The Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation”), in Buddhist canonical literature, is well-known for its articulation of the five remembrances. Although recollection of these inevitabilities of life may seem depressing, keeping them in mind every day is actually an essential component of attaining the joy of release from samsara.
These five facts are:
- Everyone ages.
- Everyone becomes sick.
- Everyone dies.
- Everyone becomes separated from what is most dear to them.
- Humans are the causes of subsequent actions and effects of antecedent actions.
I think #4 encompasses the first three. When we age, we are separated from what we perceive as beauty, health, the ability to physically do things that we enjoy, and sickness can separate us from these things as well. Death, of course, is the ultimate means of separation from whatever gives us earthly pleasure.
We suffer from terrible anxiety trying to desperately cling to what provides us momentary pleasure, whether it is reputation through beauty, sex, intelligence, wealth, fame, and so on. But none of these phenomena provide lasting satisfaction, and we suffer both in our anxiety to maintain them, and suffer grief in our loss of them. It is daily recollection of these inevitabilities that we are able to traverse the cycle of death and rebirth and eventually emerge in the bliss of freedom from samsara.
Sukumāla Sutta (AN 3.38) describes the first three of these recollections as antidotes to the three-fold pride of of youthfulness (yobbana-mada), health (ārogya-mada) and life (jīvita-mada). The Buddha states in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) that suffering or “dukkha” should be understood as incorporating the first four of these recollections:
“Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering….”
The Devadūta Sutta (MN 130 & AN 3.35) similarly articulates the following five “divine messengers”:
- a newly born, defenseless infant
- a bent over, broken-toothed old person (aging)
- a suffering ill person (illness)
- a punished criminal
- a dead person (death)
In each of these, we see examples of the incentive for keeping these recollections in mind.