I’m fascinated by religions’ practices and beliefs regarding death. It seems as if every philosophical or religious tradition has some sort of “death meditation” practice. The Stoics included it in their “negative visualization” practice, Christians contemplate the death of Christ at Mass, Jews study it in the Torah, and Muslims understand that there is a judgment day after death.
What I like about religions’ take on death is that they handle it so skillfully; they take something remote and abstract and make it real, real enough to help you improve your life now. They don’t just say, “you will die someday” and then leave it at that. That would only lead to depression. They say, “you will die someday, so make the most of your life now, and here’s how to do that.”
Consider this 9-part death meditation adapted from the Tibetan tradition:
DEATH IS CERTAIN
1. There is no possible way to escape death. No-one ever has, not even Jesus, Buddha, etc. Of the current world population of over 5 billion people, almost none will be alive in 100 years time.
2. Life has a definite, inflexible limit and each moment brings us closer to the finality of this life. We are dying from the moment we are born.
3. Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected. All that separates us from the next life is one breath.
Conviction: To practise the spiritual path and ripen our inner potential by cultivating positive mental qualities and abandoning disturbing mental qualities.
THE TIME OF DEATH IS UNCERTAIN
4. The duration of our lifespan is uncertain. The young can die before the old, the healthy before the sick, etc.
5. There are many causes and circumstances that lead to death, but few that favour the sustenance of life. Even things that sustain life can kill us, for example food, motor vehicles, property.
6. The weakness and fragility of one’s physical body contribute to life’s uncertainty.The body can be easily destroyed by disease or accident, for example cancer, AIDS, vehicle accidents, other disasters.
Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay.
THE ONLY THING THAT CAN HELP US AT THE TIME OF DEATH IS OUR MENTAL/SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT
(because all that goes on to the next life is our mind with its karmic (positive or negative) imprints.)
7. Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money can’t help
8. Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go with us.
9. Even our own precious body is of no help to us. We have to leave it behind like a shell, an empty husk, an overcoat.
Conviction: To ripen our inner potential purely, without staining our efforts with attachment to worldly concerns
The modern, secular response to your impending death is to create a bucket list, usually filled with relatively superficial adventures like skydiving and such.
The Buddhist response is to guide you to the 4 Noble Truths and the 8-Fold Path, which will help you become enlightened and turn you into a better person along the way.
Perhaps we should learn to embrace right intention and right action over YOLO inspired activities.