Precious Metal – Article Swap #3

2010 April 9

The Precious Metal Article Swap #3 is now underway and I’m absolutely honored to host  the following guest post on this blog by Richard at My Buddha is pink.


January / Chicago

When I was a newspaper reporter, I covered a horrific multi-vehicle crash on the Interstate. It was a chain-reaction crash caused by a truck driver who was driving too fast and not paying attention to the road in front of him. When traffic had suddenly slowed in front of him because of a lane closure, the truck driver was unable to stop his heavily-loaded rig before it plowed into the back end of another truck. He was killed in the crash, his body severed in two.

As I and the photographer stood by the scene watching the activity, it eventually became clear to both of us what had happened. We both watched as the emergency crews removed one half of the driver’s body, then the other. One of the crew members quickly turned his head away as the first portion of body was removed. The photographer was in shock, stunned by the notion of someone being cut in half during this crash. I just watched. The photographer noticed my lack of any emotional response to the scene and asked me, “Doesn’t that bother you? How awful that must be to have died that way.”

“It’s just a body,” I said. “The driver is gone. That’s not him anymore. It’s just a body.”

I was going to title this post “Death as a teacher,” but then I realized I had already written a post by that same name. No wonder that when Tanya McGinnity of Full Contact Enlightenment offered the topic of death as a subject for the third blog swap I readily embraced it, particularly when Tanya revealed that she was unaware that Theravada has a tremendous body of material – no pun intended – within the Tipitika regarding death. In fact, when I first began attending the dhammasala in Michigan where I lived previously, the monk there frequently talked about how important the contemplation of death was to one’s meditation practice.

He would tell us of how monks in Thailand would frequently do “death meditations” in graveyards in the middle of the night. A graveyard was also a good place for contemplating fear. It was an important meditative practice clearly expounded by the Buddha, particularly in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) and the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22).  These suttas guide the practitioner with the “frames of reference” to use during meditation, beginning with the breath, but then moving on to contemplation of the body as body. An integral part of this contemplation is to visualize the breaking up of the body upon death.

“Furthermore, as if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground — one day, two days, three days dead — bloated, livid, & festering, he applies it to this very body, ‘This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate’…

“Or again, as if he were to see a corpse cast away in a charnel ground, picked at by crows, vultures, & hawks, by dogs, hyenas, & various other creatures… a skeleton smeared with flesh & blood, connected with tendons… a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, connected with tendons… a skeleton without flesh or blood, connected with tendons… bones detached from their tendons, scattered in all directions — here a hand bone, there a foot bone, here a shin bone, there a thigh bone, here a hip bone, there a back bone, here a rib, there a breast bone, here a shoulder bone, there a neck bone, here a jaw bone, there a tooth, here a skull… the bones whitened, somewhat like the color of shells… piled up, more than a year old… decomposed into a powder: He applies it to this very body, ‘This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.’”

It is through the contemplation of death that we arrive at an understanding of kamma. Unless we are fully aware that we will die and that death could come for us at any moment, we have no motivation to closely examine how our actions are connected to the results we experience. When we seriously investigate death and its cause, we must also investigate kamma, and in particular, our own kamma.

As V.F. Gunaratna discusses in “Buddhist Reflections on Death,” we can begin simply enough with our investigation of death by tracing its origin to its simplest biological terms. Death comes when the heart stops beating; the heart stops beating because of some disease or trauma to the body; the disease is introduced to the body via an outside mechanism, trauma also by a force outside of the body; etc. But wait a moment. Some new questions begin to arise. How is it that two people can be infected with the same bacteria, but only one dies, the other recovers? How is it that three people can slip on an identical patch of ice and one falls and hits the back of his head, but is merely dazed; the second falls and hits the back of his head and slips into a coma for 10 days and when he awakens, has lost his memory; and the third slips and falls, striking his head and dies instantly.

This is when the tricky element of kamma comes in, because it is kamma that makes one person die and another live despite experiencing identical traumas.

Gunaratna writes: “Kamma sees to it that each man gets in life just what he deserves, not more, nor less. Each man’s condition in life with its particular share of joys and sorrows is nothing more nor less than the result of his own past actions, good and bad. Thus we see that Kamma is a strict accountant. Each man weaves his own web of fate. Each man is the architect of his own fortune. As the Buddha said in the Anguttara Nikaya, ‘Beings are the owners of their deeds. Their deeds are the womb from which they spring. With their deeds they are bound up. Their deeds are their refuge. Whatever deeds they do, good or evil, of such they will be heirs.’ As actions are various, reactions also are various. Hence the varying causes of death to various persons under various situations. Every cause has its particular effect. Every action has its particular reaction. This is the unfailing law.”

By contemplating death, two important but seemingly contradictory events take place. On one hand, we lose our fear of death because we come to recognize it not as an end, but merely a transition. And yet, when we become fully aware of death’s inevitable occurrence, we develop a new urgency of intent to pay closer attention to all our actions, because it is through our actions our kamma is created, and how and when we die is determined by our kamma. The Buddha also taught that we make kamma moment to moment, that our kamma is flexible, which means we always have an opportunity in the present moment to undo or diminish the kamma created by past, unskillful actions.

The Visuddhi magga, which is part of the Abhidhamma Pitika, has many sections that deal with the correct, or skillful, contemplation of death. As Gunaratna points out: “For example, suppose a young disciple fails to realize keenly that death can come upon him at any moment, and regards it as something that will occur in old age in the distant future; his contemplation of death will be lacking strength and clarity, so much so that it will run on lines which are not conducive to success.”

The skillful contemplation of death can yield these results:

“The disciple who devotes himself to this contemplation of death is always vigilant, takes no delight in any form of existence, gives up hankering after life, censures evil doing, is free from craving as regards the requisites of life, his perception of impermanence becomes established, he realizes the painful and soulless nature of existence and at the moment of death he is devoid of fear, and remains mindful and self-possessed. Finally, if in this present life he fails to attain to Nibbana, upon the dissolution of the body he is bound for a happy destiny.”

Returning to the vignette at the beginning of this post, I didn’t magically develop this sense of dispassion toward corpses. There was a necessity: I was a police reporter and I frequently encountered death either through fatal traffic crashes, fires, or homicides. Initially, my reaction was to numb myself, a sort of dissociation to protect myself from the overwhelming emotion I felt and which truly frightened me. But after listening to my first teacher talk about the various ways to meditate on death, I started to practice these methods in perhaps somewhat alternative ways. I had a text book on homicide investigations that was very useful because it explained how good police investigations were conducted. That helped me as a reporter because I could then ask the right questions for my stories.

There was a section of photographs of crime scenes within this book, some including mutilated corpses. Some of the photos were in color. They showed everything. I honestly could not look at the photos without having huge waves of emotion covering me, everything from fear to intense sorrow. But when I began to include contemplation of the body in my meditation practice, I was eventually able to look at these photos and see them for what they really were: photos of bodies, photos of flesh, blood, bone, body fluids, hair, etc. Bodies are not people. These were not photos of dead people, they were photos of bodies. And once I was able to see that, my mind didn’t slip into morbid thoughts of pity or anger or fear.

Death is a wonderful subject for contemplation, and the Buddha urged his followers to seriously contemplate their own death. To successfully contemplate one’s own death is a powerful instruction and motivator to develop the skillful awareness necessary to find peace and happiness.

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