Larry Rosenberg on The Supreme Meditation
A reflection on practice by Other Teachers & Folks We Value
In addressing the practice of death awareness, the Buddha left us five contemplations, which he advised us to reflect on frequently.
The Five Contemplations
1. I am subject to aging. Aging is unavoidable.
2. I am subject to illness. Illness is unavoidable.
3. I am subject to death. Death is unavoidable.
4. I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and live dependent on my actions. Whatever I do, for good or for ill, to that will I fall heir.
This isn’t the cheeriest set of reflections in the world, and most people, when they first hear them, feel some resistance. They don’t mind contemplating the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence in the world around them, but this is getting a little close to home. What is being asked of us as meditators is to come face-to-face with the law of impermanence in an intimate way…
But in the Asian countries where Buddhism has been established for centuries, the practice of death awareness is an ancient & venerable tradition, and many meditators work with it. In fact, there are some who regard death awareness as the ultimate practice. The Buddha himself left behind such a statement. “Of all the footprints,” he said, “that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”
Though these contemplations may sound morbid & depressing, working with them can have quite the opposite effect. Students often report—and I have experienced myself—a certain lightheartedness that comes from practicing them, a feeling of calm & ease. Many of us are carrying around a great deal of unacknowledged fear on the subject of death, and like any other fear, it weighs us down. Practicing death awareness helps flush out this fear, enabling us to face it & showing us that it too is an impermanent formation that is empty of self. The fear lingers in our consciousness when we don’t acknowledge it & let it live out its life.
Death is a fact of existence, one that we all must face sometime. And death awareness is a real aid to practice. A deep understanding of mortality can often lead to awakening. Seeing that we don’t have forever becomes a real motivating factor.
In Pali this phenomenon is known as samvega: the urgent need to practice that can grow out of a heightened sense of the perishable nature of life. It can include a real feeling of shock & a sense not only that life doesn’t last forever but also that the way we have been living is wrong. It might turn our world upside down, sending us off to a whole new way of life. Even if it doesn’t have so dramatic an effect, it can light a fire under our practice. We get much less caught up in power, prestige, money, lust, the acquisition of goods. Dharma teachings start to make real sense to us, and we begin to live them instead of just assenting intellectually. Samvega leads to a conversion of the heart, from an egocentric existence to a search for that which is timeless, vast & sacred.
Excerpted from article that appeared in September 2020 issue of Lion’s Roar.
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Larry Rosenberg is founder & a guiding teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, MA. He is also a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society and author of several books, including Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation.
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