that unavoidable eventuality. A famous saying of one Buddhist school suggests that, if one does not meditate on death in the morning, the whole morning is wasted, and if one does not meditate on death at noon, the afternoon is wasted, and if one does not meditate on death at night, the evening is wasted.
Again, according to Buddhaghosa’s text, there should always be a sense of urgency in that contemplation, in order that no time on earth is wasted by indulging in frivolous activities. The correct program of mortality contemplations should include recollecting death in eight ways: “(1) as having the appearance of a murderer, (2) as the ruin of success, (3) by comparison, (4) as to sharing the body with many, (5) as to the frailty of life, (6) as signless, (7) as to the limitedness of the extent, (8) as to the shortness of the moment.”
As the commentator at Access To Insight explains, “Some of these terms are not quite self-explanatory: thus (3) means by comparing oneself with others — even the great and famous, even Buddhas, have to die; (4) means that the body is inhabited by all sorts of strange beings, ‘the eighty families of worms.’ They live in dependence on, and feed on, the outer skin, the inner skin, the flesh, the sinews, the bones, the marrow, ‘and there they are born, grow old and die, evacuate, and make water, and the body is their maternity home, their hospital, their charnel ground, their privy and their urinal.’ (6) means that death is unpredictable, (7) refers to the shortness of the human life-span.”
Indeed, many Buddhist teachings indicate that the best use of this life is to manipulate it in such a way as to attain an even better birth next time around, in order that one may accumulate beneficial merit and thus continue to advance further and further on the Buddhist path, eventually attaining enlightenment, and consequently eliminating the need to be born again as a human. Just so, the classical literature is full of admonitions to be aware of the inevitability of death, and that we are in a most precarious and dangerous situation because our life can end in any moment. For one example of a contemporary Buddhist take on the topic, see here.
Certainly, there are all sorts of variations which Buddhist teachers historically have offered on this theme, and I do very much admire and respect many of the brilliant insights Buddhism shares with us in the conscious process of recognizing our true nature, but perhaps it would be expedient to more deeply inquire into our own approaches and attitudes on the subject of enlightenment and death.
For example, is there is really an actual person who courageously climbs some esoteric ladder from life to life until finally, on one grand and auspicious day, they arrive at transcendental enlightenment? Subsequently, does this newly acquired state then cancel the requirement to keep returning to one tiny, harsh, and dangerous outpost at the edge of one mid-sized galaxy in the midst of billions, fraught as it is with primitive traps and poisons of every kind, which in turn necessitate that we keep learning endless lessons which we then forget the next time around, while relentlessly busying ourselves neutralizing old karmas, even as we are creating new karmas in the process? Yikes!
I have already addressed the issue of human enlightenment concepts in some depth in my essay The Myth of Enlightenment, but in this current consideration I would like to elaborate on what I have learned from my own investigation into death and its aftermath, which varies significantly from the fear and threat model that tends to infect virtually all human religious belief systems. Again, I have shared in some detail about this subject in my essay Notes from the Other Side (among a number of other related articles), but I feel there is a bit more to ponder on this topic, particularly vis a vis the commonly expounded Buddhist position. I could have just as easily dwelt on the more simplistic Abrahamic model of hell and damnation (although Buddhists also have their own concepts of hell realms), but if one is reading this blog, it is unlikely that particular dogma of sin and eternal punishment at the hands of a wrathful parental deity figure is given much currency.
In any case, from the broader angle of vision which yields access to universal knowledge via expanded consciousness, we might be startled to recognize that only One Actor is playing all of the many roles which we formerly assumed represented countless individual sentient beings. Some roles might portray a virtuous and disciplined Realizer, for example, while others a lazy slacker. Of the two, which one is real? Neither of them! They are roles, after all – creative vehicles for the self-expression of Spirit, just as we express ourselves in dreams at night. When morning dawns and we awaken, do we worry about the character we imagined ourselves to be while we slept – whether he or she was wasting time and not properly focused on waking up from the dream?
In my humble experience, I’ve learned that life is good, and death is also good. It’s pointless to assign hierarchical value to either, since they both are expressions of pure divinity. Emphatically, there is nothing to fear about death. This I have seen first-hand, and all my decades of research, including the testimony of intimates, has confirmed that direct recognition.
Everything is now, and always will be, perfectly OK. It is not that someday we will awaken and then everything will be OK. Whether we are “awake” or not, everything is already totally OK. What stands in the way of us allowing that to be the case? Each of us can inspect our own lives and beliefs for an answer to that pointed question.
