What follows is the translation of an article by Goenkaji, originally published in the February 1994 issue of the Hindi Vipaśhyana Patrika.
My life has seen 70 autumns. Who knows how many more are left? How can the ones that remain be best used? May this awareness be maintained.
On this occasion some beneficial words of the Buddha come to mind. They were spoken in Sāvatthī, in Anāthapiṇḍika’s Jetavanarāma.
At nighttime a devaputta came to meet the Buddha. He expressed his thoughts to the Buddha in the form of a gāthā of four lines:
Accenti kālā, tarayanti rattiyo
Vayoguṇā anupubbaṃ jahanti
Etaṃ bhayaṃ maraṇe pekkhamāno
Puññāni kayirātha sukhāvahāni
Time is passing, nights are passing.
Life is gradually coming to an end.
Observing the fear of (approaching) death
Perform meritorious deeds that yield pleasant fruits.
Someone rightly said, “Morning comes, evening comes; in the same way the end of life comes.” Therefore do not let this priceless human life end in vain. Perform meritorious deeds that yield pleasant fruit, even if only out of fear of approaching death. If we perform wholesome deeds, they will result in happiness; if we perform unwholesome deeds, they will result in suffering for us—this is an unbreakable law of nature. Therefore, to avoid suffering and enjoy happiness, it is better to do wholesome deeds rather than unwholesome deeds.
We do not know how long we have been crushed under the ever-changing wheel of existence—neither the extent of worldly happiness and suffering in this life, nor for how long this wheel of worldly happiness and suffering will continue in future.
The Buddha discovered a simple and direct path to full liberation from this wheel of existence and made it easily accessible to all. He taught people the liberation-endowing technique of Vipassana, by the practice of which they can free themselves from the wheel of existence and attain the eternal, unchanging, nibbānaṃ paramaṃ sukhaṃ—ultimate happiness, the ultimate peace of nibbāna—infinitely superior to all worldly pleasures.
But this liberation is only possible when the habit of heedlessly running after the enjoyment of worldly pleasures is broken. And this is what Vipassana enables us to do: break the habit of multiplication of the saṅkhāras of craving and aversion that lie in the depths of the subconscious mind. It digs out the saṅkhāras of craving for pleasure and aversion toward suffering. It eradicates the longstanding habit of blind reaction.
As long as craving for sensual pleasures remains, aversion will continue to arise toward worldly suffering, and because of craving and aversion the wheel of existence will continue to roll. Only when the wheel of existence breaks can ultimate peace, which is supramundane—beyond worlds, beyond the round of existence, beyond the field of the senses—be attained. For this purpose the Buddha taught the indispensable technique of Vipassana.
Therefore, upon hearing the gāthā, the Buddha changed the fourth line:
Lokāmisaṃ pajahe santipekkho
One who hopes for ultimate peace should give up the desire for worldly happiness.
Only by the ardent practice of Vipassana can one eradicate worldly desires. While practicing Vipassana, a meditator should maintain awareness of his impending death, but there should not be a trace of fear. Whenever death comes, one should be constantly prepared for it with a tranquil mind.
On his birthday, a Vipassana meditator should certainly consider the past. He should make a firm resolution not to repeat mistakes previously committed, and to continue to perform wholesome deeds for the rest of his life. The most important wholesome deed of all is the practice of the liberating technique of Vipassana. Diligently practice it; do not neglect it. Do not postpone today’s practice to tomorrow. Let these words of the Buddha constantly echo in your ears like a warning:
Kojaññā maraṇaṃ suve
Perform the work of meditation today itself. (Do not postpone it.)
Who knows, death might come tomorrow.
One does not invite death, but when it comes there is no need to be afraid of it. Let us be prepared every moment.
From time to time we should practice maraṇānusati (awareness of death). By my own experience I have seen that this is very beneficial. While practicing, one should examine one’s mind: “If I die tomorrow morning, what will be the nature of my last mind-moment of this life? Will any clinging remain, even to complete some Dhamma mission?”
Whenever a saṅkhāra of some intense emotion arises in the mind, we should immediately practice maraṇānusati and understand, “If I die in the very next moment, in what fearful direction will this emotion deflect the stream of becoming?” As soon as this awareness arises, it is easy to be free of that emotion.
There is another advantage to practicing maraṇānusati from time to time. One thinks, “Who knows for how many lives I have been rolling in this cycle of existence? This time, as a result of some wholesome deed, I have obtained the invaluable life of a human being; I have come in contact with pure Dhamma; I have developed faith in Dhamma, free from meaningless rituals, philosophies, and sectarian barriers. But what benefit have I derived from this?”
Having made this assessment, whatever shortcomings one finds, one develops enthusiasm to correct them. Whether death will come tomorrow morning or after 100 autumns, I do not know. But no matter how many days I have to live, I will use them to perfect my pāramitās with a contented mind and make my human life meaningful. Whatever results come, let them come; whenever they come, let them come then—I leave that to Dhamma. For my part, let me continue, to the best of my ability, to make good use of the time I have remaining in this important life.
For this purpose, let these inspiring words of the Buddha remain with us:
Uttiṭṭhe nappamajjeyya dhammaṃ sucaritaṃ care.
Arise! Live the Dhamma life with diligence.
Keep living the life of Dhamma and the results will naturally be beneficial.
You yourself must make the effort;
the Enlightened Ones only show the way.
Those who practice meditation
will free themselves from the chains of death.
etaṃ buddhāna sāsanaṃ.
Abstain from evil actions;
perform pious actions;
purify your mind.
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.
The Buddha did not teach suffering.
He taught the way leading to happiness.
But you have to work with full effort and without wavering.
Even though your limbs ache, do not give up.
Know that wise people of the past have walked on the same path.
—Venerable Webu Sayadaw