The Nine-Point Death Meditation

Review and Setting the Context

We were talking about the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta, and the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Regarding renunciation (the determination to be free), we were on verse 4.

  • The first sentence talks about how to give up the obsession with the attractions and pleasures of this life.
  • That obsession becomes a huge obstacle to spiritual practice because it consumes so much time.
    • We chase around looking for pleasure.
    • In doing so, we create negative actions.
    • These leave negative karmic imprints on our mind, which bring about suffering results.
    • So running around looking for pleasure actually creates a lot of suffering for ourselves.
  • Seeking just the happiness of this life motivates people to kill, steal, have unwise sexual behavior, lie, use speech disharmoniously, gossip, use harsh words, all the non-virtues.
  • The motivation of "my happiness now" is the basic motivation with which we live our life at present.
    • We don't think beyond this life, e.g., what happens after we die? Where do we get reborn?
    • We don't think about a higher purpose to life.

Renunciation and the Eight Worldly Concerns

Seeking the happiness of just this life boils down to trying to get the "good" one of each of the four pairs of worldly concerns (gain, praise, good reputation, pleasure) and avoid the other four (loss, blame, bad reputation, pain).

  • In the process, we create a lot of negative actions and make misery for ourselves and others.
  • One antidote is to contemplate the freedoms and fortunes of a precious human life, see its purpose and meaning, and see how rare and difficult to attain it is.
  • Another antidote is to contemplate "the fleeting nature of our life," which, in the lamrim, is the meditation on impermanence and death.

Impermanence and Death

So this talk is about impermanence and death and how to use it to bolster our spiritual practice.

  • It's a very important topic; when you don't remember it, you waste precious time.
  • This is the first thing the Buddha taught after his enlightenment (in the Four Noble Truths).
  • It's also the last thing he taught, illustrated by his parinirvana.
  • People avoid talking or even thinking about death and impermanence.
  • We go through life not making any preparation for it, but it's the one thing that's certain to happen.
  • We have a calendar full of activities and commitments that we say we have to do. We don't have to do them; we choose to do them. The only thing we have to do is die.
  • So all the excuses we make for not having time to practice the Dharma—let's be clear and honest that these are choices we're making.

Six Disadvantages of Not Contemplating Death

There are six disadvantages if we don't remember impermanence and death.

  1. We don't remember to practice or be mindful of the Dharma.
  2. If we do remember the Dharma, we procrastinate (the maƱana mentality): "I'm too busy today." Then today becomes tomorrow, and somehow, we don't get around to practicing.
  3. Even if we do practice, our practice is not pure, i.e., our mind still has a motivation for the pleasures of this life. Our practice becomes impure if we don't purify our motivation through remembering impermanence and death.
  4. We won't practice earnestly at all times, i.e., our practice will lack intensity. We may do it as a routine, but it's not vital in our minds anymore.
  5. We create a lot of negative karma which will prevent us from gaining liberation. When we're not mindful of our mortality and karma, but instead seek only the happiness of this life, we don't take care with our actions.
  6. We will die with regret, because we have wasted our life. We haven't used it to transform our mind. Instead, we've just accumulated a lot of negative karmic imprint.

Six Advantages of Contemplating Death

There are six benefits of remembering death and impermanence.

  1. We get our priorities straight, so we act meaningfully and practice the Dharma.
  2. Our positive actions will be powerful and effective, uncontaminated by ulterior motivations for this life.
  3. It's important at the beginning of our practice because it propels us on the path. It makes us want to make our life meaningful.
  4. It's important in the middle of the path, because it helps us persevere, even when it's difficult.
  5. It's important at the end of practice, because it keeps us focused on the beneficial goals. We've gained some wisdom, compassion, and skill, and we feel energized to use them to benefit all beings.
  6. We die with a happy mind, without regret.

How and Why to Remember Death

There are two different meditations to help us remember impermanence and death: the nine-point death meditation and imagining our own death.

The purpose of thinking about death is not to get morbid and depressed, nor to get panicky about dying.

  • The purpose is to prepare for it.
  • When prepared for, the time of death isn't frightening; in fact, we're very peaceful.
  • We prepare for death by practicing the Dharma:
    • transforming our mind
    • giving up our ignorance, anger, selfishness, clinging attachment, pride, jealousy
    • purifying our negative actions
    • creating positive actions
  • Meditating on death can make you very calm and peaceful. When you think about what's important when you die, it puts the little things that typically bother us into perspective.

The Nine-Point Death Meditation

The nine points are divided into three subgroups. Each subgroup has a heading, and under it three points, and then a conclusion at the end.

