by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero
Thaniyo: I was wondering if you could speak about the contemplation of death—how should we think about death?
The world is beaten down by death
and surrounded by old age.
The dart of craving has laid it low,
and it’s always fuming with desire.
(Thag 6:13, 2nd verse).
Nyanamoli: Walking, standing, sitting or lying down, you should be dwelling on the ultimate context, which is what death is. It’s the ultimate context of your life—it’s a non-negotiable context. Because people might think: “I must be going through the motions and methods of practicing mindfulness of death, thinking about it when I’m walking, sitting…” That’s true only in the sense that you need to discern the most fundamental, always present possibility of death, which is what makes it such an ultimate context of your life. Everything else within your life can come and go—what has been or could have not been—all these things. But one thing is for sure: when life is there, death is guaranteed, as the final outcome of it.
The reason why people would be pressed and oppressed—by their desires, by their intentions, unskillful actions—is because they turn a blind eye to this very factual liability to death. If a person were not turning a blind eye to it, that’s already something that’s going to start shaping their life differently, because pretty much everything unwholesome that a person can engage with is as a result of ignoring the fact that they will die, that they will not always be healthy, not always be young. But being intoxicated by those things, you entertain those desires, you want more of them. But all you need do is uncover that fundamental context of certainty of death, and it will automatically prevent you from running too far down the rabbit hole of desires. And that’s what mindfulness of death means.
Obviously, you can do that on a very loose level, but you can start narrowing it down and you realize that you might not see the end of this day. Not necessarily becoming neurotic about it, thinking “I will die… I will die.” But just recognize that that possibility is so immediate that you might not see the end of the day—the end of the morning. You might not have enough time to finish your meal. You might not have enough time to breathe out once you breathe in—that’s fundamentally how much you’re not in control of your life. That doesn’t mean that you should be repeating to yourself that you will die every second of the day. That’s not contemplation of death, that’s just a mechanical repetition of the idea of what death is for you. You want to understand the context of death, which is that ultimate peripheral context to everything you actually do in your life.
Hence the mindfulness—whenever there is a principle of the peripheral, there is a principle of mindfulness. Peripheral awareness. So, by being mindful of the context of death with regard to your day-to-day life, that’s already the practice of mindfulness. If a person wants to start practicing that contemplation on death as meditation, as with any other meditation, withdraw yourself from distractions, from company, and think about it. If you don’t know where to start, just think about the nature of death that is inescapable to you. Then you take that further and start thinking: “OK, so what would be the real significance of this life that is fully under the control of death?” Because whatever you do in this life cannot help you step outside the liability to death. It basically cannot free you from death. Then you realize that that order cannot change—it doesn’t matter what you do, doesn’t matter what you distract yourself with, doesn’t matter what you accomplish with this life. Fundamentally that whole thing—as much as you developed it, as far as it proliferated—is still equally within the domain of death, and you can’t escape that. The practice then would be establishing the right order, that it doesn’t matter what you do in this life fundamentally, you are liable to sickness, aging, and death. That context is not something you need to keep in front of you, thinking “I will die… I will die.” Just keep it at the back of your mind, where it is knowing: “While I’m doing this, this and this, I might die.”
It’s highly unlikely that I will die as a result of sitting in my room reading a book, but death is equally present there because my life depends upon working organs, beating heart, breathing lungs. So, you want to practice mindfulness of death to see that your life is undermined by the random operation of organs that you have no control over.
Thaniyo: What about this example? You can be called to work at any point—you will be called—because you’ve chosen that job. Whatever you do has to be done with that in the back of your mind.
Nyanamoli: That’s what I mean by context, exactly. But it’s not a context you can be indifferent about, because it’s the context that undermines and affects your life. The simile of that would be, for example, you have a job interview. You have one shot at something that can change your life in a week’s time. Whatever you do that week, this will be at the back of your mind because it is so important—there is a degree of concern with regard to it. Now imagine if that one shot is basically death—it’s not a random interview that can go either way, it’s as fundamental as losing your life. So, you realize what kind of concern that would be, peripherally, and how much influence that would have on your choices and decisions in this life. And so the Dhammapada verse about anger, where it says: “Those who quarrel, they forget that we are all going to die.” Basically, we are all sentenced to death in this life. And because of that, quarrels persist, and quarrels develop—because if you don’t forget the ultimate appointment with death that you have.
