Recently, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a silent meditation retreat at the Bhavana Forest Monastery Mediation Center in rural West Virginia. One of the things I first noticed entering their meditation hall was a full size skeleton (model) hanging just outside the hall doors. Initially, I thought the skeleton was there as a joke, maybe a Halloween decoration since it was late October. I was later informed that the skeleton hung there year round, a birthday gift to the head monk, Bhante Gunaratana. The skeleton was given a name, Jack, by one of the younger monks, Bhante “J” Jayasara. Bhante J meditated in front of Jack every day while reflecting on the fact that one day he too was going to die and eventually his bones would look much like Jack’s.
In Asia, real human skeletons (not plastic models) hanging outside meditation halls are not an uncommon thing. The skeleton is kept there to remind meditators that the bodies we inhabit are impermanent and subject to death. In fact, Theravadan monks regularly engage in practices designed to reflect on the possibility of death at any moment. One practice is meditating in charnel grounds. Charnel grounds are open areas where dead bodies are left to decompose. The monks intentionally go there to view the human body in various states of decomposition. If you cannot meditate in such an area for obvious practical reasons, then mentally visualizing scenes of the human body decomposing during meditation on a regular basis is encouraged as a beneficial practice.
What purpose would this constant reflection on death serve? To the Western mind these practices can seem downright bizarre, morbid, or simply a big downer in a culture that idealizes everlasting youth, fitness, and beauty. However, from a Buddhist perspective reflecting on death reminds us of the constant reality that our time in this life is limited, that our bodies are impermanent and subject to illness and deterioration, and perhaps most importantly that we must make the most of our time.
Facing the stark reality that our time is limited and ticking away can be the ultimate focusing aid. What would you focus on now if you knew you had another 20 years to live? 10 years? 5 years? 1 year?
The reality is we can die or decline in health at any time due to illness, accident, or act of nature. We shouldn’t take life for granted or be complacent about it. Human life is precious, a rare gift.
Buddhist reflections on death can help bring a needed urgency to life and snap us out of feelings of complacency to start taking action on things we value.
Note, this isn’t a beginner’s practice but something that could be done after some significant meditation experience.
W.C. Ark, PsyD
As always, if you find yourself struggling with mental health issues please seek a professional’s help. Blog posts not intended to replace a professional’s advice.