If you were to break the law, and in seven days they were going to execute you, how would you feel? If you were sentenced to death, and in seven days they were going to execute you, what would you do? I want you to reflect on this.
As you are, you’re already sentenced to be executed, simply that you don’t know how many days you’ve got left. It might even be less than seven. Do you have a sense of this? You’re already sentenced to death. They’re going to have to execute you, but if you don’t know, you don’t feel anything. But if you were to break the law and the authorities were to catch you and execute you in seven days—oh, you’d really suffer.
This is mindfulness of death. Death is going to execute you in just a day or two. When you’re not aware of this, you relax. You have to think in this way so that you give rise to the conviction needed to practice the Dhamma. That’s why the Buddha has you practice mindfulness of death at all times.
Normally, when you think of death, it scares you, so you don’t want to think about it. And when that’s the case, how can you not be stupid? You’ve already fallen into that condition, but you have no sense of yourself. So you relax.
But if you come to your senses and contemplate mindfulness of death at all times, you’ll hurry up and make the effort to escape from danger. How can you just sit there? If you were to break the law and in seven days they were planning to execute you, could you simply take it easy? You’d have to hurry up and find a way out.
This reflection by Ajahn Chah is from the book, It’s Like This: 108 Dhamma Similes, (pdf) p.52, translated from the Thai by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu.