Comprehending the Mindfulness of Breathing and Death Contemplation

by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero

I. Mindfulness of Breathing
Ven. Thaniyo: I wanted to ask about mindfulness of breathing, and how that should be done. You can read the sutta over and over again and try to follow some sort of method, step-by-step. “You breathe in, then you breathe out. I’ll breathe in, thinking about my body.”
Ven. Nyanamoli: “I attend to this, I attend to that. I do this, I do that.”
Ven. Thaniyo: And you can actually run through all those steps forward, backward, however you want…
Ven. Nyanamoli: And still not do the mindfulness of breathing.
Ven. Thaniyo: So what is best to do?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, as the name itself says, it’s mindfulness—mindfulness of breathing. In order to do mindfulness of breathing, you need to know what mindfulness is.
Ven. Thaniyo: So, what is mindfulness?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Mindfulness, if done rightly, is effortless. Mindfulness is not something you can do. Mindfulness is something you discern on account of the presently enduring things―experience as a whole, that includes feelings, body, etc. There are many different ways you can establish mindfulness, but the principle of mindfulness is the same. It’s to be discerned.
So what is it that you discern in order to become mindful? Well, for example, you discern your presently enduring situation. So you have an option: you can be absorbed with the presently enduring situation—something can take 100% of your attention, i.e. you’re dealing with this problem or looking at this or doing that; but including self-awareness into whatever you’re doing, that’s already a step closer to the proper mindfulness. And that’s not something you can do, it’s more like an attitude you can have in regard to things you do. That’s why, fundamentally, a meditation “method” is inherently wrong from the point of view of mindfulness—because you can’t be doing the mindfulness. Yet, as the Buddha said, meditation is nothing other than the unshakeable, imperturbable establishment of mindfulness. So if you’re not doing mindfulness from the start, how can you magically establish it through something you do, some methods or repetitions? It’s a recognition of your situation while at the same time, simultaneously with that recognition, you are in the situation. In other words, you can be sitting on a chair now, and with a corner of your eye, with the back of your mind, you’re aware of that. That doesn’t mean you need to stand up or lay down or start walking in order to know that you were seated on the chair. That’s why the bodily postures or just awareness of the body is so fundamental. So mindfulness done properly means, basically, awareness of your situation, whether it’s established upon the body or feelings or the state of minds (moods), it’s established in that background, so you’re not attending it. I don’t have to keep sitting here thinking: “I’m seated… I’m seated… I’m seated”. I don’t need to keep repeating that to myself. Why? Because I already know that I’m seated, even if I don’t think about it. So if you were to ask me “what’s your body posture?”, I’ll immediately say “I’m seated”. And that’s what you want to tap into, so to speak. The proper development of mindfulness is tapping into what you already know. It’s not doing what you think you must be doing. “I’m seated… I’m seated… I’m feeling the chair… I’m feeling the chair… My legs are folded… I’m feeling the floor”. That’s all a result of you already knowing that you’re seated, that’s not your sitting. In other words, whether you’re attending to your feet, your back or whatever else is going on while you’re seated, that’s secondary to the fact that you’re already seated, and you already know that you’re seated. So instead of giving in to that thinking of “I’m doing this… I’m doing this”—almost like exercising your sense of control over your meditation technique—you want to recognize that you already know what you’re doing, and then just try not to forget that little bit, that one percent, that one grain. Don’t forget what you already know, which means you don’t need the active effort of reminding yourself that you’re seated. All you need to do is just keep a corner of your eye on the fact that you already know that you’re seated. And how do you know? Because you’re seated. So that knowledge doesn’t come from you, it’s just a recognition of how things are. That’s why through that mindfulness you learn how to discern how things are. That’s why that type of mindfulness will result in discerning impermanence, suffering, lack of control… all of that. But it won’t result in that if you do it on your own terms, which is thinking: “This is what I’m doing, this is my meditation… I’m touching… feeling… sitting”. That’s basically you doing what you think you should be doing, but the fact is that a puthujjana already starts with a wrong view, which means whatever he thinks he should be doing, he will be doing it with a wrong view. That’s why you can’t have too much mindfulness either—because it’s not doing. It’s the recognition of what you already know, and that knowledge is not on you.

