Dear Still Water Friends,
Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice Project and the Metta Institute, describes the Buddha’s Five Remembrances as things that we know innately and like to forget. As translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, they are
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 on which I stand.
Larry Rosenberg, in Living in the Light of Death, calls the first four of the Five Remembrances the “messengers,” connecting them to the four “messengers” a hitherto-shielded Buddha encountered that led to his liberation: an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. The Five Remembrances reiterate the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is a way to end suffering, and that way is in our relationship to the here and now.
We all have experience with these truths. And as the poet Issa wrote:
This dewdrop world
Is but a dewdrop world
As a hospice chaplain I was often in an estuary space where my sense of life and death met and merged; where I looked deeply into the faces of old age, sickness, death and the pain of loss. Then I would go home and leave those truths outside like muddy boots.
An experience at a retreat with Frank Ostaseski and Roshi Joan Halifax started to shift things for me and showed me that there is no way to fully embrace life without allowing a greater degree of intimacy with these messengers. Without warmly looking into their faces and seeing my own face there.
I have been spending more time with these messengers as I prepared to share them with the sangha. They were with me at the birthday party for my one-year-old neighbor. I had just learned that someone near to me had had a massive heart attack and was hovering between life and death. I had visited an 84-year-old dear friend who was recovering from a serious health crisis that would now limit his formerly active life. And I had been mourning how a year ago I had a dog and now I did not, and may never have one again. So aware of time and change.
As I looked at my neighbor, adorable with a big red bow in her hair, face puckered at all the noisy, loving people filling her world, I felt the messengers standing with me. They weren’t dressed in somber black robes. They were full of light. I thought I had invited them, but they were the ones inviting me into a radiant reality. As Thay writes in No Death, No Fear, “We all exist as part of a wonderful stream of life.”
The deepest truth the Five Remembrances illuminate is how they are the doorways to living fully, living with joy and compassion and deep appreciation of this precious human birth. How embracing them can help us be fearless in loving this dew drop world. I reached out to my dewy neighbor. And she smiled.
This Thursday, after our meditation period, I will lead the sangha in an exercise with the Five Remembrances. We will then have an opportunity to share our experience of the exercise and our relationship with the truths these messengers have to teach us.
Below is an excerpt from No Death, No Fear and a detailed description of the Five Remembrances exercise.
You are invited to join us.
Impermanence Makes Everything Possible
by Thich Nhat Hanh from No Death, No Fear
We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter is not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woman. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, ‘Warm welcome and long live impermanence.’ We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.
Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything that is not itself.
An Exercise with The Five Remembrances
From Frank Ostaseski
Arrange people in groups of two circles, an outer circle facing in and an inner one facing out so that pairs of people are looking at each other. If there is an odd number the facilitator should participate. The size of the circles depends upon the number of people and the time you have. You may want to separate larger groups into two or more circle groups.
Everyone will need a copy of the Five Remembrances.
Each pair will take turns reading the Five Remembrances to each other. As everyone will be reading at different speeds, those who finish sooner wait quietly until everyone in that circle is finished. (If there is more than one circle group, there is no need to wait for all the groups to get quiet; each group can proceed at its own pace.) The only words shared are the Five Remembrances. There is no touching or intruding into another’s space. When the circle is quiet, the inner circle rotates so that a new pair is formed. The process is repeated until the inner circle has returned to their first partners. When all the circle groups are quiet, partners bow and thank each other.