By Acharya Samaneti
I feel overwhelmed this morning.
One of my teachers has been admitted to palliative care, an inmate that I used to meet with has passed this weekend, and my partner is suffering with COVID (so we are now living in separate rooms with masks on, talking to each other by text and phone). I sit in my office and feel like I cannot escape the fundamental truths that Buddhism teaches to prepare us for exactly these moments.
What do I do in times like these?
I lean heavily on the Five Remembrances, a foundation of my practice. If you ever wondered what Buddhism is, I would say that these simple statements encompass most Buddhist philosophy and practice. They are:
- 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 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.
These remembrances are from the Upajjhatthana Sutta (« Subjeccts for Contemplation »), we recite them, we memorize them, we should say them every day when we wake up, or every night before we go to sleep. I always give a sheet with them printed to the inmates that I help; as a practice that they try to embody every day.
Some have found it to be a very powerful and profound practice; I agree, it is one of the most profound and life changing practices that I have taken on the Buddhist path.
As we internalize these remembrances, they become a foundation, a reminder to ourselves—we cannot escape old age, there is no way around sickness, that we cannot avoid death. These are the truths that made Siddhartha Gautama leave the palace to start his journey to Buddhahood. They were his wake-up calls.
These are complete, this is Buddhism at its best, it is clear and concise, and it has compassion and wisdom.
We have sickness, old age, death. We then have, “all that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change” which is impermanence, and then, “there is no way to escape being separated from” which is dukkha to a certain degree. This fourth remembrance reminds us that everything is going to change; nothing is every going to be exactly how we want it to be—I am not able to keep it a certain way.
We are all going to get old, we will all die, and we are all going to suffer separation and loss.
To think otherwise is to deny some of the most fundamental truths; my acceptance of these truths has helped me immensely in my life, especially with how I am dealing the impermanence of my dear teacher and the illness that my partner is struggling with now.
The last remembrance, “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand” is about karma. Some believe we are to understand that we own our actions but not necessarily the fruits of our actions; so more like the consequences instead of the rewards. I believe that the meaning of what we do expresses itself completely in what we do.
What we do is important.
These remembrances are powerful, and I believe that they are enough. When I find myself struggling with the three seals, or other Buddhist foundational ideas; I turn to the simple phrases listed above that bring comfort and peace to my heart. Today I sit in meditation. I remind myself of these basic truths and I let them comfort me; I am able to see what is happening to me with more wisdom and I feel myself gently letting go of my need to control what I essentially have no control of—life.
We are born into this world to grow old, to be sick, and then to die.
We will feel separation and impermanence with the people we love and care about; whether it be death, growing apart, etc.
We must remind ourselves of the eternal laws of karma and the importance that every act has in our lives.
Write these remembrances down, post them all over your house or office, and recite them often. These statements are truly liberating once we embody them all.
Editor: Dana Gornall