12 August 2011

Five Facts to Continuously Reflect on.

This is the 250th post on this blog. That's 250 raves in a little less than six years, one per week since the beginning of 2008. I started out limiting myself to 1000 words, though that has gone by the board. So I've written perhaps 300,000 words, mostly on the Buddhadharma. Thanks to all my readers and commenters over the years. And thanks to my friend Ann (Pema) Palomo for inspiring the first raves. I'd like to dedicate this one to all practitioners everywhere.

THESE LINES FROM THE Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57 PTS A iii.71f) [1] are fairly commonly cited, and the kind of thing I would expect every Buddhist to be familiar with. If not in this form, then something very like it. Still... I get a shudder each time I read them. How often do we really give time to contemplating the facts (ṭhānāni) presented here?
Five facts should be continuously reflected on by men and women, at home and on retreat. Which five?
  1. I am subject to ageing, ageing isn't overcome (yet),
  2. I am subject to illness, illness isn't overcome (yet),
  3. I am subject to death, death isn't overcome (yet),
  4. I will be separated and cut off from everyone I love, and everything I hold dear.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, the heir of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, and find refuge in my actions. Whatever actions I do - beautiful or evil - I will be the heir of them.
These should be reflected on continuously.
These are reflections for every one. Men and women. In its essence Buddhism is not gender specific, though of course different cultures have imposed gender based restrictions on practitioners.

My translation "at home and on retreat" does not exactly follow the Pāli: gahaṭṭena vā pabbajitena vā. More literally this says 'by householders and those gone forth'. Since in the Triratna Order we don't necessarily make this distinction I wanted a translation that reflected our approach more accurately. We are all householders, all settled monastics, and all forest renunciants, some of the time. We may spend the majority of our time in one or other mode—and in our movement we have all three—but we are free to move between lifestyles because we have rejected the formalism associated with each. This point, based on Reginald Ray's tripartite model of Buddhist society in his book Buddhist Saints in India, was made by Dharmacārī Subhūti some years ago. Not so long ago I might have said this was unique to the Triratna Community, but lifestyle mobility is a feature of contemporary Buddhism generally, and any serious Buddhist is unlikely to have just one lifestyle all the time. Householders go on retreats of varying lengths. I've been on many retreats from single days up to four months. I have literally been a forest dweller during some of that time. I've lived for months at a time like a cenobitical monk, and may well do again. Even my home life is not exactly classic nuclear family because I live in a Buddhist community with other single men for instance. So in this translation I wanted to suggest something of the modern spirit of Buddhism, especially as the Triratna Community conceives it. I leave readers to judge whether I have succeeded.

These five phrases are 'facts' (ṭhānāni) to be reflected on (paccavekkhitabbāni) constantly (abhiṇhaṃ). The translation of thāna as 'fact' is also used by both Nyanaponika & Bodhi, and by Thanissaro. The word ṭhāna more literally means 'place', or 'state'. It derives from the verbal root √sthā which is cognate with the English 'standing'. In Sanskrit and Pāli the verb means 'to stand, to remain' and hence 'to be located'.[2] It has a number of abstract or applied meanings one of which is 'standpoint' i.e. ground for, reason, principle. A ṭhāna is the valid ground for a logical conclusion: i.e. a fact.

Each of the first three phrases is in the form: jarā-dhammomhi, jaraṃ anatīto'ti. The final ti means this is something one says or thinks. The morphology of jarādhammomhi foxed me for a little while, and eventually my friend Dhīvan pointed out the correct reading for me. It is a phrase: jarā-dhammo (a)mhi.[3] Here amhi is the first-person singular of the verb 'to be', i.e. 'I am'; while jarā is 'ageing' and dhamma (in this case) means 'nature': jarādhamma 'subject to ageing' or 'of a nature to age'. Dhamma as a suffix can sometimes be translated as the English suffix -able in this context, though it doesn't work in this case, nor with byādhi (disease) or maraṇa (death), c.f. vayadhamma which I translate as 'perishable' relying on the double meaning of perish: 'to die, to decay' to capture the same double meaning of vaya. 'Subject to ageing, disease and death' is a serviceable enough translation. As an aside it occurs to me that the contemporary interest in the "living dead" could be seen as a morbid rejection of these facts about old age, sickness and death.

