Living in the Light of Death: The Five Remembrances

The following verses, known as the Five Remembrances, are chanted by Buddhists around the world:

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 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 to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

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

As a child, I saw such statements as an exercise in negative thinking. But now — as an aging man — I find that they ground me. They remind me to fully enter the present moment and keep my karma clean.

Whenever I run across the Five Remembrances, I think about Larry Rosenberg, a psychologist, meditation teacher, and co-author of Living in the Light of Death: On the Art of Being Truly Alive.

This book includes Rosenberg’s account of a four-month retreat he did in Mexico with Badarayana, a meditation teacher.

One night, Badarayana asked Rosenberg to drop everything he was doing and come sit with a dead body. Someone had gotten drunk, fallen in a nearby ocean bay, and drowned.

The townspeople had put the body in a box with ice; beyond that, they would not touch it. They asked Badarayana and Rosenberg to stay with the corpse until the dead man’s relatives and a priest could arrive from Mexico City.

Badarayana jumped at the chance. He saw this as an opportunity to do an ancient meditation exercise — contemplation of death — which Buddhist monks practice around decomposing corpses in open burial grounds.

So there the two of them sat, meditating through the night in the presence of a bloated, malodorous corpse.

When Rosenberg confessed his fear and resistance to this assignment, Badarayana just said, “OK. Sit with it.”

Recalling the experience, Rosenberg later wrote:

Through the night, my teacher would periodically remind me that I was not exempt from this lawfulness, that if something appears, it must also disappear, that this dead body was not some kind of chance occurrence, that it was something to which we are all subject, that it’s the great leveler. And he would remind me again and again to reflect on this corpse as my true teacher; to see it as if it were my own body…. [emphasis added]

This passage from Rosenberg is a gift — a wake-up call.

Shining the light of death on my current worries and resentments, I am suddenly free to release them. Taking a corpse as my teacher, I resolve to better care for my body — and to be a little kinder to the next person I meet.

More about the Five Remembrances: