Words of Wisdom

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I’d been visiting Al every Tuesday at 10:00am for over a year, before he passed away, 3 days ago. He was 91 years old, though he often liked to tell me he was 100. I never disagreed, as it seemed to bring him a wave of pride and pleasure to share with me the fact that he had reached triple digits. Besides, I figured, whether 91, 94, 97, or 100, they’re all milestones in my book, each one indicating having lived a long life.

Back in April, during one of our weekly visits, I decided it would be a good idea to jot down some of the things he said. I sat next to him with some paper and a pen and told him my intention. He found it humorous, and mildly baffling, that I wanted to record his Words of Wisdom, as I called it. He didn’t feel what he had to say was of any special value or worth remembering. But he obliged me just the same. (Sometimes it takes a writer to determine what’s noteworthy – as you’ll see, he’s very insightful.)

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Remembrances

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From Wikipedia:

The Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation“) is a Buddhist discourse (Pali: sutta; Skt.: sutra) famous for its inclusion of five remembrances, five facts regarding life’s fragility and our true inheritance. The discourse advises that these facts are to be reflected upon often by all.

According to this discourse, contemplation of these facts leads to the abandonment of destructive attachments and actions and to the cultivation of factors necessary for Enlightenment. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (Discourse on the Noble Quest) MN 26,[1] the first three remembrances are the very insights that led Gautama Buddha to renounce his royal household status and become an ascetic after experiencing strong feelings of spiritual urgency (saṃvega).

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I’m currently preparing a teaching talk that I am slated to give at our local sangha, Be Here Now, next week on the topic of impermanence, where I plan on breaking down each of the Five Remembrances and offering tools to work with so that they can become a practice, rather than a mere list of words floating in the ether.

It’s easy to encounter these remembrances (listed in the above image) and feel overwhelmed by them or experience a varying degree of fear, sorrow and/or anxiety about them. It’s very common to have feelings of aversion arise, as in: “Yeah, yeah, I know all that, but I don’t want to think about it right now.” We may want to plug our ears or just bury our heads in the sand and forget all about them. But the Buddha advised: “These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”

When the Five Remembrances are turned into a reflective practice they have the capacity to awaken us to the beauty and wonder of life available in the present moment. In remembering and understanding these five inherit parts of life we become free to enjoy the very here and now, just as it is, because we know everything and everyone are subject to change, and that to take life for granted is a waste of the precious time we are afforded.

Here are some of the ways I practice with the remembrances in order to bring them more fully into my daily life:

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Life & Death

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“Sharing” by Juan’s Photography, Seeley Lake, Montana

When I saw this card at a local artist’s shop downtown I was drawn to it right away.  I wandered into the shop having some time to spare before attending a community conversation on death and dying a couple of weeks ago, a monthly event hosted by one of our three hospice groups in town.  Each month there’s a different topic along the theme of death and dying.  Two weeks ago the subject matter involved end-of-life decisions and how and why they differ greatly between doctors and the rest of us.

I’ve been a hospice volunteer for almost 12 years and in that time I’ve learned a great deal about living and gratitude and acceptance through my visits with those at the end of life.  In our society it is common to shun aging and death.  It’s common to think of death as a morbid topic.  But death is part of life, not separate, and not optional.  When I look at the photo on the card, pictured above, I see the circle of life.  To me the dead pig head is not gross or repulsive, it simply is what it is.  On the back of the card it reads: “Shot from our bedroom closet in Seeley Lake.  The good Momma Raven shared this feast with her babies that were waiting in the nest just a few trees away.”  As one life ends, another begins.  This is the way of life.

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Week 10 – Online Winter Retreat

Week 10, last week – Online winter retreat, presented by Deer Park Monastery.  To follow along copy and paste this in your browser, there are talks, questions and readings posted every week (for the past 10 weeks): http://deerparkmonastery.org/teachings/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013/the-ten-gates-online-course-winter-2012-2013

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The Five Remembrances

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.

I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind. My actions are my continuation.

Reflection Questions

1) If I knew that my beloved one was going to die today, what would be the most important thing for me to say or do right now?

Honestly, I don’t know.  I would want to spend time with them, embrace them and let them know that it’s OK.  It’s OK to die, it’s OK to leave me behind and that death is a part of life.  I would want to meet them with a calm energy so that they can pass away without fear.  And who knows if I could actually provide that or not, it’s hard to say.  I would also want to help them tie up any loose ends that they felt necessary to take care of before they died.

2) What is preventing me from doing/ saying it right now?

The only thing that prevents me from doing anything really is myself.  It’s important to me to express my love to my friends and family regularly and to provide my love and support to them on a daily basis and to the best of my ability I do those things.  There is no time like today to let someone know how much you value them.

3) What are some of the ways that I “hide” in the sense of shutting things out?

The ways that I hide would be with netflix, the computer, and sugar.  When I use them to hide what I’m hiding from is myself or a certain experience or emotion that I’m uncomfortable with.  I devote a lot of practice to these areas and the more I become aware of this pattern the more I am able to transform those habit energies.  It is a process.  The first step in transformation is to see what needs transforming.