Also, you can have a job appointment at an exact time, exact day, but the appointment with death is uncertain in the sense that it can arise at any given time. So, you realize that appointment might be today, might be tomorrow, might be in 10 years’ time—you cannot forget about it because it can be here the next moment—because if you forget about it you might fail. Whatever you do in this life, you do it on the basis of not forgetting about the ultimate context of your liability to die—the certain possibility of death. And you can already see how much less you would be able to be pulled by the fleeting desires of the senses, distractions and so on—they just would not have any value.
And again, if a person has any doubt about it, just recollect when you feared for your life—for a period of time on account of anything, illness or an accident or whatever—and see how much interest you had in the world during that period of time. You’ll see—very little. You were not enjoying your food, you were not finding solace in friends and distractions, parties or whatever else. This was just the most pressing thing. So, it’s basically reconnecting to that context that is there, so you don’t have to fabricate it, you just have to stop covering it up with that constant influx of sensuality and intentions for distraction. So, if you always feel like you’re on call—that you might be called upon by death—that already means you develop, fundamentally, that proper context, which now shapes your decisions. It makes you non-careless with regard to things in front of you in your life.
And that’s essentially what mindfulness of death is. Mindfulness of the certain. You might worry: “Today I have to do this, work in the garden, do this or that…” All these things can stay, but you would see how much less emotionally pulled or affected you would be by any of those things—whether they change, whether they’re the way you wanted them to be, or they go the other way—you wouldn’t be affected. Why? Because you weren’t there with them. Why? Because you’re concerned about death.
But that kind of practice can be a bit too hard for some people—that concern can overwhelm you. But if it doesn’t, you could see how quickly you would develop dispassion with regard to everything that comes your way, and that’s why the Buddha praised it as pretty much the quickest way to free your mind from any unwholesome states, ignorance, avoidance of responsibility and so on. But if it’s too much, then practice mindfulness of breathing because it results in the same, as we spoke about in the other talks. You realize that your fully controlled act of breathing depends on things that are not your own while you’re controlling it, which means your sense of control is undermined, fundamentally dependent upon things you cannot control.
Others don’t understand
that our lives must have limits.
The clever ones who know this
settle their quarrels right away.
(Thag 8:1, 5th verse)
Are you’re saying the most important thing while you’re alive is the fact that you have an appointment?
Nyanamoli: Yes, and you can also use that in the reverse order, and you can see, if you think you are practicing mindfulness of death and making the effort, then you should ask yourself: “Is my mind getting angry? Is my mind getting lustful?” If the answer is yes, it means you haven’t established the context of death. If you had, these things would not be able to arise—let alone persist.
The only way you can be triggered by trivial matters or non-trivila matters— the only way you could be emotionally triggered by anything, is if you have lost the context of certain death, that’s yours and yours only. Then literally nothing else matters because everything is within that context. Everything. There’s nothing you can do, say or think that will not be within the context of life that’s undermined by death—it just cannot be.
The practice of mindfulness of death is really just clarifying the understanding of that inherent context in whatever you do—the context of that ultimate final cessation that you cannot even conceive escaping from, because when you think about escaping from it, the thoughts of that escape are within the context of death. So, you’re fully enclosed by it. That’s why it can be quite frightening, like being buried alive for example. You’re still alive, but you realize that escape from this is inconceivable.
There’s the simile that the Buddha gave to that king, how would it be if big mountains or an army were coming from all four directions towards him. Mountains enclosing you, and you can’t escape, you can’t fight against it. What would you do then? And the king answers that he would re-evaluate his life and maybe become a monk and try and free himself internally.
And simply the habit of ignoring one’s death maintains that ignorance. You might feel like you’re sheltered from death, until, of course, circumstances remind you that it’s otherwise. Until you have little pangs of anxiety that you can’t get rid of for the rest of your life. Why? Because you never admitted to yourself what’s obvious right from the start—that, as soon as you’re born, you’re old enough to die, pretty much. The second you’re conceived, you’re liable to death. And that’s it. It’s really not even a negotiable context. But people might say: “You shouldn’t be thinking about this because you won’t enjoy life.” Well, you won’t enjoy life in an unwholesome sense, but you’ll certainly appreciate it in a wholesome sense—as a possibility for developing wisdom that will then free you from death, as a possibility for doing good and maybe showing others who want to hear. There is still plenty you can do in this life within the context of death, that won’t be as futile as simply distracting yourself from the obvious truths.
If you close yourself from the reality of death, it will be out of fear. Then you might not be able to take it all in at once, which is fine, but you should certainly not develop a view that you shouldn’t be taking it in at all because it’s making you scared. You need to be developing yourself with regard to that which scares you, whereby you won’t run away from that which frightens you. And that’s how you get to understand it.
