“The Blessed One said, “Mindfulness of death, when developed & pursued, is of great fruit & great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end. Therefore you should develop mindfulness of death.”
This next series will be smaller than the previous metta series although no less important. That topic is of course death. Have you run away yet? Ready to face your own mortality? Good, let’s get started.
I want to start this off with a quick run through of the story of the Buddha’s renunciation, when he saw “the four divine messengers”. The story goes that the Buddha was a prince named Siddhartha who was given everything he could ever need and his father the king did his best to hide anything bad about life away so his son would follow him as a king instead of becoming a Buddha. So we have a 29 year old man who supposedly never experienced old age, sickness, and death.
Whether you believe that is realistic or not, it’s a great analogy for how we put our heads in the ground like ostriches thinking we will avoid these three things. We spend all kinds of money to buy things and have procedures that “hide” old age, sickness, and death. People will say “ yeah yeah I know all about death, I understand it, so let’s now change the topic!”.
We do a decent job of fooling ourselves, until the time comes where we have to face these divine messengers and we are totally incapable of handling these experiences with mindfulness and calm composure because we ran away our whole life. Instead of confidently embracing impermanence and facing reality head on, we fall apart.
The story continues when he is out in the city and sees a very old decrepit person and wondered who this creature was. He was told this is an old man and all of us grow old, kings and regular people. This was a shock to the Siddhartha and the start of bursting the bubble he was placed in. Later he had another similar experience with seeing a sick/diseased person and then a dead person. He finally saw a shaved headed samana, a recluse/truth seeker/wanderer. This was the final divine messenger and hinted at the possible escape.
He realized that all of us are subject to old age, sickness, and death. All of us experience the suffering of being separated from everyone and everything we hold dear. This lead to him having great disenchantment for the world, especially considering that everyone has to keep repeating this cycle over and over again.
So what did Siddhartha do, did he bury his head in the sand? No, he decided to renounce a kingdom and go out in search of a way out of the samsaric cycle, and thanks to him we now have the path to follow in his footsteps. A part of that path is facing reality head on, seeing things as they truly are, not hiding from them, so in this series let us begin an examination of the variety of ways we can work towards that goal.
As before what I present here will be a mix of the suttas, what I’ve learned at Bhavana, and my own additions/personalization. I will present each part individually and then in the final part I will put them all together to present a single cohesive practice, one I do twice daily in front of “Jack” Bhavana’s meditation hall skeleton.
Facing our mortality is not easy, but we can do it! It’s time to stop running. All it takes is baby steps and slowly but surely you will see the peace and freedom that comes from embracing your mortality. Mindfulness of death is an integral part of the practice taught by the Buddha and as we shall see is even part of the core teaching of vipassana, the Buddha’s premiere teaching in the development of insight.
Next week we begin with a discussion on one of my favorite suttas in which the Buddha discusses five things we should contemplate on always. This contemplation was one of the first things I learned in Buddhism and as someone who is no stranger to death, it rings true with my experience and has stayed with me almost a decade later.
This is the First in a five part series. Here are the links to all parts: