Meditations on death are a means of purifying the mind in order to gain a crucial revelation of the meaning and significance of life. As such, death meditations have been regarded as an indispensable element in a wide array of cultures: the Egyptian and Indian, the Chinese and Japanese, the Hellenic and Roman, the Hebrew and Islamic, in both their ancient and modern forms. Because of death's general unfathomableness and the dread and terror it inspires in most people, the conquest of death, or deathlessness, has a central place in the teachings of all religions. Unless this fear and terror is replaced by comfort and hope, a tranquil mind state is impossible. The unwillingess to think of death is itself a kind of death, for the poignancy of life is inseparable from the knowledge of its decay.
Let us now focus on the meditation itself. Masters of old advise, "Stick the word death on your forehead and keep it there." In the beginning it is effective to harmonize the inhalations and exhalations with the soft vocalization of the word death. Later the word may be uttered only on the exhalation. One need not visualize the word itself, unless picturing it helps keep it in mind. The mind should be fully concentrated on the meaning of the word death; care should be taken to avoid a mechanical repetition of it.
A Meditation on Death Using Beads
Many years ago in Burma I stayed at the home of a businessman with a spiritual outlook on life. He meditated every day, and to judge from his serene, radiant countenance and deep contentment (he was sixty-five at the time), his meditations, though informal, were most effective.
This is how he performed them: Every morning he rose at five and seated himself, with his feet firmly on the ground, on a park bench overlooking a brook that flowed through his property. He told me he made it a point not to slouch or lean back, but to sit erect. In his right hand he held a long string of smooth beads, which he rubbed one at a time while he visualized each member of his family, then his friends, and lastly those about whom he had harbored unkind thoughts. All these people he then embraced mentally, directing thoughts of loving kindness toward them. This exercise over, he began concentrating on the word death, more or less in the manner outlined above, fingering each bead as he focused on the word. This type of meditation is suitable for beginners and advanced students alike.
From "The Zen of Living & Dying" by Philip Kapleau, copyright 1989, 1997, The Rochester Zen Center, reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston.