The following words in bold are chanted regularly in Theravada Buddhist monasteries, and form the basis for reflection on the nature of being human. The first four subjects for reflection could be said to be pretty much common sense statements, but the fifth subject is directly related to Buddhist understanding of the nature and results of action (karma). Nevertheless, each of them is capable of facilitating the arising of wisdom if contemplated with a peaceful, unemotional mind. Let’s take a look at the five subjects in turn, beginning with aging:
I am of the nature to age; I have not gone beyond aging.
True enough, I can almost hear you say; the appearance of wrinkles around the eyes and grey hairs on the head reveal the ongoing process of aging. We can certainly hide the outer manifestations of getting older, with make-up and cosmetic surgery, but this is simply hiding the truth. Every day we get older, and facing up to this can enable us to deal with it in a mature and intelligent manner. More than this, reflecting on our aging minds and bodies, we can extend this vision to all phenomena around us; other people, other creatures, plants, buildings, the Earth itself. Seeing things this way, we can become more grateful of what we have in this moment, and more appreciative of those we are with, rather than living in constant fantasies of hypothetical futures.
I am of the nature to sicken; I have not gone beyond sickness.
We can have good health for weeks, months, or even years. But at some point, the body will contract a cold, or something worse, and we will suffer the ill effects of being ill. Being aware that we cannot escape being sick for ever, makes it easier to handle when we are actually ill. But, of course, it’s not only the body that can be ill, just as it’s not only the body that ages. Our minds too are subject to sickness, with such ailments as depression always lurking in the background, ready to pounce when we are at our most vulnerable. I worked in a psychiatric hospital for many years in England and saw many different kinds and levels of mental illness: people from every strata of society falling victim to a variety of mental afflictions, often seemingly occurring out of the blue. It’s only a fool that believes that such things can’t happen to him: that’s why reflecting on such matters is of value.
I am of the nature to die; I have not gone beyond dying.
Right now, we’re alive – at least I presume that you’re alive as you read this! It’s difficult to imagine being dead, but sure enough, one day we will stop breathing, for whatever reason. No matter what our level of realization, even if we’ve developed psychic powers, we are still mortal, just as we remain capable of being ill, and of aging. Living in the knowledge of our own mortality, we can make more of each moment, driven on to achieve both worldly and spiritual goals.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
This is a particularly difficult thing for many of us to accept. But that doesn’t make it any less true: every one that we know, we will lose, either when we or/and they die, or perhaps beforehand, if we grow apart or fall out with them. Everything that we own, we only own for a short time, in the overall scheme of things. The house you live in, whether you own it or not, will one day no longer be your home, just as with all that you possess. Realizing this, we are better able to deal with the loss of those people and things that we hold dear, and less liable to fall apart when such inevitable events occur.
I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir.
Karma, or action, is a cornerstone of Buddhist teaching. It lies at the centre of the Buddhist understanding of cause and effect, in that every action has a reaction, whether in this life or a subsequent one. That we are the owners of our karma means that we are responsible for what we do: if we do some unwholesome thing such as stealing, lying or killing, we will reap the fruits of that action in due coarse. Even if we think that we’ve got away with it, our bad behavior will catch us up eventually, and what we dished out to others will rebound upon our selves. Our future births, seen moment to moment as well as in our future lives, will be affected by our present actions, and we will have to live with the results of what we have done. We are, indeed, the heirs of our actions. And this fact can be seen right now, if we have the wisdom to gaze into our past karma and see how it has helped shape our present life.
These five subjects for contemplation are a real boon in the practice of Buddhism, helping us to focus on important features of our bodies and minds; that they are impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal. Karma and the results of karma can also be seen as an impersonal, natural process of cause and effect. Reflecting on these issues will assist in the cultivation of an understanding that can free us from the bonds of identification with the individual self, and all the problems that accompany it. But in the meantime, we can use these five subjects to lighten the load of living, making this life somewhat more tolerable.