Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “recollection of death (marananusmriti)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

VIII. Recollection of Death (maraṇānusmṛti)

In regard to recollection of death (maraṇānusmṛti), there are two kinds of death: i) death by oneself (ātmanā maraṇam), ii) death by another (pareṇa maraṇam).[1]

The yogin always recollects these two types of death. If nobody kills it, this body will die necessarily by itself.[2] Not even for the time of a finger-snap (acchṭāsaṃghitātamātram) can one believe that this conditioned dharma (saṃskṛtadharma) which is the body will not die. At all times within this body, death is present without even waiting for old age (jarā). One cannot be based on this mass of sorrows (śoka), sufferings (upāyāsa) and decrepitude (parijūnya). The desire for life makes us hope for safety (yogakṣema) and immortality (amṛta), but this hope arises only in fools (mohapuruṣa). In the body, the four great elements are all destroyed. As long as a person carries the chest containing the [four venomous snakes (āśīviṣa),[3] how can the wise think of safety?

That exhalation (praśvāsa) should be followed by inhalation (āśvasa), that inhalation should be followed by exhalation, that awakening (nidrā) should follow sleep (prabodha), all these things are difficult to guarantee. Why? Because internally as well as externally, the body has many enemies (vairin), Thus it is said:

Some die in the womb,
Some die at birth,
Some die at a ripe age,
Some die during old age.
In the same way, when the fruit is ripe
It falls for all kinds of reasons.[4]

People always seek to avoid
Death, the cruel and wicked thief.
But it is hard to believe
That one can ever escape this thief and find safety.[5]

Imagine a great and wise man
Of unsurpassable power and strength:
Neither before nor after
Nor at present will he escape death.[6]

There are no skillful words,
There are no supplications that can free one.
Thee is no fortified place
Where one can hide from it.[7]

Neither by observing pure morality
Nor by exertion can one elude it.
Death is a pitiless thief.
When it comes, there is no place to escape from it.

This is why, in the course of transitory and dangerous existence, the yogin should not think of or hope to live.


It is for these many reasons that one recollects death.

Footnotes and references:


According to the sūtra, there are four ways of taking on a new existence (ātmabhāvapratilamba): 1) that in which one’s own volition (ātmasaṃcetanā) is acting and not that of another (parasaṃcetana); 2) that in which the volition of others is acting and not one’s own, etc.: cf. Dīgha, III, p. 231; Anguttara, II, p. 159; Kośa, II, p. 219.

According to the Visuddhimagga, p. 189, it is necessary to recollect death at the normal time (kālamaraṇa) resulting from exhaustion of merit (puññakkhaya), from exhaustion of the lifespan (āyukkhaya) or both, and death at abnormal time (akālamaraṇa) resulting from an action putting an end to the action producing life.


For “the end of life is death” (maraṇantaṃ hi jīvitam): Dhammapada, v. 148.


See the apologue of the four venomous snakes in the Āśīviṣopamasūtra, above, p. 702–707F; Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, p. 136–137, note.


Cf. Suttanipāta, v. 576, p. 113:

Phalānam iva pakkānaṃ pāto papatanā bhayaṃ |
evam jatānaṃ maccānaṃ niccaṃ maraṇato bhayaṃ ||

“When the fruits are ripe, it is to be feared that they may fall in the morning; in the same way, when mortals are born, they risk death perpetually.”


In the Visuddhimagga, p. 190, death appears as a butcher (vadhaka) who threatens all beings and, as soon as they are born, holds a knife at their throats.


If people of great fame, great merit, great strength, great supernatural powers, great intelligence, if the pratyekabuddhas and the samyaksaṃbuddhas themselves do not escape death, how could a man like me do so (mādiseṣu kathā va kā)? Cf. Visuddhimagga, p. 192–193.


Cf. Dhammapada, v. 128:

Na antalikkhe, na samuddamajjhe
na pabbatānaṃ vivaraṃ pavissa |
na vijjatī so jagatippadeso
yatraṭṭhitaṃ nappasahetha maccu ||

“Neither in the sky, nor in the middle of the sea, nor by crawling into mountain caves can one find any place in this world where death cannot vanquish us.”