Thaniyo: The Buddha says that a monk should think: “I could die today, a snake could bite me, I could fall down, the elements might change and destroy me, my body might get sick, centipedes…”
Nyanamoli: He thinks these things to re-evoke the context of “I am susceptible to die at any given moment.” Having established that context, he doesn’t need to keep thinking about it because now, whatever he does, he already maintains the context, because that already is implying it can end at any moment because you can die.
Mindfulness, properly developed, is on the level of knowledge. It means the thing is there present, the context is there present because you know it. And that’s why mindfulness, memory and recollection go hand-in-hand. It’s not a mechanical focusing technique that you will be doing on account of different meditation ‘objects’—it’s really developing the knowledge of the context. It means to be watchful, so that you don’t forget about it.
I think Ajahn Chah gave a similar example. It’s like a mother who has to do work outside and leaves the baby inside. So, she’s out there only for the amount of time she needs to finish the work. She doesn’t linger, she doesn’t forget about her baby, she doesn’t distract herself from it. It means whatever she’s doing still maintains the importance of that certain context. And when she’s done, she goes back to the baby. And that’s like the development of mind, the development of mindfulness—the importance of that watchfulness.
Why would I then be breaking the precepts, why would I then be careless, when I might die within 10 seconds? My heart might stop. You might think: “It probably won’t.” But it might. That’s more than enough for that right concern. The right type of concern. You see, the Noble Eightfold Path—Right View, Right Intention and so on—you could say that the entire Noble Eightfold Path is predicated upon developing right concern. Being concerned rightly, becoming aware of that existential anxiety or dread, whatever you want to call it. But you could say it’s a right concern that comes from right responsibility, and then the Right View will come out of it. And that’s what the Buddha meant when he said: “I’m teaching suffering and freedom from it.” That first means you need to know how to start suffering properly—the right concern, the right displeasure. The nature of knowing “Hold on, this is not a choice, this is not negotiable either.” It cannot be compared to other concerns, to other people—it’s just mine and mine only. And this is the only thing worth dealing with—the only thing you can deal with, truly. So, developing the right concern develops the Noble Eightfold Path.
To practice mindfulness of death—again, just sit quietly and start thinking, for example, about your beating heart or your breathing lungs. Don’t negate anything—there’s nothing to negate. Just be aware that you are breathing now, but you might not be able to.
Thaniyo: That’s the practice of trying to think about the different ways that you could die, or death could happen.
Nyanamoli: Yes, but that can only be indirect. See, that’s the thing: people only regard things that they can think about actually (directly in front of them) as something that they develop. No, you want to be discerning the context of what’s in front of you, and if you keep bringing that context centrally in front of you that then means that the context of that is not in front of you. As in there is something peripheral to whatever is in front of you. And the peripheral is what you want to discern. Like what we spoke about in the talk “Peripheral Awareness.” So, when you’re thinking about death, you can’t be just visualizing how you’re dying, because that’s not what death is for you at the time—that’s a particular exemplification of that possibility, but you’re not understanding the certainty of it because certainty of death, of the possibility of death, is on the level of the context.
Thaniyo: So, could you think, in whatever situation, how is it possible for me to die, or how is the possibility of death present?
Nyanamoli: You might have to start like that and then you’d get a sense of concern, and then you recognize that it’s that concern that needs to be developed. It must not be distracted from, must not be covered up, must not be ignored. You must not be trying to get rid of it either. Or this anxiety and concern, thinking: “I must get rid of it, I must get rid of it.” It’s establishing the concern, the context of death and then allowing it to endure. Because, through allowing it to endure, you don’t need to worry about whatever is in front of you, because it’s going to be kept in check by the fundamental concern of liability to death, which is a concern based on dispassion.
Thaniyo: So, just as a contemplation, whatever you’re doing, try to see that possibility of death therein. Like, I’m sitting now, so how could death come to me? I could fall off my chair, hit my head…
Nyanamoli: Yes, I understand what you’re saying, but the point I’m making is that you can do that only initially before it becomes that mechanical visualization of how you might die, and you lose the connection with it. That’s why you can’t just be focused on what you’re going to think—you have to focus on that emotional background of being liable to death, in which case you don’t need to think particularly “I will die because my heart will stop, or I’ll fall off the chair”. You just need to think “I will die; I could die,” and you already feel it.
Thaniyo: So, it’s about picking up the sign.
