“Contemplate Impermanence”, Buddhist teachers instruct repeatedly. And if we’ve been to a number of Dharma talks, we may nod knowingly and yet wait for a more “exciting” subject to emerge. After all, we all know that things are impermanent, don’t we?

We know that we ourselves will eventually die. We know, and yet … are we really taking these teachings to heart as the Buddha and the teachers encourage us to do? Do we truly believe that this could be our last Dharma talk or meditation session? Have we become bored with these reflections?

According to traditional texts, the Buddha’s own contemplation and realization of impermanence led him to experience saṃvega. This Pali and Sanskrit term conveys a very specific meaning. We can translate it as “agitation”—reflecting a visceral sense of shock and anxiety at coming face to face with the truth of impermanence.

Contemplate Impermanence to Develop Urgency

However, this type of agitation does not remain as depression or anxiety, but produces a sense of spiritual urgency to aim for liberation from the cycle of existence. Sadness can be very positive because it can open our hearts. When we truly take impermanence to mind, all the little irritations that we may face in our dealings with others seem quite unimportant. If we truly know in the core of our being that our parents, our partner, or our friend will certainly die one day, then why would we bear a grudge or hold on to angry feelings? Thus, as we move along the Buddhist path, we continually reflect on impermanence until we have truly taken it into the core of our being—until it agitates us to seek liberation for ourselves and others.

Contemplating Impermanence: Acknowledging Facts

The Buddha encouraged all followers, male, female, monks or laypeople, to contemplate these facts of human existence.

I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.

Upajjhatthana Sutta (Subjects for Contemplation) 

And according to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (Discourse on the Noble Quest), these three reflections were the contemplations that led the future Buddha to renounce his royal life and to begin his quest for awakening.  

So how do we approach this contemplation? We can read these lines, and repeat the verses silently, of course. But all too often we might simply say, “I know that”, and not fully engage with this teaching on impermanence. Or we acknowledge the truth, but don’t really take it personally. We’re hoping to get to the “more advanced” practices.

Instead, we might want to examine one way the Buddha got this message across successfully—to a grieving mother.

Taking Impermanence to Heart by Examination

During the Buddha’s life, a young mother lost her child and refused to believe that he had died. She wandered about, holding the corpse of her son, wailing, and searching for a cure. Villagers, believing her to be mad, advised her to visit the Buddha. In the story, the Buddha’s skill as a teacher shines forth. Instead of merely comforting the distraught mother, or telling her to think of impermanence, the Buddha assigned her an active task. He told her to bring him back common mustard seeds from the homes where no one had ever died. The young mother set out on her task, believing that the Buddha would revive her son.

However, as the mother stopped at one house after another begging mustard seeds, she soon learned that death had, of course, visited first. She could not find a single home where someone had not died. Through this activity, the young woman realized the universal nature of death, and then was able to carry her son’s body to a charnel ground. She came to accept the impermanent nature of all beings and then was able to give up her clinging. By taking death to heart the mother attained the status of an arhat and was able to sing verses of accomplishment.

We may read this story and feel that it is a poetic exaggeration. But consider your own reaction closely. How many times have we seen news reports of a horrible situation where a parent has lost a child unexpectedly? Haven’t we seen many situations where a person simply cannot accept the reality of death—particularly of a child? Of course such incidents are tragic and sad. But all of us can cope with grief more effectively if we realize the unpredictable nature of life and death.

You can read more about the young mother’s story in the verses of the  Kisāgotamītherīgāthā. 

Practical Guidelines: How to Contemplate Impermanence

Traditional texts give many examples and analogies that help us to reflect on this basic truth. We can remind ourselves that not even one person throughout history has escaped death for example. All the great heroes or celebrities, as well as villains, outlaws, and criminals have also died and are no longer among us. Texts remind us of the number of beings who exist and then die, often drawing illustrations such as enormous piles of bones reaching skyward.

But we can also work with modern examples that touch our hearts very directly. And we can be creative by exploring which types of contemplation really touches our own hearts. Here are some suggestions, but do feel free to experiment to find what most resonates with you.

Begin with General Contemplation on Statistics–Accepting the Fact that Death is Ever-Present

  • Contemplate the numbers. More than 150,000 people die each day.  That translates to about 100 people per minute.  Spend some time allowing that thought to sink in. Who knows when someone you know or love may be one of those people?
  • Death does not come only to the old and sick. Approximately 29,000 children under the age of five die each day. These children expected to grow up and have long lives. Their parents and family did not assume they would be gone so soon.
  • Worldwide over 1.3 million people die every year in car accidents.  The time of death is uncertain–did any of those people expect to die when they did?
  • Every morning for a short time take a few minutes to read obituaries in new sources.  Who died each day? Read the obituary clearly–notice the variety of ages, of races, of social status.  Notice that death does not discriminate. Also consider the people that are affected by these deaths–family and friends who feel pain and suffering at this time.
  • The next time you hear of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, fires or storms,  or large-scale accidents such as plane crashes, take a few minutes to read about the lives that were lost. Many of these people were surprised by sudden death.  Their friends and family mourn their passing, but no matter how much they were loved, they still died. Reflect on the fact that we can never predict when something like this will happen, or who might be affected.

Active Contemplation: Direct Observation Can Make a Great Impact

In the story of the young mother, the Buddha sent her out to research death directly.  Similarly, we don’t need to just sit on our cushion and think about death. We can benefit by adopting a similar strategy of using all our senses and activities to observe the true picture. Again, here are some suggestions for active inquiry.

  • Spend some time looking back through old photos.  Revisit your early school years or your parents’ photos. How many people in those photos have already died?  Don’t dwell on a sense of personal loss, but just notice that many people you know have already left this world.
  • Walk through a graveyard cemetery or a temple or church to look at memorial stones. Take a few minutes to linger at various gravestones or memorials and observe the ages of the people who were buried or memorialized there.  How many young people do you see?  Are there many markers for people who are younger than you are now? This exercise can be good to gradually introduce to children–many of whom are are curious about death.  Remember that the graves represent the lives of people just like you. If those people had another opportunity, what might they have done differently?
  • Visit a war memorial or a memorial to victims of genocide. Reflect on the number of people who do not live long, full lives. Recall that every moment is precious and resolve not to waste this current opportunity. We never know when outer conditions might change for us as well.
  • If you are very brave, have a friend or partner take a picture of you when you are sound asleep.  When we sleep deeply, we look like we are dead.  You might want to keep this photo someplace where you can glance at it regularly.  This can be a very potent reminder of your own certain mortality.

Again, these methods are not designed to depress us or add to anxiety.  Instead, they can function as realistic wake-up calls that allow us to truly appreciate the time we have and to loosen our clinging to transient pleasures.  We can value the people in our life even more because we know that we only share a limited amount of time.

Reflection Exercise:

Which of the above methods resonated most for you?  Can you think of other examples or experiences that really brought impermanence into your heart? Please offer any reflections that you find particularly meaningful and help you take death to heart.