As a part of our sutra service at the temple, we regularly chant the Five Remembrances. Intended by the Buddha to ward off an impression of permanence in our current existence, these ancient words remind us that we are of the nature to die, and that we cannot escape separation from those who are dear to us.
It is stark reality – but it isn’t while chanting at the temple that I feel the weight of this realization.
Last night, in the brief interim between the frenzy of the day and the full silence of night, my wife and I were talking about our children. I commented about the way in which our youngest son had greeted me when I arrived home from work. He ran to me with a stack of coupons he had cut out of a junk mail flyer from the local warehouse store. We stood in the middle of the kitchen, the table being set, the oven opening and closing, his brother and sister whirling around us. He wanted to sit right there, right then, and show me. Later on, I wondered aloud to my wife about what had held him there. Was it the coupons themselves that he was so eager to share? Was it his pride in the careful cutting? Or was it just the chance be together, no matter what was at the center of it or what was going on around us?
My son is always reaching into my back pocket, looking for my phone to take pictures. He takes snapshots of crayon boxes, books on the floor, our feet together on a stool, cookies cooling on the counter, and toy dragons on windowsills. Pictures of each room, doorway, lamp, and family member. Hundreds of them at a time. It clogs the memory on my phone, and we try not to have our kids spend too much time with electronics. But I always give in when he asks. Each time I hear the shutter click, I feel his joy and his presence in that moment.
So when he was perusing and clipping these junk mail coupons earlier in the afternoon, my wife remembered, he had paused when he came across a camera. Could I get a camera, he asked her. She replied that maybe he should put it on his Christmas list. She showed me how his eyes brightened as he offered, Or maybe I should get a phone.
I could see his face in my mind as my wife finished this story and as I walked toward the kitchen to make the next day’s coffee. I could imagine his deep pleasure at the idea of having his own phone with which to take endless pictures. I reveled, as I reached into the cupboard, in how much I adore him.
Then, in the time it took to pull down the box of coffee filters from the second shelf, the warmth of that adoration was swiftly swallowed whole by the remembrance of change. My change, his change. The remembrance that I am of the nature to die, of the nature to be separated from him. From everyone. From everything. The feeling sank deep into my gut, an impossibly heavy mixture of sadness, anger, and confusion.
Some say the words of the Five Remembrances help them to live in the present moment. I didn’t have the sutra in mind then, but I did make an effort to stand in the kitchen and accept all that was being offered, that koan pulling deep inside me. Mostly, it was a moment filled with wanting desperately to go and wake up my son, to watch him walk about taking pictures, then sit closely and talk about the ones we liked best. Would it matter how tightly I held him?
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 of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.