Unravelling the fear of death

Lessons from the Abhaya Sutta

Fear is a powerful primitive emotion.  This universal biochemical response alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, both physical and psychological.  Fear can be so strong that it can be debilitating, especially when we deem threats to be extreme and deadly, such as that of war, terrorism, and invisible but harmful enemies such as COVID-19.

Ironically, what most beings generally fear is also the most certain event in life – Death.  In the Abhaya Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 4.184), Janussoni the brahmin confronted the Buddha with his opinion that everyone is afraid of death.  The Buddha skillfully explained that there are indeed four types of people who are afraid of death, but added that there are also four types of people who have transcended this fear.


Those who FEAR death

We fear death out of ignorance and due to not understanding the nature of life.  Due to this ignorance, we become overly attached to sensual pleasures and bodies without realising the nature of impermanence and non-self; hence we fear losing these worldly conditions.


Those who TRANSCEND THE FEAR of death

Those who do not fear death have realised the characteristics of existence – impermanent, dissatisfactory and void of an inherent self.  There four kinds of people who have transcended this fear of death :

  • One who has abandoned delight in sensual pleasure and enjoyment.
  • One who has become disenchanted with the body which is subject to decay.
  • One who lives a skillful life of non-harm, non-cruelty and non-ill-will to all beings.
  • One who has clear comprehension of the true nature of life after learning Dhamma.

Knowing this, we most certainly should not sit idly and wait for our impending deaths.  Instead, we can gain release from the tight grip of fearing death, here and now, by conducting our lives in a wholesome manner and realising the Dhamma for ourselves.  Let us be heedful of the Buddha’s words to understand the Deathless.


Mindfulness of death — when developed & pursued — is of great fruit & great benefit.
It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end. ”

– Maranassati Sutta (AN 6.20)