Perfectly clear, compassionate, and concise, the “Five Remembrances” are Buddhism at its very best. Koun Franz explains.
Often, someone will ask me, “What’s Buddhism about?” I usually go straight to what are known as Buddhism’s “three seals”—the concepts of dissatisfaction, impermanence, and non-self. I’ll tell the person, “These are the structural underpinnings of Buddhism.” But that’s a lot to take in. If I were being more skillful, I would probably have business cards printed up with the “Five Remembrances” of foundational Buddhism on them. And when someone asked, “What is Buddhism?” I would say, “Here. It’s this.”
- 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 five remembrances, first found in the Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation”), are intended to be recited. They’re intended to be memorized. They’re things we can say every day. Maybe they’re the first thing you say when you wake up, or the first thought you have before you go to bed; maybe they’re taped next to your bathroom mirror or on your kitchen counter. And as they become internalized, they become a kind of touchstone, a constant reminder to yourself that you are of the nature to grow old, that there’s no way around aging, that there is no way around sickness. There is no way around death.
These first three, of course, are basically what drove the Buddha to become the Buddha. These were the central wake-up calls of his life before he “woke up”: sickness, old age, death. It’s so commonsensical.
If you have all five memorized, there’s no need for a further teaching. I’m going to ramble about these for a while, but it’s all right there already. It’s complete. It’s Buddhism at its very, very best. It’s perfectly clear. It’s perfectly compassionate. It’s perfectly concise. And you can’t argue with it. It must matter.
Don’t look away. Realize what you’re seeing.
So we have sickness, old age, death, and then we have these last two. “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.” This is impermanence. “There is no way to escape being separated from”—and there we have a little bit of the spice of dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness. Everything is going to change; nothing is ever going to be as I want it to be, as I need it to be, as I think it should be. I can’t keep the perfect thing. I can’t keep anything.
We say these in first person, but we can say them in second person. Maybe not out loud, but as you’re looking at your aging parents, as you’re looking at your friend who is suffering from a debilitating disease, as you’re looking at your children going through all the joys and the difficulties of growing up, you can pause and think to yourself:
You are of the nature to grow old.
You are of the nature to die.
You are going to suffer separation and loss.
We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. And of course, we can also say it as “we”: we are all this. We are all going to lose what we have, if we ever had it. We are all of this nature. Some of my most grounded and simple moments in relationship to this practice have taken place in settings like like subway stations, moments of being crowded in by hundreds or thousands of people and looking out at so many faces, more than you can process, and then thinking, “Oh, we’re ALL this. Everything that is true to me about this practice is true to them.” It changes the room. It changes the air. Not because something good happened, but because that’s my one brief honest look at where I am.
Remembrance #5 is maybe the most interesting. “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” This is about karma. I’ve heard it said, and maybe you have as well, this phrase, that we own our actions “but not the fruits of our actions.” We experience the consequences, but we don’t get to have the rewards. Within my tradition, Zen, we can understand this to a certain degree as practice–verification, Dogen’s central teaching that the meaning of what we do is expressed, complete, in what we do. What we do is the thing.
My life is being expressed 100% right now. This is what my life looks like right now. There’s no backstory. There’s no other thing that you don’t see. And it’s equally true for you wherever you are, whichever part of the world you’re in. However you’re sitting, however you’re breathing, that’s you—not just a version of you but the complete you, the culmination of your life.
What you choose to do in this moment matters. There will be consequences. And while you get to choose which actions you take, you don’t get to choose what those consequences will be. It’s like aiming a bow and arrow while you’re running: you know what you want to hit. Maybe you’ll get it. Maybe you won’t. You just do your best, but you have to accept the consequences for what happens because what other option is there? So Remembrance #5 is saying that what you do matters—so live like it does.
These Five Remembrances are powerful. They are enough. They are more than enough. But I want to add another piece, which is that in another sutra, in the Devaduta Sutta (“The Deva Messengers”), there’s discussion about the Remembrances, but from a different angle: “The Five Divine Messengers.” When we encounter these five divine messengers, they’re reminders of the Five Remembrances.
