Death like the Sun: Mindfulness (5)


“I would like to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather — and not screaming in terror like his passengers.” The old joke is funny because it is true: most people would prefer not to experience their death and would rather sleep through it, while those who have no choice but to meet it with open eyes go to it screaming with desperate resistance. Yet of the few things that we can have certainty about — besides the facts that you and I are breathing right now, and have bodies — nothing is more certain than that we will die and that we don’t know how we will die. If we want to make any sense of our lives, we must surely look first to the things we can be certain about, and see what meaning we can draw from them. Strangely, even though after birth, death may be the most important event of our lives, we try our utmost to avoid it and also to avoid thinking about it. Most people do not experience their deaths, and even if they are conscious or in clear enough mind at the time, they are dragged terrified into it and are in no state to be intelligently receptive. Few people get to know death, says La Rochefoucauld. We seldom suffer it from resolution, but from stupidity and habit; and most men die because they cannot help dying. (Maxims, 23). If we do not die quietly in in our sleep, a heart attack or violent accident might also prevent us from the unpleasant witnessing of our own death; or else we die secure in the comfort of a myth of an afterlife in which we do not really die. La Rochefoucauld describes this kind of comfort as being like the blindfold that prisoners wear before execution. In expiring with our eyes closed or turned away, we miss an essential, even climactic moment — like turning our faces away from a race when the runners are in the last stretch because we can’t bear to see it end. 

   Broodings on death thread through every literate tradition. Most philosophers and poets acknowledge that we cannot develop into full human beings if we are constantly running away from death. When Socrates in the Phaedo said that “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” what he meant was that in the practice of philosophy we learn to separate our intelligent soul from the unknowable, changing body — but this too strikes me as one of those blindfolds, hiding the mortality of our most cherished part. In an essay actually called “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” Montaigne rails against our attempts to ignore death:

The goal of our career is death. It is the necessary object of our aim. If it frightens us, how is it possible to go a step forward without feverishness? The remedy of the common herd is not to think about it. But from what brutish stupidity can come so gross a blindness! (The Complete Works, tr. Frame, 2003, p.69)

…there is no man so decrepit that as long as he sees Methuselah ahead of him, he does not think he has another twenty years left in his body. Furthermore, poor fool that you are, who has assured you the term of your life? You are building on the tales of doctors. Look rather at facts and experience. By the ordinary run of things, you have been living a long time now by extraordinary favor. You have passed the accustomed limits of life…(71)

Let us rid it of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it. Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death. At every moment let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects…It is uncertain here death awaits us; let us await it everywhere. Premeditation of death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection and constraint. There is nothing evil in life for the man who has thoroughly grasped the fact that to be deprived of life is not an evil. (72)

We cannot be free if we are afraid of death — practically, because we lock ourselves into strenuous efforts to obtain and guarantee our safety; and philosophically, because terror of death will cause us to espouse views that give us comfort. Montaigne describes his own daily practice to “rob it of its strangeness,” which involves remembering all the endlessly surprising ways in which death has arrived and imagining how it might come to him at any moment:

How many ways has death to surprise us!…Who would ever have thought that a duke of Britanny would be stifled to death by a crowd, as that duke was at the entrance of Pope Clement, my neighbor, into Lyons? Haven’t you seen one of our kings killed at play? And did not one of his ancestors die from the charge of a hog? Aeschylus, threatened with the fall of a house, takes every precaution –in vain: he gets himself killed by a sort of roof, the shell of a tortoise dropped by a flying eagle. Another dies from a grape seed; an emperor from the scratch of a comb, while combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus through stumbling against his threshold, and Aufidius through bumping against the door of the council chamber on his way in; and between women’s thighs, Cornelius Gallus the praetor, Tigillanus, captain of the watch at Rome, Ludovico, son of Guido de Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua — and still worse, the Platonic philosopher Speusippus, and one of our Popes. Poor Bebius, a judge, in the act of granting a week’s postponement to a litigant, has a seizure, his own term of living having expired; and Caius Julius, a doctor, is anointing the eyes of a patient, when along comes death and closes his. And, if I must bring myself into this, a brother of mine, Captain Saint-Martin, twenty-three years old, who had already given pretty good proof of his valor, while playing tennis was struck by a ball a little above the right ear, with no sign of contusion or wound. He did not sit down or rest, but five or six hours later he died of an apoplexy that this blow gave him. With such frequent and ordinary examples passing before our eyes, how can we possibly rid ourselves of the thought of death and of the idea that at every moment it is gripping us by the throat? (71)

Through such musings we can become “intimate” with death, and such intimacy makes us more open to embracing the great philosophical consolations in which our deaths present themselves as good and attractive:

Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world…Death is the condition of your creation, it is a part of you; you are fleeing from your own selves. This being of yours that you enjoy is equally divided between death and life. The first day of your birth leads you toward death as toward life..(78)

   Montaigne’s contemplations of death can be read as a kind of Mindfulness practice, in which we engage in focused meditation on our extinction and remember what we are. Yet what he is really doing is riffing on the idea of dying, through a multitude of examples and speculations. I begin this essay with Montaigne because his form of meditation is so strikingly different from the Buddha’s approach in the Satipatthana Sutta. There, in the section on contemplating the body in the body, we are given nine exercises for contemplating a dead body, representing nine phases in decomposition. Montaigne would regard these exercises as a cogent and powerful method to “rid death of its strangeness,” but what we notice on first reading of the Satipatthana is that the dead person is considered solely as body, with attention given only to the physical process of decay. In contrast, Montaigne’s consideration of death included all aspects of the person at once, without differentiation. I will quote all nine exercises together:

1. “And further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body dead, one, two, or three days: swollen, blue and festering, thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
2. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees, whilst it is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms, a body that had been thrown into the charnel ground, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
3. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body, thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
4.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
5. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mind, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’

6. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions — a bone of the hand, a bone of the foot, a shin bone, a thigh bone, the pelvis, spine and skull, each in a different place — he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
7.”And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones, white in color like a conch, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body;’
8. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’
9. “And, further, O bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu, in whatever way, sees a body thrown in the charnel ground and reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust, he thinks of his own body thus: ‘This body of mine too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.'”

(Tr. Soma Thera, 1998)

We are asked to look, to see, to pay attention to decay, disintegration, and dispersal as phases in an inevitable process. This is all the more necessary in a society such as ours, where we are systematically shielded from dying and death, and where natural decay is concealed from us by the funeral industry. In a culture that fetishizes youth and depends for its continuation on the feeding of infinite collective appetite, we do not get to see decay; we barely even get to see people bent over in advanced age. The closest most of us get to decay is roadkill, but we never stop to look because by definition we are on the road speeding by the kill. Perhaps we should stop to look, since it will be one of our few opportunities to witness decay for ourselves. With modern scientific instruments, we can also see that putrefaction is a wonderfully complex and ordered process, with laws and patterns. Even with our naked eyes it is possible to watch the corpse becoming billions of beings, many of which came from it anyway and lived as part of it. We witness how the body is not one thing, and its multifarious motion in death reflects also its manifoldness in life — and how determined by conditions each phase is! There are not really even phases, only a continuous process until the body has returned to its elements, which in turn partake in other processes that might result in new bodies. Daily observation of these transformations eventually wears away our squeamishness in the face of decay, making us capable of living with death and disintegration as they go on all around us.

   That is one part of the meditation. The other part is the refrain, ‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’ My body is the same as this corpse and has not managed to transcend the conditions of dying and decay. Notice that the Buddha does not say “I am of the same nature as this body”: he is not reducing the whole human being to its physical processes, and is focusing here only on the body. The refrain has to be more than a mere verbal acknowledgment; when we say it and mean it, what we are expressing is a growing acquaintance with the natural processes as we are experiencing them right now in this body that grows old and will die. In my 50s, I can know in every aspect of the body that the processes of dying and decay are happening in me, albeit less dramatically than in the corpse, and it is all an integral aspect of being alive in flux. Without this same flux I would never have been born and would never have grown to maturity: nothing would have happened. Even though these thoughts are going beyond contemplating the body in the body, they flow naturally from recognizing myself in the corpse before me and are a consequence of remembering what I am. At the end of each of these exercises the Buddha repeats the encouragement to reflect in a rounded way on what we have discovered through observation:

“Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body externally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body internally and externally. He lives contemplating origination-things in the body, or he lives contemplating dissolution-things in the body, or he lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution-things in the body. Or his mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists,’ to the extent necessary just for knowledge and remembrance, and he lives independent and clings to naught in the world.”

The regular undertaking of this exercise changes us, making us more open and attuned to the vibrant, perilous buzz of the organic world around us and in us — and no longer afraid of it all. Our mindfulness is established with the thought, ‘The body exists’:  this is what it is for body to be body, there is no other way for body to be and consequently no way for any of us to escape from this condition. However, the simple recognition that this is how things are can easily be elevated into a grand, dark theory of life. Therefore we are mindful to the extent necessary for knowledge and remembrance, and should catch ourselves sliding into morbidity, transcendentalism, or any view that would replace and cover up the raw experience. This is why the Buddha calls for contemplating a corpse — not contemplating death or dying. A corpse is an observable fact, and our identification with it is grounded in experience — whereas “death” and “dying” are conceptions from the point of view of a consciousness that is clinging to the supposed opposite of these conceptions. Without an attachment to “life,” death is not an opposite that has to be neutralized; instead, there is only a process of transformation, moment by moment. 

    La Rochefoucauld remarks cryptically, Neither the sun nor death can be looked at fixedly (Maxims, 26). Just as we cannot stare directly at the sun without squinting or getting blinded, so we cannot take a direct look at death. In the corpse contemplations the bhikkhu doesn’t even try to look at “death” or “dying,” focusing instead only on the body and eliminating from the picture the rest of the being that is conceived as dying. The effect is not any theory about death, but the removal of an obstruction to experiencing the entire process that is meant by the word “death.” 
For three different translations of the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10), see:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/soma/wayof.html#discourse
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.010.than.html
https://suttacentral.net/en/mn10

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3 thoughts on “Death like the Sun: Mindfulness (5)

  1. Krishnan,
    Socrates was right on point about the need in life to contemplate death and Montaigne was wrong and the Buddha was correct in contemplating the dead body as a body and not a dead being.
    It is an undeniable truth that from the moment we are born we start to die. Yet people would deny that we are the ‘living dead’, if you would excuse the blunt phrase.
    It is also obvious that if we do not separate our ‘self’ (leaving aside for the moment what that entity is or entails) from our body, we will never be able to get off this entrapment of a worldly ‘gravy train’. For we would simply fear to die.
    Disassociating our ‘self’ from the body enables us to transcend to the possibility that in worldly life our body is like a vehicle and that our karmic destiny has blessed or cursed us with durable expiry date vehicles of diffrent sizes, makes and types and capacities, and that the ‘self’ that might be the driver might possibly live eternally.
    But that will await your next instalment as to where mindful meditation leads to in the contemplation of ‘Who am ‘I’ ?’ (If I am not my body!).
    Vince

    • True, Vince. Montaigne was very serious about contemplating death, actually, but his whole project was to see the whole human being, so it is an “essay” at a non-analytical but still very concentrated form of meditation. I think what he would have objected to in the Phaedo (which might not have been Socrates’ view but his upaya to these frightened young men around him) is the ontological dissociation of soul from body and the consequent denial of death — which of course is also true when understood from another (Mahayana) perspective.

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