In mediation, there are various approaches, methods, and traditions.
During meditation, for example, we mindfully count our breathing. Or, we gently observe the subtle movements of our abdominals. Or else, we kindly notice every step of our behaviors. We also gaze at a candle flame or a visual symbol like a mandala or statue of spiritual figures. In the tradition of Christian Orthodoxy prayer, one faces the icons of saints and Christ, and so on. Or, one also reads aloud the canons of the respective spiritual tradition.
With these practices, we mindfully immerse ourselves in these activities to stay here and now selflessly.
Among these kinds, perhaps, one of the intriguing practices could be the so-called Corpse Meditation, also known as Maraṇasati in Pali. It means the mindfulness of death or death awareness.
Traditionally, it is a type of meditation practice that we are supposed to observe a corpse such as a dead human body on the ground in front of us. In our modern-day society, I don’t think we conduct such a practice literally. Some say, monks do it in front of a corpse of street dog and the like instead of human flesh, though even this would not be recommendable nowadays.
Perhaps, the nearest, acceptable situation could be the funeral of someone we know well, like family members, relatives, and friends. As long as we live in this world, death is inevitable for anyone, including ourselves. It is a simple and yet absolute reality that everyone has to face. But then, we have taken it for granted. Death is real. However, consciously or unconsciously, we tend to treat it as something unreal.
According to the Buddist anecdotes, the story of Kisa Gotami could be one of the earliest examples of corpse meditation. Kisa Gotami was a wife of the wealthy family in the Buddha’s days. One day, suddenly, she encountered the death of her beloved son and became insane. Seeking the Buddha’s advice, then, to restore her son’s life, she had to get a piece of mustard seed, which must be from the household that had never experienced anyone’s death. Visiting one house to another holding a corpse of her son, eventually, she realized that death was inevitable to anyone. It could be a kind of corpse meditation.
Checking every day’s news, we can easily hear someone’s death. Still, we have taken it for granted. It is because there are three kinds of death in our experience. The first is the death of someone we don’t know. It’s just a piece of news that is seemingly not so different from someone’s death in action movies. That is why we don’t care much about it. The second is the death of someone we know well or even someone we love (like the case of Kisa Gotami). In this case, death is no longer a piece of news, but an existential life condition. We face the truth that death is real.
And the third is our own death. We all experience our death. Nobody escapes from it. That is the absolute truth. Meditating on a corpse in front of us, reflecting on the death of someone we love, and pondering our own, we ask ourselves:
What is death? And what is life?
Corpse mediation is one of the humble efforts to be mindful of this ultimate reality. Sitting silently in front of a dead body for several days, weeks, or even months, we observe how this lifeless body would go back to the ground. We would smell pieces of rotten meat. Various animals and insects eat them up. And fragments of the bare-bones would expose themselves up. And then, bacteria and chemical reactions would dissolve them into fundamental molecules.
Eventually, we see everything has gone. The corpse had diminished itself entirely into the part of nature. Throughout these processes, we meditate day and night and ask ourselves.
What is death? And what is life?
According to the Pali Canon, the following nine steps are the descriptions of the corpse meditation.
- A corpse that is swollen, blue and festering.
- A corpse that is being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or by different kinds of worms.
- A corpse that is reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons.
- A corpse that is reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons.
- A corpse that is reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood.
- A corpse that is reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions.
- A corpse that is reduced to bones, white in color like a conch.
- A corpse that is reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together.
- A corpse that is reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust.
In this world of flesh, nothing is permanent, and everything is continuously changing, including ourselves. While acting like a spectator who observes a corpse transforming itself into the essential elements of nature, we also inevitably realize the truth that we will definitely become such corpses someday, and will go back to nature and the universe. That is the inevitability of our bodies. A body is one of the fundamental elements of our existence, so do our minds as well.
We see ourselves in our self-consciousness. Once, however, becoming corpses in our death, we would never see ourselves as dead bodies. We can never see our own dead bodies. Our minds also diminish themselves, into eventually nature and the universe. Can we see ourselves and the world as some kind of soul and spirit? We could often articulate these realms. Still, the spiritual traditions teach us that the mode of existence would not be such an extension of self-consciousness.
Jesus also said as follows:
And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God? For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven. And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.Mark 12:24-27
Jesus had discussions with Sadducees on how we see ourselves after death. While the message sounds esoteric, we could see the concept of an afterlife is not an extension of our self-consciousness. When Adam and Eve confronted God, they experienced the birth of consciousness. If we go back to the Garden of Eden, then such confrontation would disappear. “He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.”
We are not our bodies, not our minds, either. We could be souls and spirits. And yet, the mode of existence is different. We are nobody in soul and spirit.
In this realization, we could sense a glimpse of a higher perspective. That is to say, our death and life would be a constant flux of the universe. Someday, death would visit us, which inevitably ends our self-consciousness. It could be one of the most critical moments of our existence. Is it our existential crisis? Yes, we see it so. It is, however, still the part of life. Death is not the end of life at all.
If so, can we neglect our self-conscious lives? God forbid. Our lives are also precious. Saying death is not the end of life does not necessarily mean our living here is insignificant. Yes, we live here temporarily with our illusory self-awareness. We can call our living here as an illusion and delusion. Nevertheless, or because of that, our living is so precious. Jesus also said:
He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.Mark 12:27
Paradoxically enough, only through our self-consciousness, we see God is the God of the living. We can be aware of God even though we can never meet Him. Even allegorically speaking, we can meet God in the Garden of Eden, just like Adam and Eve. We can meet Him in heaven just like angles in heaven. But only in this world of flesh, we can be aware of God, and seek Him in faith.
If so, what is life here in this world?
One answer is that it is a gift from God. Every morning when we wake up, we pray and recognize this brand new day as His gift. Moreover, every moment of life, we can continually be aware of His gift here and now. It’s so precious that once we lose it, we can never get it back. The moment of life is a one-time gift from God. We can receive it continuously. But it is historically irreversible.
We are in this world temporarily. And this temporal life is a gift from God. It is our mission. He assigned us to stay here. At the beginning of the day, we should ponder how to use this day as a precious gift from God. Before sleeping, we should reflect on how we have spent it as a valuable gift of God. We all know this cliché saying:
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why they call it the present.
How should we spend this gift from God? We should maximize it as the parable of the talents depicts the message that God praised those who increased His gifts with their talents.
For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey…
And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.
His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.
His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.Matthew 25:14-15,20-23
Someday, we would receive a final gift from God, which is the moment of our death. Just like Jesus, hopefully, we could say “it is finished” with a full appreciation of the value and meaning of our living from the perspective of life in the universe.
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.John 19:30
Image by Jacques Savoye