The same applies in regard to body postures or in regard to the presently enduring feeling. Again, that’s something you already know, so if I ask you how do you feel, you might think about how you feel in this particular regard, but if I ask you how do you feel overall—Is it OK? How is your mood, generally?—you’ll immediately know whether it’s “plus” or “minus”, so to speak. Whether it’s OK or whether it isn’t OK, whether it’s neither. So it’s tapping into what you already know, and you already know it because it’s present on its own terms. Feeling is there enduring, whichever it is. And it’s because of you not keeping a corner of your eye on what you already know that you get distracted, pulled by sensuality, ill-will, reacting, causing more trouble for yourself, all these things.

That’s why people are afraid to be alone as well, because they’re dependent on something to take away their attention, have something to attend to, including their meditation technique, and they don’t stay with what they already know because it’s frightening. Initially, at least. If you were to just not do anything, including your meditation technique, the pressure is going to start building up. It is about solitude, not doing anything. Doing is required for the maintenance of your being. That’s why many people depend on activities of all sorts. Yes, you can have a good activity, bad activity, less bad activity, but overall, you depend on the activity. But mindfulness is not an activity! That’s why you cannot have too much of it, and that’s why you can actually develop wisdom on account of it if you start discerning it rightly. And that’s why you need to know what mindfulness is in order to do it rightly, not just saying: “OK, I’m mindful now”. You can’t start perfectly, you can’t start rightly from the beginning, but you can certainly arrive at it if you don’t take for granted what you think mindfulness is as mindfulness. You realize: if I were to know what mindfulness is, I would have at least the Right View. I would be at least a sotāpanna. So if I’m not a sotāpanna, that means I don’t quite know what mindfulness is, so whatever I think mindfulness is, I must upgrade. Through that, I must discern it further. Either way, it’s a win-win. If you already know what mindfulness is, great. Doing more of it cannot bring any harm. If you don’t know what mindfulness is, and then you end up doing more, and you understand what mindfulness is, you win again. So you’ve nothing to lose by regarding yourself as not knowing quite what mindfulness is, or by investigating further.

The only thing you have to lose is your vanity and conceit that made you believe you already understood it, and that it’s already helpful, already works and so on. Because if it does, you wouldn’t have a problem upgrading it or pushing it further. Because if it truly works, it will stand that test—nothing will happen to it. But the fact that some people might be defending their meditation technique and get very touchy over it or over their practice of mindfulness means there’s passion invested in it—there’s conceit and vanity invested in it. And that’s not mindfulness, then.

Now that we clarified what mindfulness is, we come to mindfulness of breathing. You can do the breathing, but you can’t do the “mindfulness” in “mindfulness of breathing”. In other words, saying mindfulness of breathing means knowledge of breathing, knowledge of the act of breathing. And that’s why the Buddha says in that sutta, “Knowingly he breaths in, knowingly he breaths out”, that’s what his mindfulness is. It’s on that level of that discernment of what’s already there. You want to be mindful of an activity, of something you do. What is the neutral activity that your body does whether you want it or not? It’s breathing in, breathing out. So you want to be aware of the background of your act of breathing in and breathing out. In other words, you don’t want to be attending to your breath directly—you want to make it become a background of whatever your mind is thinking. So you’re mindful of breathing. Or you can even bring it to the foreground if you want, but again, not in a sense of thinking “I’m perceiving my breath…” or keep repeating “Nostrils… Nostrils…”. Not like that. It still has to be on the level of that knowledge, because if I ask you now “Are you breathing?”, you will know that you are. You don’t have to stop breathing to give me the answer, you can’t even doubt whether you’re breathing or not. You already know that you’re breathing. That’s what you want to learn through the mindfulness of breathing—recognition of what you already know.
And that’s not something you always have to maintain, or even can maintain 100% in front of you, thinking “I’m breathing… I’m breathing…”. Let it drift away without losing sight of it. So, here you are, sitting, semi-comfortably (not too comfortably because you’ll fall asleep), wide awake, eyes open, and you’re breathing. And now know that you know that you’re breathing. That’s it. There is no “What do I do next?”. Nothing. So there is the in-breath, there is the out-breath… there is the in-breath… Either way, they all stand within that knowledge of “I am breathing”.

