A few days ago my spouse went to hear Joan Halifax Roshi give a talk to paliative care workers in Ottawa.

Which got me thinking about death and about the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection. Normally, these subjects (the first four anyway) are evoked to induce non-attachment.


I am subject to aging,
I am not exempt from aging.

I am subject to illness,
I am not exempt from illness.

I am subject to death,
I am not exempt from death.

There will be change and separation from all that I hold dear and near to me.

I am the owner of my actions (karma), Heir to my actions, I am born of my actions, I am related to my actions and I have my actions as refuge. Whatever I do, good or evil, of that I will be the heir.

I haven’t read it yet, but I am confident in recommending Larry Rosenberg’s book Living in the Light of Death explores these reflections in detail and also offers meditational practices on death. I also know of at least one MP3 recording of a guided medtiation on death by Ayya Medhanandi.

Sometimes I say that I am looking forward to my death. It’s a peculiar thing to think and say, so I want to explain what I mean. First of all, I am certainly not looking forward to it in the sense that “I want to die.” Life is a precious and beautiful thing that I love and treasure. Furthermore, I know that I am afraid of death as much as the next person: afraid of the unknown, afraid of parting from those I love.

I am also not looking forward to the process of dying. A few years ago I read with fascinatio ]n  Sherwin Nuland’s book “How We Die” and I have no romantic illusions about a “beautiful death”. As a former surgeon, Nuland is uniquely qualified to witness that death comes in all manner of forms, some of them painful and extremely unpleasant.

But I am “looking forward” to death in this sense – Dharma teachers often say that this day-to-day practice of mindfulness is about preparing for death.  And Buddhist teachers invite us repeatedly to “let go”. But what other experience in life requires more a complete letting go than the transition from life to death? In a certain way death is the culmination of practice.

Although I have no clear idea about the “after life” or the “next life” – I do sense that the intelligent awareness in which I am partaking in this (currently) embodied conciousness actually belongs to something much greater than myself. I think one of the things you must let go of at death is the “self” that most of us are haunted by most of our lives. I may be mistaken that the self disolves at the time of death, but I hope it does and I do look forward to that.

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