The Cambridge Insight Meditation Center hosted Tara Tulku Rinpoche some years ago. Before he gave a talk he would finger the beads that some Tibetans carry and make a certain sound three times. I thought he must be intoning some special mantra. Finally I asked him about it and he said he was repeating a simple phrase: "I'm going to die. I'm going to die. I'm going to die." The idea was that those words would keep him from any inflated ideas he might have of being a teacher or some kind of expert. All of his supposed expertise and authority would come to nothing.

I keep various mementos around to remind me of the same thing. One is the skull of a dead lama. Another is a set of beads made from the bones of a dead lama. It was taken from the remains of a corpse after what is called a sky burial, in which vultures are allowed to consume a corpse as a last act of compassion. And the beads that Tara Tulku Rinpoche fingered as he said those words were also made of bone. Beads made of human or animal bones serve as a reminder of how we're all going to end up.

People often ask why we would want to be reminded. It's bad enough that we have to die: Why remind ourselves of that fact all the time? The Pali word anusaya refers to the latent tendencies that we all have, one of which is our fear of death. It lives in our consciousness somewhere and weighs us down, actually having quite a bit of influence on us, as it shows up in smaller, more tangible fears. It darkens our lives. It is a chronic form of anxiety.

Anusaya is constantly fed by things we see and hear: when someone we know dies, or when we see a dead animal in the street, or when we hear that a friend has grown seriously ill or see a friend after some time and notice that he has aged. The way of Buddhist practice is to flush out these fears, to open the doors and windows and let in some fresh air, to stop talking about these matters in a whisper, repressing and denying them. It's exhausting to live that way: it requires a huge amount of energy to hold that kind of fear down. And it doesn't ultimately work.

Tara Tulku Rinpoche, David Guy, Larry Rosenberg in Living in the Light of Death by David Guy, Larry Rosenberg