Theravāda Buddhism s Meditations on Death and the Symbolism of Initiatory Death. George D. Bond - PDF

Theravāda Buddhism s Meditations on Death and the Symbolism of Initiatory Death George D. Bond History of Religions, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Feb., 1980), pp George D.Bond THERAVADA BUDDHISM'S MEDITATIONS

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Theravāda Buddhism s Meditations on Death and the Symbolism of Initiatory Death George D. Bond History of Religions, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Feb., 1980), pp George D.Bond THERAVADA BUDDHISM'S MEDITATIONS ON DEATH AND THE SYMBOLISM OF INITIATORY DEATH Death has a paradoxical status in Theravada Buddism for it stands both at the heart of the human predicament and at the heart of the solution to that predicament. In Buddhist thought death constitutes an essential part of the human predicament; it is one of the central factors contributing to the imperfection of existence (dukkha);it is a pivotal reality in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsdra)that imprisons human beings. Despite this negative valuation of death, however, death also serves a positive role, for Bltddhism has maintained that one does not find liberation from the human predicament by shrinking from death and avoiding all thought of death, but, rather, one finds liberation by confronting death and encountering it as an existential reality. For this reason and to this end Theravada Buddhism has placed emphasis on techniques of meditating on death. Although these meditations, involving concentration on the idea of death as well as actual observation of decomposing corpses, may initially strike Westerners as bizarre or morbid,l their effect on the meditator is For example, one Western scholar wrote, Repellent in the exteme is the meditation of impurity, demanding the presence of the monk at acemetery, and by The University of Chicago /80/ $ Buddhist Meditations on Death positive, not negative. Meditating on death one overcomes death; meditating on death one attains the deathless state here and hereafter. This article attempts to analyze and explain Theravada Buddhism's paradoxical valuation of death by interpreting its meditations on death in both the specific context of the Theravada Buddhist tradition and the wider context of the history of reli- gion~.~ We seek to show, first, that, considered in the context of the Theravada tradition, the meditations on death are neither aberrant nor contradictory but represent logical and consistent methods for solving the human predicament as Buddhism understands it. The meditations on death enable Buddhists to confront the reality of death and, through it, to understand existence, to reach enlightenment. But the notion of meditating on death and anticipating death raises an important question for observers of Buddhism. Simply stated the question is, Is Theravada Buddhism unique in stressing the salvific nature of confrontation with death? Does this emphasis on meditation on death signify what some might term stereotypical Buddhist pessimism and nihilism? Second, because this question poses a possible barrier to Western understanding of Theravada's meditations on death, we seek, in the final part of the article, to place these meditations in a larger perspective in order to explore further their meaning and significance. By comparing the meditations on death with Eliade's analysis of the symbolism of initiatory death in archaic and primitive religions, we see that Theravada is neither unique nor pessimistic in its belief in the salvific nature of confrontation with death. Rather, the Buddhist meditations on death parallel and in a sense represent what Eliade holds to be a basic soteriological motif or att tern.^ the careful meditation on all the hateful aspects of a corpse in decay... (A. B. Keith, Buddhist Philosophy in India and Ceylon [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19231, p. 123). Other schools of Buddhism also developed meditations on death, and it would be instructive to compare the meditations on death in these other schools with the meditations in the Theravada tradition. But this is a task for another article. Although Eliade discusses the symbolism of death in many works, his primary works on this subject are: Mircea Eliade, Birth and Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture, trans. W.Trask (New York: Harper & Bros., 1958) (hereafter cited as Birth); Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, trans. P. Mairet (Evanston, Ill.: Harper & Row, 1960)(hereafter cited as Myths); Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy, trans. W. Trask (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964); Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. R. Sheed (New York: World Publishing Co., 1958) (hereafter cited as Patterns). In comparing these meditations with Eliade's analysis of the symbolism of death, I found both support and new insights in a brief comparison of this type made by Donald K. 238 History of Religions DEATH AND THE HUMAN PREDICAMENT When the Buddhists reflected