This Pūjā May Be My Last

Ajahn Jotipālo • September 2013

There is a fairly well-known sutta where the Buddha indicates that one who contemplates death about every few seconds develops mindfulness of death heedfully, with diligence, while one who contemplates death every few minutes or more develops mindfulness of death heedlessly, with sluggishness (AN 8.73). It only takes two or three seconds for someone to die from an aneurysm. It’s much the same with a massive heart attack or any number of other medical conditions and accidental calamities. We can be fully functional one moment, and dead two or three seconds later. So we have good reason to contemplate death quite often, as the Buddha suggested.

Sitting on the ordination platform this morning for pūjā, I had an unusually strong sense of how beautiful it was, just sitting there. I asked myself why I might be feeling this way. We are getting ready to go on a trip to Yosemite and there is a national disaster occurring just twenty miles from where we will be camping. When I looked online yesterday to check out the conditions, there were three major weather alerts for Yosemite Valley. One was a warning about severe thunderstorms, another was a flash flood warning, and the third warned about unhealthy levels of smoke in the air due to the large fires burning in the area. And of course, there was the risk of fire itself. I thought to myself sarcastically, Oh, this looks like a wonderful place to go camping! Luang Por Pasanno is urging me to go and says it’s a great opportunity. Does he just want to send me off to my death? Sitting there during pūjā, I had the sense that it really could be my last pūjā on that platform.

This is true for every single one of us. Maybe you’re not heading off to Yosemite, but death could occur at any time—when you’re driving into Ukiah, taking the small diesel vehicle up the monastery road, or working in the kitchen where the gas oven might explode. We don’t need to be obsessive or neurotic about death, but it is good to have it constantly in the back of our minds.

Just before coming to Abhayagiri, I used to be on the maintenance staff at IMS (Insight Meditation Society) in Barre, Massachusetts. I remember being strongly attached to certain opinions about the way things should be done with work projects there, such as using particular types of paint and cleaning products. These sorts of opinions were a major part of my consciousness in whatever project I was involved. But after leaving IMS and coming here, I realized that I didn’t have a care in the world about what kind of paint they were using in Barre. My consciousness of being at IMS had, in essence, died—not in a negative way, but because I no longer had any input there.

When Ajahn Yatiko was the work monk here at Abhayagiri, he had to put a lot of effort into making sure that everything was done correctly on the work scene. But I have a suspicion that Ajahn Yatiko, now living in Sri Lanka, isn’t worried at all about how we are handling the work scene at the moment.

These are some of the reasons why I think it’s good to contemplate death. These contemplations are especially helpful when we find ourselves hooked into some minor thing we feel is so important. If we were diagnosed with terminal cancer, then some trivial issue or a difficulty with a particular person would probably seem insignificant. So I encourage everyone to frequently bring up these contemplations on death. And the next time you’re sitting on the ordination platform for pūjā, enjoy the beauty there, and consider, This pūjā may be my last.