There are five things that have been well taught by the Blessed One, the one who knows and sees, the worthy one, perfectly enlightened by himself, that are to be contemplated daily by women and men, by householders and monks.
What are the five?
“I am of the nature to grow old, I have not gone beyond old age” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to become ill, I have not gone beyond sickness” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond death” is to be contemplated daily.
“All that is dear and delightful to me will change and vanish” is to be contemplated daily.
“I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, and abide supported by my actions. Whatever action I do, whether good or evil, of that I will become heir” is to be contemplated daily.
– Anguttara Nikaya 5.57, translated by John Kelly
Looking at it from a particular angle, our fear of death is simply the fear of change. If we see and accept that change is happening all the time, all around us, our context for experiencing life and death will expand.
“Everything dear and delightful to me will change and pass away”. It’s worth questioning what we take to be unchanging; what are the things we rely on? Our relationships, our livelihoods, our health – these things may seem fairly steady and reliable, and in a relative sense, they can be. But none of them can last forever, or even until the end of our life. In any category, no day or hour is exactly the same as the previous one. On a day-to-day level, the mood we wake up with is rarely the mood we end the day with. We wake up with hunger and (usually) a need for the toilet. These needs get satisfied and other commitments and needs come into focus. The whole day is driven by what has to be done next, to fulfill our obligations or remove obstacles. It’s not a bad life, really, it just isn’t static. Things are continuously arising and passing away, in our minds and involving our actions.
The problem comes in when we assume that the nice things are our birthright and the stuff we don’t want to have happen are mistakes. This is a subtle, insidious form of clinging. The Buddha is simply pointing out that experience happens all the time; we don’t create it and it doesn’t imply reward or punishment. It’s just coming up and going away. Does a rabbit or a fly think the world is against it when something goes awry? Why should we?
What is implied but not stated in the verse is that the stuff we don’t want to have happen will also change and pass away. In this sense, all experience is equal – it is all unstable.
If we understood this verse completely, we would accept and be at ease with whatever came our way. Our vision wouldn’t be clouded by a view of ourselves as “in charge of” whatever is happening. We would try to ease the suffering, and take the joys lightly, without being overwhelmed by fear or greed.