Learning from the Reality of Aging

Let's start by exploring the relevance of Buddhist teachings on change and impermanence as we age. What can we learn today from the Buddha's first encounters with old age, sickness, and death?

Aging is Reality

Here are the key points from Lewis' talk. Overviews like this will be included in the unit workbook for later reference.

0:25 – Everything changes

Let me start by telling you a story. I was at a lecture by a Tibetan Lama not too long ago. And in the middle of the talk, he said that one of the most important and simplest teachings he got from his teachers was "Dharma is reality." Dharma is reality. Well, that really struck me for some reason. It just seems so direct and simple.

I asked him what he meant by that afterwards and he said, "Well, I travel all around the world and people will come and sit at my feet and they make big events for me and banquets and they listen to everything I say. And none of that is dharma. That's not reality. Reality is impermanence. Reality is change." 

Once after a talk given by my teacher at Tassajara, a student raised his hand and said, with some distress, "You know, Suzuki Roshi, you've been talking on and on about all these complicated Buddhist teachings and, really, I don't understand anything that you're saying. Is there something you can tell me that I can understand?" So of course, everybody laughed nervously. It just seemed like such an impertinent question. 

But Suzuki Roshi took it quite seriously. He waited for all the laughter to die down. And then he quietly said, "Everything changes." Everything changes, or everything ages. It's the same thing.

3:15 – Enjoying our old age

Aging is the essence of what the Buddha taught. Not only that, but what he taught was that we need to live our life in accordance with reality, not with opinions, not with speculations, not with doctrines. We need to create a path for life that is in accord with how things actually are.

Another time somebody asked, "Suzuki Roshi, why do we meditate?" Well, this is kind of a throwaway question. But Suzuki Roshi didn't take it that way. He said something quite unexpected. He said, "We meditate so that we can enjoy our old age." 

That's a very unexpected answer to that kind of question. He may have been in his mid-60s. By then he'd been ill for much of the year, and yet he seemed to be enjoying himself and laughed a lot, as he always did, and we were young. I'm not sure I understood what he really meant back then, but I think I do now. In order to actually embrace and enjoy the stage of being an older person of coming toward the end of life, you need to have a grounding and basis in what reality is.

5:05 – Old age, sickness, and death

Some of you may have heard the Buddhist phrase "old age, sickness, and death." This is something that shows up in Buddhist teachings a lot. And on the surface, it doesn't sound all that nice. It sounds possibly morbid or depressing... Old age, sickness and death is just another way of saying everything ages, everything is once new but changes and becomes old and eventually passes away. This is true for every human being who ever lived, doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

6:45 – The Buddha's life story

The Buddha's life story is a very interesting teaching, and at one level it's a kind of fairytale. It almost certainly isn't literally true but it's psychologically very profound I think. 

When the Buddha was born, there had been a prophecy that he would either grow up to be a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father of course did not want him to be a great spiritual leader. So he prohibited the young Gautama from ever leaving the palace or seeing anything that might distress him. But being naturally curious Gautama snuck out of the palace with his loyal servant, Chandra, and went out to see what the world outside the palace was like. This is very much like a child growing up and seeing how the world is. 

And the first thing Gautama saw on the road was a person who was sick. And he said "Chandra, what's the matter with that person? Why don't they get up?" And Chandra said, "Well, that person is ill. They're ill, that's illness. So as though for the first time—and there is a moment I call it "lightning strikes" when these truths do hit us—the Buddha understood that illness is part of reality.

And then further along the road, he saw an old person with wrinkles and white hair, and he said, "Chandra, what's the matter with the person? Why do they look like that?" And Chandra said, "Oh, that that's just an old person. That's what it means to be old." And so again, this truth comes home to the Buddha. And then he sees a corpse and understands death. So old age, sickness and death are just a kind of way of saying that this is what you see when you actually grow up and face reality.

It's interesting that Prince Gautama's fourth sighting was a monk with a serene countenance. And at that moment what we call a way-seeking mind, or spiritual possibility, awakened for him: a way to see through or see past these truths of old age, sickness, and death. 

9:40 – Aging is the path

So every person who becomes an elder, a senior, an older person—whether we realize it or not—by aging we are actually actually living out a form of the Buddha's teaching. Aging, you might say, makes you a natural Buddhist. And there's wisdom to be had in delving into all aspects of our aging being. 

But remember, in the time of the Buddha life expectancy was maybe 35, if you were lucky. And so, the Buddha didn't begin teaching until he was about 35. So he was a senior, an elder, in human terms, for those times. He was teaching as a kind of elderhood, sharing with everyone what he had learned in his whole life. 

And remember there were no medicines, there were no vaccines, there were no antibiotics. In those days people died all the time. They keeled over. Women lost half their children in childbirth, they died in childbirth. That was normal life in those times and it's out of that reality that the Buddha's teaching comes. In a certain way, in our modern world we have a veneer over things. If you get sick, there's a medicine. You go to the doctor, there are surgeries, there are miracles. I myself have been desperately ill a couple of times in my life and modern medicine saved me.

And now with the Coronavirus we're back, at least for a while, to the same world that the Buddha lived in, which is a world of uncertainty, a world of fear, a world of anxiety, of not knowing what's going to happen and things changing very fast, and we don't know what's going to come next. We're in a miasma, a soup of reality, and it's almost too much. It's very, very difficult at an individual level. But at the same time, it's a reality that we all share. Everyone on the planet is facing this same reality on equal terms. There is no one who has a leg up. So this is aging and changing as a path, as a spiritual practice.