Nyanamoli: Picking up the sign, exactly. The theme, the context, the peripheral of the actual possibilities of death. And that’s going to be a kind of initially unpleasant concern. Afterwards, the displeasure of that concern disappears because you realize it’s inconceivable for it to be otherwise. You might have apprehension and so on, but none of that would be fear and dread and pain at the prospect of death. Why? Because you’re not intoxicated with life as you were before. And you are not intoxicated because you stopped maintaining the intoxication, and that intoxication is maintained through ignoring the concern about the life that’s liable to death. So yes, if you want to do meditation on death, think about your beating heart—you can hear it, you can feel it beating—but can you have any intentional say in it? You realize no. If this thing stops—in the same sense that a branch falls, a cup gets knocked over—the heart stops. You realize the heart is on the level of these random things in the world that can just change. Because of the elements, because of the wind, because of whatever. But if that does happen, my life is over. So, my life entirely—my sense of mastery, my sense of control—depends on something as silly as a cup being knocked over, a valve just going ‘boop’. A pump just ceasing to pump or getting blocked. If the pump gets blocked for 10 seconds, that might be enough to kill me. And it is inconceivable to have a say in that.
But obviously the first reaction to that is just this overwhelming concern, and because of that, people feel fully justified in thinking “I must not think about this.” But once you get used to it, that concern cannot overwhelm you, and literally all you have to do is remember it, and you’re fully back in the proper practice of that recollection of death. Not through randomly visualizing possibilities of dying. Just thinking “My body is a fundamental basis for my whole life, my whole intentions, my past, my future—for everything.” Yet it’s a basis that is fully accidental and liable to elements and one cannot even conceive having any remote input into that domain, or that environment. And that prevents you from appropriating your own life, your own intentions, your own sense of control. That’s why, if you’re not overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, and you persevere through it, and you fully maintain this context, dispassion is the automatic result—arahantship. “Die before you die,” as Ajahn Chah said.
Thaniyo: So, what about observing others, or contemplating death by looking at others dying?
Nyanamoli: Same, same. If you use that to re-evoke concern for your own life and death as an emotional context, so that you realize “I better deal with this while I can”, then it’s fine. But if you only use it for some sort of keeping it at arm’s length, so to speak, not really allowing it to come in because it’s going to overwhelm you and you’re just trying to observe and learn through observation, that’s not death that you are learning about—you’re learning about the external manifestation of someone else’s death. But unless you allow it to remind you—to reconnect you with your own certain death, impending death—there’s no real benefit to it. And that’s exactly how people can be dealing with death, on a daily basis, and still remain fully inauthentic, fully cover up their own death, and be passionate about life. They can work in a morgue or whatever, and it might hit them initially, and then they just cover it up and now it’s just cadavers, basically. You don’t even see that as a representation of the life that you’re partaking in. So, that’s what I mean, you must stop keeping it at arm’s length.
If you don’t know how to deal with it, not keeping it at arm’s length, it’s going to overwhelm you. That’s why it’s not optional for people who don’t know how to deal with it, to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the only means of self-preservation that they know. And that’s why it’s going to be very frightening and scary when even that gets taken away—when they’re actually dying—as that king became aware when the Buddha explained this to him. That’s why those people who would understand what the Buddha was teaching would freak out thinking “This will kill us!” And the Buddha said, yes, for any mind that hasn’t been restrained—that still values passion, life—and thinks: “This is mine and I am,” these truths will be frightening, terrifying, overwhelming. They will fall on the ground, beat their breast, pull their hair, fully despair—because they realize this is inescapable. The only way to escape is to stop appropriating it internally. But in order to stop appropriating it, you need to stop appropriating everything—your likes and your dislikes. You have to see them with wisdom and fully understand them.
The rain saturates things that are covered up;
it doesn’t saturate things that are open.
Therefore you should open up a covered thing,
so the rain will not saturate it.
(Thag 6:13, 1st verse).
So now what you’re saying… because it sounds strange: “the rain saturates things that are covered up.”
Nyanamoli: You haven’t given them a chance to dry.
Thaniyo: But open it up and it won’t get saturated.
Nyanamoli: You will get affected by the rain, as in you’re going to get affected by death—or even by anything unpleasant— basically for as long as you’re covering things up from yourself. That’s what I mean, all these truths are there, obvious in a way, but you need to make the effort of undoing the cover-up for them to be discerned. So, it’s not like finding a new way out, it’s basically just stopping covering up what’s obvious. The certainty of death, the certainty of non-control, the certainty of change.
