This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on April 30, 2014, at the Greater Boston Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I am of the nature to grow old;
There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health;
There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die;
There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change;
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions;
I am the beneficiary of my deeds;
My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
— The Five Remembrances
Tonight I’ll continue exploring features of our liturgy by talking about The Five Remembrances.
This short verse from the Pali Canon is as spare, and non-metaphysical, and direct – even “in your face” — as anything one encounters in religion. It tells it like it is, and does so succinctly.
It doesn’t make any speculative truth claims.
It doesn’t draw lines between chosen and un-chosen, saved and un-saved.
It doesn’t make any promises.
It doesn’t idealize.
At first blush, this verse may not seem to offer any comfort in light of the stark realities of this life that it describes – and, let’s be clear: comfort is what we seek.
This verse spoke to me deeply the first time I heard it, and it continues to speak to me deeply today. For me, personally, it is our most important text; at the core of what we do, and of what Buddhism is as a religion.
If we want to live fully and skillfully, we must eventually see and accept things as they are. Buddhism offers so much to help us live fully and skillfully, but accepting the inescapable facts of this-worldly life is an essential part of the equation. It is the essential part, really. Unskippable.
We won’t live as fully and skillfully as we can unless and until these seeming barriers become gates for us.
And this acceptance must occur moment after moment after moment. Much of our default programming points us in another direction.
The Five Remembrances are aptly named. Many of us need to be reminded constantly of these facts of life, either because we try to avoid them, or because we anxiously obsess about them and need to meet them in a new way.
Life manifests as change everywhere and always. It can’t help but do otherwise. This is obvious enough.
It’s the balanced accepting part that’s hard for us; so often, some form of avoiding becomes our refuge. Repeating The Five Remembrances each time we gather makes it harder and harder to hide. More and more evident that our efforts to escape are futile, and counter-productive.
The first four of The Five Rembrances remind us that we are “of the nature of change,” offering us no escape from that fact:
- We grow old, if we’re lucky.
- We become ill along the way. Some of us are born with serious ailments, and spend our whole lives coping with them.
- Ultimately, we die.
- Those we love are “of this nature,” as well. No one, nothing, is immune. Partings are unavoidable.
Do any of us really doubt this?
But do we really accept it – and not just casually and conceptually?
So much psychic and physical energy is exerted, so much social, political and economic activity is generated, to try to evade these inescapable realities.
That’s not all bad, of course. Quietism and defeatism aren’t noble responses to the facts of existence. By all means, let’s cure diseases. Extend life, if we can make the time worth living. Our urge to avoid old age, sickness and death propels much valuable social, political and technological effort and innovation.
And it also breeds much avoidable anxiety, conflict, misuse of resources, and misdirected energy and missed opportunity. So many forms of escapism – substance abuse, consumerism, and the like all can be that.
As we truly accept the basic facts of our existence, we tend to cherish life more. Live and love more fully and intimately.
The final remembrance is equal parts prescription and description. In this realm of constant change, the only solid ground – indeed, our very being, is what we do (and say) right here, right now.
Our actions and speech are rubber and road, and here-now is where they meet.
This is it, so far as we know and seemingly can know. This is conditioned by our own and others’ deeds in past moments. This is conditioning future moments, just as past moments have conditioned the present.
Each of us is the beneficiary of our deeds in this moment. We lie in the beds we make, so we should make our beds with care.
The present is our opportunity to shape the future. What preceded this moment conditions the present, but now is our opportunity to address what we’ve left undone in the past, or know we’ve done poorly.
Meditation and our other practices may tend to increase our capacity to conduct ourselves skillfully, to show up as the precepts encourage us to show up. If and as we do, that can have ripple effects, seen and unseen.
This past weekend I was home alone organizing things in our basement – creating a craft table area for the kids, an exercise space for my wife and me, a storage area. My family came home, and our eight-year old son made a big fuss about how I was encroaching on his indoor soccer space.
I had little patience for this at the moment. I told him to calm down. He didn’t, so I told him to go upstairs and leave me alone. I had a project to finish, and I couldn’t deal with the whining. He went upstairs in a huff.
I got my bearings, went upstairs, and asked him if he’d come back down to help me make decisions about the layout of the space, including an area for him to play with his soccer ball.
We talked it through, and came up with a sensible plan that satisfied everyone. He was great. So cooperative when I was truly listening to him and demonstrating concern for his concerns.
Such a small moment, but such a chance to strengthen a bond and to model behavior that I hope will help my son resolve conflict constructively with others.
I don’t want to idealize about this mundane encounter, make predictions from it or make other big claims based upon it. I can’t.
But I will say that the tension, and my initial response to it, were a gate, not a barrier. Past conduct conditions the present, but the main thing that imposes constraints in the present is our narratives about the past, and what’s possible now.
We don’t get a chance to rewrite past moments. They stand.
We do have the opportunity to meet this moment in an intentional way.
The Five Remembrances may strike us as bad news initially, but they’re really the good news. Embracing these facts of our existence, not raging against them, is liberation.
The good news is that everything is of the nature of change.
As a witty theist once said, God created time so everything wouldn’t happen all at once.
And, as the Germans say, machs gute. Let’s make it good.