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The Five Remembrances

May 18, 2012

Not more than a year ago I came across the five remembrances, a Buddhist discourse on “Subjects for contemplation.” In a short amount of time I took to the habit of recalling them daily, and it developed into my primary focus of morning meditation sessions. I was already familiar with each of the remembrances, but only as separate parts within the whole of Buddhism.

The Buddha is said to have advised that these five facts should be reflected upon often by lay or monastic individuals. There are several translations; this is the one that I use. I recommend the first part to be inhalation; the second part exhalation:

  • I am of the nature to age; there is no way to escape aging.
  • 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, including my loved ones, are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My actions are my only true belongings; My actions are the ground on which I stand.

I personally then add a sixth.

  • My thoughts precede my actions; What I think, I become.

So yes, this looks exceptionally gloomy. We age, we get sick, we die, and everything we love will be lost……ahh those jolly Buddhists.

For me, two key things develop when contemplating the five remembrances. First, the primal reason; they are to me inarguable truths. We all age, we all die, change is a constant. It makes sense that our ancestors knew these truths because they lived them. They wouldn’t need to be reminded. This is a reality that we often fight with either ignorance or avoidance. We all know that life can change, or be lost at any moment. But we tend to think it’s more likely to happen to someone else than it is to us. This is a part of the optimism bias that ill prepares us for when these truths surface. ( TED Talk on Optimism Bias )

We are more likely to think someone else’s mom will get cancer, rather than our own. Someone else’s pet will get ran over, not ours. And so on. So remembering that this is not the case; Remembering that we, and all that we love are fragile, is a truth. And I don’t like to speak in truth or fact terms. So that realization struck me first.

That lead quickly to the second development – Life is amazing, wonderful, and precious. After meditating on this in the morning, I first feel solemn, then at peace, and then very happy that I can feel my breath, I have my health, and that I have my loved ones around me. I’m energized for the day, and I’m appreciative and enjoy each moment more often. I’m not fully trained to be in a constant state of present awareness and appreciation, but I’m getting better at it. And it’s making me happier and more at peace.

After sharing the five remembrances with friends and family, I didn’t get the reaction I was looking for. Only a few said, “aha, that’s right! I can see why that’s valuable to remember”. I decided to rewrite the five remembrances to put a positive spin on them. I came up with something like this:

  • I am of the nature to age; I’m happy with my current age.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health; I’m fortunate for my current good health.
  • I am of the nature to die; I am so happy to be alive.
  • Everything and everyone I love is likely to change; I’m lucky to have my friends, and family who care for me.
  • My actions are my only true belongings; My actions are the ground on which I stand.

I tried this for awhile personally, but never shared it with anyone else. I did not feel it was worthwhile. It seemed to skip the step of self realization. I’m a firm believer that ‘learning the hard way’, i.e. personal realization is the best way for learning to take place. By telling someone to be happy with their age, good health, friends and family there is no lasting impact. There is much of this advice out there already.

I feel that actual meditation, actual visualization and feeling of these five remembrances happening to you is vitally important. It also needs to happen often, I do think daily is best. It’s easy to slip into that optimism bias (if you happen to be naturally optimistic, which is a good thing in for other reasons). Spending just a few minutes each morning, reminding yourself that life can change for the worse in one way or another, keeps life in perspective.

My job is not so stressful, I’m not so likely to put in extra hours so that I can go home and see my wife and son, I enjoy the weather – rain or shine, I appreciate just about everything I can. I remind myself often. I feel that life is no longer slipping by unfelt, like a song on the radio in the background….not really heard, the melody distant, the lyrics unappreciated….and then the songs over.

I know it sounds contrite, but please appreciate every note in this orchestra of a life. You never know when a violins string may break, your friend won’t come back from a restroom break, or that the lights in the concert hall might just go out.

Thanks for reading.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. dennisvw permalink
    May 19, 2012 5:27 pm

    Enjoyed your post, keep them coming when you can..

  2. dennisvw permalink
    May 19, 2012 5:28 pm

    Enjoyed your post, keep them coming when you can….

  3. June 24, 2012 6:39 pm

    I also recite these, albeit worded slightly differently. I imagine there are a lot of people who are averse to continually remembering things that seem so gloomy, but they are ultimately truth and the “in your face-ness” of it stirs vigor with which one may pursue a more virtuous life.

    I think remembering these five facts is huge and people who want to ignore them are simply doing so because they are afraid of it.

    • June 25, 2012 10:54 am

      You’ve put it succinctly. I agree and would add that it’s possibly a cultural thing for the US. Where kids are less likely to directly care for parents when they are old, opting for elderly homes.

      I also think this where the value of having pets is increased. The age, sicken, and die in a short span that can help teach compassion, and understanding if considered for more than just something sad.

    • June 25, 2012 10:55 am

      Also I’d be interested in knowing your translation/version of the five remembrances. Thanks!

      • June 25, 2012 7:29 pm

        No problem, friend. The one I recite reads as follows:

        “I am of the nature to decay.
        I have not surpassed decay.

        I am of the nature to be diseased.
        I have not surpassed disease.

        I am of the nature to die.
        I have not surpassed death.

        All that is mine, beloved and pleasing,
        will change and vanish.

        I am the owner of my karma.
        The heir to my karma,
        born of my karma,
        related to my karma,
        and abide supported by my karma.

        Whatever karma I shall do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir.”

      • June 26, 2012 12:23 am

        Most excellent, thank you!

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