You realize these things arise through your ignoring them, i.e. covering them up. Then you become liable, saturated by the rain—by greed, by despair, by sickness, aging, and death—by everything else that befalls you. It affects you because it’s covered up there and it sinks into it, it stays with it. It doesn’t go through it, because that’s the point: all these things remain the same for an arahant, but he’s not affected by it, because he stopped covering these things up from himself. That’s what I mean when I say self-transparency. If something’s covered up, it’s not transparent, you can’t see through it. Self-transparency is developed by uncovering things for yourself. Whenever you want to engage in sensuality or do something out of ill-will, wait—remind yourself of the fundamental context of liability to death, and you realize this is not worth the effort. It simply isn’t. If I tell you: “Go into this place, go in and it’s going to be the greatest sensual satisfaction of every sense you can imagine. But there’s also a 99% chance you’re going to die”—no amount of enticement would make you enter because you know it’s not worth it. Or if I tell you: “Go in there, enjoy food and whatever else, but at the end of it, within half an hour, you’ll be dead. But if you don’t go in it, you live longer,” you won’t go in. Because suddenly that whole enjoyment of sensual distraction and pleasure is replaced by an immediate, direct mirroring of the context—that it’s within death. “If I do this, I’m dead. If I don’t do it, I’m not dead.” Or, if somebody tells you that you’re terminal and have three days to live, and today you had plans for tomorrow—hanging out with your friends at some great party, careless drinking, whatever. And then later on today you find out that you have three days to live. Would you still have the interest to go around just carelessly partying with random people? No, you would be concerned about seeing if there’s anything you can do before you die, or to try to prevent yourself from dying.
Is there anything that can make a difference to that? And you realize that is always the case, that’s always the context. That time is too short because you can die, you will die at any given period in your life—there’s no such thing as too soon. That’s why the Buddha said “Time is too short, don’t be negligent before it’s too late.” So, the context of death immediately devalues, takes value away from, anything sensual, anything based on ill-will—because there you go, you have access to all of this, but death is waiting for you at the end of it. You could think “I’m not going to do it then.” Well, it’s exactly the same principle that applies to your life—whatever you do in this life, death waits above you. Then you automatically become more aware, just through discerning that context, nothing else. You remembered the appointment, the impending appointment that can be activated at any time. Maybe in 50 years, maybe in 5 minutes. Does that make you concerned? Yes. Why? Would you be concerned about something that has no value to you, like some piece of rock if it gets destroyed? No, you have no emotional connection with it, so you couldn’t care less if it gets destroyed.
So, now if there is concern about you being destroyed, you realize there is a certain emotional connection with this. But is that emotional connection justified? That’s what you start uncovering. Your sense of entitlement to the appropriation of your own feelings, your own intentions, your own sensual pleasures. You start uncovering it, you realize this is not justified because if these things were truly yours—if you were truly the master, the controller—they would not be liable to death. So that’s like the three divine messengers—old age, sickness and death—they’re telling you what’s beneath, what you refuse to admit to yourself. They’re conveying to you that message—but you can only fully grasp it if you start uncovering it, drying it up.
If you want to meditate on it, set aside half an hour or whatever you have without any distractions, think about your liability to death until you develop that context that slightly (or not so slightly) concerns you, and then just allow it to endure. If you’re thinking, “What do I do next?” Nothing. All you do is make sure that this context remains transparent for this half hour that you’re meditating, nothing else. So, if your thoughts start coming, you let them, while you still keep a corner of your eye on that context. If you go away and realize you forgot, then you go back to the context. And again, just let your mind start going again, but not losing sight of the context. That’s the practice of mindfulness that results in samādhi, which then feeds mindfulness—because you’re learning how to not forget about the context, even when other things are happening, and that’s life. So, whatever’s happening in your day-to-day life, then you still have that context at the back of your mind. That is the unshakeable mindfulness, what the Buddha meant by it. That is the proper maranānussati.
Whether you’re eating, taking food, or breathing in, breathing out, the context remains at the back, and you’ve not lost connection with it. It doesn’t mean you must have it all the time in front of you, quite the opposite. It means you should be able to go as far as you want, but you still don’t completely lose sight of it.
If you think “have I lost sight of it?”, then check if there’s greed, aversion, or delusion in your mind—is there desire for distraction, carelessness, sensuality, ill-will, anger? If yes, you can’t say you’re rooted in the context anymore. When you’re rooted in the context, these things cannot arise. Amidst sensuality, amidst irritable things, they can’t arise, because they require passion, and passion and awareness of the context of death are mutually exclusive. Passion requires ignorance of the fact that this is all subject to certain destruction—but if you don’t ignore that anymore, it means you can’t engage in passion anymore.
