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Prince Siddhattha sees the three signs, an old man, a sick man and a corpse, that lead to his renunciation of secular life.

Maraṇasati (mindfulness of death, death awareness) is a Buddhist meditation practice that uses various visualization and contemplation techniques to meditate on the nature of death. The cultivation of Maranassati is said to be conducive to right effort and also helps in developing a sense of spiritual urgency (Saṃvega) and renunciation (Nekkhamma).[1]

Theravada Buddhism

File:Demonstration 2.jpg
Buddhist monks observe a human body dissection for meditation purposes.

Mindfulness of death is a common practice in Southeast Asian Buddhist monasteries.[1] Buddhist monasteries such as Wat Pah Nanachat will often have human skeletons on display in the meditation hall.[2] The Satipatthana Sutta (MN: 10) and the Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN: 119) include sections on the cemetery contemplations which focus on nine stages of corpse decomposition (Pali: nava sīvathikā-manasikāra). These are:

  1. A corpse that is "swollen, blue and festering."
  2. A corpse that is "being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms."
  3. A corpse that is "reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons."
  4. A corpse that is "reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons."
  5. A corpse that is "reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood."
  6. A corpse that is "reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions."
  7. A corpse that is "reduced to bones, white in color like a conch."
  8. A corpse that is "reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together."
  9. A corpse that is "reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust." [3]

The Satipatthana Sutta instructs the meditator to reflect thus: 'This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.'

According to the Marassati Sutta (2) a monk should reflect on the many possibilities which could bring death and then turn his thoughts to the unskillful mental qualities he has yet to abandon. "Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavor, undivided mindfulness, & alertness for the abandoning of those very same evil, unskillful qualities." [4]

Tibetan Buddhism

Illustration of a Tibetan Cham dance of skeleton spirits, who serve as a reminder of the presence of death

Mindfulness of death is a central teaching of Tibetan Buddhism: it is one of the "Four Thoughts," which turn the mind towards spiritual practice. One set of Tibetan Buddhist contemplations on death come from the eleventh century Buddhist scholar Atisha.[5] Atisha is said to have said to his students that if a person is unaware of death, their meditation will have little power.[6]

Atisha's contemplations on death:

  1. Death is inevitable.
  2. Our life span is decreasing continuously.
  3. Death will come, whether or not we are prepared for it.
  4. Human life expectancy is uncertain.
  5. There are many causes of death.
  6. The human body is fragile and vulnerable.
  7. At the time of death, our material resources are not of use to us.
  8. Our loved ones cannot keep us from death.
  9. Our own body cannot help us at the time of our death.

Other Tibetan Buddhist practices deal directly with the moment of death, preparing the meditator for entering and navigating the Bardo, the intermediate stage between life and death. This is the theme of the popular Great Liberation through hearing during the intermediate state (Tibetan Book of the Dead).

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Rosenberg, Larry. The Supreme Meditation, Shambala Sun,
  2. Ajahn Jagaro, Death and Dying,
  3. The Way of Mindfulness The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary by Soma Thera,
  4. AN 6.20 Maranassati Sutta: Mindfulness of Death (2) translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  5. Joan Halifax Roshi, The Nine Contemplations of Atisha.
  6. Powers, John. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Ch. 10
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