I love the first one. It makes me trust the whole list: newborn babies. When we encounter a newborn baby, even if we don’t have any particular philosophy about the nature of reality, we’re struck with something powerful. There’s something earth-shattering about a newborn child. In that little face, we see all of it; we see something so perfect. And at the same time, we know that it can’t remain. We would never wish for that baby not to grow up, to not get older. And at the same time, when that child gets a little older, we may not be able to see its perfection as clearly. So there’s a sense of loss. There’s an understanding that this is temporary — and at the same time, so complete.
The second divine messenger is “a bent over, broken-tooth, old person.” Every time you see someone who has reached an old age—and in this case, a kind of extreme example, someone who has really felt the ravages of age—that’s a divine messenger. It’s a kind of angel appearing to remind you, in case you forgot in this moment or for today that you, too, are of the nature to grow old, that you cannot escape.
Don’t look away. Say thank you.
The third messenger is someone who is suffering from an illness. Part of what I love about this teaching is that I’ve heard people say, many times, that when you see someone else who is suffering, you should count your blessings that you’re not suffering in the same way. This teaching is saying the opposite: “That person is suffering. Don’t kid yourself—that person is showing you the nature of your life. You may not feel it acutely in this moment, but this is what it is to be human.”
Again, don’t look away. Realize what you’re seeing.
The next is someone who has died. In this culture, that’s usually been a rare event; in other cultures and other times, seeing a corpse was not uncommon at all. But these teachings came about in times when there was, for example, no photography. We have a different opportunity. Every time you see a picture of someone from the past, every time you see a photograph of someone who is no longer with us, you can pause and consider the fact that that person died and that you will too, that there is no escape. It isn’t a punishment; it isn’t unfair. It’s just who we are.
And then there’s the last divine messenger. This one, we need to examine a little bit; it comes from a different place. The last messenger is “a punished criminal.” This image, of course, is intended to remind us of karma, but it points to a narrow definition of karma, something closer to “justice.” Perhaps people had more faith in the criminal justice system 2,500 years ago, but if someone points out a “punished criminal” to me today, I don’t simply assume the person got what they deserved. How can I know that?
If a divine messenger isn’t sending the intended message, you can disregard it. Find something new. In this case, we’re looking for something to remind us of karma—luckily, literally everything does. Every time you can’t find your keys, it’s because you put your keys somewhere else. That too is karma—it doesn’t have to look like justice. It doesn’t have to be a balancing of the scales; that’s a simplistic and dangerous view. It’s simply that we do things, and something comes of those choices.
When you breathe out, your body needs to breathe in again. Just like that, multiple times a minute, you have a reminder that what you do matters, that what you do now is leading to something else. We always bear the weight of that, but we can also choose that weight in the way we sit and stand and walk and speak, because again, what other option is there?
We can get so caught up in the idea that this tradition and this practice are about somehow perfecting ourselves or about purifying our view. Even if we’re in a tradition that tells us not to see it that way, that particular door feels so wide, so open, so seductive. But if we choose that path, if we try to walk through that door, then we walk past this, the thing that is truly on offer.
Maybe, in the future, there is a better you, a wiser you, a more compassionate you. But in this moment, you don’t need to focus on that at all. Just don’t lie to yourself about the nature of your life. That’s what these five are saying. Remember every day. Let them be the air you breathe. Metabolize them. And then, whatever you choose to do with your life, the actions you choose to take will come from that place of total honesty, of total transparency.
That’s what these five are about. Not something out there. Not something to come.
If you’re looking for a project, go grab a 5×7 card and write the Remembrances down, and stick it next to your mirror. Tape it on your kitchen counter. Put it on your desk. Let these five truths soak into your skin. You’ve always known them, because they’ve always been true. But best to remind yourself anyway.