A meditation on death

Author PD James, who died yesterday (27 November 2014), wrote often about the acceptance of death. It’s a difficult concept, and mindfulness meditation can help us see death as part of life.

‘We all die alone. We shall endure death as once we endured birth. You can’t share either experience.’

P.D. James. The Children of Men

Author PD James on the loneliness of death, and birth: ‘You can’t share either experience.’

photo credit: the real Kam75 via photopin cc

‘Life and death are but two faces of one reality. Once we realize that we will have the courage to encounter both of them. Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live – because death is a part of life.

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life.

When I was only 19 years old, I was assigned by an older monk to meditate on the image of a corpse in the cemetery. But I found it very hard to take and resisted the meditation. Now I no longer feel that way. Then I thought that such a meditation should be reserved for older monks. But since then, I have seen many young soldiers lying motionless beside one another, some only 13, 14, and 15 years old. They had no preparation or readiness for death. Now I see that if one doesn’t know how to die, one can hardly know how to live-because death is a part of life.

We must look death in the face, recognize and accept it, just as we look at and accept life. The Buddhist Sutra on Mindfulness speaks about the meditation on the corpse: meditate on the decomposition of the body, how the body bloats and turns violet, how it is eaten by worms until only bits of blood and flesh still cling to the bones, meditate up to the point where only white bones remain, which in turn are slowly worn away and turn into dust. Meditate like that, knowing that your own body will undergo the same process. Meditate on the corpse until you are calm and at peace, until your mind and heart are light and tranquil and a smile appears on your face. Thus, by overcoming revulsion and fear, life will be seen as infinitely precious, every second of it worth living. And it is not just our own lives that are recognized as precious, but the lives of every other person, every other person, every other being, every other reality. We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of others’ lives is necessary for our own survival. We see that life and death are but two faces of Life and that without both, Life is not possible, just as two sides of a coin are needed for the coin to exist.’

Thich Nhiit Hanh. The miracle of mindfulness. Translation by Mobi Ho.

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