Whether it’s a particular in-breath or a particular out-breath, the knowledge of breathing remains the same. That’s why, then, the Buddha would say “He would breathe in like this, or like this… Short breath or long breath…” Point being, the knowledge of that breathing still stays the same—mindfulness gets established, regardless of the type of breath or how different it is.

And it’s the same principle with mindfulness of the body. When the Buddha would say “he’s mindful of the body like this (standing, sitting, laying down, etc.), or he’s mindful to the extent necessary for final knowledge that ‘body is there'”. As in the ultimate background of any of your activities is the background of your body being present there as a basis on account of which you can do all these activities and engagements—feel feelings, perceive perceptions and so on. So if your mind never forgets that 0.01% of what it already knows of that body being a necessary basis for it, your mind cannot give rise to avijjā, whether you recognize it at that time or not doesn’t matter—you’re doing it rightly. If you’re doing it rightly, the time will come when you’ve done it rightly sufficiently that you recognize what you’ve been doing rightly.

That’s also another reason why nobody can accidentally stumble upon the Right View. It takes repetition of something you took either through intellectual discernment or on faith, but you’ve been doing it rightly, and when you’ve been doing it rightly sufficiently, then you recognize right as right, which is the basic definition of sotāpanna. “He knows kusala as kusala and akusala as akusala“. But he wouldn’t have arrived at it if he hadn’t been doing it rightly on account of the utterance of another and his own faith in it and rightly understanding it on that intellectual level.

Mindfulness of breathing is the same principle of mindfulness. Breathing is there. Whether it’s a short breath, long breath, quick breath, slow breath…—breathing is there. And that’s what you know. In a way, breathing is doing, but knowledge of breathing is not doing. Why would the Buddha then say doing? Because sometimes you want to do something. You want to replace coarse doing with refined doing. You want to replace unwholesome doing with wholesome doing, and breathing, being the most neutral type of doing, is the wholesome doing you can do, because it’s just neutral. Doesn’t harm anyone, doesn’t harm you, doesn’t harm others. You can develop mindfulness, you can develop knowledge of that neutral type of doing. And it’s also repetitive doing which means it doesn’t require your attention as when you’re solving a task or doing some menial work or whatever. It’s just breathing—it happens whether you think about it or not. So you want to discern it on the level of doing, but discern it, not do it yourself. And how do you do that? Start breathing, secluded, alone. And ask yourself “Am I breathing right now? Yes.” That’s already an increment in the right direction of that knowledge—you already know you’re breathing. Are you still breathing? Yes. So you still know you’re breathing—same breathing, same knowledge. So you have the same thing enduring now. Now you don’t even have to go as to ask yourself whether you’re breathing—you just remind yourself of what you already know. Yes, you are still breathing. So you can stop saying “still”, you can just stay “Yes, I’m breathing”. You don’t even have to say it, you can’t think it. When you become familiar with that, as in knowing that right now, you’re still breathing, you can then look within that.
For example, noticing that the breath is quite slow right now, and you already know that. You’re not doing it, you’re discerning what’s being done. Well, you can do it, but you realize that you doing it is secondary to the discernment of what’s being done, and that’s incidentally how you also overcome the nature of action, how you disown it, but let’s not complicate things here. Ask yourself: are you still breathing? You are. All this time you had the same mindfulness of the same breathing. Particularly the breath kept going in, going out, but overall, breathing is there. Body sits, body stands up, body goes, body lays down—body is there. That’s why ānāpānasāti results in the four foundations of mindfulness being brought to fulfillment, as the Buddha said. It doesn’t result in mystical experiences of meditative lights and whatnot. It results in clarity of mindfulness. Clarity of mindfulness results in the Four Right Strivings, the Four Right strivings in the Enlightenment Factors, and that’s it. No other work for you to be done. Why? Because you brought that knowledge of the nature of things to fulfillment.
