by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Walking the Noble Path requires one to not just accept certain realities but to contemplate how those realities affect their lives so that acceptance transforms into wisdom. This wisdom allows one to set aside the fear and anxiety that can arise with the realizations of aging, illness, death, change and responsibility. In the Upajjhatthana Sutra the Buddha offers insight into how one must come to understand these realities.
“There are five realities that you must contemplate whether you are a woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.
I am going to grow older, I cannot avoid that reality . . .
I am going to get ill at some time, I cannot avoid that reality . . .
I am going to die, I cannot avoid that reality . . .
I will constantly change and seem to separate from all that I care about, I cannot avoid that reality . . .
I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whether my choices are good or bad, the karmic consequences will not be only mine, others will be affected . . .
These are the five realities that you must contemplate often, whether woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I will grow older?’ Some people are so desirous of the ideal of youth that they make bad decisions, take negative paths meant to achieve eternal youth. But, when you contemplate the reality of growing older that ideal of youth will fall away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I am going to get ill at some time’? There are people that cling so fiercely to the ideal of health that they make bad decisions, take paths meant to shield themselves completely from illness. But, when you contemplate the reality of illness that ideal of permanent health will fall away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I am going to die’? There are people who so fear death that they make bad decisions, take paths meant to deny and postpone (even indefinitely) death. But, when you contemplate the reality of death that fear of morality falls away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . that ‘I am constantly undergoing change, and will lose some things that I feel desire and passion for’? There are people who so fear change and loss that they make bad decisions, take paths meant to cling fiercely to permanence. But, when you contemplate the reality of impermanence that fear of change and loss falls away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences.’ There are people who, out of ignorance and fear deny responsibility for their actions, take paths meant to avoid the consequences of their actions. But, when you contemplate the reality that what you do matters beyond the consequences you experience that denial and avoidance falls away . . .
A disciple on the Noble Path realizes fully: ‘I do not grow old alone, everyone grows old . . I am not alone in illness, everyone, at some time is ill . . . I am not alone in death, everyone dies . . . I am not alone in change, everyone changes . . . I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, will matter.’ When these things are contemplated the appropriate path arises. The disciple will stick with that path, develop it, cultivate it. As they stick with that path, develop it and cultivate it, the fears fall away and the delusions fade in clear light of an awakened moment.”
NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this important sutra into contemporary language and have used the buzz-words of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. Venerable David and myself have often discussed if any of sutras re-worded (or creatively re-described) in such a way could offer the same intent as the those translated directly from the Pali, and holding to the symbology and textual references of that time 2600 years ago. Using the sutra as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – (“Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation” (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 30 November 2013 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.html – I’ve attempted to do just that, present the sutra in a contemporary way and be true to the intent of the Buddha.
The Buddha taught the realities of the Four Ennobling Truths. Suffering is a reality of human existence. There is a root cause of suffering. There is a path out of that suffering. That path is Eightfold. At the top of the Eightfold Path is developing an appropriate view. In the Upajjhatthana Sutra he offers what views need to change so that the Noble Path can be better realized. Everyone ages, gets sick, and dies . . . and along the way they undergo changes . . . changes which lead to aging, illness and death . . . among other changes such as personality, job, car, favorite books . . . you get the picture. Traditional translations say that those are four of the five things that should be contemplated. I changed should to must because should doesn’t reveal the commitment is necessary for these views to have the appropriate impact on how a practitioner engages the ideal. How much homework would you have done if your high school teacher had said, “You should do this homework”? .
To find contentment and calm in the hectic world of today the realities the Buddha taught that we must contemplate relate now as they did in his time and culture. Accepting that aging, death, illness and change . . . like taxes . . . are inevitably parts of human existence leaves you with more energy to deal with the situations you can affect. That isn’t to say you should ignore those realities, just don’t be stressed out by them. Engaging in activities certain to ease the transitions as you become older like exercising regularly will help to ward off some illnesses that could lead to an early death, and engaging in life-long learning so you experience the changes of the past and experience the changes of the moment make you more open to transformations that are inevitable. Aging, death, illness and change will happen. It isn’t useful to stress over them.
Number five in the Buddha’s Contemplation Countdown is the kicker. It is the “must view” that gets missed by so many people. The Buddha is offering the ideal, he didn’t once offer to hold anyone’s hand on the way to that ideal. He offered the reality and the ideal view . . . all of the effort, mindfulness and concentration — the Noble Path to bodymind discipline – was an individual responsibility with effects that encompass the whole of human existence. We are responsible for the “must do”. Whatever we do, whatever choices we make are our own. Yes . . . I can hear the voices . . . but causal conditioning means other factors, known and unknown affect my decision . . . that is true . . . still, the final decision, the action taken is the responsibility of the practicing Buddhist . . . there is no deity or God that we can point to and say, “He made me do it” . . . “It was part of the plan”. Time taken to blame. Time taken to defend. It is time subtracted from how long it’ll take to affect positive transformation.
I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whether my choices are good or bad, the karmic consequences will not be only mine, others will be affected . . . You are the cause of your actions, actions that arise as a result of your intent, intent that is affected by what goes on in the world around you. With this firmly in mind it is your responsibility to maintain an appropriate view of that world so that delusion and personal preference are allowed to fall away in favor of reality. The reality of any situation coupled with a commitment to the ideals of Buddhist practice and philosophy is most likely to lead to wholesome consequences.
A Buddhist is not a puppet. There is no one pulling strings making us choose wholesome or unwholesome thoughts and actions. The causal Universe presents us with options. The Noble Path offers a way to liberation from the suffering each of us encounters in this life. It is up to each of us to re-view those options and take the appropriate action. What we do matters and we are responsible for what we do.