Our actions are our only true belongings. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions. Our actions are the ground upon which we stand.
Coming after the first four remembrances (I am of the nature to age, there is no way to avoid aging; I am of the nature to experience illness, there is no way to avoid experiencing illness; I am of the nature to die, there is no way to avoid death; All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change, there is no way to escape being separated from them) the fifth remembrance reminds us of the incredible power – and responsibility – we have in acting in the world, for the truth is everything we think, say, and do has some effect in the world and the life we live.
This realization can be both empowering to realize as well as a bit overwhelming and intimidating. Everything? To keep from paralysis, we need to recognize that not all we do must have big consequences. Generally, whether I have vanilla or chocolate gelato won’t have much impact on the world other than my taste buds and sense of enjoyment. Yet, I will always remember a particular episode of Six Feet Under’s “death of the week” (starting at 6:21 in linked video) opening with a touching scene of a father and young daughter releasing a bird that they had rescued and helped to heal. Remembering that the creator of the show is Buddhist, it is one of the most explicit expressions of Buddhist thinking written into the series. The bird takes off, shits on an actor rehearsing lines for an audition who rushes into a store to clean his hat which leads to more consequences ultimately ending in the death of the store owners wife! Oops!
So, not knowing what consequences may occur we can heed the advice another dad gave to his son. The Buddha was talking to Rahula about how to decide upon an action. He told his son, before embarking on any particular action, try to think about what its consequences will be. If it seems likely to cause you or someone else suffering, then refrain from the action. If it seems likely that no one will suffer from your action then proceed but remain vigilant. If unforeseen harmful consequences begin to arise, stop what you are doing, change course, and make amends. If no harmful consequences arise, then continue vigilantly and be glad.
Of course, that advice needs the context of relationship and situation. There have indeed been times when my actions have made my daughter ‘suffer.’ Mostly when I deny her the opportunity to eat some junk food or tell her she needs to stop watching Race To The Edge and come to the dinner table. I don’t think the Buddha had allowing our children absolute indulgence in mind.
I often marvel that I am a practitioner and teacher of Buddhism because one man sat under a ficus religiosa roughly 2600 years ago and had an experience of awakening that he then began to share with others. Recently, a photo of Greta Thunberg was posted online of her sitting alone, back to a wall, with her “School Strike” poster to her right. It was taken about 13 months ago. This week we have seen millions of people strike and demonstrate for action on climate change inspired by this 16-year old young woman. We can never know the outcome of our actions, but we can know that what we do matters.
PS: Bills continue to come in for my cancer treatment and all dana, whatever the amount, counts and is greatly appreciated.