Maranasati for the Modern World
“Mindfulness of death, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and benefit, culminating in the deathless, having the deathless as its consummation.”
– Anguttara Nikaya 8.7
Our Western society has become particularly adept at hiding death. It occurs behind closed doors or in “sanitized” locations like hospitals and nursing homes. We rarely see corpses, much less the process of dying itself. More seriously, death is often interpreted as a kind of failure or something gone wrong, completely ignoring its spiritual dimension.
In our time and place, Buddhist contemplation of death may be more relevant – and spiritually potent – than ever. The Buddha’s teachings encourage people to contemplate, deeply investigate, and directly understand death for themselves, for it is a path to Liberation.
When the Buddha embarked on his spiritual quest, one of the most powerful prompts was seeing a corpse and understanding that he too would die. He set out to discover that which does not age, sicken, or die – Nibbāna, the Deathless Liberation.
We may not immediately jump at the idea of contemplating our own death. Like animals, we have a biological survival instinct. And yet, as humans, we are in the uncomfortable position of knowing that eventually that instinct will fail us: we will die.
How do we live with this knowledge? There are many avoidance strategies, and they tend to look like all the problems of the world: Denial, aggression, covetousness, anxiety, hyper-busyness, and so forth. Interestingly, just turning toward death, even in a very gentle way, starts to erode the fear and pain that underlie all these strategies.
The range of Buddhist practices around death is called maranasati. “Mara” is recognizable as the force, often personified, of unwholesomeness, temptation, or literal death in Buddhist literature. “Sati” is mindfulness, showing that death is to be approached as another meditation object, held in calm awareness and available for investigation.
The traditional Theravadan schools offer formal maranasati practices based on the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10). These include envisioning the body as made up merely of 32 “parts” including various organs and bodily fluids, and imagining a human corpse in various stages of decay. Many monasteries have a skeleton placed prominently in various locations to encourage this contemplation.
Such formal meditation practices are available to us, but Westerners may also choose to develop the understanding of death in additional ways. Some are quite simple and only require that we remember to do them (easier said than done, given our natural desire to avoid death!), and others take more focused effort. A brief list follows, based on the authors’ experience; readers are encouraged to explore these and to discover others.
Practicing the Contemplation of Death
The key to success in any maranasati practice is correct contemplation, which could be summarized as “Me too”: My body, too, will be like that. I am not immune from that. Few people emphasize this, choosing instead to use an aesthetic or scientific/analytical lens when observing a living or dead body. Such lenses create distance and do not help to overcome fear or delusion. In contrast, correct contemplation leads us to understand that death is natural, normal, and will be part of our own experience. Concomitant mindfulness helps to overcome fear. Most importantly, correct contemplation spurs deeper practice.
On the cushion
- Breathe in and out as if it is your last breath. Particularly notice the end of the out-breath, feeling it slip away to nothing, resting in the gap. When another in-breath begins, renew the perception that it is your last.
Daily life contemplations
- Note which things in your life come from people who are now dead. For example, a necklace that you inherited from your great grandmother; a photo on the mantel of relatives that are long dead; or perhaps a child’s drawing from a sibling who died young. Then consider your own possessions: They too will go to others after you are dead. This helps loosen the idea that collecting things during life is useful and reinforces nonattachment to possessions.
- Notice endings or other types of “death” instead of just rushing to the next thing that is beginning. Nothing is immune from death and impermanence: leaves drop from trees, flowers wilt, and parties end. Pause to recognize endings.
- When you encounter roadkill, or when the cat drags in a mouse or bird, think: “My body will be like that too.”
- When friends or relatives die, consciously think, “I too will die.” In the Messengers Sutta (AN 3.36), a man is asked, “Good man, didn’t it occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, ‘I too am subject to death, I am not exempt from death. Let me now do good by body, speech, and mind’?” The man must sheepishly answer, “No, I was heedless…” Reflect for yourself on the certainty of your death and how you would like to live.
Cemeteries and mortuaries
- Notice when you drive by cemeteries and mortuaries how your mind may not want to notice these places, even if you pass them every day. Consider that your body might soon be decomposing there.
- Walk in the cemetery. You might read the gravestones, imagining real people with hopes, dreams, fears, personalities. It is also interesting to notice their ages – some were quite young, younger than you, when they died. Or you might sit quietly and tune in to the energy of the place. Contemplate: Death can come at any time.