Ven. Thaniyo: To the fore.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, yes. So bringing mindfulness of breathing to the fore means thinking: “OK, am I breathing now? Yes”. Then you ask yourself: “Am I still aware that I am breathing now? Yes. How am I breathing now? Medium-pace.” You can designate it if you want, there is no right answer to it. There’s only right direction or wrong direction, as in there is only knowledge of it or non-knowledge of it. Ask yourself: “By the way, how am I feeling while I’m breathing right now? Overall, fundamentally pleasant. But am I still breathing? Yes.” So your mindfulness is still “concerned” or “anchored”, for the lack of a better word, in the act of breathing. Then you think: “What are the thoughts that keep popping up in my mind while I’m breathing?” With the same breathing, same mindfulness, same knowledge of the same breathing. Maybe you’re thinking about how long you can do this, what do you do next and so on. Ask yourself, are those thoughts pleasant or unpleasant? All of this while you’re breathing. You didn’t stop breathing while you were thinking all of this. You haven’t lost the sight of the breath as the basis of all these things. Then you recognize, for example, “I’m feeling doubtful…” Or whatever you discover, as I said, there is no right answer, there is only losing the sight of your breathing, or not losing it. Then you might stop thinking about it, and ask yourself: “What’s the state of my mind while I’m breathing? Am I depressed, am I elated, am I happy, am I sad? What is my mood?” While you’re breathing in and breathing out—all this time. And there you go. You don’t need to do anything else when it comes to mindfulness of breathing. Just keep doing that, because you’ll be developing mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of thoughts, which are the Satipaṭṭhāna. Which is why the Ānāpānasati Sutta says that—fulfillment of ānāpānasati brings the fulfillment of satipaṭṭhāna. Nothing else.
Ven. Thaniyo: It also says that you get rid of distracting thoughts.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Exactly, because they’re all rooted in losing the sight of that peripheral—in losing mindfulness, basically. Not being anchored in the recognition of what’s peripherally enduring.
Ven. Thaniyo: The background.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Exactly, that’s lust, aversion… That is a necessary basis for lust, aversion, and distraction to arise—losing sight of what you already know, i.e. that certain feelings, body, intentions, perceptions, etc. are enduring there on their own in that background. And you actively choose to ignore them. That’s why everybody’s fully responsible for their greed, aversion, and delusion. It’s not accidental, it’s maintained through your consciously-made decisions. Not that you fully understand the decisions you’re making, but you are making them. You choose to go down sensuality, you choose to go down the ill-will—you choose to not say no to those things, including distraction. That’s why all someone who understands that needs to do is stop delighting in it. He doesn’t stop thinking sensual thoughts or bad thoughts, but he stops delighting in them. That’s how you stop thinking them. Not by preventing them from arising, but by not fueling them further. If you’re just mindful: “I’m seated… I’m seated…”, you’re not doing anything. So you could fall asleep or you could get easily distracted. But breathing is something that’s done, which means it’s more active. Yet, at the same time, the principle of mindfulness is not compromised because it doesn’t really take away your attention. On the basis of knowing that breathing is there, you can discern what kind of breathing is there. On the basis of knowing that breathing is there, you can discern what feeling is there. On the basis of knowing that breathing is there, you can discern what mood is there. On the basis of knowing that breathing is there, you can discern what exactly your mind is thinking right now—particular thoughts of this or that. So on the basis of doing things, you’re discerning what’s present. You develop that, that means there will be less and less chances of being distracted even when you’re not practicing actively in meditation. Whether you’re sweeping leaves, walking, sitting, extending your limbs, that mindfulness pertains to it. Because, again, you don’t necessarily have to think “I’m breathing… I’m breathing…”, because you already know you’re breathing. So you just learn, basically, how to tap into that point of view of that breathing being already there—of that body being already there—which automatically is something that is not your point of view, because you are not doing it.
Ven. Thaniyo: You could say it comes before your point of view…?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, it comes before your appropriation of the point of view through action. As in when you think: “I’m looking at this, I’m doing this, that’s my point of view”. But the only reason you’re able to do that is because these things are there on their own enduring already—body is there, feelings are there, perceptions are there, intentions are there, pretty much. So, again, there are no steps to mindfulness of breathing—there is mindfulness of breathing and different aspects of it, of the same principle of mindfulness of breathing. I’m breathing, I’m still breathing. Still the same mindfulness, all this time since we’ve been talking about it. Lots of things have changed on a particular level—new thoughts, new moods, new feelings—yet that breathing is still the same. Mindfulness, knowledge of that same breathing is still there.
Ven. Thaniyo: And that breathing is a nutriment, you could say.
Ven. Nyanamoli: It’s a basis, it’s a reference point, an anchor—a background, basically, of everything else more particular.
