After my recent personal ascetic retreat, I spent some time getting reacquainted with Jodo Shu Buddhist teachings, and in particular the “second founder” of Jodo Shu: a monk named Benchō, who had been a leading disciple of founder, Hōnen. In Japanese Buddhism, he is often called in Shōkō Shōnin (聖光上人). Benchō’s writings are not that well known any more as he is kind of overshadowed by his teacher, especially in English sources, but I find some good gems in Japanese sources some times.
One famous saying by Benchō is:
nen shi nen butsu
Basically, this means that to contemplate death is to contemplate the nembutsu, the central practice of Jodo Shu Buddhism. Benchō elaborates more here:
With my ROUGH translation:
Because human life is fleeting, and death is a still, breathless thing, one must face that breathless death. For this reason alone, one should seek out the salvation of Amitabha Buddha [the Buddha of Infinite Light], and recite the nembutsu through the course of one’s life.
What Benchō is saying, I believe, is that the value of the vows of Amitabha Buddha to lead all beings to the Pure Land (through recitation of the nembutsu, among other things) isn’t apparent until one realizes how fleeting our life now is. One can have a fun, easy life now, but soon or later, the breath stills and one is stone dead.
Further, the contemplation of mortality in Buddhism was not limited to Benchō. The historical Buddha (i.e. the founder of Buddhism), Shakyamuni taught his disciples to also contemplate death:
You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.
Whoever lives thus ardently,translation by Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.
So, the point here isn’t a kind of morbid fascination, but to ground oneself on the here and now, and not get caught up in the myriad things that can distract us. Or, as old Seneca would have said: