Keeping Death in Mind

“At all times,” says the Hagakure, “keep death in mind.”

In Thomas Cleary’s work “Code of the Samurai,” he interprets the Bushido (or code of the Samurai) into modern English.  The Hagakure is a take on the Bushido – reinforcing specific aspects of death and dying, which Thomas Cleary brings into his own work.

In the first Chapter (“General Discussion”) of Cleary’s book it states:

One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.

As long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will also fulfill the ways of loyalty and familial duty.  You will also avoid the myriad evils and calamities, you will be physically sound and healthy, and you will live a long life.  What is more, your character will improve and your virtue will grow.

A variety of reasons are given for why keeping “death in mind,” is of good character:

  • Your words are chosen more carefully to avoid needless argument
  • You avoid dubious places
  • You moderate your food and drink
  • You overcome sexual addiction

How Does this Work?

One might wonder how pondering death will aid in achieve these things.

The code of the Samurai (either in the Bushido or the Hagakure) explains this.  Without this training, one acts as though their life is permanent.  While everyone knows they won’t live forever, they hardly act like it.  They take liberties and chances.  They become desirous of what others have, which leads to envy, greed, lust, etc. This further leads the mind into states of greed (to obtain what others have) or despair (not being able to obtain what others have.)  If left unchecked this continual frustration can lead to crime, hatreds, bigotries and the like.

Death Meditation

In Buddhism, there is a similar concept.  While I’ve never met a Buddhist practice that enforces “keeping death in mind at all times,” (which is why I included the Hagakure as source material – to fill in a gap that is required for self-control) Buddhism does have practices that align with this philosophy.

One such practice is Death Meditation.  In Death Meditation, the meditator visually ponders the frailty of their life.  How at any moment they could die.  The practice of death meditation is best experienced, rather than talked about… one of the best guided meditations is no longer available, but it was taught by Lama Marut.

You can probably find some other version of guided meditation on “Death Meditation.”  It should cover the aspects of impermanence and help us understand our own fleeting life.

Death Meditation In Practice

For a period in my life, I practiced Death Meditation regularly (weekly) and it changed my perspective.  I became less afraid and anxious of the world.  I became more at ease.  I wasn’t trying to force my will or my way.  I just let it go.

Practice of Keeping Death In Mind

Back to the Hagakure, one thing I do to keep death in mind, is to bring to mind the lifeless corpse of my father.  I loved my father.  He was my best friend.  When he passed a few years ago, my oldest brother (who took care of him the last few years), took several pictures of his body.   These are tough images.  They show my father in the hospital gown, laying lifeless.  Blood is coagulating in his old arms.  A towel was placed on his throat.  His eyes were closed.  This was his death, at a nursing home.

I look at these images regularly.  Not out of some sick entertainment value, but rather I look upon them to bring death to my mind.  My father did not die the way he wanted.  He didn’t die in his home.  His death was a hard process.  Like most of us, death comes in its own way.

By pondering it, the image brings a solemness.  It removes greed and frustration.  It puts things in perspective.