The Fifth Remembrance

Not long into my initial inquiry into Buddha Dharma, I came upon a what can seem like a rather bleak list taught in the early Sangha. The list comes from the Buddha’s teaching on the Five Remembrances. They are:

1.) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
2.) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
3.) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
4.) All that is dear to me and everyone that I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5.) My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.*

I printed this list on a small piece of paper, which rests against my desktop computer at work (I haven’t received any comments from concerned co-workers… yet). I read the list again this morning, as I do every now and then when my computer is taking a while to boot up. What stood out to me was the fifth remembrance: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.” Now, I must be somewhat of a pessimist at heart, because whenever I read this I usually think in terms of negative actions resulting in negative consequences. Perhaps this is due to my Judeo-Christian upbringing, with its emphasis on fighting against one’s sinful nature. Or maybe it’s just that the word “consequences” tends to carry a negative connotation in American English, as in the phrase, “suffer the consequences.” Whatever the case may be, reading the fifth remembrance usually instills in me a sense of, “Yikes! Don’t do bad stuff, or else!”

However, reading the fifth remembrance this morning did not instill in me a sense of fear or worry. Instead, I understood it to mean that positive actions are sure to result in positive consequences. So much so, in fact, that we will not be able to escape the positive consequences. What came to mind is the following familiar verse from the Dhammapada:

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with an impure mind, and sorrow will follow you
As surely as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.

Mind is the forerunner of all things.
Mind is their master. They are all mind-made.
Speak or act with a pure mind, and happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakeable.

It seems clear to me that at the heart of Buddha Dharma is our ability to choose our actions, and thus – to some degree – choose the quality of our present and future consequences. The Buddha didn’t teach a one-to-one relationship with regard to kamma/karma, and so it should not be understood to always operate in a linear fashion. In fact, he taught was has been termed This/That Conditionality.** In brief, the Buddha theorized that the results which manifest in the present result from both past and present actions. Your choices now somehow come together with choices made at some point in the past, and results are born out of this interaction. The possibility of multiple feedback loops make it difficult, if not practically impossible, to determine what will actually occur in any given moment.

Whatever the mechanisms of cause and effect, we are encouraged by the Buddha and the early Sangha to take this idea seriously and put it into practice. I have found that one of the most direct ways to witness this process is through the practice of meditation. When we make time to practice, and then actually make an effort to do the practice properly, results will follow in time. Just as with any skill one wishes to develop, there are peaks and valleys on the path. There are times when it feels like trying to dig a large hole with our bare hands. Other times, it feels like we’re operating one of those big yellow digging machines you see at construction sites. Progress is necessarily developmental and gradual, but there are quantum shifts along the way. The point to take away is that it is through our actions that we achieve results. It is by making a concerted effort – giving it the old college try – that will result in positive changes. And because there is no direct linear correlation between practice time and results, we must simply focus on executing the given technique as precisely as possible. Only then can we be confident that our current choices will have a desirable outcome sometime in the future.

Of course, the fifth remembrance applies to other areas of life as well. The point is to take seriously the fact that our actions are truly our only possessions. And since we cannot escape the consequences, we must always remember to choose wisely.

*Excerpted from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,by Thich Nhat Hanh.
**For a more thorough exposition on This/That Conditionality, see Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book, Wings To Awakening.

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2 Comments

Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Religion & Philosophy

2 responses to “The Fifth Remembrance

  1. Nigel

    These days there has been a slight development in what this means to me as well.

    In a way, saying our actions are our only possessions is also saying that what we really have is this moment.

    The nature of action is that it occurs in the present.

    Anyway, the way I’ve been feeling/thinking lately is:

    with regard to any experience of gain or loss, I can ask myself, ‘If 5 minutes after that were my last moment what would that experience mean?’

    for example:

    I win or am given $10 million dollars. ‘If 5 minutes after that were my last moment what would it mean?’

    I lose the ability to walk. ‘If 5 minutes after that were my last moment what would it mean?’

    blah blah and so on.

    More or less, I feel that at death this particular locus of bodymind process will disperse. ‘The center will not hold’. The clothes, the identity, the limbs and organs. Obviously the possessions. They’ll disperse and find other centers around which to sit.

    So I’m thinking that it’s a good idea to approach life in such a way that I’m experiencing the value of it in this moment right now. That almost seems like the only sensible way to proceed.

    The future leads to dispersion.

    The present moment leads….not to the future, but somehow deeper into the present moment.

    If I’m living like that I can still ask the question, “If five minutes after that were my last moment what would it mean?”

    And the answer is different.

    “It would mean the same thing that it always means: I am here”

    Well, clearly expressed or not, this is where I am right now.

    And it coincides (in my mind) with those reminders you have on your computer.

    Love to you bro as we walk the path.

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