The Five Daily Recollections

“Such a dire meditation,” I thought to myself, when joining the monastics in their daily chant.  I was visiting the Bhavana Society for a few days.  There was no retreat going on at the monastery, so visitors joined the monastics in their daily morning and evening chant.  One of the selections is called the “Dhammas (Dharma) to Be Reflected upon Always” or, more popularly, the Five Daily Recollections [or Remembrances].  They are:

  1. I am of the nature to decay.  I have not gone beyond decay.
  2. I am of the nature to be diseased.  I have not gone beyond disease.
  3. I am of the nature to die.  I have not gone beyond death.
  4. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.
  5. I am the owner of my kamma (kharma), heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma.
  6. Whatever kamma I shall do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir.

Yep.  Pretty grim. These are definitely circumstances we shy away from, determined to keep them at bay.

But life doesn’t pander to this delusion.  In fact, these recollections describe very clearly the routine circumstances of everyday life for all humans.  They describe two powerful insights of the Buddha: 

  • The fundamental conditions of existence: suffering, impermanence, and no-self
  • The essential law of cause and effect: kamma – our actions and the consequences of our actions  

These Five Recollections are declarations so bold that though we may run from them or deny them, we cannot negate them.  Let’s take a look.  For most people, the facts of suffering and impermanence are incontrovertible.  They surround us, inside and out. 

1.  Decay:  Gruesome?  Not necessarily.  Garden enthusiasts nurture their compost heaps.  Last month in Baltimore, I saw Hubble Telescope pictures displaying the awesome beauty of dying stars. Autumn is my favorite season.  All are wonderful.  At the same time, in my condo are pictures of me at 2, 25, and 50 years old. When I look in the mirror, I see what 63 years old looks like.   We call it aging.  It’s also called decay.  Is that wonderful as well?

2.  Disease:  Ever had an intestinal virus?  You know, the kind that makes you run at both ends and dehydration sets in?  About twenty years ago I was riding on a desolate road in Zambia, in a small car packed to the gills with people and stuff.   We passed a mother sitting on the side of the road, a limp child in her arms. Our driver said the child probably had a common intestinal virus and the mother was waiting for a car to pick them up and take them to the missionary clinic about an hour up the road. “Another car will come,” he said. “Don’t worry.”   But I did worry.  I knew dehydration could kill.  A few years ago, I ended up in the emergency room when just such a virus lingered too long.  They pumped me with life-saving fluids and I went home well in a couple hours.  But I was not fooled.  Disease means pain and misery.

3.  Death:  A routine mammogram revealed the tumor.  I could see it with my own eyes.  However, following the biopsy I was still stunned when told I had cancer.  Cancer, the killer that grows and you can’t feel it until it’s too late.  All the news was good: it’s very small; we’ll cut it out; radiation will do the rest.  Yet when faced with the demise of the body-mind I know as myself, I went numb. I have a friends and colleagues fighting cancer right now.  A beloved member of this Dhamma community recently died of cancer.  

Death. What does it mean to die…really?  I once read:  “Death is certain.  The time of death is not.  What shall we do?”  How does the mind manage its looming certainty?  How do I live between now and then?  The Buddha’s insight about no-self reminds us that there is no-oneto die; there is only the dissolution of conditions sustaining this mind-body.  Only kamma survives.  This teaching is actually a source of great comfort to me when reflecting on the certainty of death.  I don’t take death personally.

4.  What I care about or count on does not last.  A favorite coat wears out.  My investments grow or dissolve.  Vacation plans falter.  My job changes course.  A treasured pair of earrings is lost.  Expectations about a movie, a gadget, an outfit, or a relationship don’t pan out. Loved ones let us down, or leave, or die. 

5.  Kamma.  The fifth recollection is a gut clencher.  In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh phrases it this way: 

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 recollection invites us to stare directly into the law of cause and effect, the law of kamma, in our own being.  It strips us bare of every thing and every person we cannot control, to see the naked reality of what we can control: our own thoughts, words, and actions.  These are our true and only assets.  And their results are our true and only legacy.  

