So we come to the final article for this series. The final piece where we put it all together. Now we will put everything we’ve learned so far, and a few new things, into one coherent practice that can be done in 10 minutes or less.
You can do this anywhere, on the cushion or off. I began this practice a few years ago by standing in front of the skeleton by the meditation hall here at Bhavana, which I still do today. So let us begin:
We start out with a simple recollection. We remind ourselves “I may die today, I may die tomorrow, I may die at any time”. Bhante Seelananda here at Bhavana teaches at the mindfulness of death retreat to start from a future time period, 10 years for example, and to count down at intervals from “I may die in 10 years” to “I may die, in 1 second”. It may be helpful for some but I find compressing it to the statement above works better for me.
Once we have set the stage and reminded ourselves of our impending death, we continue to the next statement “because life is uncertain, but death is certain”, another phrase taught here at Bhavana. We can never be certain about anything in life, but the death of this body is always a certainty, even for awakened beings.
Now we come back to familiar territory, the 5 remembrances/subjects for contemplation from part 2. “I who may die at any time am subject to ageing and decay, I am not exempt from ageing and decay. I am subject to illness and disease, I am not exempt from illness and disease. I am subject to death, I am not exempt from death. All that is dear to me I will one day be separated from. I am the owner and heir of my actions.
Now you need to be careful when repeating this contemplation, for you may have a sneaky delusional mind like myself that wants to deny to the end that one day this being will die. In times of waning mindfulness I have actually heard my mind repeat “I am exempt from death” instead of “I am not exempt from death”, which brought my awareness back with a laugh at this poor deluded fellow.
Next we segue into 32 parts of the body contemplation(asubha). ”I am subject to these five remembrances because I have this body. This body which I find to be pleasant on the outside, but not so pleasant when viewed from inside. Other bodies are also pleasant to look upon from the outside, but not pleasant when viewed from the inside. When seen with equanimity, free of like and dislike, we see this body is a mere biological machine made up of various parts created with numerous (scientific) elements that were born in the heart of a dying star.
”This body is made up of head hair, body, hair, nails, teeth, skin( the five parts that can be seen on the outside). Fat , tissue, bones, bone marrow, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, various organs, various systems(circulatory, neurological etc), various liquids, and miscellaneous parts. It helps me also to visualize all of this as I go through, like making an examination of the body. Downloading an anatomy app on a phone/tablet may be helpful for this.
This is the point where it helps to be in front of a skeleton. I often times will feel the various parts of the skeleton with one hand and the same part on my own body with the other. The cheek bone of the skeleton, my cheek bone. The collar bone of the skeleton, my collar bone. The pelvis of the skeleton, my pelvis. This practice really punches home the fact that you have this skeleton inside of you, as well as all the parts you have gone though. It helps to break through the fog we keep ourselves in and show us the reality.
From there we segue into corpse contemplation. “all these parts of the body are subject to decay, to illness, to death. One day this body will lie devoid of life, useless as a dead tree stump, and will decay according to it’s nature.”
Now we go through the various stages of decay from part three, with an added visualization. I was told about this visualization some years ago by someone who claimed they learned this from Bhikkhu Thanissaro, but I can’t confirm that, regardless it has been very helpful. I visualize a copy of myself in front of me, but it IS myself, like looking in a mirror. This copy then begins to rapidly age until it falls back, dies, and then begins the 9 stages of corpse decay from corpse contemplation. I was surprised the first time I did this as the visualized me “smiled” as he died, a smile of acceptance and being “ok” with death.
I don’t really often use words during this part as I go through the various stages of corpse decay, but if you wish you can verbalize it to go along with the visualization of the stages ”a corpse 3 days dead… skeleton with flesh and blood.. scattered and bleached bones” etc
This is the end of the mindfulness of death practice, but there is one final segue after this. ”Because I am subject to decay, illness, and death, so too are all other beings. Knowing this I should develop metta(limitless good-will) and karuna(compassion) for myself and all beings….(segue into metta practice) may all of us find happiness, may all of us find peace, may all of us live in friendship with each other, may all of us find release”.
So we end our mindfulness of death practice with the realization that we are all in the same boat, subject to the same nature, and when death is rolling from all directions like four mountains as tall as the sky, all there is to do is to practice dhamma, hence why I feel it appropriate to do metta practice right after mindfulness of death, a tandem pair as it were.
I will close with one final recommendation. There is a wonderful video, a dhamma talk, on death spoken by a monk who was dealing with cancer at the time. I’m not sure if he is still alive or not but I still watch this regularly as it is poignant and profound: “The Ultimate Test” – https://youtu.be/oBIMRCRh_Xs
I wish you all peace, happiness, and that your practice blossoms. Until next time friends.
This is the Fifth in a five part series. Here are the links to all parts: