(Thich Nhat Hanh’s version)
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 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 the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
From: The Plum Village Chanting, by Thich Nhat Hanh
The teachings of the Buddha lead to joy and contentment. We enjoy the small treasures such a soft breeze through trees or the sharp sound of a dog barking. We can also find serenity and peace in moments of displeasure. The movement to joy and contentment begins with understanding and walking through suffering. Suffering is when the mind is dissatisfied, turbulent, perturbed. As we begin to see ourselves in more deeper and meaningful ways we may begin to see our suffering as our precious gift. The consistent contemplation of the Five Remembrances is a huge asset in understanding suffering and developing the joy of compassion.
We all suffer. We all suffer from sickness, aging and death, all of loss. We can come together through compassion of witnessing and honoring our sickness, aging and death. The work of compassion results in experiencing unity with all beings.
Yet facing these Five Remembrances can be a difficult pill to swallow.
My wife Susan has been an amazing support for my practicing of the Dharma. For my first self retreat, I stayed in the cabin of our friends Trudy and Larry. The cabin sits on a beautiful lake in an isolated part of the Ocala National Forest. My wife Susan was to visit and check on me at the midway point of the retreat. That day I was contemplating these Five Remembrances. Susan stayed for a half an hour. When she left, I began sobbing at the undeniable truth of losing her, losing her and I, and losing me. After some deep sobbing, there was a sense of joy and relief. And a greater commitment to her moving forward. And a greater commitment to live in the now with gratitude.
The reflection of Five Remembrances may seem melancholy, even morose. Especially in a society where there is so much emphasis on creating a sense of “me.” And the sense of me is often affected by suffering around the body. There seem a persistent sense of dissatisfaction with bodies in this culture. So much energy and resources spent on avoiding the inevitability of change and loss around our bodies. More than 8 billion dollars was spent on facial surgeries alone in the US in 2020. And how about cosmetology, entertainment, adventure and travel? So many of these endeavors are about sustaining a sense of me and the illusion of control of me. Understanding impermanence with respect to the body assist us in not taking ourselves so personally.
Ignorance is the “chairman of the board” of suffering. What is ignorance? Living from a view of not understanding suffering. Most suffering comes from the view of a permanent subjective reality and an identification with a sense of me. As Dharma teacher Ruth King states “life is not perfect, not permanent and not personal.”
Most of us love children. Children seem to have so much joy with the simplest actions and play. I can remember being a child and experiencing the simple wonders of this beautiful world.
Dharma teachers Stephen and Ondrea Levine spent most of their lives working with terminally ill people. The Levines would tell us that many of children in cancer wards were often light and buoyant. Perhaps they had not become attached to the idea of “me,” and could enjoy the beauty and fascination of this ongoing show we call life.
The Buddha began the four abidings in mindfulness training (Satipatthana) with meditations and contemplations of the body. It is speculated that he started with the body because the evidence for impermanence in the body is obvious. Another possible reason is that the body is an easier contemplation that the other 3 abidings. Perhaps he realized there is so much suffering with respect to the body, so much identification with the body.
We become sick. We understand, that yesterday I was out walking in the glorious sun and wind and today I have-not enough energy to pull myself out of bed. We can understand that sickness and all of the assorted aches and pains are impermanent. We can understand that sickness has to do with many different conditions, that have to nothing to do with me.
Yet do we do this? We suffer so much. We whine, we get angry, and the sickness seems like it will lasts forever. Sometimes we say “I would rather be dead” Then we tell ourselves messages like “I can not believe this is happening to me” or “life sucks.” Then we make this personal like “I am an idiot for swimming in the winter” or “I can not believe that I got sick on vacation!” Others will add their evaluation of the causes of our sickness. “If you eat consistently, you may not get dizzy and fall.” This discernment around self care is important, but we can use self inventory to validate where we are falling short.
So when our mind has not been sufficiently developed, we may become lost in the flux of unpleasant physicality. We may lose our curiosity about this ephemeral changing thoughts and emotions associated with sickness. We contract around sickness. We are not able to witness impermanence. The result is a solidified, concocted view of self. And that can make the sickness worse.
The challenge is to be mindful and interested in the mind’s response to sickness. Noticing the mind contract can be useful, and we can open to sickness, and accept sickness as part of our journey. We need sickness to be well. The contraction around sickness most consistently makes the pain worse. Sickness is unpleasant, but not all of the sensations of sickness are unpleasant. Not all of the emotions and thoughts are unpleasant. Knowing and experiencing this can help in the movement to health and well being.
Aging. Very difficult. This teaching is not necessarily about older people.The idea of what my body and mind are and what reality is differ. The body/mind is not able to do what it once could do. There is loss in this. Most often, we are not able to accept that loss and gain are inevitable processes of life. If we are able to accept that the nature of the body/mind is to fail, we may open ourselves to something bigger than our expectations and thoughts. The sense of accepting our body and mind as a product of change can lead to some sense of letting go of attachment to the sense of self. We will be letting go suffering. Often we will be left with a sense of lightness and buoyancy,
“He had (Thoreau) much comfort in perfect disease as in perfect health, the mind always conforming to the condition of the body. The thought of death, he said, could not begin to trouble him. His thoughts had entertained him all his life, and did still. “
From “Thoreas’s Estatic Witness” Alan D. Hodder Yale University Press
We do not want to face death. Death means the end of me. Death means the end of you. Death means the end of you and me. Major loss. All of my thoughts, emotions, plans ideas etc gone. Is that really death? Because of this compelling existential crisis over the end of me, most of us use elaborate mental strategies to avoid this very unpleasant issue. Yet despite our witnessing the death of others, for most of us death is on the conceptual level. For us the living, death is often a projection of my ideas, beliefs, attitudes, thoughts and emotions about death. In other words, death is most consistently a projection of the self.
Dharma teacher Rodney Smith worked for Hospice in Seattle for 17 years. Rodney would note that although his coworkers would sit with the immediacy of dying people daily, they did not want to face their own mortality. We can sit with others, and go to memorials, as long as the memorial is not for me.
Yet we go to these memorials and often fill connected. Is this because on a deeper level we know we need each other in the midst of the suffering around death? Are we witnessing death, and need some comfort of connection?
Some people can not go to a funeral homes or the hospital. I wonder if they can not face sickness, aging and death.
Our beloved friend in LIMG Bill, was devoted to the teaching of Buddhism and Christianity. His actions were persistently giving and understanding. His trajectory to death was quick. When the onset of his sickness and death were imminent, he commented “I sure am grateful I contemplated death daily.” Contemplation of death is at the center of the Buddha’s teaching. Our practice is to enter selflessness. This is contentment, serenity, joy compassion, lovingkindness and generosity.
Probably all of us have lost someone important to us. This is an opportunity to contemplate death, impermanence of the body. My father died suddenly when I was 15. I will never forget the casket almost being dropped off of the transport plane on the Baton Rouge tarmac. A punch in the gut. I was arguing with him 4 days prior. I have no guilt, just the shock and brutality of suffering around loss and death. This memory has been an assistant in my way through the fear of death, the contemplation of death and my ongoing acceptance of death. The Buddha encouraged us to work with effort and receptive interest about one of the most challenging aspects of suffering, death.
In Buddhist practice we speak of karma. This frequently misunderstood word means actions. What we own is our own actions. My wife Susan owns her actions. My daughter Lenora owns her actions. Each of us own the effects of those actions. This makes our lives and waking the Dharma path simple. I do not own Susans or Lenora’s actions.
This truth of owning our actions and others owning their actions can be challenging. In my work as a therapist, I often witness people becoming confused about what they are responsible for. Some people feel it their task to monitor their spouse’s behavior, such as how they talk in public or their alcohol problem. This confusion can be more subtle, like when our child dresses inappropriately for a family function. Of course alcoholics and children need discipline in order to grow up. However, they are ultimately responsive for their own choices and the effects of those choices. Each person owns their own karma, actions. Each person owns the effects of their actions.
We are to abstain from unhealthy actions. Repeated unhealthy actions lead unhealthy effects. Repeated healthy actions lead to healthy results, such as mindfulness and lovingkindness. The practice of meditation is to consistently align ourselves with healthy actions, so we become mindfulness and lovingkindness.
So we can learn to be less affected by other’s karma. We do not have to feel responsible for their karma. When we begin to learn to put down the burden of tother’s actions, this will activate joy.
What does make sense is to understand suffering, and other’s suffering. When we begin to suffer around another’s suffering, we may lose our presence, our mindfulness. We recognize that each person has to walk their own path, of suffering is part of our universal journey. Then we have a better chance of being compassionate and supportive of that person. We can ask them “how is this for you?” or “how can I help?”
The more we embrace and gain wisdom from our suffering and joy, the more we embrace this precious life. The more we embrace our suffering and joy in this precious life, the more we can embrace all of our fellow beings along with their suffering and joy. The more we embrace all beings with their suffering and joy, the more that we enter selflessness, deathlessness.
May we all be happy!