Maraṇasati | Mindfulness of Death

Maraṇasati | Mindfulness of Death
Maraṇasati | Mindfulness of Death

1. Maraṇasati

Maraṇasati (mindfulness of death, death awareness) is a Buddhist meditation practice of remembering (frequently keeping in mind) that death can strike at any time (AN 6.20),

and we should practice assiduously heedfulness and with urgency in every moment, even in the time it takes to draw one breath.

Not being diligent every moment is called negligence by the Buddha (AN 6.19).

In the Earliest discourses of the Buddha, the term Maraṇasati is only explicitly defined twice, in those 2 suttas AN 6.19 and AN 6.20.

Later Buddhist schools have expanded the meaning of Maraṇasati to include various visualization and contemplation techniques to meditate on the nature of death.

The cultivation of Maraṇasati is said to be conducive to Right Effort and also helps in developing a sense of Spiritual Urgency (Samvega) and Renunciation (Nekkhamma).

2. Theravada Buddhism

Mindfulness of death is a common practice in Southeast Asian Buddhist monasteries.

Theravāda Buddhist monasteries will often have human skeletons on display in the meditation hall.

In the Pāḷi Canon

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN: 10) and the <>Kāyagatāsati Sutta (MN: 119) include sections on the cemetery contemplations which focus on 9 stages of corpse decomposition (Pāḷi: nava sīvathikā-manasikāra). These are:

  1. A corpse that is "swollen, blue and festering."
  2. A corpse that is "being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms."
  3. A corpse that is "reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons."
  4. A corpse that is "reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons."
  5. A corpse that is "reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood."
  6. A corpse that is "reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions."
  7. A corpse that is "reduced to bones, white in colour like a conch."
  8. A corpse that is "reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together."
  9. A corpse that is "reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust."

The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta instructs the meditator to reflect 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.

According to the Maraṇasati Sutta (AN 6.20) a monk should reflect on the many possibilities which could bring death and then turn his thoughts to the unskilful mental qualities he has yet to abandon:

Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavour, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head,

in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavour, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskilful qualities.

In Buddhaghoṣa’s Visuddhimagga

According to Buddhaghoṣa’s Visuddhimagga, there are 8 ways of meditating on death:

  1. meditating on death as a murderer, since it takes away life;
  2. meditating on death as the ruin of success;
  3. viewing it by comparison with famous persons reflecting that even these great ones eventually died, even the enlightened ones themselves;
  4. meditating on the body as the abode of many-many worms as well as the target of many others;
  5. meditating on the difficulty of keeping alive;
  6. meditating on it as without occasion, since beings die unpredictably;
  7. meditating on the shortness of a lifetime;
  8. meditating on the fact that, properly speaking, the lifetime of a being is a single moment of consciousness, that one dies every moment, so to speak.

3. Tibetan Buddhism

Mindfulness of death is a central teaching of Tibetan Buddhism: it is one of the "4 Thoughts," which turn the mind towards Spiritual Practice.

One set of Tibetan Buddhist contemplations on Death come from the 11th century Buddhist scholar Atiśa Dīpankara:

Atiśa is said to have said to his students that if a person is unaware of Death, their meditation will have little power.

Atiśa’s contemplations on Death:

  1. Death is inevitable.
  2. Our life span is decreasing continuously.
  3. Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
  4. Human life expectancy is uncertain.
  5. There are many causes of death.
  6. The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
  7. At the time of death, our material resources are not of use to us.
  8. Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
  9. Our own body cannot help us at the time of our death.

Other Tibetan Buddhist practices deal directly with the Moment of Death, preparing the meditator for entering and navigating the Bardo, the Intermediate Stage between life and death:

This is the theme of the popular Great Liberation through hearing during the intermediate state (Tibetan Book of the Dead).