Reflections on Death and Impermanence: a talk for the Four Reminders series

Last Monday for the Auckland Buddhist Centre’s online Dharma Night I gave this talk, Reflecting on death and impermanence, as part of our series on the Four Reminders.

Here’s the official description from the Auckland Buddhist Centre’s website (with thanks Mary Anna for writing these up):

At this time we are facing dramatic and unexpected loss: loss of certainty, loss of income, even loss of life, maybe even our own. All of this creates huge anxiety in the face of overwhelming change and uncertainty.

It is at this time that our spiritual practice will enable us to ride the waves of change and find peace despite our circumstances, if we are prepared to apply ourselves diligently to the task.

The purpose of the ‘Four Reminders’ is to help establish the kind of psychological climate in which we will be motivated to enter a path of spiritual practice.

The subjects of the four reflections which we will be exploring over the course of these talks are:

the precious opportunity offered by human life;
death and impermanence;
karma, or the fact that actions have consequences;
and the reality of suffering.

These might be called ‘the facts of life’ in the Buddhist perspective. They are wake-up calls, jolts to our complacency, articulations of the troubling voice of reality as it speaks through our immediate experience. As we go through them, we are saying to ourselves, ‘Remember, reflect, wake up to the truth.’

11 May
Death and impermanence with Elizabeth U
‘Ready or not, one day I shall die’, so go the words of the morning puja. It’s a thing we all know intellectually, but how does knowing it emotionally change how we live the life we have now?

Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day + the four reminders

Here’s another attempt to paraphrase the four reminders, aka the four mind-turning Reflections, into my own words:

  1. It’s a pretty unique and awesome thing to be born a human being;
  2. We don’t live forever;
  3. What we think and do affects our experience; and
  4. No matter how hard we try, we’re going to experience suffering in one way or another.

These always remind me of the last few lines of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Here she reads the entire poem, or you can read it below:

Continue reading “Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day + the four reminders”

Four reminders in two songs

As I get deeper into my Buddhist studies, I’m increasingly seeing things through the lens of its teachings. While I have no interest in claiming anything as “Buddhist” when I notice resonance, I do feel a bit like the proverbial little boy who, when given a hammer, starts to see everything as a nail!

Consider this Chastity Belt song, for instance (and in case you’re wondering whether or not to hit play, that’s the name of the band, not the subject of their song… though that would be an interesting read on it):

I’ve been playing this song over and over in the car for weeks. When I finally sat down to read the lyrics (see the end of this post) I immediately thought to myself, “Oh! What a great representation of the Four Mind-Turning Reflections!”

I like thinking of the Four Mind-Turning Reflections, AKA the Four Reminders, as a Buddhist “Facts of Life” of sorts, designed to keep us focused on the things that are really important.

Here’s an attempt to paraphrase them into my own words:

  1. Being alive, in this body, right here and right now, is a unique opportunity;
  2. We’re all going to die eventually;
  3. Our intentions and our actions have an impact; and
  4. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can control everything to suit our preferences, and ultimately the attempt to do so leads to even more suffering.

I’ll spare you my line-by-line analysis of the song’s lyrics but I’m satisfied that they cover off all four pretty effectively 🙂

Then this morning I remembered another song I’ve appreciated for ages, the classic Feel So Different, from the person formally known as Sinéad O’Connor:

The songs’ titles are similar, obviously, but they share a lot more than that. This one too feels distinctly “Buddhist” to me right now.

Is it though? I have no idea how she identified when she wrote Feel So Different nearly 30 years ago (and she recently converted to Islam)  so I can only guess: probably not, and it doesn’t matter; I care a lot less about assigning labels, and a lot more about appreciating reminders to stay awake to my life’s priorities, no matter what form they take.


Lyrics to both songs below. Continue reading “Four reminders in two songs”

Good grief

Yesterday Dean let me know that Stanley, a long-ago friend of mine that he was still close to, has passed.

Each time I hear news like this, I remember my other since-departed friends from that era of my life, their number growing with the number of years since I have been in touch with any of them. And so today I think of Jose and Micah in addition to Stanley.

[All photographs (c) Dean Fidelman]

Continue reading “Good grief”