In Asia I think about death more than I do in the West. This is partly because the possibility of death is much more readily obvious in someplace like SE Asia: heat stroke, icky tropical diseases, snakebite, political/social upheaval, or whatever might suddenly leap from the sheer unknown. Also, especially during times of miserably hot weather, the feeling occasionally arises that death would be preferable to many more years of drenching sweat and heat prostration. In the West it seems more the established thing not to think much about death, but just to worry about getting old. But in traditional Theravada, thinking about death is very much encouraged.
So during my years-long exile in Burma I came up with the idea that, in the event of my death, I would like the Salla Sutta of the Sutta Nipāta recited at my cremation—in Pali of course, plus in the native languages of whoever happened to be attending. So I translated it into English, just in case any speakers of that language attend. The English translation is as follows.
Discourse on the Spike (Salla Sutta)
—Sutta Nipāta III.8
The life of mortals here is signless and uncertain;
It is troublesome and brief, and it is bound to unease.
Indeed, there is no means by which those born do not die.
Even for one who has reached a great old age there is death, for such is the way of living beings.
Just as for ripe fruit there is always danger of falling,
Even so for mortals who are born there is constantly danger of death.
And just as clay bowls made by a potter
All end in breaking, even so is this life of mortals.
Young and old, those who are foolish and those who are wise,
All go under the power of death; all are destined for death.
When they are overcome by death, going on to the other world,
The father does not give support to the son, nor do any relatives to any other relatives.
See, even as the relatives are looking on and each of them crying out,
Every mortal is led away, one by one, like a cow to be slaughtered.
Thus is the world stricken by death and old age.
Therefore the wise do not grieve, having realized the way of the world.
Whose path you do not know, either whence he has come or where he has gone,
Not seeing either end, you lament him pointlessly.
If, lamenting, a stupid person who is harming himself
Would derive some benefit, then a discerning person would do it also.
But not by weeping and grief does one attain to peace of mind.
One's unease simply increases, and one's body is harmed.
One becomes thin and unhealthy-looking, harming oneself by oneself.
Those who have passed away are not benefitted by this. Lamenting is pointless.
A fellow not abandoning grief increasingly suffers unease;
Bewailing the deceased he falls under the power of grief.
See others also going along, men going in accordance with their actions,
Living beings floundering about here in the world, having come under the power of death.
For in whatever way they imagine, it happens other than that.
The state of separation is such as this. See the way of the world.
Even if a man would live a hundred years or more
He comes to be separated from the community of his relatives; he leaves behind life in this world.
Therefore having heard the Worthy One, one should dismiss lamentation.
Seeing the one who has passed away, one should think, "I can't have him any more."
Just as a burning shelter would be put out with water,
Even so a wise man endowed with understanding, an intelligent, skillful man,
Would quickly blow away any grief that has arisen, as the wind would do to a wisp of cotton.
Lamentation and longing, and one's own unhappiness—
One seeking ease for oneself should pull out the spike in oneself.
With the spike pulled out, unattached, having attained peace of mind,
Gone beyond all sorrow, the sorrowless one is completely gone out.
The Discourse is pretty much self-explanatory, so a detailed commentary would be superfluous. The title and the final verses, though, contain an ancient Buddhist metaphor that is noteworthy—the salla, i.e. the spike.
Salla has no direct equivalent in the English language. It apparently can mean any sharp, piercing object. A spike is a salla. A thorn can be a salla. Apparently a dart-like weapon used in ancient India was called a salla. A surgeon's probe is called a salla. So also is the quill of a porcupine. K. R. Norman, in his translation of the Sutta Nipāta, rendered it as "the barb." The main thing is that it stabs into the flesh. It pierces us, resulting in our suffering.
The spike is a common metaphor in very early Buddhist literature, but seems to have fallen out of fashion in later times. It is mentioned several times in the Sutta Nipāta, a collection which contains some very ancient texts. The Aṭṭhakavagga, very possibly the largest existing fragment of "primitive" Buddhist literature, begins and ends with discourses mentioning "the spike." One text within the Aṭṭhakavagga, the aptly-named "Discourse on the Uptaken Stick" (Attadaṇḍa Sutta), gives in its first few stanzas a poetic description of this affliction of the human heart:
Fear is born by a stick one has acquired;
Look at people in conflict.
I shall relate to you a feeling of urgency,
How it was felt by me.
Having seen mankind thrashing about
Like fishes in little water,
Obstructed by one another—
Having seen, fear took hold of me.
The world was entirely without substance;
All the quarters were shaken.
Wanting a settled abiding for myself
I saw nothing that had not succumbed.
But even in succumbing people are obstructed—
Having seen this, disaffection arose in me.
Then I saw a spike [salla] here,
Hard to see, stuck in the heart.
Subjected to this spike
Through all the quarters one runs about:
Having pulled out just this spike
One does not run, one does not sink.
Thus it appears that the spike is not simply death, as might be inferred from the discourse which takes its name. The spike is grief—chronic anxiety, or angst, arising from our friction and resistance against a world that we ourselves create. It is like someone having a dream at night and struggling to be free of the dream that they themself are creating. It is the spike of dissatisfaction with the way things are, as a result of our own doing; wanting them to change, or, just as unskillful, wanting them not to change.
(As an aside, the metaphor of not running and not sinking, found in the last quoted verse, is also a very ancient one, being found in other texts as well as this one—possibly the most well-known example of it would be the very first Sutta of the Saṁyutta Nikāya. I interpret it to mean that a wise person doesn't continue chasing his or her tail through Samsara, yet also doesn't simply fade out into stillness, unconsciousness, or oblivion. It is, like many metaphors for enlightenment, the razor's edge between the two horns of a paradox.)
I conclude this exposé of the spike in our hearts with one more early Sutta from the Sutta Nipāta.
Discourse on Arousal (Uṭṭhāna Sutta)
—Sutta Nipāta II.10
Get up! Sit up!
What use to you is sleep?
What rest is there for the afflicted,
Pierced with a spike and in distress?
Get up! Sit up!
Train steadfastly for peace.
Let not the king of death, knowing you to be clouded in mind,
Confuse you so you are come under his power.
Cross over this attachment
By which gods and men stay clinging and longing.
Let not the moment pass you by,
For those whose moment is passed sorrow indeed
When consigned to hell.
Cloudedness of mind, pollution, cloudedness of mind—
Following upon cloudedness of mind is pollution.
With uncloudedness of mind and with wisdom
One should pull out one's own spike.