on death as a central factor of existence and the heart of the human predicament, they did so in the context of a rich tradition of Indian thought about death. Indian sages for centuries had speculated about death, its nature, its origin, and its causes. They personified death in the figures of Yama, PrajBpati, and M ~tyu;~ they explained death as the result of karma or of kdla (time, fate) or of both; and in the Upanishads they declared death illusory in relation to the eternal self or soul.6 But as Frank Reynolds has pointed out, although the Buddhist conceptions of death can never truly be understood apart from the Indian ethos in the last half of the first millenium B.C. within which Buddhism emerged, neither can the Buddhist views simply be reduced to those of the Indian tradition because the Buddha and Buddhist interpreted death from a distinctively Buddhist per~pective.~ The Buddhist conceptions of death differed in significant points from those of the received Indian tradition. Buddhism defined death in terms of the concept of no-self, anatta. The standard definition of death, maratza, which recurs frequently in the Pali Canon, describes death as the falling away, the passing away, the separation, the disappearance, the mortality or dying, the action of time, the breaking up of the aggregates, the laying down of the body (Majjhima-NikGya[M.] 1.49; Digha-NikGya [D.] 2.305; Samyutta-Nik6ya [X.] 2.2; etc.). In this definition we see death in the context of anatta, as the dissolution of the aggregates, the factors constituting the individual. Death manifest the impermenence (anicca) of life. From Swearer in Control and Freedom: The Structure of Buddhist Meditation in the PBli Suttas, Philosophy East and West 23, no. 4 (October 1973): 439, n. 23; see also Swearer's Secrets of the Lotus (New York: Macmillan, 1971), pp * On the Indian mythology about death, see Frederick H. Holck, The Vedic Period, in Death and Eastern Thought, ed. F. H. Holck (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1974); and J. Bruce Long, Death as a Necessity and a Gift in Hindu hiythology, in Religious Encounters with Dea,th, ed. Frank E. Reynolds and Earle Waugh (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), pp See also Long, The Death That Ends Death in Hinduism and Buddhism, in Death: The Final Stage of Growth, ed. Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), pp The Buddhists also found it necessary to address t,he question of whether karma and kdla should be considered the cause of death. See the Illilindapaitha (Miln.), p. 302; Kathavatthu 17.2; and Visddhimagga, pp For the Hindu view of this question see M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature, trans. S. Ketkar (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1927), 1: Also Long, Death as a Necessity and a Gift in Hindu Mythology, pp ; and Holck, The Vedic Period, pp 'E.g., see ChBndogya Upanishad ; and Katha Upanishad Frank E. Reynolds, Deat,h and Eastern Thought, in The Encyclopedia of Bio Ethics, ed. Warren T. Reich (New York: Free Press, 1979). 239 Buddhist Meditations on Death the Buddhist perspective, death is not illusory but constitutes an integral part of existence. As the formula of conditioned genesis (paticca samuppdda) shows, existence is a fabric of causes and conditions, and death is listed as the last link or result in that chain or cycle of conditioning factors of one life and the immediate cause of rebirth. Recognizing, therefore, that the individual is a process of mental and physical phenomena brought into being by conditions and without an eternal essence, the Theravada tradition defined death analytically in both a long-term and a short-t,erm sense. In the long-term sense, they defined death as the cutting off of the life faculty (jivitindriya) spanning a single lifetime, that is, one rebirth (Visuddhimagga [Vism.] 229; Nettipakarana [N.] 29). However, in the short-term sense, and according to ultimate truth, they said that death does not occur simply at the end of a lifetime of an individual but at every moment as the aggregates arise and pass away (Vism. 238). These technical and analytical definitions of the phenomenon of death, however, do not fully impress on us what Theravadins have seen as the real significance of death: They have traditionally regarded death as the archetype of dukkha, as the central factor in the human predicament. Gotama is said to have recognized the dimensions of the human predicament and to have declared, Alas this world has entered upon distress/trouble [kiccham] for one is born, grows old, dies, falls, and is reborn, but no one knows an escape from this suffering, from old age and death ( ; cf. S. 2.5; D. 2.30). According to the tradition, the recognition of this predicament led Gotama to renounce his princely life in order to seek enlightenment and liberation (e.g., M , 240; Angutta- Nikdya [A,] 1.145; D ). Thus, in keeping with the Buddha's experience, Buddhism has viewed death as the fearful and disastrous culmination of an existence already marred by sorrow and suffering, and this tragedy, death, is magnified by the surety of rebirth and the repetition of suffering and death. The frequent conjunction in the texts of the terms jdti (birth), jar6 (aging), marana (death), and upapatti (rebirth) denotes the endless, tragic cycle of existence. As I. B. Horner has written, The calamity is that death is not deathlessness; it still entails rise and fall of the khandhas and birth and anguish in samsczra again and again... Buddhism, along with other Indian traditions, Milinda's Questions, trans.i.b. Horner (London: Luzac & Co., 1964), 1:xlvii. 