Maranassati Sutta: Watchful of Death (1)

An 6.19 PTS: A iii 303

I have heard that at one time the Blessed One was staying at Nadika, in the Brick Hall. There he spoke to the monks, “Monks!”

“Yes, venerable,” the monks replied.

The Blessed One said, “Being watchful of death, when worked on and practiced, is of great results and great benefits. It gives one a way into the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end. Therefore you should work on and practice being watchful of death.”

When this was said, a certain monk spoke to the Blessed One, “I already work on and practice being watchful of death.”

“And how do you practice being watchful of death?”

“I think, ‘May I live for one more day and a night, so that I can practice the Blessed One’s teachings. One more day and a night would be enough for me, that would be a great gift for me.’ This is how I practice being watchful of death.”

Then another monk spoke to the Blessed One, “I, too, already work on and practice being watchful of death.”

“And how do you practice being watchful of death?”

“I think, ‘May I live for one more day, so that I can practice the Blessed One’s teachings. One more day would be enough for me, that would be a great gift for me.’ This is how I practice being watchful of death.”

Then another monk spoke to the Blessed One, “I, too, practice being watchful of death.”

“And how do you practice being watchful of death?”

“I think, ‘May I continue to live just long enough for the time it takes to eat one meal, so that I can practice the Blessed One’s teachings. Just the time it takes to eat one meal would be enough for me, that would be a great gift for me.’ This is how I practice being watchful of death.”

Then another monk spoke to the Blessed One, “I, too, practice being watchful of death.”

“And how do you practice being watchful of death?”

“I think, ‘May I continue to live just long enough for the time it takes to swallow four mouthfuls of food, so that I can practice the Blessed One’s teachings. Just the time it takes to swallow four mouthfuls of food – that would be enough for me, that would be a great gift to me.’ This is how I practice being watchful of death.”

Then another monk spoke to the Blessed One, “I, too, practice being watchful of death.”

“And how do you practice being watchful of death?”

“I think, ‘May I continue to live just long enough for the time it takes to swallow one mouthful of food, so that I can practice the Blessed One’s teachings. Just the time it takes to swallow, having chewed one mouthful of food – that would be enough for me, that would be a great gift to me.’ This is how I practice being watchful of death.”

Then another monk spoke to the Blessed One, “I, too, practice being watchful of death.”

“And how do you practice being watchful of death?”

“I think, ‘May I continue to live just long enough for the time it takes to breath out having breathed in, or to breathe in having breathed out, so that I can practice the Blessed One’s teachings. Just the time it takes to breathe out having breathed in, or to breathe in, having breathed out – that would be enough for me, that would be enough for me, that would be a great gift to me.’ This is how I practice being watchful of death.”

When this was said, the Blessed One spoke to the monks. “Whoever practices being watchful of death by thinking, “May I continue to live for one more day and a night,” or “May I continue to live for one more day,” or “may I continue to live long enough to eat one more meal,” or “May I continue to live long enough to swallow four mouthfuls of food,” – they are not living in living carefully. They practice being watchful of death, for the sake of ending all impurities of the mind, but they practice it slowly.

“But whoever practices being watchful of death by thinking, “May I continue to live long enough to swallow one bite of food,” or “May I continue to live long enough to breathe in having breathed out, or to breathe out having breathed in,” they are living carefully. They practice being watchful of death sharply and wisely, for the sake of ending impurities of the mind.

“Therefore you should train yourselves: We will live carefully. We will practice being watchful of death sharply and wisely for the sake of ending kilesa. That is how you could train yourselves.”

That is what the Blessed One said. Joyful at heart, the monks delighted in the Blessed One’s words.

Note: Watchful of death.

Another way to say this would be “the practice of being ready to die.” The practice of not taking for granted that you will continue to live another day, another hour, another minute – even another breath. Why would we want to practice this?

