Chapter Six

Mindfulness of Death

Unlike aging and illness, which have one deva messenger apiece, death has three. The first, of course, is a corpse. Its message is the simple fact of death: Everyone born is going to die. This means you’re going to die—and your death could happen at any time. Death is everywhere and always. There are times in the lives of individuals and societies where this message is hidden, but others where it’s all too obvious.

Still, this message, on its own, could be interpreted in any number of ways. One popular response is the old drinking-song refrain, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” But that’s not the message the devas want to convey. Thus the need for the remaining two messengers: Their purpose is not just to get you to think about death, but to give you an idea of how to think about death in the most fruitful way.

The first of the two is a newborn infant, lying helpless on its back. The message here is that, just like the infant, you haven’t gone beyond being reborn—and rebirth will at first leave you absolutely helpless. The remaining messenger is a criminal undergoing torture and punishment. Here the message is that any misdeeds you do in this lifetime could be punished in the next.

The proper response to these messages, taken together, is to learn not to look down on those who are dying or dead, for they’re simply showing you your own fate. At the same time, you have to learn to be heedful in your actions so that, at the very least, you have a refuge of good kamma to protect you when you die and face the possibility of rebirth: a refuge that will make sure that there will be help when you’re helpless, and that no punishments await you. At best, you want to reach the attainment that’s not affected by death, and that escapes rebirth entirely.

In this way, these three deva messengers bring words of encouragement: It is possible, in the face of death, to act in such a way that your actions will be meaningful, and you can actually come out victorious. So these messengers carry a more optimistic and audacious message than is usually recognized.

However, of all the deva messengers, these are the ones whose messages we tend most to resist. For all of us, when we see a corpse, the thought of our own death inspires fear. For someone who is not yet committed to the truths of kamma and rebirth, the other two messengers don’t clearly carry a message meant for us or necessarily connected with death at all. Will death be followed by rebirth? We don’t know. Even if it is, do our actions have any effect on how we’re reborn? That, too, we don’t know. Just as the mere thought of death inspires fear, so does the idea of being reborn totally helpless—at the mercy of strangers, completely separated from those we have loved and those who have loved us—or of possibly being punished after death for our mistakes in this life.

Because of these fears, many people prefer to leave these issues unresolved, giving no thought to the issue of death at all. This was as true in the Buddha’s time as it is today. These fears, plus the uncertainty that surrounds them, explain the fact, noted in the Introduction, that many people even in Buddhist circles claim that we should simply focus on finding joy in the present moment, and leave the questions surrounding death unresolved as irrelevant to our quest for peace in the here and now.

But as we also noted in the Introduction, even if you leave these questions unresolved, they can never really be irrelevant. Everyone who wants a satisfying life needs a clearly articulated working hypothesis for deciding every day which actions are worth doing and which actions are not. Part of that hypothesis requires answers to these questions: Should you take the teachings on kamma and rebirth into account in your calculations? Or should you assume that death is annihilation? If you don’t have clear, consistent answers for these questions, your calculations on what to do and what not to do tend to take place in a murky part of the mind that sometimes wants its actions to have long-term consequences, and sometimes doesn’t. In other words, you justify your choices by the mood of the moment.

This is a recipe for a muddled life that accomplishes nothing. It’s also a recipe for heedlessness. And it was to counteract this heedlessness that the Buddha, when choosing which aspects of his awakening to include in the handful of leaves he taught to others, saw fit to include the teachings on kamma and rebirth. When you believe that death is followed by rebirth and that rebirth is determined by your actions, you’re more likely to act, speak, and think consistently in a heedful manner. You’ll treat all your actions—and all other beings—with care and respect.

To counteract our strong fears around death, and the heedlessness that comes when we refuse to think about these issues, the Buddha recommended the meditation practice called mindfulness of death (maraṇassati). One of the ironies of modern Buddhism is that even though some present-day Dhamma teachers focus attention on the present moment as a way of avoiding the issue of death, the Buddha taught present-moment awareness precisely because of death. The present moment is where mindfulness of death focuses your attention. After all, death could come at any time, so you have to pay attention to what needs to be done right now to prepare for it. Instead of enjoying the present moment as an end in itself, you look for opportunities to perform your duties with regard to the four noble truths while you still have the time and the opportunity here and now.

There’s a passage in the Canon (AN 6:20) where the Buddha recommends reminding yourself every evening, at sunset, that you could easily die tonight. This thought should motivate you to inspect your mind to see if there are any unskillful qualities in it that would create an obstruction for you if you were to die before sunrise. If there are, then “just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, relentlessness, mindfulness, and alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head,” you should bring the same intensity of effort to abandon those unskillful qualities. If there are no such qualities, then take joy in that fact and keep on training. In other words, enjoy the pleasures of an alert, concentrated mind, but stay heedful even then.

Then the Buddha recommends that you reflect in a similar way every day at dawn.

There’s another passage (AN 6:19) where he states that thinking about death even twice a day like this is still heedless. The truly heedful attitude toward death is to focus constantly on the immediate present with the thought, “O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food… (or) for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal.”

Now, as you’ll notice, mindfulness of death is not simply a matter of constantly thinking, “Death, death, death, I’m going to die, die, die.” Its primary focus is on what needs to be done here and now to prepare for death, keeping in mind the Buddha’s analysis of what happens as death arrives. So instead of fostering fear and depression, this practice of mindfulness is meant to build on your confidence that there are things you can usefully do to prepare.

This practice thus requires conviction in the Buddha’s teachings on kamma, rebirth, and the possibility of the deathless. In fact, to get the most out of mindfulness of death, you have to develop all seven of the strengths we’ve been discussing with regard to aging and illness: conviction, shame, compunction, persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment. It’s through cultivating these strengths that, as the Buddha said, mindfulness of death can lead to the deathless (AN 6:20).


Conviction as a strength in the face of death is primarily focused on assuming the fact of rebirth, and the complex ways in which your actions play a role in determining where—or whether—you’ll be reborn. On the one hand, your skillful and unskillful actions throughout life create good and bad opportunities for taking rebirth. On the other, your views and cravings at the moment of death will determine which of those opportunities you’ll actually take. If you’ve achieved at least stream-entry, the first level of awakening, then you can be assured that you won’t choose any opportunities lower than the human realm. If you’ve achieved full awakening, you won’t take rebirth at all. Instead, you’ll be totally unbound. But if you haven’t achieved any level of awakening, you’ll have to train yourself to act in such a way that you don’t leave openings for rebirth in the lower realms, and so that you’re not waylaid by random cravings when the body is weakened by aging, or the mind is pained by illness and still prey to fear of death.

Because we’ve already discussed, in Chapter One, how past and present kamma will play a role at the moment of death, there’s no need to repeat that discussion here. As for the types of action that create openings for good rebirths, we’ll cover those under the strength of persistence. There we’ll also discuss the mental skills that prevent mental hindrances from overcoming the mind when death occurs.

Here we’ll focus attention on the Buddha’s teachings as to which actions can create which possible openings for rebirth when you’re dying.

Rebirth can occur on many levels. Although the discourses contain no complete map of the many individual destinations for rebirth in the cosmos, they do provide several sketches of the major levels, giving a general idea of where your actions, both past and present, can take you.

The Buddhist cosmos is many times vaster, both in terms of space and time, than the physical cosmos generally accepted by modern science. In terms of space, the physical universe as we know it contains only two of the five major levels of rebirth: rebirth as a human being or as a common animal. On a higher plane in the Buddhist cosmos are the worlds of the devas: celestial and terrestrial beings who, together with their worlds, are generally invisible to the human eye, and who experience much less pain and suffering than human beings do.

Devas exist on many levels. The highest are the brahmās, who experience the bliss and equanimity of the various levels of jhāna and the formless levels of concentration. Lower than these are the celestial devas of sensuality, and lower than those are the devas and other spirits who inhabit trees and other locations on Earth. These are said to be “generally” invisible to the human eye because there are cases where people develop powers in their concentration that enable them to see devas—in some instances, these powers carry over from concentration practiced in a previous lifetime—and there are other cases where devas make themselves visible even to people without those powers.

The Canon devotes several discourses to the problem of brahmās who, because of their immensely long life span, think they’ve achieved liberation from death and rebirth. As a result, they become heedless, thinking that there’s nothing more for them to do to achieve unchanging bliss. But even though they may have done many skillful actions in body, speech, and mind to achieve their high level of rebirth, those actions give only temporary results, which means that even the longest-lived brahmā position is temporary as well. A heedless brahmā who hasn’t reached any of the levels of awakening could easily be reborn even in the lowest realms.

Lower than the human level, but higher than the level of common animals, is the realm of the hungry ghosts. These are beings who live invisibly in the space of the human world, feeding off the merit dedicated to them by human beings, but suffering in various ways from misdeeds done when they were human. Except for one gruesome series of passages (SN 19), the early discourses say very little about them. Examples from that series include a former hunter whose hair was like knives, with the knives piercing his body again and again. Another is a former adulteress who was being pursued by vultures and crows who tore at her flesh. Later sections of the Canon, however, devote whole collections of poems to describing the lives of individual hungry ghosts in great detail, saying that even though they tend to suffer more than human beings, some of them have their sporadic pleasures and can understand human speech. This may be why the discourses rank them above common animals.

Lower than the common animals are the levels of the invisible hells. As with life on all levels, including the levels of heavenly beings, life in these hells is temporary. When a person reborn in hell has suffered the results of past bad kamma, he or she can take rebirth on a higher level. It’s worth noting that although the discourses describe the realms of the devas in only sketchy terms, they go into great detail on the punishments of hell—much more extreme than those suffered by hungry ghosts—probably as a way of inducing compunction in those who hear or read those teachings.

