Facing death, illness, aging, loss and separation often bring about a fundamental shift in priorities. Situations which bring to light our mortality and interdependence can be catalyst for deep transformation. The understanding that the time of death is unknown, and that there is nothing material that we can take with us, can arouse a fundamental reorientation to our priorities and way of living. There have been times in my life when the clarity of these realities have prompted a fundamental reorientation of my values and way of living and practicing. In this essay, I will explore Buddhist and yogic teachings which turn the mind toward these eminent realities and point to compassion and right action as a way to live this understanding.
One of my earliest impressions of the teaching of interdependence was my first trip to Nepal in the winter of 2005. I had stayed in Boudhanath to study thanka painting and take in the culture of this important religious and spiritual center. I had just arrived in the chill of December, and in my naiveté, had my wallet pick-pocketed out of the back pocket my Jansport backpack while walking in a crowded section of Kathmandu. Alone with no money, aside from about $10, I made due on roadside paranthas and the generosity of the kind owner of a Tibetan Restaurant called Shambala who served me dinner for free every night and gave me blankets, while I awaited the arrival of a new bank card. During the day, I was painting a thangka of a Kalachakra mandala, the same year which in which the Dalai Lama was teaching on the Kalachakra in South India. At one point during this time, I caught a terrible flu and was taken to the hospital in the middle of the night by a monk who attended the hotel.
The experience of completely depending on the generosity of others, almost strangers, while working on this devotional piece of artwork, which signifies enlightenment within the manifold cosmos and wheel of time (samsara) was deep and profound. The thought that kept coming to my mind as I was painting, with a fine Nepali brush, was that further refinement is always possible, and a new height of perfection can always be reached – not only in painting, but in life and spiritual practice. By remaining open to and working towards greater refinement, in actions of body, speech, and mind, the infinite potential of life and illumination within the world full of suffering, war, poverty, and violence (samsara) remain open.
Relating to this potential of refinement of actions, and turning the mind towards the taste of freedom, the Buddha taught the Five Remembrances. “My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” This is a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh is based on the traditional five remembrances, taught by the Buddha.
The traditional teaching are:
“There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?
I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.’ This is the first fact that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.
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 and appealing 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.
These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”
-Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The value of these contemplations, is that they can bring home the reality of impermanence and the law of cause and effect (karma). Although these five statements appear simple and straightforward, their implications are profound: by remembering and familiarizing ourselves with these five contemplations, we can avoid getting trapped in a petty mind which sees only its own self interest and views. This is a mind which is limited and in a state of ignorance (avidya). According to Buddhist and yogic traditions, avidya, or ignorance of the true nature of reality, is the ground of all suffering and afflictions (Yoga Sutra II. 4).
Awakening is returning to reality. Prajna, or transformative insight into reality, removes the veils of ignorance. The means are: meditation, reflection and cultivation of body speech and mind. The Tibetan word for meditation is སྒོམ, sgom, Skt. bhavana which also means cultivation. It is related to the word Tibetan word གོམ་, gom, which means becoming familiar with or accustomed to. By becoming familiar and intimate with the teachings, such as the Five Remembrances, our distorted views which lead us to believe on some level that we are separate from the whole, immune to aging, loss, separation and death, can be softened and dissolved. This leads to greater freedom, acceptance of life and living in harmony with the whole.
The experience of intimately knowing for oneself cannot be learned from reading books or studying sutras alone. Transformation comes from experience, and nothing can replace practice. In my own experience, the times when I have had glimpses of freedom, are in a mind that is radically open and present and not consumed by usual thinking, planning, worrying and upholding a sense of self and security. My experience of being cared for by benevolent strangers showed me that it is how we meet and show love and compassion for others, that bring these teachings to life.
In the Kalachakra Mandala, the center most part is the center of an open flower around which encircle the mandalas of body, speech and mind and the vast universe of all elements of creation, cyclic existence, or samara. Within this complex mandala, samsara manifests, and in the center a flower is open.
In this complex world, may I remember this:
“My actions are my only true belongings: I cannot escape their consequences. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”