A short reflection that’s often chanted in Theravada monasteries states, in part, “I am subject to aging… subject to illness… subject to death.”
That’s the standard English translation, but the standard Thai translation is more pointed: “Aging is normal for me… illness is normal… death is normal for me.” The extended version of the reflection goes on to say that these things are normal for everyone, no matter where.
To be born into any world is to be born into a place where these dangers are normal. They lie in wait right here in the body that, at birth, we laid claim to, and the world around us is full of triggers that can bring these dangers out into the open at any time.
As the reflection concludes, these are good themes to reflect on every day—to keep us heedful of the fact that dangers are to be expected and are not an aberration. That way we can be prepared for them. Otherwise, we tend to forget—and our illusions of safety, when they’re challenged, often lead to unrealistic desires for absolute safety that can cause us to create unnecessary dangers for ourselves and people around us.
…So it’s useful to reflect on some of the Buddha’s teachings on safety, to get his perspective on the dangers we all must encounter. Because it’s hard to keep complex teachings in mind when you’re face to face with danger, I’ll boil the main principles of the Buddha’s safety instructions to a few bullet points. That way they’ll be easy to keep in mind when you need them most.”
• Total safety is possible, but only in nibbāna.
• Your most lasting possessions are your actions.
• To find some safety in the world, you first have to give safety to the entire world.
• You can protect yourself from the results of your past unskillful actions by training the mind.
• You can protect yourself from harmful words by, again, training the mind.
…these principles build on the working hypothesis of kamma and rebirth—a hypothesis that, we’re told, is no longer viable in our modern/postmodern times. But none of us have to be prisoners of our times. After all, what vision of life does the modern/postmodern view offer? Fish fighting one another for the last gulp of water in a shrinking pool, all ending in death.
What made the Buddha special was that he looked for a safety that lasted beyond death, and—having found it—showed others how to find it too. Along the way, he offered the possibility of safety with honor, something that modern/postmodern views can’t provide.
The Dhamma is said to be timeless. In this world where death is so normal, now is as good a time as any to put that claim to the test.
These reflections by Ajaan Geoff are adapted from the Essays book, Noble & True: Essays on the Buddhist Path, “Danger Is Normal.”