In addition to these five major levels of rebirth, the Canon also mentions the existence of beings who don’t fit neatly into any of the five levels. Examples include nāgas, magical serpents who are technically common animals, but who have psychic powers and can assume human form and converse with human beings at will; and asuras, deva-like beings, generally fierce, who were expelled from the heavens and who live in scattered locations. It may be because of beings like this that the Buddha, as portrayed in the discourses, never made any attempt to list all the possible levels of rebirth. The list would have been far too long.

One discourse (MN 12) gives similes for the five major levels: The deva realm is like a palace compound with a luxurious bed. The human realm is like a tree growing on even ground with lush foliage providing dense shade. The realm of the hungry ghosts is like a tree growing on uneven ground providing spotty shade. The realm of common animals is like a deep cesspool. Hell is like a deep pit of glowing embers so hot they that they emit neither flame nor smoke.

Rebirth in the lower realms, from hungry ghosts on down, comes from breaking the five precepts—against killing, stealing, engaging in illicit sex, telling lies, and taking intoxicants—and engaging in wrong speech, which in addition to lying includes divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter. It’s not inevitable, though, that these misdeeds always result in such a miserable rebirth.

We’ve already noted the complexity of kamma, in that someone who has performed these misdeeds can be saved from the lower realms by earlier or later good behavior, or by adopting right view at the moment of death. But even if such a person manages to be reborn on the human level, he or she will suffer the consequences of those misdeeds there: being subject, say, to a shortened life from having killed living beings in a previous life. But here again, if that person practices the Dhamma in the new life—in particular, training the mind in the brahmavihāras, training in virtue and discernment, and training the mind not to be overcome by either feelings of pleasure or feelings of pain—then the results of past bad actions will have a much weaker impact on the mind.

Just as the Buddhist cosmos is more extensive in space than the known Western cosmos, so is it vastly more extensive in time. The discourses speak of cosmos followed by cosmos, going through mind-boggling long periods of expansion and then contraction. Think of how long the stars and galactic clouds of our current cosmos have been in existence. That’s just part of one cycle of expansion and contraction. When the Buddha was describing people with memories of past lives, he classed the ability to remember back 40 such cycles of expansion and contraction as short. As he also said, the beginning point for the whole process is inconceivable. Not just unknowable, inconceivable.

And we’ve been wandering through repeated deaths and rebirths through all that time—which means that we’ve been doing it many times longer than the lifespan of the oldest galaxies in our cosmos. Think of that the next time you see a picture of a galaxy billions of light-years away.

This is a useful perception to keep in mind, and for several reasons. First, belief in the principle of rebirth helps to counteract one common reason for fearing death: the fear that death means total annihilation. The Buddha affirms that as long as there’s still craving in the mind, you’ll continue to have opportunities to pursue happiness even after death. In other words, if you want to be reborn, you will. At the same time, if you’re afraid that death will separate you from those you love and those who love you, the Buddha offers reassurance that loved ones who want to meet again after death will do so if they develop, in common, four qualities: conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment.

Still, repeated rebirth is at best an iffy proposition. To begin with, even if you don’t want to be reborn, you’ll still have to take rebirth as long as there is ignorance and craving in the mind. And as for hoping to meet again with your kin and loved ones, how many of them can be relied on to develop right view and maintain it all the way through death? The number of human beings reborn in at least the human realm—to say nothing of the higher realms—is infinitely small when compared to the number reborn in the lower realms. We love our loved ones because of their goodness, but the goodness of individuals can be a fickle thing. Rather than focusing on the goodness of particular individuals as you face death, you’d be safer to focus on goodness itself.

Think back on the Buddha on the night of his awakening. He was able to attain release by focusing not on the beings who were doing actions, but on the actions—and their results—themselves. In a similar way, you’re much safer in hoping to rely on your own good deeds, so that you’ll meet with goodness wherever you go. Kinship with those deeds is a more secure refuge than kinship with individual people, no matter how loving or kind. As the Dhammapada puts it:

A man long absent

comes home safe from afar.

His kin, his friends, his companions,

delight in his return.

In just the same way,

when you’ve done good

& gone from this world

to the world beyond,

your good deeds receive you—

as kin, someone dear

come home. — Dhp 219–220

Conviction in this principle motivates you to look inward to examine your friendship with the qualities of your mind. As the Buddha noted, we tend to go around with craving as our companion. We’d do better to become companions with the principle of heedfulness and the good deeds it will inspire us to do.

Yet even the refuge offered by this relationship is not totally secure. Your good deeds can find expression in your meeting with new loving people in the next life, but then those relationships, too, will end. And when you think in terms of the Buddha’s deep sense of time, you have to realize that these relationships have been formed and dissolved so many times that it would be hard in this lifetime to meet with someone who had not, at some point in that long stretch of time, been your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your daughter, or your son (SN 15:14–19). Think about that the next time you walk along a crowded street. People who were once your closest relatives—people over whose death you shed more tears than there is water in the ocean (SN 15:3)—are now random faces in the crowd. Think about that the next time you see the ocean. How many more times do you want to establish new relationships that will end in more oceans of tears?

This thought, as the Buddha noted, should be enough to give rise to dispassion for the prospect of rebirth, and for a desire instead to gain total release.


When you’re convinced of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, you can’t help but be impressed by the compassion with which he made them available. After all, on gaining awakening, he was indebted to no one. He could have lived out his life simply enjoying the bliss of release. Instead, he went to all the trouble of formulating the Dhamma and Vinaya, teaching and training people from all walks of life for 45 years. From this thought, it should be easy to develop a sense of shame around the idea of not taking advantage of his teachings on how to understand and prepare for aging, illness, and particularly death. He has charted the way, and it would be a shame to throw away the chart.

But as the texts make clear, the facts of aging, illness, and death are all around us in the human realm. People in general, whether Buddhist or not, should be ashamed of being heedless when it’s so obvious that they have to prepare for these facts of life.

This is the point of the passage in the Canon that tells of the five deva messengers that we’ve been citing in the course of this book. The story goes that a human being who has died is brought before Yama, the king of the dead. Yama notes that this person has been heedless in his behavior throughout life, so he questions him: Didn’t you see the five deva messengers? The man answers that he saw them, but didn’t regard them as messengers. Yama then shames him for being so blind as to not get the obvious message: “I’d better do good in body, speech, and mind” (MN 130).

The Canon also treats heedlessness as shameful in a more indirect way, in the story of King Koravya, from which we’ve also been quoting in the course of this book. The king visits a young monk, Ven. Raṭṭhapāla, and asks him why he had ordained, given that he had suffered no loss in terms of relatives, health, or wealth. Raṭṭhapāla answers with four Dhamma summaries concerning aging, illness, death, and the power of craving. He gets the king to reflect in a poignant way on the fact that he, too, is subject to aging, illness, and death.

Then Raṭṭhapāla gets to the fourth Dhamma summary. He asks the king if, had he the chance, he would still want to conquer other kingdoms, even one on the other side of the ocean. The king, without hesitating, responds that yes, of course he would. This, in spite of the fact that he is old and has just reflected on the fact that he can’t take anything with him aside from his kamma when he dies. Raṭṭhapāla says nothing to shame the king, but the receptive reader is made to reflect on him or herself, seeing that to give in so blindly to the power of craving would clearly be something to be ashamed of (MN 82).

Two other cases from the Canon show the positive power of shame around the issue of rebirth. They deal with monks, but they’re applicable to serious lay practitioners as well. In both cases, the monks turn their backs on the higher goal of release, and practice for the sake of being reborn as devas to enjoy the sensual pleasures of heaven. AN 7:47 calls this aspiration a “fetter of sexuality,” from which a monk should try to free himself. So monks who continue to aspire to that goal are fair game for criticism.

In the first of the two cases (DN 20), a devout Buddhist laywoman is reborn as a deva in the heaven of the Thirty-three, one of the sensual levels of heaven, but one in which it is possible to continue practicing the Dhamma. She sees three gandhabbas, servants of the devas on that level, who were formerly monks, indulging heedlessly in sensual pleasures. According to the discourses, gandhabbas are obsessed with music and sex, so she goes to shame them: “Why on earth didn’t you exert yourselves in the Blessed One’s teachings? I, formerly a woman who—inspired by the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha, having been perfect in terms of the precepts—have been reborn… as a son of the king of the devas.… It’s a sad sight to see our fellows in the Dhamma reborn in the inferior state of gandhabbas!” Two of the gandhabbas, stung with shame, go off to practice meditation and are reborn in the higher state of Brahmā’s retinue—a non-sensual level of heaven. The other gandhabba, though, is immune to shame and stays stuck where he is.

The other case (Ud 3:2) is more famous. Ven. Nanda, the Buddha’s half-brother, wants to disrobe and return to the woman he left behind when he ordained. The Buddha learns of this and so takes Nanda up to the heaven of the Thirty-three, where he sees the king of the devas waited on by 500 dove-footed nymphs. The Buddha asks him: Which is lovelier, the woman he left behind or the 500 dove-footed nymphs? Nanda replies that, compared to the nymphs, the woman he left behind looks like a “cauterized monkey with its ears and nose cut off.” So the Buddha promises Nanda that if he stays on as a monk, he’ll get 500 dove-footed nymphs after death.

Nanda agrees to stay ordained on that condition, and word gets out. The other monks, learning of the deal, call him a hired hand, someone who has been bought off with nymphs. Ashamed, Nanda goes off to practice in earnest, and eventually gains full awakening. He then goes to the Buddha and releases him from his promise. He has no desire for nymphs anymore.

