How to Die Well

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

How to Die Well

When you meditate, you’re getting practice in how to die well. This is a common theme in the teachings of the Thai Forest masters, and it’s thoroughly in line with what the Buddha taught.

He once went to visit monks in a sick ward and told them to approach the time of death mindful and alert (SN 36:7). Alertness he defined as being aware of your actions while doing them. Mindfulness he defined as practicing the four establishings of mindfulness—focused on body, feelings, mind, or mental qualities in and of themselves—which were his instructions in how to get the mind into right concentration.

The reason you need to be mindful and alert at the time of death is because you’ll be making many choices then, choices that will determine if and where you’ll be reborn, all while events are happening in a rush.

The image the Buddha gave in (SN 44:9) was of a fire leaping from one house to the next. In terms of the physics of his day, fire had to cling to some form of sustenance in order to continue burning. As it left one house and set fire to a neighboring one, the fire was said to cling to the sustenance provided by the wind in between the houses. In the same way, when a being—defined as bundles of attachments—leaves this body and goes to another, it’s sustained by the cravings to which it clings.

The image gives a good idea of why it’s necessary to be mindful and alert in the midst of that conflagration. Craving devoid of mindfulness and alertness is blind. It rushes at things without thinking of the consequences and so can drag you anywhere—to places of great pleasure or great anguish—just as a fire goes in whichever direction the wind blows.

If you’re forgetful and oblivious, then craving—even though you might think it would take you only where you’d really want to go—can easily get distracted by errant obsessions that lead you astray. For many people, dying is like turning on the computer to buy something useful, only to find themselves falling through a wormhole to an undesirable universe, lured in by a news item that sparked their lust or their ire.

This is precisely where meditation gives you practice in dying well, in that it trains you in how to overcome distraction, and in particular the five distractions that the texts identify as enemies of mindfulness and concentration, called the five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, sloth & drowsiness, restlessness & anxiety, and doubt.

This reflection by Ajahn Geoff is from the 2021 Miscellaneous Essay, “Unhindered at Death.”