Remembering Impermanence and Death

By Lama Zopa Rinpoche

The main remedy to the thought of the worldly dharmas is meditation on impermanence and death. If one does not remember death, one does not remember Dharma. And even if one remembers Dharma, if one does not remember impermanence and death, one does not practice Dharma.
Even though you may accept that you can die at anytime, in your daily life you tend to think that you are not going to die soon - not this year, not this week, not today, not now. Because of this, you postpone your practice of Dharma. Even if you practice Dharma, if you don't think about impermanence and death, it does not become pure Dharma.
If you don't think about impermanence and death, you don't practice Dharma, which means protecting karma by abandoning non-virtue and practising virtue; and you constantly create negative karma instead. Then at the time of death you become very upset and fearful, which means you are already experiencing the signs of going to the lower realms. Many terrifying appearances can come to you at the time of death.
If you remember impermanence and death, you lead a highly meaningful life. You are able to practice the paths of three levels of capability and achieve the three great purposes: the happiness of future lives, liberation, and enlightenment. Remembering impermanence and death is also a very easy way to control delusions. You can overpower your delusions.
Remembering impermanence and death is very meaningful. It is very important at the beginning of Dharma practice, as it helps you to actually begin your practice, and then again to continue it so that you succeed in your attempt to achieve enlightenment. Then when death happens, you can die happily. The great yogi Milarepa, who achieved enlightenment in one brief lifetime of this degenerate age, expressed his personal experience of this:
"Being scared of death, I escaped to the mountains. Now, having realised the ultimate nature of the primordial mind, even if death comes, I am not worried."
Death is definite. No medicine can stop death, and there is no place where we don't experience death. No matter how powerful our body is, our life shortens without any break. Each time we recite the mantra om mani padme hung and move a bead on our mala, our life is closer to death with each mantra we finish. When we leave here to go home, each step we take brings us closer to death. When we arrive home, that much of our life is finished. When we drink a cup of tea, with each sip we take, our life is closer to death. When we finish the cup of tea, that much of our life has gone; we are that much nearer to death. Each time we breathe in and out, our life is nearer and nearer to death.
Meditate while looking at a clock or watch: as each second passes, in reality our life is closer to death - but not because we're wearing a watch! Looking at a watch is a very powerful way to meditate on impermanence and death. With each second you are coming closer to death.
When we eat a plate of rice, each time the spoon goes to our mouth, our life is finishing. When we finish that plate of rice, that much of our life has gone, and we are that much closer to the time of our death. When we read a newspaper, as we finish each page, we are that much closer to death. When we talk to people, as we finish each word, we are closer to death. When we complete each sentence, that much of our life has already gone. When we gossip for hours, that much of our life is finished; when we stand up and walk away, our life is that much closer to death.
And once part of our life is over, we can't bring it back or change it. When a boxer or racing-car driver injures his body, it can usually be fixed, and this can happen many times. But once our life has passed, whether it has been meaningful or wasted, it has gone forever. You can't fix up any part of your life that has passed; all you can do is work on the present and future. By making your present life more meaningful, you can fix up the future; you can make a better future.
The Lam Rim mentions that a life of one hundred years can be divided into two parts: one half is spent sleeping - this is without counting-daytime sleeping! - and much of the other fifty years of waking time passes in quarrelling, sickness, and many other meaningless activities. If we add up all the time spent on what we call practising Dharma, it is very little.
And then you have to die. Even though you have a perfect human body, even though you haven't found time to practice Dharma during your lifetime, you still have to die.
Right now there are people dying in hospital: people with AIDS or cancer whose cases the doctors regard as hopeless, with only one day, a few hours, a few minutes to live. They are regarded as dying because they are close to death, but they still have a short time left to live. They are not dead yet. Think, "It is the same with me - I am also dying." It is not that if you have AIDS or cancer, you die, and if you don't have AIDS or cancer, you don't die or don't die soon. It is not like that. Meditate this way when you get up in the morning. Remember that you are dying also, just like the people in hospital who are regarded as dying. Using the same reasoning, you do not have much time left to live.