Now, this is not to say that it’s wrong to aim at rebirth on the heavenly planes. After all, the Canon contains many examples of devas and brahmās who practice the Dhamma and can gain any of the levels of awakening. What’s shameful is aiming at the higher levels simply for the sake of their sensual pleasures. To aim at the higher levels in hopes of continuing to practice the Dhamma, if you can’t complete your practice here, is not shameful at all.

There’s a more general case involving the skillful use of shame at the approach of death, and that relates to a custom among the monks of the Buddha’s time. Normally, it was considered bad form for a monk to tell his fellows about his superior human attainments: the jhānas, the cognitive powers based on them, or the noble attainments of awakening. However, when a monk was dying, his fellows were to ask him if he had any such attainment and, if so, to focus his mind there. As a result, the Buddha recommended, as a frequent practice beforehand, that each monk reflect: “Have I attained a superior human attainment, a truly noble distinction of knowledge and vision, such that—when my companions in the holy life question me in the last days of my life—I won’t feel abashed? (AN 10:48)” In other words, if a monk reflecting in this way hadn’t yet gained such an attainment, then to avoid feeling ashamed at the hour of death, he should practice to do so now.

These are a few examples of how shame can play a positive role in getting people to practice in earnest in preparation for death so as to get the most out of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma, rebirth, and release. Ideally, you don’t want others to have to shame you in these ways. But there’s nothing wrong with developing an inner sense of shame over the idea of behaving heedlessly when the facts of aging, illness, and death surround you on all sides. This healthy sense of shame can motivate you to become heedful—and when you do become heedful, the Canon tells us, you brighten the world like a moon released from a cloud (Dhp 172).


Many of the Buddha’s teachings for approaching death in a wise manner are aimed at overcoming the most common reasons for fearing death: fear of losing human sensual pleasures, fear of losing the body, fear of being punished for cruel deeds you know you’ve done in the past, and the larger fear of not knowing what death holds in store when you haven’t seen the true Dhamma (AN 4:184).

These four fears are directly related to the three types of craving. Fear of losing human sensual pleasures, of course, is related to craving for sensuality. Fear of losing the body is related both to craving for sensuality and to craving for becoming, in that the body is one of your tools for finding sensual pleasures in the human world and forms a large part of sense of your self functioning in that world. Fear of punishment also relates to craving for sensuality and craving for becoming, in that you crave a new becoming but you don’t want to be forced into a world where you’ll be subjected to pain. Fear of not knowing the true Dhamma relates to all three forms of craving: Regardless of what you crave, your ignorance of what happens after death means that you don’t know if your cravings will be thwarted or fulfilled.

In every case, the fear comes from a sense of powerlessness combined with ignorance: You realize that there may be unknown forces beyond your control that could prevent your cravings from achieving their goals. Because these four fears feed off of craving, ignorance, and a sense of powerlessness, they can lead to all sorts of unskillful behavior, which is why they have to be overcome. As we will see below, the first step in overcoming these fears is to overcome the hindrances to concentration and discernment.

However, there is one type of fear surrounding death that the Buddha actually encourages, and that’s compunction. As we’ve already noted, compunction means fearing the painful consequences coming from doing unskillful actions. It, along with a sense of shame, is called a guardian of the world in that it inspires you to avoid doing anything that would cause harm, either to yourself or to others. Reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings on kamma, death, and rebirth, you’re concerned about how your actions will open or close possibilities for good or bad rebirths. So you care about your choices in the present moment and the long-term effect they will have.

Compunction differs from the other types of fear surrounding death in two important and connected ways. First, because it’s based on conviction and heedfulness, it always leads you to behave skillfully. Second, it’s a type of fear associated, not with a feeling of powerlessness, but with a sense of power. You realize the power of your actions to shape your experience of the present and the future, and you’d be afraid to abuse or misuse that power—or to let it go to waste.

The Canon describes compunction specifically as coming from a strong sense of the consequences of poor bodily, verbal, and mental conduct. Poor bodily conduct is defined as killing, stealing, and engaging in illicit sex. Poor verbal conduct is defined as telling lies, divisive tale-bearing, abusive speech, and idle chatter. Poor mental conduct is defined as inordinate greed, ill will, and wrong view.

To inspire a sense of compunction in his listeners, the Buddha would occasionally describe, in great detail, the miseries of hell awaiting those who behave unskillfully in any of these ways. He would also list the unfortunate consequences that particular unskillful actions tend to produce after death even when they don’t lead to hell. We’ve noted repeatedly that his teaching on kamma is not a strict determinism, but still, acts of certain types have the tendency to lead to certain types of results. If you don’t want to create unnecessary difficulties for yourself in the future, you’ll take these lists to heart.

We’ve already alluded to one of these lists (AN 8:40) in the section above on conviction, when we noted that rebirth in the lower realms, from hungry ghosts on down, comes from breaking the five precepts—against killing, stealing, engaging in illicit sex, telling lies, and taking intoxicants—and engaging in wrong speech, which in addition to lying includes divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter. This list is equivalent to the seven types of poor bodily and verbal conduct, with the addition of taking intoxicants to bring the total list to eight. As we also noted, these actions don’t always lead inevitably to rebirth on the lower levels, but if you come back to the human level, they can still produce unfortunate consequences here. The results they tend to produce here are these:

• Taking life leads to a short life span.

• Stealing leads to loss of one’s wealth.

• Illicit sex leads to becoming a victim of rivalry and revenge.

• Telling lies leads to being falsely accused.

• Divisive tale-bearing leads to the breaking of one’s friendships.

• Abusive speech leads to hearing unappealing sounds.

• Idle chatter leads to hearing words that aren’t worth taking to heart.

• Taking intoxicants leads to mental derangement.

Another list for inciting compunction (MN 135) deals more with character traits and habits, although it overlaps with the above list in one instance. These traits don’t obviously map on to the standard list of the types of poor conduct, although it could be argued that the last four traits in the list below reflect wrong view. Again, these traits can lead to rebirth on a lower realm, but if you come back to the human realm, they can also produce these consequences:

• Taking life leads to a short life span.

• Injuring living beings leads to being sickly.

• Being ill-tempered and easily provoked to anger leads to being ugly.

• Being resentful and envious of the respect shown to others leads to being uninfluential.

• Being ungenerous leads to being poor.

• Being obstinate and arrogant, refusing to show respect to those who deserve it, leads to being reborn in a low social status.

• Not asking wise contemplatives what actions will lead to long-term welfare and happiness leads to stupidity.

Now, if you avoid these actions and instead engage in their opposites, your actions will tend toward opposite good consequences in this life and in future lives. For example, if you don’t resent the respect shown to others, you’ll tend to be influential. If you abstain from intoxicants, you won’t suffer derangement.

As for the three types of poor mental conduct and their negative impact on future lives, the Buddha provides no lists, but he does treat the three individually at scattered locations in the discourses.

In the case of greed, he points out that those who are obsessed with greed—trying to gain and maintain power to satisfy their greed—tend to inflict suffering on others who get in their way. As a result, they tend to deny the truth about their actions. Not wanting their own lies to be uncovered, they become unable—and often unwilling—to untangle the lies of others. Their thoughts and words stray away from the Dhamma. As a result, they dwell in suffering in the here and now, “feeling threatened, turbulent, feverish,” and after death can expect a bad destination (AN 3:70).

As for the effects of ill will and wrong view at death, the Buddha gives the example of a soldier struck down in battle at a moment when he is fighting while thinking, “May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.” His thoughts of ill will have the power to potentially send him to the hell of those slain in battle. But if he believes that he’s destined for the heaven of those slain in battle, that’s wrong view. And the results of wrong view, the Buddha says, are rebirth either in hell or an animal womb (SN 42:3).

We’ve already discussed the more general effects of wrong view, especially at death. If you adopt wrong view at that time, it’s enough to delay the results of your prior good actions to a much later rebirth.

There are also more subtle effects of wrong view at the moment of death, in which you can fasten on a mind state that’s relatively skillful but which falls short of the goal. A poignant example of this tendency is the story of one of Ven. Sāriputta’s disciples, a brahman named Dhanañjānin, who is on his deathbed. Sāriputta goes to visit him and, noticing that Dhanañjānin seems fixated on the idea of gaining rebirth in the brahmā world, teaches him the brahmavihāras. Soon after Sāriputta leaves, Dhanañjānin, having practiced the brahmavihāras, dies and is reborn in a brahmā world. The Buddha later chides Sāriputta for having left when there was still more to be done—meaning that Dhanañjānin could have been led to one of the noble attainments (MN 97). The point of this story is to encourage a person with compunction to do his or her best not to settle for second best as death approaches.

So the lesson of compunction is that because your actions have the power to lead to evil, good, or even greater good, you should care about how you choose your actions so that you can avoid unnecessary pain and trouble now and into the future. For this reason, a strong sense of compunction is a useful trait to develop as you do your best not to create difficulties for yourself at death.

Persistence (1)

When you’re convinced of the truth of the Buddha’s analysis of the way kamma works at the moment of death, and of the demands that will be placed on you at that time—and your feelings of shame and compunction tell you that you’d be a fool not to do what you can to be prepared—the heedful thing to do is to get to work. Give rise to qualities that, at the very least, will open good opportunities for rebirth, and abandon qualities that will lead your cravings at the moment of death astray.

Some people object to the lessons of heedfulness here, saying, “Why can’t we simply enjoy the pleasures of the human world? Why do we have to keep preparing for another life?” Here it’s important to understand that the Buddha is not saying that you can’t enjoy the pleasures of the human life. After all, he criticizes misers for not enjoying their wealth, because their miserliness will give rise to an unhealthy attitude toward their own happiness and the happiness of others, leading to a lack of compassion all around. Any pleasure that doesn’t involve unskillful attitudes is perfectly fine.

