While I was relaxing on the sofa the other day, my old grey cat lost his balance and fell off my lap. He panicked, his front claws grasping a blanket as he slipped, so that instead of landing on his feet as usual, he fell on his side and the wind was knocked out of him. He was fine, but this, along with his recent stiffness and inability to eat a full meal anymore, remind me that my dear companion, with whom I’ve lived for 16 years, will not live forever. In my meditation practice, I’ve been repeating the Five Remembrances of the Buddha, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, to help me stay with my emotional reactions to unpleasant events occurring in my life. The First Remembrance feels particularly relevant here: “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.”
I experienced an infected tooth last summer, which needed to be extracted. Unfortunately, the subsequent dental implant to replace my molar was unsuccessful. These two sentences summarize weeks of unpleasant physical sensations and poor sleep. The dentist tried again last week, and hopefully this time the implant will work. I’ve been through several courses of strong antibiotics in the last six months and dread their side effects. While meditating on my resistance, I repeat the next line of the Five Remembrances to myself, “I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.”
An acquaintance of mine recently lost his best friend of 40 years in a freak accident. I can’t even imagine the depth of his emotional reaction right now. In life, we all have beloved human and animal friends and loved ones who are deeply entwined in our lives. Watching them grow ill and die or pass away suddenly, we feel grief, anger, fear, and other emotions for a long time. Then, over time, we slowly learn to live with their aching absence. The third line of the Five Remembrances addresses death: “I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.”
The fourth line of the Five Remembrances talks about impermanence. “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.” For me, my parents’ divorce when I was ten years old taught me directly at a young age what this kind of disruptive change and separation feel like. This one is still the most scary for me, my inner child’s fear of being abandoned feels very much alive.
I am still learning to understand the last of the Five Remembrances. “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” The closest I come to glimpsing this understanding is through the unspoken knowing beyond words evoked by poetry. I know that Thay teaches that our actions are our continuation body in this world, that our presence continues through the people we touch, even after we are no longer physically present. Below are two poems, “The Well of Grief” by David Whyte and “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver, that show me different facets of what the Buddha may mean. I look forward to hearing from you how reading and meditating on them has touched you.
In “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” Thay writes about the Five Remembrances:
When we look at the ocean, we see that each wave has a beginning and an end. A wave can be compared with other waves, and we can call it more or less beautiful, higher or lower, longer lasting, or less long lasting. But if we look more deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. While living the life of a wave, it also lives the life of water. It would be sad if the wave did not know that it is water. It would think, “Someday I will have to die. This period of time is my lifespan, and when I arrive at the shore, I will return to nonbeing.” These notions will cause the wave fear and anguish….
We become arrogant when things go well, and we become afraid of falling, of being low or inadequate. But these are relative ideas, and when they end, a feeling of completeness or satisfaction arises. Liberation is the ability to go from the world of signs to the world of true nature. We need the relative world of the wave, but we also need to touch the water, the ground of our being, to have real peace and joy.
This Thursday night at Crossings, after our regular sitting and walking meditation, we will meditate on the Five Remembrances and read the poems together as a Sangha. We’ll explore what the meditation touches in us, and how and why we practice the awareness of the Five Remembrances in our everyday lives. We warmly invite you to join us!
The Well of Grief
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering the small round coins thrown by those who wished for something else.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?