That’s what the Buddha meant when he said those people who are not mindful—as in those who are not aware of that context—are as if dead already. They’re fully under that weight of death. The only way to not partake in it, to not be affected by it, is to fully understand that context of death. So, by being unmindful, you’re fully subscribed, fully covered up, fully cocooned in that liability of certain death. It means you’re as if dead—it doesn’t matter if it’s in five minutes or fifty years.
The true meaning of life would be that which is not permeable by death. That which is not subject to death, that would be the true life that is beyond death. But you realize, only the understanding of death can be beyond death, everything else is within it. So, if you have no understanding of death, that means your whole life is already as if you were dead.
Hence, mindfulness is the path to the deathless—peripheral awareness of that context will take you out of the confinement of it, through understanding. Not like you’re going to develop something outside of it—that’s impossible. You’re just going to lose any passion, any appropriation, any relationship with it—with everything that’s liable to death, which is the five aggregates, your experience as a whole, your life, past, future—all of it. It’s not about destroying and not having it arise because it’s something you’re experiencing, which means it’s another thing that has arisen for you. It’s about removing the emotional connection and appropriation of it. And you will know you’re removing it because if you think about losing your life, is there concern arising, is there fear, is there worry? If not, it means you’re not holding to anything, even if death comes the next second.
If you’re practicing meditation like this, you allow it to endure, for half an hour, forty minutes, an hour. And then when you’re not meditating, you still allow it to endure when it’s there, and if it’s not there as much, you try to bring it back, even while you have to do other things. Because nothing in the world is an excuse for ignoring the fact that death is certain. There’s absolutely no excuse for that. Whatever you’re engaged in, you make sure you keep a corner of your eye on that fundamental context. And that’s what you’re emulating and developing in a more controlled environment, which is what meditation is. Not the controlled environment of a mechanical method, but the controlled environment of reflexion, and discerning the signs and tokens of how it feels to be liable to death at any given moment. You want to see it on that peripheral level and just be aware of it. Now the mind starts thinking about things you have to do, that happened yesterday—but if that context is there, there will be no passion in regard to it. You start losing the context, you re-establish it.
Thaniyo: There’s also an idea that one must practice so that when death happens, one will be able to control it in a nice way.
Nyanamoli: Yes, that’s what I meant with what I was describing before. For people that are so used to just focusing on what’s in front of them, they think if they just learn the art of focusing, regardless of what the nature of the things they’re focusing on is, when death comes in front of them, they’ll be able to attend it rightly. But attention is not what’s in front of you. The roots of your attention are from that periphery—which means if you haven’t addressed things on that peripheral level, by the time they’re in front of you, it’s too late. And you can see that while you’re still alive: because truly, if you developed your focusing so far—if that were to work, focusing on that one moment in front of you—after one session of that focusing, you would be completely free from desire, from ill-will, from fear, from anything unwholesome. But the fact that you’re not, means no amount of focusing can help you with that. Only understanding that will then prevent it from affecting you in the first place, can help you. Because that whole idea of practicing focusing, so that when death comes you’ll know how to deal with it—that whole idea is still rooted in that view of management. Management, as in requiring to be affected and then learning how to manage it. No, you want to uproot it whereby it doesn’t affect you in the first place.
The only way to reach the deathless in this life is to really abandon everything that is subjected to that death. And then you will know that while you’re still alive. Because if you wait for death to confirm it to you, it means you don’t know it—it means it won’t be the confirmation you wanted to hear. That’s why an arahant already knows that death has been abandoned and so on, even before he dies.
If you want to practice towards not being affected by the experience of death when it comes, you start practicing towards not being affected by any experience in this life, even now. So, ask yourself: “Am I affected by the arisen enticement of sensuality, or ill-will, or distraction, or carelessness? Yes, I’m affected by it. That’s my job, I shouldn’t be affected by it—because if I’m not affected by that, I won’t be affected by anything that comes through that same means of arising, even if it’s death itself.” But people think “I’ll just do this focusing practice and that’s magically going to result in me being in charge when death comes.” Are you in charge now? Can you say ‘no’ to yourself when sensuality presents itself? How many people can answer ‘yes’ to that question? Not being affected in the first place, let alone having to manage your restraint—yet here you are expecting to magically be able to deal with death simply on account of some mechanical nostril-watching practice. The only way you won’t be affected by death is if life itself stops affecting you.
So, how do you practice not being affected by life? Well, you can only do so while you’re still alive. You can only do so by discerning what being affected is, by admitting it to yourself, by uncovering it, by understanding it. Once you know what it is, you have a sense of what you have to do in order to not be affected by it—by the experiences you have in your life.