The Buddha gives two tests for determining which sensual pleasures qualify as relatively skillful. The first is that if a pleasure involves breaking the precepts, it’s to be avoided. The second involves noticing the effect that the pleasure has on the mind. If it fosters unskillful mental states, it should be avoided. If it doesn’t, then it’s perfectly all right (MN 101). Just make sure that you’re not like the person who gets a job and then, on receiving his first paycheck, quits and spends all his money. Be more heedful. Keep on working, and enjoy your money on the side.

After all, the qualities that the Buddha says lead to a good rebirth can be sources of pleasure, too. In fact, the really good things in human life are not the good sights to see, sounds to hear, or tastes to taste. They’re the opportunities that a human birth provides to do good things for one another and to develop good qualities in the mind, leading to the ultimate goodness of nibbāna.

The Buddha commonly lists four qualities that create openings for good rebirths: conviction, virtue, generosity, and discernment. These, you may remember, are the qualities of an admirable friend—and also the qualities that you want to develop together with any of your loved ones whom you want to meet again in a future life. By developing these qualities in yourself, you’re acting as your own best friend. You show that you really do love yourself.

In other contexts, the Buddha mentions two other qualities that are also conducive to rebirth on the higher levels: learning and the practice of the sublime attitudes.

This gives six qualities. Of the six, we’ve already said a great deal about four: conviction, virtue, the sublime attitudes, and discernment. Here we can focus on the remaining two.

Learning means learning the Dhamma. You listen often to the Dhamma and memorize passages that you find especially meaningful. The Canon adds that you also discuss them with others and try to penetrate their meaning. When the Buddha compares Dhamma practice to the ways in which a fortress is protected, learning is the storehouse of weapons used by the soldiers of right effort (AN 7:63).

It’s not hard to see why this sort of erudition would be a useful preparation for death. When craving comes whispering its deceptive ideas into your mind, knowledge of the Dhamma gives you a fund of ready responses to use against it. This type of learning is especially needed in the modern world, where people’s minds, exposed to mass culture, have so many thoughtless jingles and songs sloshing around inside. You certainly don’t want the ideas expressed in their lyrics to take hold of the mind as you approach death. The best defense against that is to learn passages of Dhamma and frequently repeat them to yourself. Let them slosh around in your mind, where they can do you a lot of good.

To help in this direction, a collection of Dhamma passages useful for memorization in preparation for death is included in the Appendix.

As for generosity: The first lesson about generosity is that a gift has to be voluntary if it’s to count as a genuine gift.

King Pasenadi once came to ask the Buddha, “Where should a gift be given?” He probably expected the Buddha to say, “To Buddhists,” or, “To Dhamma teachers.” But the Buddha said something very different: “(Give) where the mind feels confidence. (SN 3:24)” In other words, there are no “shoulds” as to where you should give a gift. That’s why, when the monks are asked, “Where should I give a gift?” they’re supposed to answer, “Give wherever your gift would be used, or would be well-cared for, or would last long, or wherever your mind feels inspired.”

The reason for the monks’ restraint in this area derives from the fact that the virtue of generosity is closely related to the teaching on kamma. When the Buddha introduced the topic of kamma in his explanation of mundane right view—the level of right view conducive to a good rebirth—he started by saying, “There is what is given.” This idea may sound too obvious to even mention, but in fact there were teachers in his time who denied that anything was really given.

They had two main lines of reasoning for saying this. One was that your actions were totally determined by the past, so you really had no choice in the matter. The things you gave to other people were not really gifts, because the stars or past kamma or a creator god had arranged that the item would have to change hands. So instead of being a virtue, the giving of a gift was simply a matter of outside forces working themselves out. The other line of reasoning was that people were annihilated at death, so nothing was accomplished by being generous: both the donor and the recipient would turn to nothing at death, so why bother giving anything to anyone?

This means that when the Buddha taught, “There is what is given,” he was making two implicit statements: One, you do have the choice to give or not to give and, two, the act of giving bears meaningful fruit. In fact, it’s possible to see the act of giving as your first experience of free will and of the benefits of acting on skillful intentions: You have an item that you could use yourself, but instead, you see that you’re free to give it away. You also see that the pleasure you gain as a result is greater than the pleasure you could have derived from keeping the item for yourself. It’s for this reason that the Buddhist culture around giving is designed to protect the act of giving as a totally voluntary act.

However, King Pasenadi went on to ask another question of the Buddha: “But a gift given where bears great fruit?” That, the Buddha replied, was a different question, and it required a different answer.

It’s with this question that we approach the act of giving as a skill. And it’s here that we see how the other qualities conducive to a good rebirth—conviction, virtue, the sublime attitudes, and discernment—play a role in enabling the act of generosity to bear the greatest possible fruit.

Generosity as a skill takes into consideration four factors:

• the recipient of the gift,

• the item given,

• your motivation in giving, and

• your attitude while giving.

The recipient: In answering King Pasenadi’s question, the Buddha noted that gifts given to those whose minds are devoid of passion, aversion, and delusion—or to those practicing to abandon these defilements—bear the greatest fruit. The reason for this is that these people will make the best use of the gift. When the donor sees them doing that, his/her mind generates a sense of joy. Recognizing a potential recipient of this sort requires that you use your powers of observation and exercise your discernment. This is one of the ways in which discernment augments the happiness coming from the act of giving.

Now, it’s important to note that the Buddha did not counsel against giving to people who are not on the path to the end of passion, aversion, and delusion. During his lifetime he was accused of saying that the only gifts that bear fruit are those given to himself or his followers, but as he notes in AN 3:58, the accusation was untrue. He goes on to say that whoever prevents a potential donor from giving a gift where the donor feels inspired to give creates three obstacles: an obstacle for oneself, an obstacle for the donor, and an obstacle for the intended recipient.

Then the Buddha clarifies his position: “Even if a person throws the rinsings of a bowl or a cup into a village pool or pond, thinking, ‘May whatever animals live here feed on this,’ that would be a source of merit, to say nothing of what is given to human beings.” But still, he concludes, the greatest merit comes from giving to those free of defilement or who are practicing to attain that freedom.

The item given: In another context, the Buddha notes two qualities of an ideal gift—that it’s given in season and that it doesn’t adversely affect the donor or the recipient. A gift out of season, for example, would be medicine for treating an illness that the recipient isn’t subject to. A gift that would adversely affect the donor would be one that would create financial hardships for the donor or his/her family. Also, a gift that the donor stole in order to give would also adversely affect the donor. A gift that would adversely affect the recipient, in the case of a monk or a nun, would be one that would be inappropriate for a contemplative to use, or would involve breaking the rules by which the monks and nuns live.

What this means is that it’s wisest to choose a gift that’s appropriate for the needs of the recipient. This requires thinking, with sympathy, of the recipient’s actual needs. In this way, generosity becomes an exercise in goodwill and compassion. It also becomes an exercise in creativity, as you use your imagination to anticipate what the recipient would need or would be pleased to receive.

The Buddha says very little about the relationship between the merit earned by a gift and the amount of money it costs. He does note that there’s more merit in giving a gift that’s equal to or better than the sort of items you use yourself, as opposed to giving something of worse quality than you would use. But he also notes that the material worth of the gift doesn’t matter nearly as much as the attitude with which it’s given.

The attitude: The best attitude when giving a gift is to give it attentively, instead of acting as if you’re throwing it away, and to give with a feeling of empathy and respect for the recipient. It’s also best to be convinced that something good will come of the gift. This is an area in which conviction in the principle of kamma plays a role in increasing the fruitfulness of the gift.

The motivation: Another area where conviction plays a role, along with discernment, is in the motivation for giving. In AN 7:49, the Buddha lists seven possible motivations for giving an appropriate gift to an appropriate recipient, and pairs them with the level of rebirth to which they tend to lead. In ascending order:

• A gift given with the thought of storing it up for yourself in a future life tends to lead to rebirth in the heaven of the Four Great Kings.

• A gift given, not with the thought of storing it up, but simply with the thought that “Giving is good” tends to lead to rebirth in the heaven of the Devas of the Thirty-three.

• A gift given with the thought of carrying on one’s family’s good tradition of generosity tends to lead to rebirth in the heaven of the Devas of the Hours.

• A gift given with the thought, “I’m well off. It’s not right that I don’t give to those who are not well off,” tends to lead to rebirth in the heaven of the Contented Devas.

• A gift given with the thought of continuing the tradition of those in the past who made famous large-scale distributions of gifts tends to lead to rebirth in the heaven of the Devas who Delight in Creation.

• A gift given with the thought that giving makes the mind serene and gives rise to gratification and joy tends to lead to rebirth in the heaven of the Devas Wielding Power over the Creations of Others.

Here it’s worth noting that these six heavens are on the sensual level, and that the donor who gives an appropriate gift with any of these motivations will return to the human level after his/her deva lifespan runs out.

• Finally, a gift given with the thought that it’s an ornament of the mind—in other words, the gift is given not with any felt need to feed emotionally off the results of the gift—tends to lead to rebirth in the non-sensual heaven of the Devas of Brahmā’s Retinue. The Buddha notes that this person will not return to this world. This apparently means that he or she will continue practicing on that level, and will reach awakening without coming back to the human realm.

For this reason, it’s wise to use discernment in thinking about your motivation for giving a gift.

