Living with death and dying
Living with death and dying

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Living with death and dying

1.2.4 Theravada Buddhism

In all schools of Buddhism, the inevitability of death is seen as a fruitful topic for reflection and meditation, but in the Theravada tradition, which originated in Thailand, followers are especially encouraged to meditate upon death. In the beginning the meditator is asked to dwell on deaths of people who have led a pleasant life. Then the mind of the meditator can be turned to the inevitability of his or her own death, so as to develop ‘one-pointed’ concentration on this. To aid this are various reflections such as:

The nights and days go slipping by,

As life keeps dwindling steadily

Till mortals’ span, like water pools

In failing rills, is all used up.

(Samyutta Nikaya 1:109, cited in Dinnage, 1990)

One meditates upon the possible causes of death:

…be they external causes or the small organisms with which one shares ones body. Life is frail; it will end if one lacks air to breathe or food to eat, or if the body is either too hot or cold. Death is unpredictable as to the age at which one may die, at what time of day, of what, and where. One may live only another day …or the time it takes to eat a meal …or chew the next mouthful …or take the next breath – but one should use whatever time one has to rouse energy and mindfulness for spiritual practice. Insight into impermanence and non-attachment to life will then develop and a person will die without fear.

(Harvey, in Neuberger and White, 1991, pp. 112–113)

As Peter Harvey, a British convert to Buddhism, explains, this kind of meditation involves not only contemplating one’s own death and the feelings associated with that but also the deaths of loved ones who are presently alive.

This means that dealing with the death of a loved one can begin before it happens [and] living with an awareness of one’s own death helps one to live life better …In our family, talk may concern death and rebirth … Neither my wife nor my daughter see it as an unpleasant or embarrassing subject.

(Harvey, in Neuberger and White, 1991, p. 114)

There is a sense in which, for the Buddhist, life is very much a preparation for death, because it is believed that the state of mind in which one dies is a key factor in what kind of rebirth follows: obviously, someone who has consistently meditated upon their death is more likely to approach it in a calm state of mind. In another sense death is in the very midst of life, for it is seen not simply as something that happens at the end of our lives, but from moment to moment. ‘In the basic Theravada view … every moment is a birth and death in itself’ (John Snelling, quoted in Dinnage, 1990, p. 146).


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