Thaniyo: Whatever context it arises in.
Nyanamoli: There’s always a context, yes. Always, internally, there’s a context, which is why people spend most of their time covering it up because it always reveals that which you don’t necessarily want to see. Or rather, it takes time and effort to be able to get used to seeing it and then not suffer on account of it. That’s why one’s life, saṃsāra, and the entirety of sensuality goes with the grain—it’s effortless to turn a blind eye, it’s effortless to engage with sensuality. So, you need to start making the effort to pull yourself out of it before you will be able to appreciate restraint, solitude, non-distraction, non-ill-will. You won’t naturally value those things. Effort and wisdom are required.
In meditation practice, allowing that context, concerning the context of death, to endure, it means allowing a degree of fear to arise, and not giving in to trying to get rid of it right away, but allowing it to be there while the mind is thinking about other things. Don’t automatically fear the unpleasant feeling, thinking “I must get rid of this, whatever I do. I must get rid of this anxiety on account of the context of death.” Why not? Because you don’t have to get rid of it. You’re the one who chooses to do things on account of it. So, you realize you can choose not to do anything on account of it—you can just allow it to be there for as long as it wants to be. That’s how you automatically strengthen your mind, automatically uncover anything you’ve been covering up. It’s just going to take time because you’ve invested a lot of time in covering it up. So, if the context of death is enduring—you’re seated in your room, in your kuti, whether you are a layperson or a monk, not distracted—you don’t even have to watch it, just don’t rush into overly defining it, necessarily. That’s going to be rooted in trying to get rid of that unpleasant aspect of it. Just allow it to endure. And sometimes that endurance will be clearer, as in it’s going to be more present. Sometimes it will be less, but you still recognize it. And to a degree, it’s still there.
If there’s nothing else going on because there shouldn’t be—you’re in that protected meditation environment, no distractions as I said—let it endure. And then you have a thought: “After this, I must do this, this or this,” and now you see that thought against that backdrop of the context of death, as in things you must do, your duties are now seen against the context of death. Or you have a memory of something that happened in the past that bothers you, but now, against the context of death, that memory has arisen, and you’re already not bothered as much because you’ve got a bigger picture now. You’re not sucked into what bothers you because you stopped trying to get rid of the unpleasant, and now you have the ultimate unpleasant—the prospect of death. Any other more inferior unpleasantness won’t be unpleasant. If those thoughts present themselves, you let them present themselves. You don’t try to get rid of them, or try to over-analyze them, overthink them—you just make sure you don’t forget about the context of that certain death that you’re concerned about right now in your meditation, while you let your mind think what it wants to think.
And the point will come, if you keep doing it, when the context will be immovable, imperturbable with regard to whatever your mind thinks. And you will recognize also that the only way to disturb it is to intentionally choose to do so by saying ‘yes’ to sensuality carelessly, saying ‘yes’ to ill-will carelessly, saying ‘yes’ to distraction carelessly. Also, when you say: “I’ll think about that later.” That’s already a careless choice because you’re not thinking about that context. That’s the point I’m making. You’re not thinking “I’m dead… I’m going to be dead… I’m going to be dead.” It’s there enduring on its own. You’re actually thinking about your duties, or things that bother you, or things that you like. That’s what you’re thinking, but now on the basis of the context that you have discerned. That context is there peripherally as a container of all these things that you do, which means there will be less and less ground, the longer that context endures, for passion towards these particular things. And this is effortless as well because you’re not thinking about it. All you need to do is abstain from intentionally covering it up. And abstaining is effortless—it doesn’t require you to do something. It just requires you to not do something.
That’s what meditation is, whatever your object of it might be. Developing the same principle: the peripheral enduring context that becomes imperturbable, as the Buddha would describe (in samādhi), in regard to things that are inferior to it, things that are actually presenting themselves. That’s why he said: “He establishes his mind in the divine abiding of the jhanās and—whether he sits, walks, urinates, defecates, eats—his mind is established in that state,” because all these things are inferior to his establishment.
Thaniyo: You don’t create death.
Nyanamoli: No, that’s the whole point. In the same sense, you don’t create the Dhamma. Even the Buddha said it’s just an ancient path that was covered and he uncovered it. He didn’t create anything—it’s just discernment of these factual, universal truths. Therefore, that’s what meditation should be revolving around—it doesn’t matter if you do it for fifteen minutes or for five hours. Establish your mind upon the greater context that is an infertile basis for any passion, any ill-will—that cannot exist in that context. And then you let that context endure until your mind gets established in it. And you know your mind is established in it when you cannot be passionate, you cannot be affected by the arisen feeling, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. And then you also know, when you’re about to do something, if it’s going to make you more firmly established in that context, or it’s going to take you away from it. The choice becomes much clearer: “This is unwholesome, this is wholesome.” Unwholesome means it takes you away from the wholesome context. Wholesome means it keeps you within the wholesome context.
