In The Varieties of Religious Experience, a fine book that I have only come to late in my life, William James reflects on this same topic in the course of describing belief in an unseen order as one part of the religious life. I have put the passage here.
The Tolstoy passage, which he cites from his diary of January 6, 1903, is found in the introduction he writes to Paul Biryukov’s Leo Tolstoy: His Life and Work. There Tolstoy quotes the Pushkin poem “Memory,” to the same harsh effect:
And on the City's silent heart there fall
The half transparent shadows of the night
With sleep, the sweet reward of daily work—
Then is the time when in the hush I wear
Through dragging hours of heavy watchfulness:
When, idle in the dark, most keen I feel
The stinging serpent of my heart's remorse:
Reflection seethes—and on my o'erwhelmed mind
Rushes a multitude of woeful thoughts,
While memory, her unending roll unfolds
In silence, and with sick recoil I read
The story of my life, and curse myself,
And bitterly bewail with bitter tears—
But not one woeful line can I wash out!
Thich Nhat Hahn states the Five Remembrances this way —
(1) I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
(2) I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
(3) I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
(4) 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.
(5) My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.
Besides noting that the Buddha suggested to his followers that they recite the Five Remembrances every day, TNH tells us that they “help us make friends with our fears of growing old, getting sick, being abandoned, and dying.” (124)
So Thich Nhat Hahn taps rhetorically there at four of the five R’s as he moves on to other considerations in that part of his work. It is interesting in passing that he inverts the order of items (3) and (4) in the course of his rhetoric, but most interesting that he omits number five altogether.
And, in fact, just what ARE numbers four and five doing there in this list of mental activities the Buddha recommends to our daily practice? Thinking about aging, we readily imagine the first three as prominent in the worries of the elderly, and we understand the need for accepting them as a person, even a younger one, strives for detachment and equilibrium in the face of “time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” A moment’s reflection will also make sense out of number four as we realize that an older person starts losing dear ones to death and other forces of separation, finding loneliness in old age. But number five? Odd. No wonder TNH omitted to include it in his list of fears — hard to find a brief label for it.
It was very clear to Leo Tolstoy that he could not escape the consequences of his past actions as the grounds upon which he stood at the end of his life —
I am now suffering the torments of hell: I am calling to mind all the infamies of my former life—these reminiscences do not pass away and they poison my existence. Generally people regret that the individuality does not retain memory after death. What a happiness that it does not! What an anguish it would be if I remembered in this life all the evil, all that is painful to the conscience, committed by me in a previous life….What a happiness that reminiscences disappear with death and that there only remains consciousness.
Our source (C. D. Merriman) concludes his brief biography with that diary passage (of 1903) and wraps up this way:
...as the last days of Tolstoy were playing out, he still at times agonised over his self-worth and regretted his actions from decades earlier. Having renounced his ancestral claim to his estate and all of his worldly goods, all in his family but his youngest daughter Alexandra scorned him. He was intent on starting a new life and did so on 28 October 1910, making it as far as the stationmaster’s home at the Astapovo train station. Leo Tolstoy died there of pneumonia on 20 November 1910. Although he wanted no ceremony or ritual, thousands showed up to pay their respects. He was buried in a simple wooden coffin near Nikolay’s ‘place of the little green stick’ by the ravine in the Stary Zakaz Wood on the Yasnya Polyana estate; returned to that place of idylls where Nikolay told him one could find the secret to happiness and the end to all suffering.
Nikolay was his oldest brother, Yasnaya Polyana the maternal estate.
But let us pick up again the train of thought ...