240 History of Religions understood sa~sciras re-death, the heart of the human predicament. The duration of this predicament of death and re-death becomes incalculable, so much so that if the bones of one individual's bodies from all his past lifetimes could be collected, they would form a mountain of skeletons ( ). DEATH AND THE SOLUTION TO THE HUMAN PREDICAMENT Although death represents the essence of the human predicament, or perhaps because it does, death also has a central place in the Theravada Buddhist solution of that predicament. Meaningful existence and liberation result from confronting death in life, from seeing death as an integral part of samsbric existence. Comprehending death, one comprehends life. Death, as the pivot on which samsczra turns and the archetype of dukkha, represents a basic datum for the wisdom (pa6iici) that rends the veil of ignorance. The significance of death for the attainment of wisdom and liberation has been pointed up in one way by Buddhism in the legends of Gotama's enlightenment experience. Just as death was central to the human predicament that caused Gotama's renunciation and going forth, so death also was central to his realization of a solution to this predicament. Without going too far afield into the subject of the life and legend of the Buddha, we can observe that the Theravada tradition has related the Buddha's enlightenment to his understanding and conquest of death. In attaining nibbcina, the Buddha vanquished MBra, the king of death (Suttanipcita [Sn.] 332, , ; Dhammapada [Dh.] 46),9 penetrated the truth about birth and death in samscira (M , ) and attained deathlessness (amata, M ). THE MEDITATIONS ON DEATH In the Buddhist view, therefore, the malady of existence has been diagnosed and a remedy has been found, the door to the deathless stands open. But the Buddha was the giver of the deathless'' only in the sense that he established or made known a possibility See E. Windisch, M6ra und Buddha (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1895), pp. 192 f; T. 0.Ling, Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962),p. 56. See also on this topic James W. Boyd, Satan and Mcira (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976). Buddhist Meditations on Death that most people would not have seen without his guidance. His conquest of death and ignorance does not suffice for others. Death must be conquered, wisdom developed, and deathlessness attained in the life of each individual. For this reason Theravada has emphasized systematic methods for people to confront and comprehend death: the meditations on death. Theravada Buddhism has traditionally taught and practiced two forms of meditation that we may regard as meditations on death: maranasati, mindfulness of death, and asubha bhcivand, meditation on the foulness of the body as observed in decaying corpses. Both of these meditations appear to represent ancient practices in Buddhism. Marana (death) and asubha (foulness) constitute the two central ideas in several complexes of ideas (saiiiid) set out as subjects for meditation or reflection for bringing one to deathlessness and the goal (A , 4.46, 3.79; S ).1 In addition to these passages that place the meditations on death in the context of related ideas for reflection, other passages in the Pali Canon describe the meditations on death separately, attributing the teaching of them to the Buddha. Mindfulness of death (maranasati), for example, is described in two identical pairs of suttas as a way leading to deathlessness (A , 306-8; and A , ). Asubha bhdvanci, meditation on the foulness of the body, is recommended by the Buddha in a number of texts (e.g., D ; M ; A ). The meditations on death, referred to briefly and described in outline in the Pali Canon, are given life and detail in the later Theravada writings. The primary text describing these forms of meditation is the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa's comprehensive commentary on the dhamma and the way. In Buddhaghosa's account, we have the great advantage of seeing the details of these practices in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, details handed down largely outside the canon from meditation teacher 'to pupil for centuries. The Visuddhimagga explains that the Theravadins recommended various meditation subjects or methods for various types of people and that the meditations on death, maranasati and asubha bhdvanci, constituted two of these methods. Whereas the majority of the meditation subjects were designated as special meditation lo For a complete list of these safiries, see