Thaniyo: In line with the truth.
Nyanamoli: Yes, on the basis within that domain, doesn’t contradict it, doesn’t abolish it, doesn’t drag you down from it. That’s why Devadatta, once he started engaging in unwholesome acts, was unable to establish his mind in jhanās. It wasn’t some magical energy that got trapped or evaporated. It’s just that unwholesomeness contradicts the domain of it.
If you choose to engage in it, you choose to then forsake this: the greater context. And the only way to develop the greater context is to keep discerning it, keep thinking about it, keep trying to establish it, allowing it to endure. Not trying to get rid of it if it’s unpleasant. That’s why you can’t crave for it either. You can’t crave for jhanās. You can’t crave for the imperturbable, wholesome samādhi because craving is always toward the actual. Feeling in regard to the actual thing, that’s what you crave for. But this is the context of it, and now your mind is established in that, which means your mind then becomes unreachable by any craving. Hence, no room for anything that’s based on that craving—sensuality, ill-will, delusion, and distraction. So, if people want to know how to make this context endure, you don’t do it, you can’t make it endure—because that’s like you’re still trying to make it actually in front of you. So, you make it endure by stopping trying to make it endure. You make it endure by thinking about it, but by not interfering with it either. In the same sense as the example we gave of the appointment—the life-changing appointment you have—you don’t need to make it endure. It’s already there. All you need to do is to stop distracting yourself from it.
Thaniyo: You can’t cancel the appointment.
Nyanamoli: No. Well, you can’t cancel this appointment. So, you realize the recognition of that is already a form of endurance, even if you don’t necessarily feel fully concerned about it. Still, you are aware of the context that whatever you do, it’s going to end, all of it. It can end even before you realize it will end. Your beating heart right now can stop. Allow that thought to endure—don’t overthink it, don’t give in to fear of it—just allow it to endure. And then see other things that appear in your mind against the endurance of that thought—because you’re not looking for a specific answer of “This is how it is” or “This is how it will be.” You’re looking for the evoking of the context of being liable to death—that’s how you create that connection.
So, while I’m sitting here, secluded from unwholesomeness, secluded from distraction, what if this beating muscle in my chest were to stop? Don’t answer it, don’t provide an excuse or an explanation, just allow that question to sink in. What if it were to stop? And then the mind will go “This, this, this.” All that is secondary, still allow just the question to endure. Then the thought comes, “It will stop.” Allow that to endure. Then your timer rings, your meditation is finished. OK, fine, but you realize that context still hasn’t changed. You go and do your duty now, and you still have that context enduring, and you will forget it only when you engage in unwholesomeness—lust, aversion or delusion.
That’s why you need to meditate in this manner as much as you can until that context becomes imperturbable. You will also see that you need a basis of sense restraint, physical restraint, as a guardian, whereby your context is lost. And then your bodily behavior, speech, or mental behavior doesn’t take you as far back into the unwholesomeness, and therefore you won’t have to undo it as much. Hence, virtue comes first. It’s necessary.
If the context is enduring—you still haven’t forgotten that your beating heart might stop, that you’re fundamentally liable to death, you have a degree of concern—you might think what do I do now? Well, you include the thought of “What do I do now?” against that context, and you realize you don’t do anything, you don’t need to do anything. Is the context still there? Yes. Whatever might happen to me, would it be against the backdrop of that context? Yes. Whatever I might do with my life, choose immediately or for the future, is this context changeable? No. So, are my engagements with life or with people worthy—against this context, in this new light of the new context? Is it worth it to be so emotionally disturbed by not getting what you want? Not really. If you’re in that context, being affected by things such as sensuality and so on—if you’re truly in that context, being affected by those things becomes inconceivable, even at that very time. Sure, you can forget about the context and then be affected by it, but when you’re in the context it is truly imperturbable. All you need to do is find ways of maintaining the context, regardless of whether you’re sitting in a protected meditation environment or not. Hence seated, walking, lying down, extending your arms, eating, urinating, defecating, whatever you do, you maintain the context, day and night. To the extent necessary for obliterating any ground for any passion to manifest again. All passion, not just the things that you’re passionate towards. And that’s the meditation object of death.