Essentially, what I have discovered is that we came here to be whatever we are, just as we are, in a similar way in which we might try on a particular role in a theater presentation, because its possibilities for self-expression intrigue our immortal Spirit. Of course, we are not the person depicted in the role. It is a production of story lines, lighting, costumes, and stage sets in which we immerse ourselves for the sheer experience, as long as it lasts, and which is made even more impactful by the amnesia we assume, allowing us to momentarily forget that we are actually the audience.
When the curtain comes down, so to speak, the experience of death merely clarifies our true identity, while also providing us with the opportunity to share our recent adventures with those who have been traveling along with us through infinity, all within the unconditionally loving Heart-Mind of Source.
Therefore, it may be fine to urge folks to practice the Buddha Dharma, but employing threats and instilling the fear and apprehension of death is really not so skillful at all. Most of those who have had NDEs will affirm that there is nothing to fear about the transition, and moreover, there is no such thing as “wasting time”. Time itself is a mental construct of the human persona, and death is simply dropping off a worn-out costume and gradually re-integrating into our natural spirit state – described by many experiencers as a blissful home-coming.
Moreover, it is rather presumptuous to designate any life as “wasted”, just because it does not meet a certain conditional religious criteria (which itself was established by humans), since as long as we are fitted in these bio-vehicles we do not have access to “the bigger picture” of the soul’s journey, and so are not at all qualified to pass such judgment.
Since we are here to be precisely what we are, as we are, whatever additional qualifications or complications one feels compelled by their favorite belief structure to superimpose on that innocent simplicity is really just like adding another head to the one we already have. The limitations we habitually impose on ourselves are simply based on various thoughts — imaginary constructs in which we have invested a provisional reality, because we are by nature creative, and enamored of the things we can dream up in our infinite playfulness. When we take them seriously, however, we tend to get stuck within our own design, and then embark on a search to escape our own self-imposed dilemmas. Maybe we feel like we should meditate and get more “spiritual” now, in order to free ourselves from our own contraptions? Maybe we should try Buddhism?
On the other hand, there are plenty of people who have never heard of the Buddhist Dharma, and yet report transcendental Near Death Experiences or similar spiritually transformative events which include realizations about the nature of consciousness as profound as that of any would-be spiritual authority, regardless of whether that teacher has spent decades sitting in a cave and chanting invocations, or done a million prostrations to their deity of choice, or refrained from sexual contact, ate only organic vegetables, and mastered long secret texts in their original obscure language.
Again, in my opinion, we no longer need religious superstitions based on fear and threat in order to motivate us to awaken to our true nature. Truly, have we ever? My sense is that the great volume of NDE reports flooding the collective consciousness now is pointing to that much-needed change in the spiritual paradigm. For example, the human-based notion that souls are trapped within a cyclical prison of reincarnation and must keep on returning to Earth to re-experience the same limited existence in order to clean up karma is a popular religious myth, but as it turns out, one certainly may choose to return, but most do not bother, having already experienced it. (See the link below, on Reincarnation).
One has to look within oneself to see how any message resonates — that is, does it stimulate a response of love or fear. If fear, then it should be discarded, regardless of the purported spiritual authority from which it issues. Moreover, concern for some future event and the possibility of inferior rebirths has the typical effect of distracting one from What Is. Of course, if pondering death is perceived as a useful way of spending one’s time, who am I to argue otherwise? Perhaps a good question one might ask oneself, however, is “What dies?”
Furthermore, from the viewpoint of expanded consciousness (though contrary to the preachers’ claims), there is really nothing special or dramatic in need of being accomplished, no great prize to be attained other than being here already, just as we are! Showing up is enough – just breathing, and not avoiding the abundance of gifts each life generously provides, by hankering after more, or better, or different.
Of course, if someone believes there is an ascending path that they must walk, then let them walk it to their best ability, but not expect that they are going to end up acquiring some mystical state that is not already true of them from the beginning. This is why those who finally get the humor of trying to become what we already are end up laughing out loud!
Obviously it is pointless to attempt fashioning a fixed philosophical position out of such a view — unless it is directly recognized, that game is just more head tripping. That’s OK too, though not very satisfying. Relaxed and care-free philosophers aren’t too common. More often, they look pretty intense, with furrowed brows and clamped mouths.
So, what is to be done? Well, first of all, we can relax. Let go of all plans, schemes, and strategies. Let go of all cares and preconceptions. Keep letting go. Enjoy releasing it all, and enjoy what remains when all is released. Stop resisting the inconceivable Love that is pouring down on us right now in the form of What IS. That would be a good start, it seems to me, and a lot more fun than pondering the 80 families of worms dining on our innards!