In DN 33, the Buddha lists another way in which your motivation when giving a gift can affect the level of rebirth to which it leads. You can set your mind on being reborn either as a wealthy human being or as a deva in any of the heavens mentioned above, and the intention will come true if you are also virtuous. This is a case where virtue plays a role in increasing the fruitfulness of the gift. The Buddha gives the added proviso that rebirth in the non-sensual heaven of the Devas of Brahmā’s Retinue also requires that you have a mind devoid of passion, which in this context apparently means, at the very least, that it’s well developed in concentration.

When an appropriate gift is given with the proper attitude and motivation, it can lead to great joy in the anticipation of giving. This is where it’s enjoyable to exercise your imagination in devising an especially appropriate gift. Such a gift also engenders joy in the act of giving and then again afterwards, when you reflect on the good that you’ve done. This is why the Buddha said that acts of merit are another word for happiness (Iti 22): You don’t have to wait for future lives to enjoy them. When, for example, an act of generosity is accompanied by conviction, virtue, the sublime attitudes, and discernment, there’s joy in the action itself. And unlike the memory of past sensual pleasures now gone, the memory of a wise act of generosity is never tinged with regret. It’s a reliable source of self-esteem. It’s for this reason that the practice of reflecting on your generosity can be a source of strength at the approach of death.

Non-material generosity: So far we’ve been discussing the practice of giving material gifts, but the Buddha recognizes that there are other forms of giving that also tend to lead to a good rebirth. For example, you can give of your physical strength to help someone else give a gift, or you can think approving thoughts about that person’s gift. In both cases, you have a share in the merit—without, the Buddha notes, depleting the merit of the original donor (AN 5:36).

He also says that, in observing the precepts without exceptions, you’re giving universal safety to others—in other words, no one anywhere has to fear any danger from you—and you yourself have a share in that universal safety (AN 8:39).

Later Buddhist traditions add the gift of knowledge and the gift of forgiveness to the list of non-material gifts. The Forest ajaans will sometimes portray the entirety of the practice as a form of giving: To counteract the hungry dynamic of feeding and clinging, you develop inner wealth that you can then radiate to the world as you develop the perfections of your character. In this way, the simple act of giving a gift becomes a metaphor for the entire path to the end of suffering.

The highest gift, though, the Canon tells us, is the gift of the Dhamma (Dhp 354). This is because other forms of generosity provide the recipient with help from the outside, whereas if you give another person the Dhamma, that person can use the Dhamma to attack the true sources of suffering from within.

Here again, the Buddha established a culture by which the Dhamma is not to be sold. He refused to accept payment for his teachings (Sn 1:4) and in that way made it clear that the Dhamma thrives best when it is treated, both by the donor and by the recipient, as a gift. People sharing the Dhamma in this way get the most benefit from it, both now and into the future.

As you develop generosity along with the other qualities that tend toward a good rebirth—conviction, virtue, learning, the sublime attitudes, and discernment—you not only create the conditions for good rebirths, but you also provide your life with a narrative that you can be proud to look back on: You’ve lived your life in a manner that embodies values worthy of praise. This narrative will be helpful in two ways as you approach death. On the most basic level, it provides you with the confidence that you are genuinely worthy of a good rebirth. This confidence will help you withstand any doubts or fears that would pull your mind toward an undesirable destination. On a higher level, as we will note below, if you want to be able to go beyond rebirth entirely, you will have to abandon all narratives of yourself as a being in a world. If the narrative of your life has been full of actions you regret doing, it will be hard to let go. It’s much easier to abandon, without any negative feelings, a narrative in which your actions have been noble and harmless. So do your best to create that kind of narrative while you have the chance.

Persistence (2)

If you’re really heedful in your persistence, you can’t limit yourself to acting in ways that will produce openings for good rebirths. You also have to develop qualities of mind that will protect you from being led astray by craving as you die. Given that the mind, as the Buddha noted, is so quick to reverse direction even in ordinary day-to-day life, you need to develop all your mental skills to ensure that it stays on course as it’s buffeted by the greater challenges that present themselves when you can no longer stay in the body.

Think back on the Buddha’s image of how a being, on leaving this body and going to another, clings to craving in the same way that a fire clings to the wind as it’s blown from one house to the next. There are two ways in which the process can be handled skillfully—i.e., with relative skill or with absolute skill.

On the level of relative skill, you maintain your identity as a being, and you simply keep your cravings aimed in a good direction. In the Buddha’s analysis, this means staying attached to the five aggregates—that attachment is what defines you as a being—and gaining control over your cravings to the extent that you don’t let them get waylaid by unskillful mental states. You continue thinking in line with the basic elements of becoming: a being going from this world to the next. In terms of the Buddha’s analogy, you build good houses in the neighborhood and do what you can to ensure that the wind blows you to the best one available.

On the level of absolute skill, though, you dissolve your attachment to the aggregates and, in so doing, you release yourself from being defined as a being. At the same time, you stop thinking in terms of worlds in which it would be desirable to be reborn. In terms of the Buddha’s analogy, you lose your passion for houses and you let go of the wind. The fire releases its grip on the burning house and goes out: totally unbound.

In both cases, you acquire mastery by gaining control over the factors that can condition craving. As we’ve seen, dependent co-arising traces these factors back to ignorance. Now, as the Buddha notes, there’s no way of pointing back in time to the moment when ignorance first arose, but he also notes that ignorance is continually fed by the five hindrances that obstruct concentration and discernment:

sensual desire,

ill will,

sloth and drowsiness,

restlessness and anxiety, and


So the first order of business in gaining some control over craving and the string of conditions leading up to it is to overcome these hindrances. And it so happens that the Buddha’s discussions of the unskillful mental states that present dangers at the approach of death focus precisely on these same five hindrances. So whether you aim at relative skill or absolute skill in mastering craving, the hindrances are the first things over which you need to gain mastery.

It may seem strange that the Buddha doesn’t list sorrow or grief over your impending death as an obstacle when dying, but there’s a reason for this apparent omission. In his analysis, these forms of grief are rooted in the four reasons for fearing death that we mentioned in the discussion of compunction: fear of losing human sensual pleasures, fear of losing the body, fear of being punished for cruel deeds you know you’ve done, and the larger fear of not knowing what death holds in store when you haven’t seen the true Dhamma (AN 4:184). It’s because of these four fears that, in the Buddha’s words, a dying person “grieves and is tormented, weeps, beats his breast, and grows delirious.”

These four fears, in turn, can be overcome by mastering the hindrances. The first two fears are overcome when you master sensual desire, the fear of punishment is overcome when you master anxiety, and the fear of not knowing what death holds in store is overcome when you master doubt. So rather than focusing on the dying person’s grief as an obstacle at death, the Buddha follows the pattern of the four noble truths in general by devoting his primary attention to the causes of grief and the practices aimed at putting an end to grief by putting an end to the causes. That’s why his main focus is on mastering the hindrances.

Here, we’ll focus on how to gain relative mastery over the hindrances. Then, in the next section, we’ll focus on the Buddha’s instructions for how to make that mastery absolute.

We often hear of the hindrances simply as problems you encounter when trying to get the mind to stick with your theme of mindfulness or to settle down in concentration. But the fact that they also create problems at the moment of death underscores the truth of the statement, often made by the Thai ajaans, that meditation is primarily a process of learning how to die well. When you can get past the hindrances in practicing mindfulness and concentration on a daily basis, you’re getting practice in how to get past them as you die.

When you look in detail at the hindrances, it’s easy to see why they could cause problems at death.

Sensual desire refers to attachment to the body and to thoughts and plans for sensual pleasures. The Buddha was wise in defining sensuality, not as sensual pleasures, but as the mind’s fascination with fantasizing about them. You can often be more attached to your fantasies about sensual pleasures than to the pleasures themselves. And it’s this attachment that poses a great challenge at death, as you fear being deprived of the pleasures that having a human body has allowed you to enjoy in the past. This would make you eager to latch on to another body on the sensual plane. If you’re desperate, you could easily latch on to a body in one of the lower realms.

Ill will is the desire to see other people suffer or be punished because of their past bad actions. These thoughts can be disguised as righteous anger—a desire to see justice done—but if they seize the mind at the moment of death, you can be reborn with an attitude of revenge, which would pull you down.

Sloth and drowsiness obscure mindfulness and alertness, which are precisely the qualities you need to stay on top of events as you’re leaving the body.

Restlessness and anxiety can take the form of concern for the future of your loved ones, as to what will happen to them when you’re no longer there to care for them, or a concern over your own future: the possibility that you’ll be punished after death for your past misdeeds. This hindrance can also develop around any concerns that can arise when you realize that you’re dying, you notice that your mind is not in the best shape, and you’re worried that your lack of mindfulness or discernment will lead to a bad rebirth.

Doubt is doubt about the truth of the Dhamma. With regard to death, it boils down to doubts as to whether death will be followed by rebirth or by annihilation. This doubt can make you desperate to be reborn if you think that annihilation is the only alternative, and that sense of desperation can lead you to grasp at any opening for rebirth, no matter how bad.

Of these five hindrances, sensual desire, ill will, restlessness and anxiety, and doubt can be especially aggravated if the approach of death involves a lot of pain:

• You can easily be tempted to look for sensual fantasies as a means of escaping the pain.

• Your irritation at the pain can easily give rise to ill will for those who are caring for you, or for those whose past wrongs suddenly spring to mind.

• You might read that pain as a sign that death holds more pain in store, which can make you restless and anxious. Or, as noted above, if your brain starts malfunctioning as death approaches—or your mindfulness is simply scattered—you may be overcome with anxiety that your lack of control will lead you down, and the anxiety itself can become the problem.

• Unexpectedly severe pain may make you doubt the power of mindfulness, concentration, and discernment to deal with it.

So it’s easy to see that the hindrances will present special challenges as death approaches.

