The Five Remembrances

by David Haskin

The Five Remembrances, and the beautiful Upajjhatthana Sutta it comes from, is remarkable not just for its power but for how it interweaves most of the major aspects of the Buddha’s teachings into a single teaching that we can actually live out of and practice every day.

Here are the Five (in a slightly different translation from Thay’s): “There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging. I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness. I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death. I will grow different, separate from all that is dear…to me. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.”

Here we have a remarkably concise description of Impermanence. The Buddha is clear. Trying to make solid and reliable what is intrinsically unreliable, can only cause dis-ease and dis-satisfaction – which is also the better translation of Dukha [rather than ‘suffering’].

The teaching is likewise about Non-self, Inter-being. We are namely ALL subject to these five facts. They are part of living. It works the same for all of us. Getting old, getting sick, dying, and losing what we love is not personal – it is just how it is. Yet when we get sick or experience loss, we tend to think Why Me? We make it about US and can get lost in the pure suffering of it. When we are able to make it less about ourselves, less about the delusion that we are separate from the rest of the world, we suffer less.

That’s certainly been the case with me. A few years back, I was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. Prior to my illness, I had, of course, been aware of this teaching but, at bottom, still thought they were morose. Now, suddenly, they were my life preserver. When I recited the Remembrances, which I did at first every day, I understood that my disease wasn’t personal. I was just in the midst of the powerful impermanence that is the mark of all things.

And more than anything, the Remembrances helped me understand that [now in Thay’s translation] my actions are the ground on which I stand — as clear a statement of karma as you’ll ever see. Mindful action is a way to transcend the delusion of my little, narrow self. And that alleviates suffering. This practice has gotten deeper and deeper for me over the last few years. The delusions in me have softened, are not as much in control as they used to be. In that way, getting sick hasn’t been a curse, it has been a blessing.

You may wish to take this practice seriously before the urgency of illness arises. Seeing how we can lessen our suffering is powerful, and leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation of these foundational teachings.