Some forms of meditation are technical, such as meditation on the breath, body sensations or sound. Others are topical, centring on life themes, devotion, scriptural content or ideas. One meditative topic that has been commonly used both in the East and West is death.
The Greeks exhorted us to remember death, the Buddhists went to charnel grounds to see dead bodies rot, and the Daoists compared death to the natural changes of all things. I recently visited the basement of the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome, where the monks used the bones and skulls of dead monks as wall decorations. In the innermost room there was an inscription, speaking to us who are still alive: “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.” In order to avoid any vain hopes of posthumous glory as a venerated skeleton, the different bones of one and the same person were scattered all over. Over the centuries, four thousand monks ended up in the “gallery”.
Even in forms of meditation that do not focus on death as such, the idea of letting go and of not clinging to your individual existence is often central. A free mental attitude is a question of not being too attached to the things you have and are, but to be able to “die” from them – even while you’re still alive.
The story goes that the Roman emperors had a slave behind them on the wagon when they rolled triupmphantly through the streets of Rome after winning great battles. The slave´s sole task was constantly to remind the emperor that he was mortal and keep him grounded. The idea was that you are by far a better leader, and human being, if you are constantly aware of your coming death. It gives a perspective that counters grandiosity and an inflated self-image. Alexander the Great thought of himself as immortal and divine, and rid himself of anyone who opposed this idea. Alexander turned into a true monster with devastating effect and unbelivable suffering for the Asian populations.
Very fascinating post.
This morning I read the transcription of a talk the Dalai Lama gave to a group of Cistercian monks many years ago. The topic was ‘a typical day’ (in his life) –
“In my daily prayer or practice, I visualize death eight times and rebirth eight times. This is not necessarily the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, but some reincarnation. These practices, I feel, are very powerful and very helpful in familiarizing oneself about the process of death. So when death actually comes, one is prepared. Whether these practices of preparation are really going to benefit me at the time of death, I do not know at this moment. I suppose that even with all this preparation for death, I may still be a complete failure. That is also possible.”
Yes, there are some heaps of bones and skeletons in Rome. I visited the same small chapel near Plaza Barberini a year ago and remember well the many skeletons – also that there were no clear religious or metaphysical motive – possibly only a decorational stunt. Confronting such material images of death a strong reminder – both of the end that will always be there for each of us, but also of the deep satisfaction when one feels that somewhere in one’s mind there is more than just the candle that stops burning when the flesh is not alive anymore. The hope for someting beyond the bones, is fairly easy to understand as a basic human urge.
The same saying “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.” is also written in the “catacombes” in Paris, near place Denfert-Rochereau, where the sceletons of hundreds of people are burried, and you can walk around there, like in a labyrinth.