This article is excerpted from a talk given by Lewis Richmond in his Tricycle online course, Aging as a Spiritual Practice. Join Richmond on October 27 for a live virtual workshop exploring growing older as a pathway to insight and psychological growth.
It’s an inescapable truth that we all grow old and die. I’m in my seventies now. (If you decided to click and read this article, you may also be well along in your years.) Even though I started studying Buddhism as a very young man, the profundity and depth of the teachings really began to hit home for me as an older person. I came to realize that aging is the essence of what the Buddha taught. He said that we need to live our lives in accordance with reality—not in accordance with opinions, speculations, or doctrines. Aging is reality.
Not too long ago, I was at a lecture given by a Tibetan lama. In the middle of the talk, the lama said that one of the simplest and most important teachings he got from his teachers was that “dharma is reality.” Afterward, I asked him what he meant.
“Well, I travel all around the world and people will come and sit at my feet and listen to everything I say. Sometimes they host big events for me and banquets,” he told me. “And none of that is dharma. That’s not reality. Reality is impermanence. Reality is change.”
My own teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, once said a very similar thing. After he gave a talk at Tassajara Zen monastery in California, a student raised his hand. “You know,” the student said with some distress, “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?”
Everybody glanced around the room, laughing nervously. It 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.”
The Tibetan lama and Suzuki Roshi were both stressing the truth of impermanence. I learned from these teachers that we need to live our life in accordance with how things actually are—and that you can, perhaps, see this reality most clearly reflected in your own aging body and mind.
I have a memory of another dharma talk with Suzuki Roshi in which a student asked, “Why do we meditate?” It seemed like such a throwaway question, but Suzuki Roshi didn’t take it that way and actually responded in a way I did not expect. He said, “We meditate so that we can enjoy our old age.” At the time, he was probably in his mid-sixties and recovering from a year-long bout of illness, yet he seemed to be enjoying himself and laughed a lot, as he always did.
I’m not sure I understood what he meant back then, but I think I do now. In order to embrace and enjoy the stage of being an older person, of coming toward the end of life, we need to have a grounding and basis in what reality is.
Teachings on the reality of “old age, sickness, and death” are core to the Buddhist tradition. On the surface, “aging is reality” it doesn’t sound all that nice—it may come off as possibly morbid or depressing. (In fact, when my son was younger, he would tell his friends, “My dad’s a Buddhist teacher,” and his friends would turn up their noses. “Oh, that Buddhist thing—I could never get down with that whole ‘life is suffering’ thing,” they’d say.) It’s funny—the point of stressing the reality of aging, illness, and mortality is not to make people depressed. It’s a way to remind people of the nature of reality: everything ages and eventually passes away. This is, of course, true for every human being who ever lived. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, powerful or powerless.
For many of us today, the truth of mortality is harder to avoid than it’s ever been in our lifetimes. The global coronavirus pandemic is a reality we most definitely cannot deny or avoid. I find it useful to think about COVID-19 as a “lightning bolt” moment—a moment of realization not unlike the Buddha’s first encounters with old age, sickness, and death.
The story of the young Siddhartha Gautama, before he became the Buddha, leaving his father’s palace and encountering an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, reads like a fairy tale. It almost certainly isn’t literally true, but it’s psychologically profound. When the Buddha was born, there had been a prophecy made that he would either grow up to be a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father, a ruler himself, did not want his son to go down the spiritual path, so he prohibited the young Gautama from ever leaving the palace so that he would never see anything that might distress him. But eventually the Buddha’s curiosity compelled him to sneak out from the palace grounds, along with his loyal servant, Chandra.
The first thing he saw was a person who was sick. He asked, “Chandra, what, what’s the matter with the person?” And Chandra said, “Well, that person is ill. They’re ill, that’s illness.” The same thing happened when he saw an old person and corpse: two more moments of the Buddha encountering our inescapable reality. Yet the fourth person the Buddha saw was a monk with a serene countenance, which awakened him to the possibility that there is a way to see past these harsh truths of death, disease, and aging.
With the coronavirus, we’ve partially returned to the same world that the Buddha lived in, which is a world of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. It may seem like we’re in a miasma, a soup of reality we’re drowning in. But the thing is—whether we realize it or not—by tuning into this suffering, we are living out a form of the Buddha’s teaching. Confronting your aging, the possibility of sickness, and the inevitability of death, makes you a natural Buddhist. There’s wisdom to be had in delving into all aspects of your aging being—not just now, in a time when aging makes one even more prone to death by COVID-19—but always.
I believe that when you come face-to-face with your mortality—whether you’re meditating or not, whether you’re calm or not—you’re actually practicing the Buddha’s core teaching. Now that we’re putting on masks and gloves and standing six feet apart, our fear of death is constantly activated. But these consistent reminders that we are subject to impermanence can serve as helpful reminders to practice Buddhism as the Buddha did—by facing our fears of old age, sickness, and death with courage and the desire to alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others.
This article was originally published on September 20, 2020
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.