The Five Remembrances

Embracing Reality

A monk meditates at Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment.
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The Five Remembrances are five truths that the Buddha said we should all contemplate and accept. He told his disciples that reflecting on these five truths causes the factors of the Eightfold Path to take birth. And from this, fetters are abandoned and obsessions destroyed.

These Remembrances are found in a sermon of the Buddha called the Upajjhatthana Sutta, which is in the Pali Sutta-pitaka (Anguttara Nikaya 5:57). The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh also has spoken of them often. A version of the Remembrances is part of the Plum Village chanting liturgy.

The Five Remembrances

  1. I am subject to aging. There is no way to avoid aging.
  2. I am subject to ill health. There is no way to avoid illness.
  3. I am going to die. There is no way to avoid death.
  4. Everyone and everything that I love will change, and I will be separated from them.
  5. My only true possessions are my actions, and I cannot escape their consequences.

You may be thinking, how depressing. But Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book Understanding Our Mind (Parallax Press, 2006) that we should not suppress knowledge of our frailty and impermanence. These are the fears that lie in the depths of our consciousness, and to be free of these fears we must invite the Remembrances into our consciousness and stop seeing them as enemies.

Old Age, Sickness and Death

You might also recognize that the first three Remembrances are things witnessed by the Buddha-to- be, Prince Siddhartha, before he began his quest to realize enlightenment.

Read More: Siddhartha's Renunciation

The denial of old age, sickness and death is more prevalent now than in the Buddha's time. Our 21st century culture actively promotes the idea that we can stay young and healthy forever if we try hard enough.

This accounts for many of our food fads -- raw foods diets, alkaline diets, "cleansing" diets, "paleo" diets, I've known people who became obsessed with the idea that foods have to be eaten in a particular order to release the nutrients in them. There's an almost frantic search for some ideal combination of food and nutritional supplements that will keep one healthy forever.

Taking care of one's health is an excellent thing to do, but there's no foolproof shield from illness. And the effects of age strike all of us, if we live long enough. This is hard to believe if you are young, but "young person" is not who you are. It's just a temporary condition.

We also are more separated from death than used to be true. Dying is tucked away in hospitals where most of us don't have to see it. Dying is still real, however.

Losing Who and What We Love

There's a quote attributed to the Theravada Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah -- "The glass is already broken." There's a variation I've heard in Zen -- the cup holding your tea is already broken. This is a reminder to not become attached to impermanent things. And all things are impermanent.

To say that we must not "attach" doesn't mean we can't love and appreciate people and things. It means to not cling to them. Indeed, to appreciate impermanence makes us realize the preciousness of people and the world around us.

Read More: Understanding Nonattachment

Owning Our Actions

Thich Nhat Hanh words this last Remembrance --

"My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand."

This is an excellent expression of karma. My actions are the ground upon which I stand is another way to say that my life right now is the result of my own actions and choices. This is karma. Taking ownership of our own karma, and not blaming others for our problems, is an important step in one's spiritual maturity.

Transforming the Seeds of Suffering

Thich Nhat Hanh recommends mindfulness to learn to recognize our fears and acknowledge them. "Our afflictions, our unwholesome mental formations, must be accepted before they can be transformed," he wrote. "The more we fight them, the stronger they become."

When we contemplate the Five Remembrances, we are inviting our repressed fears to come into the daylight. "When we shine the light of mindfulness upon them, our fears lessen and one day they will be completely transformed," Thich Nhat Hanh said.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Five Remembrances." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). The Five Remembrances. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Five Remembrances." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).