Death (marana) is the interruption of the life faculty within the limits of a single becoming or existence. We are accustomed to regard death as an enemy, like a murderer. Contemplation of death can lead to transcending that view, and seeing the reality of death as more like sleep.
Death may be timely or untimely. Timely death occurs with the exhaustion of merit, the exhaustion of lifespan, or both. Death through exhaustion of merit results from the life-producing kammas finishing their ripening, although favorable conditions for prolonging the continuity of a life span may still be present. Death through exhaustion of a lifespan occurs because of exhaustion of the normal span of life, which measures only a century.
Untimely death is caused by kamma that interrupts other, life-producing kamma. It refers to the continuity of life of an otherwise healthy person being suddenly and unexpectedly interrupted, causing them to fall during the prime of life. It also refers to death caused by violent accidents, assaults with weapons, acts of nature etc., due to previous kamma.
Whether timely or untimely, most beings see death as a problem, an obstacle in the path of enjoying life. It inspires fear and anxiety, especially because of ignorance of its real nature. For death is less like a fearsome murderer, and more like sweet sleep.
Mindfulness of Death
The key to overcoming fear and uncertainty of death is remembrance and mindfulness of death. Mindfulness of death is remembering death: the inevitability of interruption of the life faculty. This practice can lead to deep insights and transcendence of fear of death.
One who wants to develop this should go into solitary retreat and exercise attention wisely in this way: “Death will certainly take place; the life faculty will be interrupted,” or simply “Death, death.”
The proper way to practice is to look for examples of beings that have been killed or have died, and advert to the death of beings already dead but formerly seen enjoying good things with mindfulness, with a sense of urgency and with knowledge. After this one can focus his attention on death beginning, “Death will certainly take place.” By doing so he performs the practice wisely, as a right means. By contemplating in this way, some people find their hindrances get suppressed, their mindfulness becomes established with death as its object, and the meditation subject reaches access concentration.
However, exercising attention unwisely in this practice can lead to undesirable results. Upon recollecting the possible death of an agreeable person, sorrow arises, as in a mother on recollecting the death of her beloved child. Gladness arises in recollecting the death of a disagreeable person, as in enemies on recollecting the death of their enemies. No sense of urgency arises on recollecting the death of neutral people, as happens in an undertaker on seeing a dead body. Anxiety arises on recollecting one’s own death, as happens in a timid person on seeing a murderer with a poised dagger. These are errors in practice because there is neither mindfulness, nor sense of urgency, nor knowledge leading to realization.
Inevitability of Death
One who finds that practicing simple remembrance of death does not get so far can try recollecting the inevitability of death. Why is death inevitable? Because it comes with birth and it takes away life.
As budding toadstools always come up lifting dust on their tops, so beings are born along with aging and death. For accordingly their rebirth-linking consciousness reaches aging immediately after its arising and then breaks up together with its associated aggregates, like a stone that falls from the summit of a rock. So to begin with, momentary death comes along with birth. But death is inevitable for whatever is born; consequently death of the body comes along with birth.
Therefore, just as the risen sun moves on towards its setting and never turns back even for a little while from wherever it goes, or just as a mountain torrent sweeps by with a rapid current, ever flowing and rushing on and never turning back even for a little while, so too this living being travels on towards death from the time when he is born, and he never turns back even for a little while. Hence it is said:
“Right from the very day a man
Has been conceived inside a womb
He cannot but go on and on,
Nor going can he once turn back” (J-a IV 494).
And whilst he goes on thus, death is as near to him as drying up is to rivulets in the summer heat, as falling is to the fruits of trees when the sap reaches their attachments in the morning, as breaking is to clay pots tapped by a mallet, as vanishing is to dewdrops touched by the sun’s rays. Hence it is said:
“The nights and days go slipping by
As life keeps dwindling steadily
Till mortals’ span, like water pools
In failing rills, is all used up” (S I 109).
“As there is fear, when fruits are ripe,
That in the morning they will fall,
So mortals are in constant fear,
When they are born, that they will die.
And as the fate of pots of clay
Once fashioned by the potter’s hand,
Or small or big or baked or raw,
Condemns them to be broken up,
So mortals’ life leads but to death.
“The dewdrop on the blade of grass
Vanishes when the sun comes up;
Such is a human span of life.”
So death, which is born along with birth, is inevitable.
Death as Sleep
But there is another way to contemplate death without fear. When we sleep at night, at first we dream. Then we enter deep sleep, in which there are no perceptions or consciousness. Coming out of deep sleep, again we dream. This cycle may repeat several times. At last we awaken and, although there is nothing to remember about deep sleep, we know that we slept well because we feel refreshed.
We don’t fear deep sleep because we have many experiences of going into deep sleep and waking safely afterwards. Similarly, we have died and been reborn many times, but due to the trauma of birth we forget what happened. Actually there is nothing to fear; just like deep sleep we shall also awaken after death.
After leaving the present body, we may dream for some time of being in heaven or hell. Then we pass into deep sleep in which there are no perceptions or consciousness. Coming out of that state, we dream again for some time in the womb before waking up in our next body. Just like waking after sleep, our energy will be refreshed and youthful.
The important thing to remember is that the quality of our experience of death is determined by the quality of our life beforehand. If our life is marked by virtue and knowledge, meditation and contemplation, then our destination will be noble. But if we fall prey to sense enjoyment, anger and other inauspicious things, we will suffer between this life and the next.
So for the wise, virtuous and meditative person, death is nothing to be afraid of; it is just like deep sleep. The horror of death is only due to our ignorance of it and our addiction to being and becoming. But whatever has a beginning also has an end; whatever is born is bound to die. Resisting and struggling against death is as futile as trying to stop the sun from going down or the tide from going out.
The body exists for a certain interval and then disintegrates. Due to attachment, we recall past states of being and strive to attain them again. These desires create causes for further becoming that bind us to the cycle of birth and death (samsāra). Thus we have to take birth again and again.
But by mastering the four immaterial attainments—the states of infinite space, infinite consciousness, nothingness and neither-perception-nor-non-perception—we become comfortable with the places death will take us. In this case, death becomes a gateway to nibbāna: ultimate enlightenment. Many meditators have taken the opportunity of the time of death to attain freedom from rebirth.