The Five Remembrances & the Path of Heart
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.
These five facts lay bare the very fabric of our human condition. Originally found in the Upajjhatthana Sutta, or “Subjects for Contemplation”, The Five Remembrances cut me to the quick. It calls out the things we humans most often want to ignore, pointing directly to a reality that can frankly scare the crap out of us — that nothing lasts. That our youth, our health, our lives, and everything that is dear to us — there is no way to escape being separated from them. That all these things we’re so deeply attached to are as momentary and fleeting as a bubble in the water.
This can feel terrifying. Isn’t there anything solid? Anything we can hold on to, that won’t shift like loose sand under our feet?
In a word, no. But therein lies the freedom — the freedom to be present with an ever-changing world.
I remember the first time I read this, it rang my bell. It slapped me in the face with some heavy truth. I remember thinking, “Woah. Shit. This cuts right to the heart of it all.” And then, like any privileged 20 year old college kid who encounters something too serious, I changed the subject. “Run away, run awaaaay!!!” said my aversion, grabbing my monkey mind by the hand and leaping headlong into the nearest distraction. Something — anything — that felt… well, safer. I didn’t want to think about all the things I was going to lose. I didn’t want to think about the things I’d already lost.
And yet, even though I couldn’t stay with it for long periods of time, the simple truth of these remembrances was so vividly apparent. Many parts of my practice were like this back then: whether through zazen or study or a genuine encounter, I’d touch something vibrantly true, then promptly freak out and run away… only to cautiously tiptoe back sometime later to keep exploring. This still happens today in different ways and to different degrees. Grasping and aversion never go away, after all — though in my experience, with practice, our relationship with these impulses will evolve — as will our relationship with the reality of impermanence.
One of my first memories encountering the knowledge of impermanence happened when I was 6 or 7 years old. My family had gotten a puppy, a golden retriever named Alex. I was immediately in love. Alex was empathetic, understanding, extremely in tune with how her weirdo pack of humans were feeling, and always seemed to know just what to do. Aside from my mom, Alex was my greatest teacher of unconditional love.
One day, maybe a year after she joined the family, I remember sitting in the den, hugging the dog and sobbing into her soft golden fur, completely torn apart by the knowledge that one day she would be gone and I would still be alive. I was so upset that she couldn’t live as long as we could; I desperately didn’t want her to die, the thought of it broke my heart. As young as Alex was at the time, she patiently sat still for as long as I needed, occasionally licking my hand or thumping her tail to let me know it would be alright.
So what do we do? What do we do with the heartbreaking knowledge that we cannot escape losing that which we love?
At one point I remember grabbing a small tuft of fur she’d shed, and taping it into one of my scrapbook albums next to a couple of pictures of her. I wanted something tangible to have besides pictures. I couldn’t pet pictures, after all. (I couldn’t actually pet that tuft of fur either, since it was covered by scotch tape, but I did it anyway). A few days later while I was alone in my bedroom looking at Alex’s pictures and that taped up bit of fur, I started crying all over again thinking about how one day she would be gone. After a while I heard some noise in the backyard and looked out my window. There, Alex and my little brother were playing together in the backyard. That’s when it hit me: why was I crying over a bunch of pictures when I could be out there playing with my dog and my brother right now? I closed the scrapbook, and ran outside.
My brother and I grew up with Alex, and had countless adventures together — driving across the country, playing in the snow, exploring new places, jumping in piles of leaves… she had a wonderful life, and brought great joy to everyone she encountered for many years.
Alex died on her 13th birthday, during my first summer home after freshman year of college. She was living with my mom, and had a stroke in the middle of the night. When the vet made it clear that she was hurting and wouldn’t get better, they made the decision to put her to sleep. So, with mom holding her and telling her how much we all loved her, Alex licked her hand, thumped her tail one last time, and was gone.
We are of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death. Alex was one of my greatest teachers, and her impact on my life (and the lives of every person in my family) was incalculable.
In the words of Taego Bou, a 14th-century Korean Zen master: “The days and months go by like lightning — we should value the time. We pass from life to death in the time it takes to breathe in and breathe out; it’s hard to guarantee even a morning and an evening. At the end of the road, it’s like an iron wall. Put down your myriad concerns and wake up… do not waste even a minute.”
I recently learned about a great Thai monk and meditation master named Achaan Chah, who was instrumental in establishing Theravada Buddhism in the west.
One day some people came to him and asked, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?” The master held up a glass and said, “Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.”
The glass is already broken. Our youth, our health — they’re already broken. All that is dear to us and everyone we love are of the nature of change; there is no way to escape being separated from them. And in this truth, we have an exquisite invitation to honor and incredibly enjoy what we have while we have it.
Brokenness is part of wholeness, and makes the wholeness that much more precious; loss is part of love, and makes the love that much more poignant. Personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
As our guiding teacher James Myoun Ford has said, “There is beauty and wonder in this existence. And as hard as it can be to face, the simple truth is this very moment is the only place we will find life and love and meaning.”
This very moment.
Which brings us to the last of the five remembrances: My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
There’s more than an abundance of things over which we have no control in this life — sickness, aging, and death are at the top of that list. But there’s this thin sliver of the world that is ours and ours alone: the choices we make. Moment by moment. In the face of whatever circumstances may be. And each choice has an impact that is ultimately unknowable.
To hold the door open for a stranger. To slow down on the highway and let someone cut in front of you. To pick up the phone and call that friend. To spare a few bucks for someone in need. To take a breath before saying something hurtful. To be honest, even if it scares you. To choose compassion, as often as you’re able.
This remembrance is an invitation to cultivate the 8-fold path — the practice of living with awareness and integrity — and to see for ourselves what liberation it brings.
And if, indeed, this very moment is the only place we will find life and love and meaning — what meaning do we choose to make? What is the ground on which we stand, in this breath and the next?
Marcel Proust said, “We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.”
This truth of impermanence transcends good and bad. We cannot stop the sun or the storm, the breeze or the waves; we cannot stop the persistent march of time, and the inevitable shifts in ourselves and the world around us. It truly is one of the few certainties we have in this life — the knowledge that whatever it is, this too shall pass.
These five remembrances lay bare the very fabric of our human condition. And while at first glance they may appear morbid, I encourage you to look past any clinging, aversion, or fear that comes up in the face of this knowledge, and see what lies beyond. There is beauty and wonder in this existence. And in my experience, contemplating these subjects regularly nurtures a deep and profound gratitude for what is, that we may be free to enjoy it all incredibly.