Ven. Thaniyo: And one can see that eventually, at least…
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, there is no “endgame”. There is not an “and then this happens”. If you just keep doing mindfulness of breathing, what’s going to happen is everything inferior to it, everything more particular to it is going to be purified of greed, aversion, and delusion. It’s going to be purified of the basis of non-mindfulness. Why? Beause you’re developing the basis of mindfulness. Through doing it, you’re removing the nutriment for all the unwholesome things you’ve been doing and deciding to do. Mindfulness of breathing is on the level of mindfulness of death, or any other mindfulness. That’s why the Buddha taught it as a replacement to Maranānussati. He said, “Instead of that, because some monks couldn’t quite handle it, practice mindfulness of breathing”. But it’s the same goal. As in stick with the most fundamental discernment of things not being in your control, being already there enduring despite whether you want them or not, whether you do them or not. It is a death of your sense of self. Death of your activity, of the notion that you are the one who maintains things, that you’re the one who’s in control. That sense just gets completely pushed out, fades away.
Ven. Thaniyo: So, when to do mindfulness of death? How is that done? Where is the death that you’re mindful of?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Again, start with mindfulness of the body. You start seeing the body as a necessary, organic, made out of organs, thing in the world because of you which you experience the world and everything in it. All your happiness, sadness, choices and decisions are inconceivable if the body wasn’t there, simultaneously present and living. Do you have any say in that? That body that you find there—that you were given, of a certain height, certain complexion, whatever—can you make it not age? Can you prevent it from getting sick? Can you ultimately command to it to never die? So those are the first three basic things that people don’t dwell on. That’s why the Buddha said that people are intoxicated with life, intoxicated with youth, intoxicated with health. You choose to become intoxicated by refusing to look at the obvious characteristics of it because they’re unpleasant, they fill you with anxiety.
Ven. Thaniyo: So that’s that inevitable possibility of death.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes. So once you start recognizing that the presence of the body is just a necessary nutriment for your experience as a whole, of any kind, you stop being concerned with the particulars of that experience, such as: “This bothers me… this makes me happy…” You realize that it’s fundamental nature is undermined by the presence of the living body. And when that changes, none of it can remain standing a second longer—none of your feelings or things can stay. So how can they be yours? And that’s basically beginning to acknowledge death—the destruction that is impending upon the body, upon the senses. Decay, fading away, disintegration. You think about that, you’re going to be less and less intoxicated with things that come through it—with your sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, thoughts. Why? Because you recognize that whatever they are, they cannot step outside of the confinement of the necessary basis of this living body. You think: “Am I breathing? Yes. What position is the body in? It’s seated.” That seated body while you’re breathing in and out right now, what are its characteristics? Just describe it in any terms to yourself. The most obvious one is it’s just there, isn’t it? It’s living, it’s just there. Do you have a say in any of those characteristics? Can you change them? Can you tell them to be otherwise? So while I’m breathing, and my body is seated, that body that I’m discerning—while the breathing is there—is independent of me, isn’t it? I can use it, but I cannot uphold it—I cannot step outside of it and own it. I cannot tell it what to do. It’s only borrowed, which means everything else that you get through your body is equally borrowed. And if something is borrowed, is it right for me to regard it as mine and belonging to me? No. If something is borrowed, is it right for me to grieve and be sad over it being taken away? No. You require active ignoring of the fact that you’re not in control in order to grieve over it or be happy over it. Hence, mindfulness, if done rightly, results in discernment of the natural principles, which is what Dhamma is—nature. The nature of things. You could see how different that is from watching your nostrils and “belly-bhāvanā“, or whatever they call it. Completely different. It’s not like thinking: “I’m doing this… I’m feeling my belly rising and falling, rising and falling…” Zero discernment there. You’re just trying to attend to the momentary presence of things hoping that it will magically result in knowledge. Looking for meaning results in knowledge. Delving with the knife, self-questioning, self-interrogation—all the things the Buddha talks about in the suttas—that’s what results in knowledge.