The Buddha gives two sets of similes to describe these five hindrances, similes that aid in visualizing them to yourself as genuine obstacles to the mind.

In the first set (SN 46:55), you imagine that you’re trying to see your reflection in a bowl of water, but the reflection is distorted or difficult to see for one of five reasons:

Sensual desire—the water is colored with dye.

Ill will—the water is boiling.

Sloth and drowsiness—the water is covered with algae and slime.

Restlessness and anxiety—wind is blowing over the water, creating ripples.

Doubt—the water is turbid and placed in the dark.

The second set of similes (DN 2) compares the hindrances to hardships:

Sensual desire is like being in debt.

Ill will is like being sick.

Sloth and drowsiness is like being imprisoned.

Restlessness and anxiety is like being enslaved.

Doubt is like carrying money and goods through desolate territory.

These similes are good to keep in mind, because the first problem when dealing with the hindrances is recognizing them as hindrances. Usually, when they arise, your first thought is not that they’re getting in your way or leading you astray. Instead, you tend to side with them, seeing them as reasonable and right: The objects of sensual desire really are desirable, the people you’d like to see suffer really deserve to suffer, and so on. However, once you can recognize that these mind states are distorting your view of reality and creating hardships for you, you’re ready for the antidotes that the Buddha recommends for counteracting them. As you practice overcoming the hindrances in the course of your meditation practice, you’re not only solidifying your mindfulness and concentration. You’re also getting one step closer to mastering the currents of craving that will flow out when the body is no longer a place where you can stay.

The Buddha’s instructions for dealing with the hindrances at the approach of death make most sense when viewed in the context of his teaching about how those currents of the mind influence death and rebirth. As we’ve noted, this teaching, in turn, is based on his explanation of kamma and rebirth. This means that doubt around accepting the truth of these teachings is the first hindrance you have to deal with. Even though you may have developed your conviction in the Buddha’s teachings prior to death, the pains and fears that can arise as death approaches can make your conviction waver. As the Buddha noted, even in ordinary circumstances, the mind is quick to change direction—so quick, that even he, a master of apt similes, could think of no adequate simile to illustrate how quickly that can happen (AN 1:49). This is why you have to do your best to overcome doubt as thoroughly as you can while you can, and to be prepared if it suddenly reappears at the approach of death.

AN 4:184, as we’ve noted, lists doubt about the true Dhamma as one of the major causes for fear and terror at the time of death. Now, this may sound strange, in that there are many people who’ve never even heard of the true Dhamma. But even they will fear death if they’re unsure about what will happen at death and if they have no firm basis for knowing that their actions can have a positive impact on what they’ll experience before, during, and after their dying moment.

The only sure cure for this type of doubt is to have practiced the Dhamma to the point of attaining the first level of awakening, called the arising of the Dhamma eye. That’s when your conviction in the Dhamma has genuinely been confirmed: You see a dimension of experience that isn’t touched by death, and you know that it can be attained through human efforts. But to practice to gain the Dhamma eye, you first have to accept the Buddha’s teachings on kamma and rebirth as working hypotheses on which you base your practice.

To strengthen your conviction in these working hypotheses, the Buddha advises that you carefully observe skillful and unskillful mental states as they arise in the mind and influence your actions, noting the results that come from acting on them. In particular, he recommends developing the four brahmavihāras to observe how they have a good impact on your actions and on your life as a whole (AN 3:66). As we’ll see below, the Buddha also recommends these four brahmavihāras as antidotes to two other hindrances: anxiety over your past mistreatment of others, and ill will toward people who have been or are mistreating you.

When you’ve followed these instructions heedfully, the Buddha notes that there’s no reason to fear what will happen after death (AN 4:116). This doesn’t totally overcome doubt about the true Dhamma, but it can give a measure of reassurance. If you pursue the brahmavihāras to the point of giving rise to strong concentration, that concentration can then become the basis for the development of insight leading to dispassion—and dispassion is what can lead to the arising of the Dhamma eye. That will put an end to doubt about the true Dhamma once and for all.

Drowsiness is another hindrance that has to be dealt with before dealing with the others. If you’re falling asleep, there’s no way you can recognize the other hindrances as they arise, nor can you do anything to counteract them. Strangely, this is the one hindrance not explicitly mentioned in the Canon as a potential obstacle at death. But because drowsiness is the main obstacle to mindfulness and alertness—and because the Buddha explicitly taught that one should approach the moment of death mindful and alert—there seems to be every reason to regard it as an implicit obstacle to the very skills you’ll need to deal with the hindrances when you’re dying.

This is why it’s good to master ahead of time the Buddha’s techniques for dealing with drowsiness. His primary recommendation, if you find yourself getting sleepy as you meditate, is to change your meditation theme to one that’s more rousing. If gentle breathing is putting you to sleep, breathe more forcefully. Or change your meditation topic altogether to one that involves more active thinking, such as the contemplation of the parts of the body, to develop some dispassion toward it—and toward the idea of taking on a new body after death. If you’ve memorized any passages of Dhamma, repeat them to yourself, either silently or out loud. This is another way in which learning the Dhamma is a good preparation for death. Rub your limbs and pull at your ears to increase the circulation in the body. Or, if you’re able, get up to do walking meditation (AN 7:58).

To guard against the need for narcotic painkillers at the approach of death, it’s also good to gain experience in dealing skillfully with pain so that you can learn to see the body, the pain, and your awareness as three separate but interrelated things, as noted in Chapter Three. When you can separate pain from the mind in this way, you’ll be in a better position to approach death mindful and alert.

As for the remaining hindrances, two—restlessness and anxiety, and ill will—are treated as out-and-out obstacles. Sensual desire, though, is treated in a more complex fashion, both as an obstacle but also as a lure for overcoming other obstacles.

Of all the hindrances discussed in relationship to imminent death, restlessness and anxiety seems to be the Buddha’s primary focus. In his various instructions for how to give advice to a person who’s dying, this is the hindrance he always treats first. This may be because the dying person is assumed already to have at least some conviction in the true Dhamma. Or it may be that, no matter what one’s beliefs, this hindrance can cause the most anguish and grief before, during, and after death.

When the Buddha visits individual monks who are sick, his first question—after asking after their physical comfort—is to ask if they have any anxiety, anguish, or remorse (SN 35:74–75). When Nakulamātar, one of the Buddha’s closest lay disciples, comforts her husband, who is severely ill (AN 6:16), she starts by saying, “Don’t be worried as you die, householder. Death is painful for one who is worried. The Blessed One has criticized being worried at the time of death.” When the Buddha gives advice to his cousin, Mahānāma, on how to counsel a dying person (SN 55:54), he tells him first to comfort the person as to his/her virtue, and then to ask if the person has any worries.

The discourses list a wide range of things that people might be worried about at the time of death. Nakulamātar focuses on her husband’s potential worries about her: that she won’t be able to support herself and the family, that she’ll take another husband, or that she’ll fall away from the Dhamma. In every case, she assures him that his worries are unfounded. She’s skilled at carding wool and spinning cotton, so she can easily support herself and their children; she’ll remain faithful to him even after his death just as she has been faithful throughout their life together; and she’ll feel an even greater desire to see the Buddha after he, her husband, is gone. As it turns out, her husband doesn’t die, and he goes, leaning on a stick, to see the Buddha, who tells him, “It’s your gain, your great gain, householder, that you have Nakulamātar—sympathetic and wishing for your welfare—as your counselor and instructor.”

As for Mahānāma, he’s also told to focus on any worries that a dying person might have about his/her family, but in this case he’s told to tell the person that the time when worry might be potentially helpful has past: “You, my dear friend, are subject to death. If you feel concern for your spouse and children, you’re still going to die. If you don’t feel concern for your spouse and children, you’re still going to die. It would be good if you abandoned concern for your spouse and children.” Instead, the dying person should focus on the business at hand: trying to face the challenges of death mindful and alert.

Other potential worries at the time of death are those focused more on what will happen after death. When the Buddha visited sick monks, he sometimes found that their major worry was that they would die without having attained a noble attainment that could guarantee the safety of their future course. He taught them to regard all possible objects of craving and clinging as not-self, and as a result, they all reached one or another of the levels of awakening (SN 35:74–75).

On a more mundane level, there are also worries around potential kammic punishments for past unskillful actions—which have a way of looming large in the mind as death approaches. This, in fact, is one of the major reasons why people fear death. The Buddha advises, in cases like that, that you recognize that no amount of remorse can go back and undo a past misdeed. Instead, you should recognize it as a mistake, not to be repeated, and then develop the brahmavihāras: thoughts of unlimited goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings (SN 42:8).

This practice accomplishes several things at once. By taking this expanded framework, you help to keep the mind from obsessing about the past deed, and to see it in the context of all the deeds, skillful and unskillful, committed by beings throughout the universe in their often unskillful quest for happiness. By developing goodwill for all other beings as well as for yourself, you strengthen your intention never to repeat your past mistakes. This helps to keep the mind from heading on a downward slope.

At the same time, you can allay your fears about your future course by reminding yourself of the good you’ve done and the good qualities you’ve developed in the mind. The Buddha recommends three recollections in this area:

• recollection of generosity—recalling times when you have voluntarily given gifts to others;

• recollection of virtue—recalling times you kept to the precepts even when you would have benefitted in the short term from breaking them; and

• recollection of the devas—recalling that you have developed within you the qualities that can lead to rebirth in a deva realm: conviction, virtue, learning, generosity, and discernment.

These reflections, the Buddha notes, gladden the mind and incline it to concentration, which helps get you past any worries or anxiety. This is why the tradition has developed in Buddhist countries that caregivers remind those who are dying of the good they have done and the good they have within them.

