Perhaps now we can rewrite Thich Nhat Hahn’s rhetoric, maintaining a more mechanical parallelism and including the fifth fear – help us make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, dying, being abandoned, and living with our past.
That was the Buddha’s order, and it rather transfixes me, as I look at my own death, to reflect on both that fact of ordering and the interesting “no escape” approach he takes – because how in the world is it ever supposed to help me, to reflect daily on the fact that there is no way I can escape these five fears?
TNH is writing just there in his primer on Buddhism about “The Two Truths.” It is his chapter title. And his way into the need for understanding the idea of two truths is to ask how the Buddha can talk about death being so certain in these Five R’s, but at the same time, in the famous and much-revered Heart Sutra, tell his followers that there is no death, and no birth.
For now though, I will leave that line of thought aside (>>>), and make my way into the question of how the Buddha can think it such a wise and comforting action to reflect daily on the ineluctability of these five outcomes of life.
Although I became interested in Buddhism late in life out of an accidental discovery of the concordance of its core beliefs about the nature of reality and the more paradoxical and troubling aspects of Quantum Mechanics, I quickly discovered that it was a religion with a very practical concern for people’s states of consciousness as a way of helping them with their suffering. (>>>) The reason one wants to be “present,” to be “in the now,” is that being in the past or future is one of the main sources of personal suffering. In the words, again, of Thich Nhat Hanh –
When one sits in “practice” or mindful meditation, seeking indeed to dwell simply in that present moment, one inevitably finds (at least the non-master does) intrusive thoughts drifting by, usually derived from the past (as in the nightmare Tolstoy mentions in his diary) or aimed at the future. One is instructed just to note those intrusions, to be mindful of them, and the various teachers give helpful advice on how to minimize such distractions over time. The aim of practicing this daily is to arrive at a normal state of consciousness in which there is ever less of the kind of mental suffering, or anxiety, associated with such thoughts and ever more “presence.”
So that makes sense. But if the fifth remembrance tells us there is no way to escape our past actions… This is the incongruity that drives my examination of the Five Remembrances. Next page.
Of course, TNH speaks of “making friends with” these ineluctabilities, not living in constant fear of them. This will have to come with learning to take a proper stance on our fears.
The Four Noble Truths (core statement of belief) are 1) suffering (as a fact of life) 2) the cause of suffering (attachment) 3) the cessation of suffering (to be reached by the next truth) 4) the way out of suffering (the Noble Eight-fold Path).
It is profitable to compare the many ways in which traditional Christian exhortation urges believers to contemplate their own death and also their own sinfulness. I’ve thought a lot about this, but not written much out as yet. For what there is, see here.
Since writing that some years ago, I have come to know that many think another purpose of meditation is in various ways to open the mind to insights and experiences one is otherwise unlikely to discover. There is something about the usual buzz of mind that gets in the way of that.