II. Death Contemplation
Ven. Thaniyo: What about watching someone die?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, with the right attitude, sure, but not without the right attitude. Watching someone die and then seeing that your living body—right here, right now—is more related to that dying body than to your sense of ownership of your body. It’s in the same domain as the other dying bodies, not in the domain of your notion of “this is my body”. That’s how you undermine your control, your sense of control. You can’t directly choose to not control it or not own it, but you can undermine it. Hence, seeing that body is impermanent, because of that, body cannot be the reason for lust and satisfaction, automatically you experience that body as “not mine”. Sabbe saṇkhārā anicca, sabbe saṇkhārā dukkha, sabbe dhammā anattā.
Ven. Thaniyo: So in Dependent Origination, it says “With birth, aging & death is”. So this life—this manifestation of life, what I see as a whole—all that is subject to fading away.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes, but that doesn’t need to be your “subject”, or you don’t need to be subjected to it. You are subjected to it because you have appropriated birth, you appropriated the given body, you appropriated the possibilities of the given body and the senses—you appropriated it by delighting in it, by pursuing pleasures that are secondary to it, that come on the basis of it. You can’t engage in sensual pleasure without appropriation of the body, it’s inconceivable. So through engaging in sensual pleasure, you’re responsible for your appropriation of the body. And then, you’re liable to whatever that body is liable to: accidents, aging, death, sickness, all of it. Hence, it’s on you, because you took it, through carelessly pursuing sensuality.
Ven. Thaniyo: The body will always age and will always die.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes, but if you stop regarding it as yours, it’s not your problem. Inasmuch as these aging trees and other people’s bodies are not your problem because they’re not yours. That’s why they’re not your problem. It’s not that they’re not your problem because they’re other people’s. They’re not your problem because you never considered other people to be yours—but, incidentally, say if it’s your son, your daughter, your partner, suddenly you’re emotionally affected. Why? Because they’re “yours”. So yes, you can appropriate other people as well. Your friends, for example. And that’s why you suffer. Not because they’re dying, you suffer because you appropriated them and now you’re feeling that because you’re liable to it. So you have a choice. If you want to be free from suffering, you have to give up all the appropriation. If you don’t want to give up the appropriation, that’s absolutely fine, but then you make yourself liable to suffering. Again, there is a slight contradiction there, because if you were to be honest with yourself and ask “Why don’t I want to give up all the appropriations?” you would answer “Because it’s unpleasant”. So you’re still governed by the same principle of wanting to avoid suffering. That’s why people protect their attachments and appropriations—because they don’t want to suffer. Ironically, you suffer because of that. If you were to take the initial hit of suffering, ultimately, you can free yourself from suffering. But if you are too weak to take the initial hit of suffering, you make yourself liable to it indefinitely. Either way, nobody wants to suffer. Even people who say “I want to suffer”, they don’t. They want to suffer because that provides them pleasure—because not getting that pleasure means actual suffering. That’s why the Buddha himself could’ve not taught anything different than suffering and the cessation of it. Because that is at the root, universally, of every human, regardless of their culture, education, identity, and whatnot. That is always the basic principle—avoid pain; have pleasure. Not having enough pleasure, or getting more pleasure, means avoiding the pain of not having enough pleasure.
Ven. Thaniyo: And what do you think about the common idea where a lot of people say “I’m not afraid of death”?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, they’re not afraid of what they think death is, which means they don’t know what death is. Because only two people are not afraid of death—a fully enlightened arahant or a fully deluded puthujjana. But one of them is fully liable to death, another one is fully free from it. But they both are not afraid of it. One is not afraid due to the sheer amount of ignorance and not even knowing what death is, another is not afraid because he’s completely overcome it. So unless you’re an arahant, you are afraid of death. And if you don’t feel the fear, it’s because you’re covering it up. Don’t think that death is what you think death is. Think that death is basically where you can’t get your pleasures, where you can’t get the usage of your senses. Find the fears you have in your life, and you’ll see death is at the other end of them, whatever those fears might particularly be, or whichever particular way they manifest. Whatever brings people anxiety, death is on the other side of that. If you say “I’m not afraid of death, that brings me no anxiety” it’s because your idea of what death is is completely wrong. But something will be bringing you anxiety, and that’s what death is, hence the anxiety.