We may find ourselves in glorious or heinous circumstances in life. In these situations, it is howwe conduct ourselves in thought, word, and deed that matters; that take us from, or keep us on, the path of peace. We cannot escape our kamma, simply because it is ours…it flows from our own thoughts, words, and deeds.  We are responsible for our wholesome or unwholesome actions and their favorable or unfavorable consequences.  The happy news is that the fifth recollection, the law of kamma, also opens up the opportunity for change in us and for compassion toward others.

In the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, or the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha offers these five recollections (or meditations) to everyone, women and men, monastic and laity because we are allsubject to conditions giving rise to aging, illness, death, and loss. They are, he teaches, antidotes to pride: the pride of the young, the healthy, the living, and the possessive.

What is interesting about our human situation is the sheer absurdity that we crave beings, objects, even events that, by their very nature, cannot satisfy or fulfill…because they are unstable – they willchange and vanish.  We reach out to grab what cannot be held.  This delusion is the cause of our suffering.

How can we tap the riches of meditating of these Five Daily Recollections?  In a way they are a map, directing us from fear, through gratitude, to equanimity.

Initially, the conditions the Five Recollections describe generate fear because we experience them as unpleasant and therefore to be avoided. But they are irrevocably unavoidable. That generates more fear!  So we find ways to abide in the denial of aging, illness, death, and loss.  Whole industries exist and thrive to sustain this denial.  Buy this cream, take this pill, watch this movie, insure this person and you’ll feel better.  With fear one thinks, “Woe is me,” and lives in the mood of uncertainty.

With mindfulness and an open heart, however, we can see these conditions from a perspective of gratitude.  This is a very different frame of reference.  When I experience age, I give thanks for a full life.  When I experience illness, I take care of the body that has served me well.  When I face death, I understand it is the dissolution of the conditions sustaining this form…it’s not personal…it’s not about me.  When I lose a treasure, I hope someone else will enjoy it.  When I live wholesomely, I sleep with ease.  With gratitude, one thinks, “I have a lot to be thankful for,” and lives in the mood of bounty. 

Over time, meditation and mindful living teach us from the inside out, the futility of denying and fighting impermanence.  We come to acceptance sooner.  We see the flux and flow of events, the wispy allure of pleasure-makers or painkillers, the wearing out of things, the vast wasteland called expectations.  Seeing reality as it is, moment-to-moment, becomes a refuge and a deep well of love and compassion.  With equanimity one thinks, “It is what it is,” and lives in the mood of peace.

These five meditations are not designed to turn us from happiness. Holding the conditions of aging, illness, death, and loss a bit more lightlyloosens the grip of fear and expands the space for joy.  Happiness – the deepest kind – is one of the fruits of this practice.

I found this observation by a man named Laurens van Aarle in the Internet social networking site, Gaia Community:

"Reading this [the Five Remembrances] never fails to wake me up to what an incredible gift and miracle each moment of relative good health and sanity truly is."

Ultimately, our actions are all we have, and every moment generously offers us with a deeply personal choice and opportunity for skillful or unskillful action, reactivity or contribution, reinforcing destructive patterns or opening up to possibilities, more identifications or radiant presence.

The Five Daily Recollections are easy to learn and memorize. Use them at the end of your meditation. Or before going to sleep.  Or when you have a few moments to pause and give thanks.  

They are a powerful set of tools for moving from denial to wisdom, from turmoil to peace.  They are that map I mentioned, taking us from fear through gratitude to equanimity. And that is why we are on this path.

    May you be well, happy, and peaceful.

    May you be free from suffering and safe from harm. 

    May you be filled with loving kindness and compassion.

    May you live content, joyful, and free.

    So too may all beings be.

It is the mission of IMCW is to support the awakening of hearts and minds through the direct experience of the Buddhist path, and the integration and manifestation of wisdom and compassion in all aspects of life, for the benefit of all beings.

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