  1. Death is definite.
    • Everybody dies and nothing can prevent our death. Here we think about those we know and care about, and recognize that they will all die. We ourselves will also die. Really let that sink in.
    • Our lifespan can't be extended when it's time to die. Our lifespan is getting shorter moment by moment. Our bodies begin decaying and dying from the time we're born; nothing can prevent their demise.
    • Death is going to happen even if we haven't had time to practice the Dharma. Think of our own life. Have we practiced? Are we ready to die? What will we have to take with us when we die?
    • The conclusion from these three points is that I must practice the Dharma.
  2. The time of death is indefinite.
    • In general, there's no certainty of lifespan in our world. People die in the middle of doing all sorts of different things, and nobody believes today is the day they will die. We're always in the middle of doing something when we die. We tell ourselves, I'll just finish this, take care of these worldly things, then I'll practice the Dharma. But worldly concerns are never finished, so we'll never get to the Dharma practice if this is how we think.
    • There are more chances of dying and less of remaining alive. We actually have to exert a lot of effort to stay alive—get, cook, and eat food; get clothes to protect our body; get and take medicine to keep the body healthy; get proper housing for protection from the elements. If we didn't do all these things, the body would die.
    • The body is very fragile. Think of how a virus, an infection, a blood clot, or a piece of metal can end life so quickly.
    • The conclusion from these three points is that I must practice the Dharma now.
  3. At the time of death, only the Dharma can help.
    • Our money and possessions are of no help at the time we die. Whether you're rich or poor, when you die, you die. We spend so much time and energy accumulating money and things, and often create many negative actions doing so, but we can't take it with us when we die.
    • Our friends and relatives aren't any help to us at the time we die. They can all gather around us, but they can't prevent us from dying. They can't even make our mind into a positive state when we die; we have to do that for ourselves (though they might be able to help). When we die, we go alone. So what's the point of being so attached, wanting to be liked, and popular, and loved? None of that can prevent us from dying, or help us have a good rebirth, or get us closer to enlightenment.
    • At the time of death, even our body is of absolutely no help. In fact, it is the thing that betrays us when we die. It stays here and our mind/consciousness goes off into another life. So why do we worry so much about how we look? Why do we worry so much about having prestige and power? It does nothing for us when we die.
    • The conclusion from these three points is that we need to practice purely. We need to work to transform our mind, to really make our mind happy through spiritual practice. That's true happiness. We need to practice the methods to do that in a very pure way without looking for any kind of ego boost along the way (e.g., be known as a great Dharma teacher or a fantastic meditator). We try to overcome our self-centeredness and develop impartial love and compassion, try to see through the ignorance that covers our mind and see the emptiness of the self and phenomena.

When we meditate on death, the motivation and self-discipline for spiritual practice come from inside.

  • When we awaken in the morning, we feel grateful to be alive. We think, "Even if I die today (because time of death is indefinite), I'm happy for however long I have to live. I appreciate it because I can practice and make my life highly meaningful."
  • Even the very simple actions we do in our lives give our life meaning when done with a positive motivation.

The meditation on impermanence and death gives us so much positive energy and helps remove stress.

  • When we notice the kinds of things we get stressed about (wanting something, money problems, so much to be done, feeling unappreciated), and then we think about what's really important at the time we die, we realize that none of these things is truly important. We can let go of them.
  • Our mind can get very peaceful contemplating death, because it realigns our priorities.

How to Meditate on Death

Follow the outline with the three major points, each with its three subpoints and conclusion.

  • Go through and think about each point.
  • Make examples in your own mind, relating it to your own life.
  • Make sure that you come to those three main conclusions after each major point. Let your mind stay single-pointedly on the conclusions and let them sink into your heart. It has a tremendous transformative effect.

Students' Questions About Death and Dying

Q: What if you do know when you're going to die?

Even if a doctor gives a a diagnosis of 6 months to live, he's just guessing. It could be 6 days or 6 years. But here's the point:

  • When we do this meditation, we may see that we may really want to stop some things we do. We see they are not worthwhile.
  • There are other things we need to do to keep our body alive and keep our life going, so that we can practice. So we do these.
  • When we have an awareness of impermanence and death, we do even the mundane activities with the motivation of bodhicitta rather than a motivation of our own selfish pleasure.
  • For example, we eat not for the sensual pleasure, but to support the pure life (brahmacharya).
  • The motivation for everything we do becomes different, and some things we decide to just leave behind because they are not important to us.
Q: How can you help yourself not be afraid of dying?
  • As much as possible, live with a kind heart and don't harm others. In that way, we create a lot of positive karma and we abandon negative karma.
  • Then at the time we die, if we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, if we generate our kind heart in a wish for compassion, then that makes our mind very peaceful at the time we die.
  • If we can have that kind of mind when we're dying, then it becomes much easier just to let go. And when we're not grasping onto the life, then there's no fear.

The Diagram

The Nine-Point Death Meditation

Related Diagrams