Ven. Thaniyo: One might say: “I’m afraid of losing all my friends”.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Well, there you go. Death is at the other end of that. That’s just a hint of where death is. Not having anyone, being all alone, losing it all. Or simply losing things that are dear to you. Or even more simply, as the Buddha said, being separated from the agreeable, and being united with the disagreeable. That’s what suffering is. And the ultimate suffering is death. You might think: “I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of what people think about me”. There you go. Death is basically not having a say in what people will think about you ultimately. That’s the most frightening thing, isn’t it? Well, for those who fear that. Or you might think: “I’m not afraid of dying, but I’m afraid of losing my wealth, “I’m afraid of losing my family.”
Ven. Thaniyo: Or “I’m afraid of public speaking”.
Ven. Nyanamoli: And you ask yourself why is that? Because it’s the ultimate experience of non-control. You have control over your speaking, but you have zero control over how people will take that—what will they say? What will they think?

So, ultimately, what is the fear of death? It’s fear of the ultimate non-control. And it’s not incidental that one thing or the other will have to be reminding you of that, because the whole human experience is about covering the fact that you’re not in control, covering the fact that you’re liable to dying, inevitably liable to dying. So all these things, loss, public speaking, whatever frightens people, frightens them because it’s the ultimate reminder of the cessation of any notion of control they might have. So if people say “I’m not afraid of dying”, it’s because that thought is in their control, and they think that’s what dying is. So they’re not afraid of it. They think: “Everybody dies”. True. But why are you afraid of public speaking? Everybody speaks, yet here you are, terrified of public speaking. Why? Because you are constantly looking away from the fact that you’re not in control. And when you encounter experiences where you cannot ignore that fact that you’re not in control, it frightens the hell out of you. And that’s what death is—the ultimate cessation of any ground for your notion of control that you take to be the most fundamental thing. “I am, therefore things are mine, therefore I’m in control”.

Ven. Thaniyo: So anattā is basically seeing death.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Yes, seeing death, sure. Seeing death correctly means not being able to entertain the notion of control, which means not being my own self, not being my self, not belonging to me, non appropriation—that’s all anattā.
Ven. Thaniyo: So if I see that for myself…
Ven. Nyanamoli: It’s going to scare the hell out of you. That’s what happened in the suttas. If today people are not scared when they read about anattā and nibbāna, it’s because they don’t have a clue what it is, what it really is. So for a puthujjana, nibbāna is closer to what death is, the one that he’s ignoring. So a puthujjana, through ignoring death, actually ignores the possibility of nibbāna. That’s why those people who came to the Buddha, the way the Buddha would lay it out on them, they couldn’t ignore it and would fall on the ground in complete anxious despair and have a mental breakdown. Saying: “This will kill me! This will destroy me!”. Because they still gratuitously assume the priority of their sense of “I am”, despite the evidence showing the contrary. They think: “I’m not giving up the notion of ‘I am’, thus I will be destroyed.” But if you hear the teaching, you realize that could have not been yours even if you wanted it to, and the only reason you were regarding it as yours is because you didn’t know that it cannot be yours. And how do you find out that it cannot be yours? Through practicing mindfulness correctly and seeing that it is inseparable from the necessary basis of things that cannot be yours.
Dwelling on the characteristics of the necessity of the body, the independence of the presently enduring feeling, presently enduring perceptions, yet seeing yourself inseparable from it. That means, basically, re-molding, re-shaping, going against the grain, and forcing yourself to see that your own self depends on a basis that cannot be your self. Because if it were so, the body would not age, would not get sick and would not die. If it were so, the feelings would not change—they would always be pleasant, the way you want them to. Yet the Buddha said: “If that feeling is yours, which one is it? Why do you experience displeasure if feeling is yours?” You wouldn’t do so if you were in control. So through reminding yourself that you’re not in control—through practicing maranānussati correctly—you get to undermine your sense of self gradually so that you won’t freak out and have a breakdown, although some monks did, that’s why the Buddha told them to do mindfulness of breathing instead. Because if done rightly, it results in the same principles being discerned.
Ven. Thaniyo: So if you were truly unafraid of death, how would you take other people’s deaths?
