Meditation on Death, Zombies and Buddhas

Many zendos or places of practice will have the Evening Gatha displayed in some prominence with the words “Life and Death are of Primary Importance”. Well…yes, obviously they are but Buddhism (at least some of the Buddhism that is currently espoused in the Western Convert community) place a huge emphasis on the living part and largely ignores to dying part. All butterflies and growth about “how to live more mindfully” or “how meditation can help you live a happier life” with the topic of death is largely belittled or ignored. That somber specter is glossed over with the sometimes saccharine perception of Modern Buddhist thought.

Buddhaghosa stated in Chapter VIII of the Visuddhimagga (“Path of Purification”).

A bhikkhu devoted to mindfulness of death is constantly diligent. He acquires perception of disenchantment with all kinds of becoming (existence). He conquers attachment to life….Perception of impermanence grows in him, following upon which there appear the perceptions of pain and not-self. But while beings who have not developed mindfulness of death fall victims to fear, horror and confusion at the time of death as though suddenly seized by wild beasts, spirits, snakes, robbers, or murderers, he dies undeluded and fearless without falling into any such state. And if he does not attain the deathless here and now, he is at least headed for a happy destiny on the break up of the body.

While nowhere near a bhikkhu, nor any plans to be one, I do understand that mindful attention to death is an important aspect to my Buddhist practice. To focus on the fact that life is impermanent is a daily, almost unconscious, task. But more importantly concern and focus one the fact that death is imminent. Concern with what would happen to my family if I were to die. Focus on this while driving to work, sitting at home or walking to the store. To focus on the fact that death could come at anytime, unbidden and unexpected, to me or to those closest to me. Yet with all this mindfulness the idea of death is still terrifying to me – even with the acceptance of my own impermanence.

Why was this so pressing?

People think that only others will die. They forget that sooner or later they will, too. They carry on without so much as a thought that death could possibly happen to them. Then they’re shocked when it comes on them unexpectedly. How foolish! [Suzuki Shosan]

What is the primary concern in religious practice? – Put aside everything and only study death. Always study death, free yourself from death, and when death really comes you will not be flustered. In order to save others, knowledge is necessary. [Suzuki Shosan]

The study of and focus on was there but I was still insisting that I wasn’t going to die. My focus was always on “if” I died or the possibility of something happening to me that was unexpected. It was never, in my mind, an absolute or a definite occurrence. I was an accident. Now the focus isn’t on the “when” or “how”. Those concepts are worthless and without meaning. The “if” of my impermanence turned to an actuality.

    1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
    2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
    3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
    4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
    5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences

      of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

While Buddhaghosa focuses on the bhikkhu’s perception and conception of death and while Shosan rolls on with the insistence of focusing on death as a meditative tool (almost like a koan) to unravel the true meaning of religion experience; the 5 Remembrances cuts through the noise and circumstance of death to the actual realization of it.

So…the “take home” message is simple: Zombies are much more Buddhist-y than Vampires. Vampires sit around and look pretty and never age – undead but ageless. Zombies force us to look at ourselves in the now. Zombies shamble around, slowly decaying, getting slower, they make more noise. We shamble around, slowly decaying, getting slower, we make more noise now than before (creaks and whistles and groans). Embrace your inner-zombie. Its not really Buddha-nature but it may help to focus on the fact that we will grow old and die and then (maybe) walk the earth as a mindless automaton.

So for Halloween I was going to be a Zombie but I’m going with this guy instead.

If that dude isn’t a Zen Master in disguise, I don’t know who is.


Remember if you meet the Buddha walking down the street, kill it. If you meet a zombie walking down the street, KILL IT. If you meet Zombie-Buddha walking down the street, RUUUNNNNN!!


3 thoughts on “Meditation on Death, Zombies and Buddhas

  1. Think with your dipstick!!! LOL

    I'm in the same boat Jack. While not that old, having a family that depends on me has forced me to look at my immenant death in a hole new light.

  2. Wow, thanks for this post. It's been quite a while since I've done any serious contemplation on death. I used to integrate reciting the Five Remembrances during every meditation session. I need to restart.

    You've given me two ideas for new blog posts! I need to get to work! Time is running out! Death waits for no one!


  3. @ Adam – Thanks for your comment. Having a family does change one's outlook on many things very quickly.

    @ Richard Harrold – I'm glad I provided some inspiration! However, in lieu of royalties, I expect links, man, LINKS! I need all the exposure I can get. 🙂

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