At the same time, these reflections can help comfort you if you’re concerned that your brain is malfunctioning or your mindfulness is muddled at the moment of death. SN 55:21 tells of a time when Mahānāma was concerned about his own future course: What if he died when attacked by a runaway horse or elephant, and his mindfulness was muddled? The Buddha reassures him that if the mind is well nurtured with conviction, virtue, learning, generosity, and discernment, it will rise upward from the body and separate out. He gives the following image:

“Suppose a man were to throw a jar of ghee or a jar of oil into a deep lake of water, where it would break. There the shards & jar-fragments would go down, while the ghee or oil would rise upward and separate out. In the same way, if one’s mind has long been nurtured with conviction, nurtured with virtue, nurtured with learning, nurtured with relinquishment, nurtured with discernment, then when the body—endowed with form, composed of the four primary elements, born from mother & father, nourished with rice & porridge, subject to inconstancy, rubbing, pressing, dissolution, & dispersion—is eaten by crows, vultures, hawks, dogs, hyenas, or all sorts of creatures, nevertheless the mind—long nurtured with conviction, nurtured with virtue, learning, relinquishment, & discernment—rises upward and separates out.”

Although Mahānāma was a stream-enterer, the Buddha does not make stream entry a precondition for reassurance here. Just make sure that you maintain confidence in right view, and you’ll benefit from the accumulated results of your good actions in the past.

Universal goodwill is also recommended for counteracting ill will at the time of death. Think of the soldier slain while wishing ill on his enemies: He’s destined to hell or the animal womb, neither of which are places you’d want to go. The antidote for ill will is goodwill for all, no matter how badly anyone has treated you. Here, think of the image of the bandits cutting you into pieces, mentioned in Chapter Three. Even in that case, the Buddha said, you should try to develop thoughts of goodwill, beginning with the bandits and then extending out to the entire cosmos. You don’t want to be reborn with thoughts of revenge, for that would get you involved in a kammic back and forth that could pull you nowhere but down. Goodwill, in this case, might not be able to protect you from the pain of a violent death, but it would liberate you from an enormous amount of suffering on into the future. So protect your goodwill as a mother would protect her only child (Sn 1:8).

Throughout the Canon, the Buddha treats the last remaining hindrance, sensual desire, as a major obstacle to getting and staying on the path. As we’ve noted, this type of desire also accounts for two of the major reasons for fearing death: attachment to sensual pleasures and attachment to the body. We’ve also noted that this attachment can become especially acute if the approach of death involves a lot of pain. As the Buddha said, if you can’t find a better alternative for escaping from pain—such as the pleasures of right concentration—your mind will try to escape into sensual fantasies. And when pain is severe, it’s not too picky about what sort of pleasures it will fantasize about. This puts you in a precarious position if you happen to die while engaged in fantasies of this sort.

This is why the Canon contains so many passages dealing with the drawbacks of sensuality—drawbacks that apply not only in this lifetime, but also in any other lifetime you may go to, from the human level on down. A desire for sensual pleasures forces people to work hard to gain wealth, and even when their efforts succeed—which is by no means a sure thing—they suffer in trying, often unsuccessfully, to protect their wealth from thieves, governments, and hateful heirs. Sensuality also leads to conflicts, ranging from family spats to total war between countries (MN 14). MN 53 gives a long list of images to illustrate the futility and dangers of sensuality. Among them: It’s like a bead of honey on the blade of a knife; like borrowed goods that the owners can take back at any time; like a person sitting in a tree, eating its fruit, when someone else comes along to cut the tree down with an ax; and like a dog gnawing on a bone that provides no nourishment at all. As Ajaan Lee explains this last image, the dog gets nothing but the taste of its own saliva.

Even heavenly sensual pleasures have their drawbacks. They weaken the mind and can easily lead to heedlessness. When you’re heedless, you’re headed for a fall.

The Canon also contains many passages dealing with the drawbacks of having a body: When you look at its individual parts, for instance, you can’t find anything that’s clean or worth getting attached to. The fact that you have a body leaves you open to all sorts of illnesses (AN 10:60)—a contemplation that we’ll treat in more detail in the next section. These contemplations help to keep you from resenting whichever parts of your own body have subjected you to illness—it’s the nature of all bodies and all body parts to be prone to illness—and to prevent you from aspiring to taking on another body after death in hopes of continuing to enjoy the sensual pleasures to which having that body would give you access.

The Buddha was so alive to the dangers of sensuality that he once taught that if your only choice was between indulging in sensual fantasies or falling asleep, you’d do better to fall asleep.

Given the general tenor of the Buddha’s teachings on sensuality, it’s somewhat surprising, then, that he also sees a use for sensual desire at the approach of death. He instructs Mahānāma that, after he has cleared away any worries in the mind of his dying friend, he should ask the friend if he/she is worried about leaving human sensual pleasures behind. If the answer is Yes, he should tell the friend that heavenly sensual pleasures are even more splendid and refined than human pleasures: One should set one’s mind on those. These instructions begin with the lowest level of the sensual heavens, starting with the heaven of the Four Great Kings. From there, they counsel the dying friend to aim at progressively higher levels of heaven, where the pleasures grow progressively more splendid and refined, until he at last has the friend aim at the highest heavens, the brahmā world.

If Mahānāma can get the friend this far, he should then tell the friend, “Friend, even the brahmā world is inconstant, impermanent, included in self-identity. It would be good if, having raised your mind above the brahmā world, you brought it to the cessation of self-identity.” If the friend can follow these instructions, then, the Buddha says, “There is no difference—in terms of release—between the release of that lay follower whose mind is released and the release of a monk whose mind is released.” In other words, it is possible for the person to reach full awakening at death.

At the very least, this passage shows how it’s possible to aim your desires at a realm where you can continue practicing the Dhamma with a minimum amount of suffering. And if you can keep your hindrances at bay, those desires have a good chance of bearing fruit.

This, of course, assumes that you’ve already had some background in training the mind in virtue, concentration, and discernment. This is a point that has to be kept in mind with regard to all of these hindrances: It’s best not to wait until the moment of death to try to master them. But still, even if death comes when you haven’t mastered concentration, that’s no reason to abandon hope. The Canon contains stories of people whose practice during the course of their lives was not especially inspiring, but who were able to pull their minds together and achieve a noble attainment at the moment of death.

Which goes to show that even when you’re dying, it’s still possible to achieve great things.

Mindfulness, Concentration, & Discernment

The greatest thing that can be accomplished at the moment of death, of course, is to gain total release from birth. As a Forest ajaan once said, people who feel comfortable with the idea of rebirth don’t understand rebirth. If you really take the Buddha seriously—that rebirth will keep on happening as long as there’s craving—you’ll want to find a way to put an end to birth once and for all.

As you’ll remember from the earlier chapters, the ending of birth depends on the ending of becoming. A becoming is an identity as a being in a particular world of experience. It, in turn, can be ended only when you focus on the steps in the process leading up to becoming. It was to lay out these steps that the Buddha taught dependent co-arising, and in particular, the roles played by the five aggregates and the six senses in the factors leading up to the suffering of aging, illness, and death.

Your sense of the world boils down to the six senses and the five aggregates. Your sense of your self—you as a being—is built out of the same raw material. This is the being that, if it’s not dismantled, will ride the winds of craving at the moment of death and set fire to the house next door. The act of creating and identifying with this being was what the Buddha was referring to when he advised Mahānāma to tell his dying friend to abandon self-identity. The friend was to look at the aggregates of form, feeling, perception, thought-fabrication, and sensory consciousness in such a way that he/she would have no sense of “I am this” hovering around any of them: thinking that he/she was either identical with the aggregate, possessing the aggregate, existing in the aggregate, or containing the aggregate within him/herself. Because the passage goes on to say that a person who could successfully follow these instructions would gain a release in no way inferior to the release of a monk whose mind is fully released, “self-identity” in this context must mean not only the sense of “I am this,” but also the more basic conceit, “I am.”

Now, this sounds disconcertingly like self-annihilation, but the Buddha assures us that there is a consciousness independent of the aggregates and the six senses that can be found only when attachment to the aggregates and senses falls away (DN 11; MN 49). It’s not a self of any kind—as the Buddha pointed out, when the six senses drop away, there can’t be the thought, “I am” (DN 15)—but this consciousness will not end, even with the death of the body and the ending of attachment.

To an unawakened mind, this consciousness may sound alien and uninviting, which is why you need a lot of reassurance and encouragement in this direction so that you’ll feel confident that the Buddha’s instructions are worth following to the end. Otherwise, you’ll try to find something to hold on to as the aggregates and senses slip away from your grasp. And of course, what you’ll latch on to will be the craving that clings to more aggregates as you ride the wind to set fire to another house.

That’s why, in his instructions to those who are sick or dying, the Buddha recommends ways of preparing the mind to look favorably on the idea of abandoning the aggregates and senses. Ironically, these ways involve using some of the aggregates as tools in this process. In particular, he has you focus on perceptions and feelings as the raft that will lead you to the other side of the river. These will help you focus on the drawbacks of all fabrications. Then, when you’ve arrived at the other shore, you can let the raft go.

There are many passages in the Canon that function in this way, but a good one to begin with is an image/perception that the Buddha cites more than once: People involved in becoming are like fish floundering in the puddles of a dried-up stream (Sn 4:2; Sn 4:15). The fish are fighting one another in an increasingly confined space, and even those who succeed in laying claim to the space will still die. Their struggles accomplish nothing, aside from creating the kamma of conflict and strife. The Buddha notes that perceiving the world in this way gave rise to the sense of saṁvega that inspired him to leave home and look for the deathless.