The word atīta has two senses. In terms of time it means 'past'. Modally it means 'having overcome or surmounted', or even 'free from'. It combines the prefix ati- (beyond, past) with the past participle of the verb √i 'to go' so it literally means 'gone beyond', or 'gone past'. Here it has the negative prefix a(n)- added, so jaraṃ anatīta means 'ageing is not overcome', or 'I have not gone beyond death', or perhaps 'I am still subject to ageing'. I've added yet in parentheses because these are not the morose deliberations of a fatalist waiting to grow old and die. They are a clarion call for those who seek to go beyond. And it must be said that these statements make a lot more sense in a milieu where rebirth is an accepted fact.

At death I will be cut off (vinābhāva) and separated (nānābhāva) from everyone I love (piya) and everything I hold dear (manāpa). Piya is 'love' in the ordinary sense, including familial and romantic love.[4] Manāpa means 'pleasant, pleasing'. All the people and things we are attached to we leave behind at death. Everything. We may have the misfortune to be reborn—and for Buddhists rebirth is a disaster—but we won't come back to what we know and love. Each time we start over, except for underlying tendencies. We have to find new friends and loved ones, accumulate new possessions and memories, only to lose them all over again. For those who believe in rebirth what stronger motivation could there be to practice? For those who don't, what strong motivation to practice can replace it?

In the fifth reflection 'actions' translates kamma, which occurs in a series of compounds: kamma-ssaka, kamma-dāyāda, kamma-yoni, kamma-bandhu, kamma-paṭisaraṇa: owner of actions, heir to actions, born from actions, bound to actions, with a refuge in action.[5] The last is particularly interesting. The word is paṭisaraṇa which has more or less the same meaning as saraṇa 'refuge, protection, shelter' - we are not only the victims of our own misdeeds, but actually the authors of our own salvation as well. The message of these terse statements of the idea of kamma is that morally significant actions have consequences. It's useful to think of kamma in terms of how we treat people. It is our actions in relationship to other people that are morally significant, or should I say that that our actions find their moral significance when considered in terms of our relationships with other people. I think this is why the traditional precepts are phrased the way they are. But also it is in relationship to people that we experience the moral effects of our actions. We see the way patterns develop, habits and characters are formed, and harmony preserved or destroyed. This is not the only way to see kamma, but it is useful.

Note that the second part of the fifth reflection, beginning with "Whatever actions I do..." juxtaposes the words kalyāṇa 'beautiful' and pāpa 'evil'. So morality here is linked to aesthetics. Kalyāṇa 'beautiful, auspicious, helpful' is from the root √kal. It is cognate with the Greek κάλλος (kallos) that we find in English words such as calligraphy (beautiful writing), calliope (beautiful voice) and kaleidoscope (beautiful shape observer). Evil (pāpa), then, could be seen as 'ugly' in the sense of a quality of relating to people which is ugly.

Finally we should reflect on these five facts continuously (abhiṇhaṃ). This could also be translated as 'repeatedly'. The word is a contraction of abhikkhaṇaṃ. It is thought to derive from the verbal root √īkṣ 'to see', with the suffix abhi-, which according to PED has the primary meaning of 'taking possession and mastering'. One of the figurative senses (PED I.2) is "intensifying the action implied by the verb". Thus the sense of abhiṇham is to look at these facts closely and repeatedly, to reflect on them over and over again. We can always gain perspective by placing whatever is happening within the context of these five facts. Whatever else is true about our situation, these five facts are also part of the existential situation. Reflecting on these facts helps us to orient ourselves to the world, and to assess our priorities.

All of this could be seen as quite pessimistic and depressing on its own. But behind it is the idea that ageing, illness and death can be overcome. Through our own actions we can find ourselves no longer subject to suffering, and suffering (as distinct from pain [6]) is a result of choices we make. We can develop equanimity in relationship to the people and things that give us pleasure or pain, and that we think make us happy or unhappy. We can find a happiness that is not dependent on sense objects (i.e. which is 'unconditioned'). And as I have already said we can be the authors of our own liberation through choosing our actions carefully. The point is not to deflate, but to inspire—we may still have much left to do, but it can be done! We can all be liberated from the oppression of craving and aversion, especially in relation to other people. I have no doubt about this, though I am not yet liberated from them myself.


  1. Also known (particularly in CST) as Abhiṇhapaccavekkhitabbaṭhāna Sutta. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Hence place names like Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The -stan ending comes from the same verbal root.
  3. In other words we have a compound and an external sandhi which joins two words. External sandhi is relatively rare in Pāli: we'd expect to see jarādhammo amhi as two separate words in Roman script.
  4. C.f. my comments on the Piyajātika Sutta: From the Beloved.
  5. I read the first four compounds as tatpuruṣa of various kinds, and the last as bahuvrīhi.
  6. I've written about the distinction between Pain & Suffering.
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