The Buddha has said, "The whole world is as impermanent as clouds in an autumn sky. Birth and death are like the movements of a dancer." One should meditate on death, on the decreasing time that remains, and on the inevitability of separation. To meditate on death, think that it is the stopping of breath, the transformation of the body into a corpse, and the scattering of consciousness. To meditate on the shortness of life, think that your life since last year has become shorter, that since last month it has become shorter still, that since yesterday it has become yet shorter, and that even since this morning it has become shorter. In the Bodhicharya Avatvara it is said that life is each day becoming shorter, and that as there is no way to add to it, we surely experience death. To meditate on separation, consider that no matter what dear friends and close relatives we have, we must separate from them when death comes. No matter what wealth we have accumulated or how beautiful our body has been, we must leave them behind.
Another way of meditation on impermanence is to consider that we will definitely die one day, that we do not know when this will happen, and that when we die nothing will help except the realization of the teachings. It is certain that everyone who has ever been born has died. Even great masters who achieve many qualities, or famous people, or wealthy persons all experience death. There is no way of escaping. One reason that death is certain is that the body is composed of many elements and all things which are composite will decompose. This is the nature of change. Life is decreasing from moment to moment. For this reason, also, death is definite. Each moment that passes bring us closer to death. It is like the archer who shoots the arrow through space until it reaches the target. The arrow does not remain in space even a moment. In the same way, from the day we are born until we die, life does not stay still for even a moment. Life is also like a flowing river. As the river does not cease its flow even for a moment, so does life, gallops on. It is ever changing, yet ever the same in its change. Our life moves daily closer to death like the prisoner moving towards his place of execution. Our life has no predictable span, especially in this world system. Some beings die in the mother's womb, some at the moment of birth, some as infants, some in youth and some in old age.
The body has no value in itself. It is but a composite brought about by many causes and condition. If we analyze it, we cannot find anything permanent in it. Generally, everything one can name acts as a catalyst for death. If even food or drink or medicines in some circumstances can cause death, all other things can, too. Life is as fragile as a bubble in the water. At the time of death, our wealth will not help us. No matter how much we have accumulated in our lives, we must leave with empty hands. Moreover, wealth is actually harmful because it creates attachment and anger. If one has negative karma through accumulation of wealth, one must experience its fruits. Friends and relatives will also not help at the moment of death. No matter how powerful, skilled, or wealthy they may be, they cannot protect us from death. Nor will one's body help. No matter how strong it has been or wealth they may be, they cannot protect us from death. Nor will one's body help. No matter how strong it has been and how agile, no matter how expressive and attractive, it cannot protect us from death. It is like the sun which cannot stay from setting. Not only can it not protect us, but it is the cause of much suffering. How often it produces pain, discomfort, hunger, thirst, and the fear of attack! And by protecting ourselves from danger, we can create further karma which brings yet more suffering.
We may also meditate on impermanence by thinking of those who have died, recognizing that this will one day be our state. For example, if we know a dying person, we can meditate on how he used to be strong, clear of complexion, capable of body, joyful of mind. Yet disease has suddenly caused him to lose all physical power, to grow dark of complexion, to suffer in the mind, to writhe in pain, and to derive no benefit from medication. Aware that there is no escape, he surrounds himself with friends and relatives, eats his last meal, pronounces his last wishes, and stops breathing. No matter how important he was to his family or his nation, his body must be carried away. Some of his relatives may cry and try to hold onto him, some may faint from grief, but he cannot return. His body is then either buried, or cremated, or thrown into the river. One should therefore meditate that one day the same will happen to oneself. One is not beyond this.
If we hear that someone is dead, whether he be known or unknown to us, we should think: One day I, too, will be like that person. We should also remember those who have died, young or old, in our family or city, thinking: Soon I will be as they, a mere memory. The Buddha said: Birth leads to death; meetings lead to partings; gain leads to loss; and construction leads to destruction. The beneficial effects of meditating on impermanence are that by understanding the nature of composition and decomposition, one learns to detach from this life. The teachings, far from being pessimistic as some people think, lead to ultimate peace of mind because they cause us to drop attachment to that which, being impermanent, bring no lasting happiness. They support the motivation to achieve Enlightenment, and help free one of hatred. With them, one has the chance to realize the equanimity of Dharma-as-such.
Impermanence and death
are like the spreading shadow of sunset at the mouth of a pass.
It approaches without stopping for even an instant.
Apart from Dharma, nothing will help.
This is my heart's advice.
(from the Jewel Treasury of Advice)