A couple of weeks ago Hurricane Florence came bringing us a message. The basic message was a louder more insistent version of one that arrives on our doorsteps on a regular basis. Florence told us that things change, and that sometimes things change dramatically. The rains fall. The wind blows. And overnight the place where we have constructed ‘home’ as best we could becomes imperiled.
My favorite spot in the house where I live is sitting in the rocking chair on the screened porch out back. The view from there looking out on an expanse of trees extending all the way up the block is what convinced me to move to this particular house twenty-five years ago. But, many of those trees were willow oaks, and recently the willow oaks on this block and all over Durham are reaching the end of their lifespans. Our urban groves are disappearing. Tree removal crews swarm the streets, and it seems like every week some fresh remains of what had been a tree appears as a stump along the sidewalks of Club Boulevard. The view from the back porch shows fewer and fewer branches where sunshine dances on wind-rustled leaves and more and more open sky where a tree no longer lives.
Florence came, and now a gigantic limb from the willow oak by the back fence back rests one end driven into the earth the other caught by the place where the tree forks thirty feet up from the ground. I see the limb each morning from the kitchen window, and know it is finally time to call the tree people for an estimate. After years of watching the old oak’s branches drop and bark crumble thinking ‘one more year,’ it is time to make the call. But not today.
Florence came and told us what we already know – everything we love will eventually be lost to us. And what are we supposed to do with that? My friend Thomas, who is not a Buddhist, but rather a deeply practicing Christian who went through a Buddhist phase in his youth, likes to say - ‘We can always take refuge in reality.’ I think that sums up a key piece of the Buddha’s message quite nicely.
As we explore how to live the path taught by the Buddha day-by-day, we develop the resources and the insights that we need in order to be able to finally find refuge-resting at home in the way that things actually are.
The practice of contemplating the Five Themes for Frequent Reflection is one such resource. Contemplating the Five Themes helps us to look at five fundamental realities concerning what does and does not belong to us. In the early discourses the Buddha recommends that everyone contemplate these five themes often. We will look at the practice of contemplating the Five Themes in the next Reflections post.