In another passage, he notes that even if you could turn two mountains the size of the Himalayan range into solid gold, it still wouldn’t be enough for one person’s desires (SN 4:20). The desire that leads to further becoming can never be fully satisfied, because what all beings have in common is the need to feed. Their hunger knows no end, and their feeding grounds—both in terms of physical feeding and emotional feeding—overlap. This is why, in trying to satisfy the desire that leads to becoming, we get into battles with one another, pulling ourselves down to levels of great suffering.

The purpose of these perceptions is to incline the mind to see the escape from becoming—which includes being a being—as a desirable thing.

A list of ten perceptions that the Buddha said should be taught to a sick monk makes the same point, but more directly.

The story goes that a monk, Ven. Girimānanda, is sick. Ven. Ānanda goes to the Buddha and asks him to kindly visit Girimānanda, but the Buddha instead tells Ānanda that he should be the one who makes the visit, giving him a list of ten perceptions to teach Girimānanda (AN 10:60). Ānanda does as he is told, and Girimānanda recovers from his illness. Even though this list wasn’t intended for someone who was dying at that point, a glance at the list shows that it’s an ideal set of perceptions to keep in mind as you approach death so that you won’t be inclined to want to take another birth.

The ten perceptions are these:

1) The perception of inconstancy: perceiving the five aggregates as inconstant.

2) The perception of not-self: perceiving the six senses along with their objects as not-self.

3) The perception of unattractiveness: analyzing the body into its many unclean parts.

4) The perception of drawbacks: listing many of the diseases to which the body is prey.

5) The perception of abandoning: not allowing unskillful mind states—such as sensuality, ill will, and harmfulness—to remain in the mind.

6) The perception of dispassion: perceiving the dispassion leading to unbinding as something exquisite.

7) The perception of cessation: perceiving the cessation leading to unbinding as something exquisite.

8) The perception of distaste for any world: abandoning any attachments for or obsessions with any world at all.

9) The perception of the undesirability of all fabrications: developing a sense of horror and disgust toward all fabrications.

10) Mindfulness of in-and-out breathing: training in the sixteen steps discussed in Chapter Three.

The dynamic of the list is interesting. The first two perceptions focus on the drawbacks of the raw materials from which a state of becoming could be fashioned: aggregates and sense media. The next two focus specifically on the drawbacks of having a body. The fifth perception focuses on the unskillful states of mind that would lead to an undesirable rebirth. The next two perceptions focus on the desirability of attaining the total liberation of unbinding. The next focuses back on the drawbacks of grasping at this world or taking birth in any world at all, even the most refined. This is the perception that helps to cut through any narratives going through the mind about what’s happening to “you” as you’re dying, where you’ve been, or where you’re about to go. The ninth perception looks directly at the process of fabrication in the mind, realizing that it’s the source of all the trouble entailed in becoming—your sense of you in a world. As a result, this perception induces a sense of disgust for fabrications of every sort. This is where the line of inquiry becomes self-reflective, because all the perceptions in the list up to and including this one are fabrications, too.

So how to abandon them? That’s the duty of the final perception. It may seem odd that mindfulness of in-and-out breathing is listed as a perception here, but think back on the role that perception plays in the second and third tetrads of the Buddha’s breath meditation instructions: In the second tetrad, you become sensitive to the role that perception plays in shaping the mind; in the third, you learn how to use perceptions to gladden, concentrate, and release the mind. Then, in the ultimate application of the fourth tetrad, you focus on the inconstancy of perceptions—following the five steps of the Buddha’s program for insight, which we discussed in Chapters Two and Three—until you can develop dispassion for them. Perceptions can then cease, and you can relinquish everything, even the path.

That’s one of the ways in which the Buddha would counsel a person who is sick and possibly dying to attain total release. There are some striking similarities between his instructions here and the instructions he gave when introducing mindfulness of breathing to Ven. Rāhula, which we discussed in Chapter Three. In both cases, he prefaces his breath meditation instructions with a series of perceptions designed to get the most out of his program of sixteen steps. There’s some overlap in the perceptions meant to induce dispassion—such as inconstancy, not-self, and the unattractiveness of the body—although in Rāhula’s case the instructions seem aimed at getting you started with breath meditation, whereas here the instructions seem more aimed at total dispassion, including, ultimately, dispassion even for the perceptions needed in the practice itself.

When you follow the Buddha’s instructions in either case, you are in effect borrowing his discernment to apply to the practice of right mindfulness and right concentration. This allows you to reach a level of inner calm where you can give rise to your own discernment into the nature and value of fabrication, allowing you ultimately to let all fabrications go.

Another way in which the Buddha would counsel a person who is sick and dying starts directly with the practice of right mindfulness, although here the focus is on the other aggregate listed under mental fabrication: feeling.

These instructions come in a discourse where the Buddha visits the monks in a sick ward (SN 36:7). His first piece of advice to them is to approach the time of death mindful and alert. “Mindful” he defines in terms of the standard formula for the first stage of right mindfulness practice, the establishing of mindfulness, which we discussed in Chapter Two. As MN 118 notes, all four establishings of mindfulness mentioned in that formula are fulfilled when the sixteen steps of breath meditation are fulfilled.

“Alert” he defines as clearly knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

The discussion then moves on to the second stage of mindfulness practice, in which you focus on the phenomenon of origination and passing away, here with the focus on the second frame of reference: feelings in and of themselves.

As we noted in Chapter Two, this second stage of mindfulness is where explicit notions of “self” and “world” are put aside. This stage is especially important as death approaches, because the mind at that point can often be overcome with narratives about you, the world you’re leaving, and the world to which you may go. These narratives, of course, are forms of becoming that tend to lead to further becoming. To cut them short, you need a way of regarding your experience in which you drop all reference to these basic terms of becoming. So this second stage of mindfulness practice is particularly useful at this point in helping to dissolve any narratives that may be running through the mind.

The Buddha notes that as you’re mindful and alert in this way—looking directly at the body, feelings, and awareness of the present on their own terms, and putting aside any narratives about “you” in a “world”—then when a feeling of pleasure arises, you reflect on the fact that it’s dependent on the body. And with the body being inconstant, fabricated, and dependently co-arisen, how can the feeling be constant? This thought inspires you to remain focused on the dissolution of the feeling of pleasure, along with that of the body, giving rise to dispassion, cessation, and relinquishment for both the body and the feeling. This contemplation, you’ll note, is in line with the steps of the final tetrad of the Buddha’s instructions in breath meditation.

When you do this, he says, you’ll abandon any passion-obsession with regard to the body or the feeling of pleasure.

You can also apply the same analysis to feelings of pain and feelings of neither pleasure nor pain. In the case of pain, you’ll then abandon any resistance-obsession with regard to the body or the feeling of pain. In other words, you won’t be consumed with the desire for the pain to go away. In the case of a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, you’ll abandon any ignorance-obsession with regard to the body or the feeling of neither pleasure nor pain. You won’t be inclined to ignore this neutral feeling, and so you’ll be able to comprehend it thoroughly.

As we noted in Chapter One, SN 12:15 adds an important observation here: When you’re focused on seeing events arise in the present moment like this, the idea of “non-existence” doesn’t occur to you. When you’re focused on seeing those events pass away in the present moment, the idea of “existence” doesn’t occur to you. When ideas of existence and non-existence are far from the mind, then the question of the existence or non-existence of your self or of the world also becomes a non-issue. You simply see everything arising and passing away as stress arising and stress passing away—a way of perceiving that would apply even to the arising and passing away of any sense of self or of the world. When all arisings are seen as stress, your only inclination is toward dispassion for everything. That’s how you free yourself from the constraints of becoming: by letting go of the basic terms of “self” and “world,” and escaping, through dispassion, the raw material that you used to lay claim to as your self or your world.

In a similar vein, SN 36:7 continues by saying that once you’ve abandoned the three obsessions around feelings and the body, you experience feelings as inconstant, not grasped at, not relished. With feelings of any sort—pleasant, painful, or neither—you sense them disjoined from them. That’s because you aren’t trying to feed on them, so they don’t invade the mind. Pains in the body are limited to the body. They don’t make inroads on awareness. As for pains limited to life, you know that they’ll end when life ends. When feelings are not relished, then at the ending of life, “all that is experienced, not being relished, will grow cold right here.”

This, Iti 44 tells us, is how a fully awakened person experiences death of the body. The phrase, “all that is experienced,” refers to the experiences of the six senses. As for consciousness without surface, which is not related to the six senses, that is without end.

The Buddha offers a simile to conclude SN 36:7: Just as the flame of an oil lamp burns in dependence on oil and wick, and will be unbound when the oil and wick run out, in the same way, all that is experienced, not being relished, grows cold right here. And as we noted in Chapter Two, when the Buddha spoke of a flame being unbound as it went out, the implication was not annihilation.

It was total release.

Now, the analysis here may seem abstract, but it’s actually pointing at direct experiences divorced from your social sense of self, and facing directly at something very intimate: your own internal experience of body, feelings, and mind. It was to establish this framework that the Buddha told the monks in the sick ward to be mindful, and then explained mindfulness in these terms. These are the things you’ll have to deal with directly as you approach death—anything else is extraneous—and if you can maintain your focus here, keeping the Buddha’s instructions in mind, you, too, can get the most out of his teachings. It was for the sake of this—that people could come out victorious in the face of death—that the Buddha searched for the Dhamma, found it, and revealed it to the world.

As he said, if people couldn’t follow these teachings, he wouldn’t have taught them. The fact that he did make the effort to teach shows that he had faith in all those who sincerely want to put an end to suffering. In teaching the Dhamma, he accomplished something audacious and great, so that you, too, can accomplish great things.