Ven. Nyanamoli: Equably. Equally unafraid of it. You would not be oblivious to what’s happening, like some sort of robot who lost the significance of things. It’s still your friend dying, but no amount of the extent of that experience—perception and feeling in regard to it—can overturn your mind and make you think that which isn’t yours is, or that which isn’t permanent is. The only attitude you could possibly have is “how could it be otherwise?”. How can something that’s been born and grown not die? It’s actually insanity to think otherwise. So grieving over death is on the level of insanity. Because it’s inconceivable for somebody who understood the nature of death to think “But if only…” It just doesn’t apply. How can it be otherwise?
Ven. Thaniyo: But you have to get used to this, because I think it’d be difficult to do it while you’re dying…
Ven. Nyanamoli: Oh, good luck with that. If you’ve never done it while you were alive—if you haven’t uncovered the nature of death while you were alive—you’re not going to do it when you’re dying. It’s too late. So you want to start facing it as soon as you can. That’s why, basically, understanding of death, understanding of the ultimate non-control, means ultimately giving things up—relinquishing appropriation and assumption. That’s why understanding that fully means nibbāna. That’s why a Sotāpanna, who understood the nature of nibbāna, or an ariyasāvaka in general, is often spoken about in the suttas as “If he doesn’t attain it during his life, he attains when he’s dying”. Why? Because that’s where it comes from, the direction of dying and cessation of control. Now, if he got careless and lazy during his lifetime and hasn’t been making the effort, death will force him in the direction that he already understood. That’s why sometimes ariyasāvaka can become an arahant at the moment of dying—it’s not some mystical light that appears before you die. It’s the direction you understood through your Right View and everything else, and now you’re dragged there, and you already understood it, so you’re dragged where you should have gone while you were still alive. So it’s still good to understand it, but it’s even better to do it now and not wait to be dragged there by death, even for ariyasāvakas.
Ven. Thaniyo: It reminds me of that sutta that says “See as though blind”—as though you were already blind.
Ven. Nyanamoli: Right. Well, see as though you already relinquished your sight. That’s what it means. Doesn’t mean to pretend you’re blind and not seeing, because what you’re seeing was never a problem―it was because of you owning your eyes and what comes through, that you were affected by everything else that’s experienced on account of it. So if you don’t forget that the necessary basis for any sight you have is the physical organs of your eye that you’re not in control of, that will ultimately be diminished and destroyed, you cannot possibly have desire toward anything you see. The necessary basis for the desire toward sights is losing the sight of (no pun intended)―losing the perspective of the nature of the eye that’s the necessary basis for any sights. So, ultimately, you’re going to be blind when you die. You will be deaf when you die. So seeing the ultimate result (death) in regard to your senses will make you overcome anything that comes through anything that comes through your senses. But that doesn’t mean you’re pretending you’re not seeing, which is that wrong view that the man who talked to the Buddha had, “I’m acting like I’m blind and deaf. I’m ignoring sights and sounds, I’m pretending I’m not seeing and not hearing”, and then the Buddha said, “Well, you’re no better than a blind and a deaf man”. That’s something different. That’s when people blame the sights and sounds and any other senses for their suffering, failing to see that suffering is applicable to them because they appropriated the senses, not because of what comes through them. So are you still breathing while we’re discussing this particular approach of senses and eyes and blindness and deafness? Yes. Still the same breath—still the same basis for your mindfulness enduring for like an hour now. So we’ve been doing mindfulness of breathing all this time and discerning the Dhamma within it. On the terms of the universal principles, not on your own terms. Or as accurately as you can, whichever way you start. That’s why it says: “He looks at the signs and characteristics”. The features of this thing. He doesn’t jump at the answers that his mind provides. Am I breathing? Yes. What would be the characteristics of this breathing? Characteristics, not mechanical description, such as thinking: “My lungs are moving…” or whatever—that’s irrelevant. What is the nature of this act of breathing? Can I stop it when I want to? Well, only relatively so. Can I make sure it never goes away? No, not really. Do I have a say in that which is necessary for the act of breathing, the breathing apparatus? Not in the slightest. If an accident were to happen or a bacteria or virus were to attack these organs, would I still be able to breathe as freely? No. So I’m taking for granted that it will be forever, that it’ll be in my control, that it’ll be unobstructed. Why am I taking that for granted? Because I’m not thinking sufficiently enough that I cannot take it for granted. That’s it. What is the condition for ignorance? It’s ignoring, basically. You stop ignoring, you stop conditioning your ignorance. Stop ignoring certain universal truths, that’s it.

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