Paravahera VajirafiLna MahBthera, Buddhist Meditation in Theory and Practice (Colombo: M. D. Gunasene, 1962), pp History of Religions subjects, suitable only for one particular category of individuals, the meditations on death, maranasati and asubha bhtivanti, were considered generally useful meditation subjects, suitable for all categories ( Vism. 98). The meditation teachers held that all persons could benefit from meditating on death, although some teachers seem to have taught that maranasati was more generally applicable than was asubha bhtivanci ( Vism. 98), for the I7isuddhimagga goes on to classify asubha bhcivanti as a special meditation subject for individuals dominated by lust (rtigacarita) (Vism. 114). In addition to the general applicability of maranasati, it was said to benefit especially those characterized by wisdom ( Vism. 114). Maranasati: MINDFULNESS OF DEATH The detailed instructions for the practice of mindfulness of death, maranasati, describe this meditation as essentially very simple. The meditator is instructed to withdraw to a solitary place, there to focus his mind on the thought Death will occur, the life faculty will be interrupted (Vism. 230). Or he may meditate solely on the idea Death, death. Despite the outward simplicity of this practice, however, the Visuddhimagga indicates that successfully developing mindfulness of death is very difficult. Human beings, although well aware of death, somehow avoid acknowledging death as a reality in their own lives. Buddhism has regarded this unexamined assumption of our own immortality and indestructibility as a major part of the ignorance (avijjti) that prevents our striving for enlightenment. In an interesting analogy, the Buddha is said to have compared this amazing human attitude toward death with that of a man who goes along not realizing his turban is ablaze ( ). To enable the meditator to surmount this difficulty of coming to terms with the reality of death in his own life, the Visuddhimagga sets out eight specific ways of meditating on death. These eight ways represent eight reflections on various aspects of death which collectively constitute a powerful method guiding the meditator through progressive stages of confronting and comprehending the reality of death. The aspects of death to be reflected on are (Vism ): (1) death as having the appearance of an executioner; (2) death as the ruin of all success; (3) death as the inevitable end for all persons-just as it strikes down the great and mighty, so will it strike us down also; (4) death as the result of sharing the body with many ; a reflection on the infinite num- 243 Buddhist Meditations on Death ber of factors, both internal and external, that can cause death; (5) death as lying near at hand, kept away only by this frail process of life; (6) death as signless ; nothing about it can be predicted or known in advance; (7)death as the certain end of a life span that is short at best; and (8)death as a constant phenomenon, occurring at every moment for the aggregates of existence. Let us look briefly at these eight stages of reflection and the way that they facilitate the meditator's confrontation with death. The first reflection exposes the meditator to the general truth that death is an integral and inevitable part of life. It comes with birth and takes away life just as surely as the executioner takes life (Vism. 230). Death is not alien to life but a concomitant of life. The Visuddhimagga says that just as budding toadstools [or, literally in the Pali metaphor, snakes' umbrellas, ahicchatta] come up carrying dirt on their heads, so human beings are born carrying aging and death (Vism. 230). It is inevitable; just as the sun having risen moves towards setting, never turning back for a moment, or just as a mountain stream rushes downhill without stopping, so beings rush toward death without any possibility of a respite (Vism. 231). Through reflection on these and similar images, the meditator begins to develop awareness of the practical implications of the Buddha's teaching Whatever is born, brought into being and conditioned must necessarily decay and dissolve (D ). Death represents one of the four inevitable things (A.2.171). The second reflection leads the meditator to another stage in the understanding of death by focusing his awareness on the tragic nature of death. Not only is death inevitable, but it is the inevitable destroyer of all human happiness, fortune, and hope; it represents the failure or ruin (vipatti) of all success (sampatti [Vism. 2321). No matter how much success a person has in this life, death waits to bring final defeat; even the great Asoka, who conquered all the earth, was defeated in the end by death and sorrow (Vism. 232). The meditator is instructed to see death as the tragic end of life and as part of the complex of dukkha. Death and the related factors of dukkha haunt life, preventing people from controlling their own existence and from attaining lasting happiness and success in this world (Vism. 232). The third reflection marks an important transition
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