[ Sitting Practice ]
Meditation on Death
[This adapted from a discussion in which there was voiced a strong exception to the recommendation that we meditate on death as this practice was likely to be highly disturbing to beginners.]
What we are reading here is material which was most likely delivered to initiated Beggars, not Laymen. While there is nothing in the suttas that would indicate that the curious layman was in any way restricted in his access to the Dhamma, the fact was that most laymen would have been unlikely to have heard most of what we have readily available to us today via books and now, The Internet.
Reading in the suttas we see the Dhamma is generally taught to those who seek it out, or to those whose qualifications for accepting it were carefully evaluated by the Buddha or some other accomplished bhikkhu aforehand. Nevertheless, the "protective attitude" towards the beginner is misplaced, and can and has lead to serious distortions of the Dhamma (as in the case of the development of Mahayana Buddhism, for example).
That said, one of the first things we should consider when questioning the wisdom of the teaching of the Buddha is his own statement that "The Dhamma is well taught by me, helpful in the beginning, helpful in the middle, helpful at the end."
This is the wording of the description of one who has faith in the Dhamma. This faith is an aspect of one who is a Streamwinner. This is not blind unquestioning acceptance, but it is acceptance that first grants the benefit of the doubt to the Buddha.
In this light, effort is best directed at explaining to one's self why a certain Dhamma about which one has doubts is true in spite of those doubts, not towards attempting to refute the Dhamma because of the assumption that one's doubts are well grounded and wise.
The questioning of this Dhamma rests on two premises: the doubt that this practice would be useful to one just embarking on Buddhist practice, and the suggestion that for such a beginner, the study of this Dhamma might be anything but calming.
The suggestion that this Dhamma "might be anything but calming," presumes that calm is always the objective of the Dhamma, or, taking the inverse, that becoming agitated concerning the prospect of Death and the Fate of the Body is not an objective of the Dhamma.
What needs to be understood is that this Dhamma not only leads directly to calm by way of agitation, but, deeper than that, it is certainly helpful to the beginner, to one of middle standing, and to one at the end.
What we have here is the beginning point of a lesser known aspect of Downbound Confounded Rebounding Conjuration [Paticca-samuppada] (please forgive me taking liberties with the orthodox presentation of the steps, but I believe I am not amiss in the effect of the steps I do suggest):
Downbound searching out the truth rebounds bound up in testing by trial and error
Downbound testing by trial and error rebounds bound up in discovery of the truth
Downbound discovery of the truth rebounds bound up in energy
Downbound energy rebounds bound up in enthusiasm
Downbound enthusiasm rebounds bound up in impassivity
Downbound impassivity rebounds bound up in getting high [samadhi]
Downbound getting high rebounds bound up in objective detachment [upekkha]
And in detachment one is free
And in freedom seeing freedom
It can be seen "this is being free."
Left behind is rebirth. Lived is the best of lives. Done is duty's doing.
Ain't no more being any kind of an it at any place of at-ness left for me!
That this consequence of the agitation that might result from remembering the fate of the body and death is not stated is irrelevant. Downbound Confounded Rebounding Conjuration works whether one is aware of it or not. All Dhammas end in Nibbāna.
This Dhamma is not for everyone. This Dhamma is not for the lazy or faint of heart, or for those looking for a comfortable existence. This Dhamma was presented for a purpose: To overcome the pain associated with living, most especially that pain associated with the fate of the body and death. To suggest that this should not be confronted in the attempt to overcome it is not indicated.
For those who seek out the Dhamma, the Dhamma should not be sugar coated; for those who do not seek out the Dhamma there should be no problem in that those who know and understand the Dhamma know and understand that it is not a thing which should be pushed on the unready.
See also: Vesali, a fleshed out version of a sutta which dramatically illustrates the dangers of meditation on the foul if understood incorrectly.