We all have to die. The one absolutely certain, guaranteed thing that will happen to everyone, is death. And yet we are all afraid of it and don’t like to think about it, and we don’t prepare for it. It’s something that will happen to you for sure, but are you ready for it? Are you ready for it now? If not, why not? When we are about to have any important experience in our lives – an exam, an important meeting, a job interview – we prepare for it, we make ourselves ready. – Then why don’t we prepare for dying? Why don’t we make ourselves ready to die?

Another way to ask would be to say: “How much time do you need to be ready to die? Or, “For how much longer do you trust that you will live?” If you trust that you will live for another day and a night, it’s too long. It means you will need all this time to clear the mind, practice well and make yourself ready. But when death arrives, you don’t have that long. It will not wait for you to take the time you need to be ready.

When the Buddha says this about those who are watchful of death at each breath, who are ready to die in the time it takes to swallow one mouthful of food “they are living carefully or “heedfully”,” what does he mean?

When the monk says “May I live long enough to inhale or exhale, this is enough for me, that would be a great gift for me,” what does he mean?

 He means that he does not expect, he does not hope to be alive after this next breath. He is ready to die, even if death should come in this next breath. That means that he has to be paying attention at this very moment to the state of his mind. He cannot be lost in thoughts of worrying about the past or the future. He lives as if he were to die this minute, this second.

That is how sharp his mind is, that is how careful he is, how heedful; to look into his mind at every moment, at every breath, and remove any wrong thought or emotion there that would cause him to die in regret, or in anger, or in longing for something. If he is to die at any moment, he should die with his mind alert and aware, free from any wrong thought or emotion, with all his attention on the practice of the Buddha’s teaching. This means he has no choice but to be so careful at each moment – he cannot accept to allow the mind to wander away unguarded into worries about the future or memories of the past, to roll into anger or crying or fear – if he knows that he has to make himself ready for death to come with each breath he takes. The practice of being ready for death to come at each breath, is the practice to guard and to clear the mind, so as to make sure that it is only good, blameless and calm, at each moment. This is how the practice of being “watchful of death” is really the practice of sati, or constant awareness, fueled by constant effort and attention.

At the beginning of this teaching, the Buddha says “it gives a way into the Deathless, and has the Deathless as its final end.” What does he mean? Why does being ready to die make you “deathless”?

“The Deathless” is one of the words for Nibbana; the escape from Samsara. This practice of being ready to die, specifically, being ready to die with each breath – this is a practice that leads to complete freedom from suffering, it leads to not dying. How so?

If you are making yourself ready to die at each breath; when you are looking inside into the mind in each moment, what do you see? What do you see when you look there now? What is real, what is true?

As fast as you look, it changes. There is a new breath. A new thought. A new emotion that is born. Long before you have the time to point and say “there it is, that’s what it is” it is already changed into something different.

Practicing regularly, constantly, non-stop this teaching of being ready to die with each breath, means we cannot hold onto any idea of who we were in the past or who we will be in the future.

With constant effort, care and attention, have to just look at the reality of what is there at this moment, simply as it is. We are preparing to die with each breath. We are watching how the mind changes. We see how with each breath the mind is not the same. The idea lives for a moment and dies. The emotion lives for a moment and dies. The sight, sound, taste, sensation, smell, lives for a moment, not even a moment, and dies.  

And so when the mind is calm enough, we can realise that death is there, not only at some uncertain moment in the future, but at every instant.  

Whoever or whatever we were in the past, where are they? Only in the memory that arises in the mind, only in the thought that occurs in the mind. Whatever actions, thoughts, and worries we had in the past, they are gone, past, finished, soon forgotten, the same as for anyone at all who is dead and buried. Where are “you” in it? Whoever you were in the past is already dead. Whatever you will be in the future has no reality either.

And the body? It is organic matter put together; the only difference between this body and a heap of ash is a little bit of time. At each heartbeat it is dying, getting closer to having no more heartbeats. Where is the “you” in it?

It is the same as, when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the caterpillar is already dead. The butterfly doesn’t have to worry any longer about the death of his caterpillar body or his caterpillar mind. What does this have to do with him? In the same way, the one who really sees – not only understands intellectually with words – but SEES that this is true, this is reality – now how could he die? He has already died to himself.