As monastics, we are taught to contemplate old age, sickness, and death every day. Reflecting on these truths gives our practice a sense of urgency, as we come to understand that we are all together in this—that nobody is exempt from that fate. We need to remind ourselves regularly that, while we don’t know when we are going to die, it is certain that we will die—that death is inevitable.
For many people, death ideally would never happen. But dying isn’t a defeat or the result of a mistake. If we can learn to hold our whole life within the big picture of old age, sickness, and death, everything cools down, and we develop a sense of perspective from which to make better choices.
When we look more closely, it becomes apparent that it can’t be any other way. Death is the opposite of birth, not the opposite of life. There is no birth without death, and there is no death without birth. Our bodies arise out of the planet. We grow, we age, we die, and we return back to the planet again—one chapter closes, another opens. Through our meditation practice, we come to see ourselves as waves rising and falling on the surface of a great ocean. We see that death isn’t really the end, and birth wasn’t really the beginning, either.
If a wave rises out of the water, it must eventually fall back into the water, and then other waves will follow. Through the practice of maraṇasati (contemplation of death), we come to realize that we are just one tiny process within a vast universe of processes, all intermingling and unfolding, expanding and contracting—a great sea.
This practice not only prepares us for our own inevitable death, it also helps us to truly live.
This reflection by Ayya Santacittā is from the book, Leaving It All Behind, (pdf) p. 31.