- Images of corpses or decaying bodies can be found and used for formal contemplation. Please do this sensitively, being aware of who might find them on your computer screen, book shelf, or desk. Set aside time to view them in a serene setting with a meditative mind. Some anatomy books (such as Rohen and Yokochi, Color Atlas of Anatomy) feature photos of dissected cadavers. Consider that your body is the same.
- There are easily accessible pictures of skeletons on the Web or in books. It is particularly powerful to look at “scattered” skeletons with the bones not in the correct locations and to contemplate, as the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) says, “here a hand-bone, there a foot-bone, […] here an arm-bone, there a shoulder-bone, […] here a tooth, there the skull […] this body too will be like that.” It is surprising how we can subtly cling to the structure of the body as something stable.
- You may be able to volunteer in a hospital, or – in some ways even better – a hospice or nursing home where it is accepted that death is on the way. These settings offer a chance to see people quite close to death. You will certainly encounter your own (perhaps unconscious) feelings around death, including your death or deaths you remember from earlier in life. If you know someone who is living in a nursing home, you could make a commitment to visit them frequently, even if you don’t know them well.
- It may be possible to witness a dissection or autopsy at a hospital with special permission, or participate in a human dissection through a project called The Atlas of Integral Anatomy.
Fruits of Maranasati Practice
Undertaking practices that bring death into our awareness will surely have an effect on our mind and heart. Several fruits are possible, depending on the conditions of practice and how we understand what we are doing.
A common effect of an encounter with death is stronger appreciation for virtuous behavior. A friend dies, or we spend a scary night nearly dying in the emergency room, and this gives us a new perspective on how much we value our relationships and lifestyle. Sometimes this lasts for a short period, and sometimes a person’s whole outlook is transformed into one that is organized around generosity, gratitude and virtue.
The long-term result of living this way is that one no longer fears death. The Buddha consoles a man worried about the fate of his mind at death by saying, “Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid! Your death will not be a bad one, your demise will not be a bad one. When a person’s mind has been fortified over a long time by faith, virtue, learning, generosity, and wisdom, [it] goes upwards, goes to distinction.” (SN 55.21).
When maranasati practices are taken on as a formal meditation process, they can serve as vehicles for a deepening of tranquility, concentration, or compassion. The inevitability of death can bring a deep restfulness. With proper guidance, using corpse images as objects of concentration practice can even unify the mind to the point of attaining jhana. With the mind attuned to the commonality of death among all beings, great compassion can arise for our shared experience of this type of suffering. All of these practices deeply fortify and expand the heart.
But the fruit of maranasati most emphasized by the Buddha was the one he experienced: Desire to practice for the attainment of Liberation. This “spiritual urgency” is called samvega, and is a key step in Buddhist practice. In fact, samvega is considered the sign that the mindfulness of death practice has “succeeded.” Maranasati is often prescribed as an antidote to complacency – for example, for those who have a comfortable lifestyle.
No longer satisfied with the temporariness of sense pleasures, the practitioner seeks deeper happiness before his or her own death intervenes. On numerous occasions, the Buddha praised energetic and immediate maranasati practice. In AN 6.19 and 8.73, he says:
The [practitioner] who develops mindfulness of death thus: “May I live just the length of time it takes to chew and swallow a single mouthful of food so that I may attend to the Blessed One’s teaching. I could then accomplish much!’ […] [This one] dwells heedfully … develops mindfulness of death keenly for the destruction of the taints.”
In AN 6.20 and 8.74, he likens samvega to practicing as if one’s clothes or head had caught fire, upon which one “would put forth extraordinary desire, effort, zeal, enthusiasm, indefatigability, mindfulness, and clear comprehension.”
Thus, following this wholesome desire all the way to its end leads to the Deathless Liberation, the extinguishing of suffering. May you too find maranasati practice to be of great fruit and benefit.
Kim Allen has practiced insight meditation since 2003 with Gil Fronsdal as her primary teacher. Her practice includes 15 months of intensive retreat, the study of Buddhist texts, and completion of the Sati Center Buddhist Chaplaincy Training program. In 2011 she co-founded the Buddhist Insight Network that connects and serves teachers and sanghas in the Insight tradition. She is now involved in starting up the Insight Retreat Center in Scotts Valley CA, USA.
Shaila Catherine is an insight meditation teacher and founder of Insight Meditation South Bay (www.imsb.org) in Mountain View, CA, USA. She has practiced meditation since 1980, accumulating over eight years of silent retreat experience. Since 2003 she has emphasized deep concentration and jhana, and authored two books: Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity, and Wisdom Wide and Deep: A Practical Handbook for Mastering Jhana and Vipassana.