This aging, it’s not something anyone seems to know that much about. Yes, there are the discussions of all the physical losses, increasing weakness, the increasing unreliability of mind and body, loss of sexual drive and capacity, unreliability of digestion, excretion. There are many discussions of how the young should manage the old, but there is not much discussion of how it feels for the old to find the same mind continuing, its clarity and curiosity. This going-on-being mind that feels so strangely unchanged. Unchanged in a body that we, the occupants, can barely recognize, and that, with the symptoms just mentioned, is making it clear that things are coming to an end. And this ending cannot really be imagined, even as we know it is so.

Buddhaghosa, the great 5th-century Theravada Buddhist investigator of mind, wrote:

Aging has the characteristic of maturing (ripening) material instances. Its function is to lead on to death.

Aging is the basis for the bodily and mental suffering that arises owing to many conditions such as leadenness in all the limbs, decline and warping of the faculties, vanishing of youth, undermining of strength, loss of memory and intelligence, contempt on the part of others, and so on.

Hence it is said:

With leadenness in every limb,
With every faculty declining,
With vanishing of youthfulness,
With memory and wit grown dim,
With strength now drained by undermining,
With growing unattractiveness to spouse and kin,
To [spouse] and family and then
With dotage coming on, what pain
Alike of body and of mind
A mortal must expect to find!
Since aging all of this will bring,
Aging is well named suffering.

The Path of Purification, trans. Bikkhu Nanamoli

If you are reading this, your chances of ending up in a nursing home are just short of 50/50. That is to say, 4 out of 10 of Tricycle’s readers are likely to end their lives in institutional care. And if you began reading this at all, you may decide to stop now. Later, maybe, it will be time to consider such things. But as Meg Federico wrote, people have to make the most difficult decisions, plans concerning the last years of their lives, at a time they are least capable of doing so. Nonetheless, we will age, and something will happen to us. Atul Gawande, a distinguished surgeon and commentator on the care of the aged, describes the likely situation in which we who live in the Western post-industrial world will find ourselves:

The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies of a sliver’s chance of benefit. They are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive care units—where regimens, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life. Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the comforts they most need. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.

Being Mortal

It is important to understand that even if we are fortunate enough to be able to afford a relatively agreeable old age home or assisted living facility, once we have been moved into such a place we will no longer be considered full members of the living world. We will find ourselves in a kind of bardo where friends, family, doctors, and caregivers will no longer think of us as exactly alive. We will wield no influence whatsoever in the outer world and will have few ways of influencing the specifics of our daily lives such as diet, whom we live with, times we wake, sleep, bathe, read, what we watch on TV, and so on. Such choices will no longer be left to us.

As Buddhist practitioners, we will frequently have heard that we should practice to prepare for death. Now it will be clear that, as Buddhaghosa indicates, the path that will prepare us for death is old age itself.


In a Mahayana sutra from the Tibetan Buddhist canon, The Questions of the Householder Viradatta, the Buddha says:

“…[Those] who wish to fully awaken to unsurpassable complete and perfect awakening, should cultivate the spirit of great compassion for all sentient beings. They should be respectful, should stay close to them, should cultivate them.”

“[They] . . . should not be attached to the body. They should not be attached to life. Likewise, they should not be attached to wealth, grain, house, wife, sons, or daughters. They should not be attached to food, drink, clothing, vehicles, bedding, flowers, incense, perfumes, ointments, or garlands. They should not be attached to possessions.

“They should renounce extensively and fully, with total renunciation and without expectation for results.

. . .

“Where life is concerned, they relinquish all hankering for life, delighting in life, identifying with life as mine, craving for life, relying on life, and being attached to life. Likewise, they relinquish all hankering for, delighting in, taking as mine, craving for, relying on, and being attached to wealth, grain, house, spouse, sons, daughters, food, drink, clothing, vehicles, bedding, flowers, incense, perfumes, garlands, ointments, or any other possessions. . . .”

The householder Viradatta responds:

“The resolve to be awake is a great resolve.
It is the supreme happiness among all sentient beings.
It is the most excellent of all qualities.
It pacifies all illness.

“… the resolve toward awakening… does not have a limit.”

“We who delight in this resolve

. . .

“We properly discover what is to be discovered.”

If the path that will prepare us for death is old age itself, then we can have confidence in our experience at this time, no matter how difficult, painful, and disorienting.


An old monastic practitioner said to me, “Old age. It’s a secret, a kind of hidden magic. It’s right there, this practice, and no one sees it. We’re being shown, given. It is how our lives actually work. What we are told we should not cling to is actually naturally being stripped away. . . . Resistance is not possible or only creates more confusion, pain.”

There are many kinds of practice, and the end of life does not seem to be a good time to search for new methods. It is the time to do practices with which we are familiar, where we know our way. But regardless of what practice we do, it is crucial to keep our practice grounded in the awakened state.

In Tibetan, the word for awakening is changchub: chang (“self-purifying”) and chub (“self-expanding”). That is to say, the awakened state is the natural way for our mind to seek to leave obstacles and misunderstandings behind and to move continually outward.

Generally, however, when we look at our experience, we tend to see things better. We see our body as a noun, an entity with fixed properties and functions. And because we tend to look at ourselves this way, when various qualities of our body change during the aging process, this is unpleasant; when our body cannot function as it used to, we are distraught, lost. If, however, we see our body as a verb, a combination of properties and functions constantly in motion, then it’s very different.

Lying in a hospital bed, confined in a nursing home, surrounded by chaos and noise, lost in a world we do not recognize, can we do this?

Our experience of our body is an experience of constant change. There is the hunger in our stomach, the hunger in our mouth, the pleasure of chewing, the tastes and saliva in swallowing, the feeling of a substance reaching our stomach. These can be pleasant or unpleasant in varying ways. And then satiation. Then again perhaps discomfort. The array of sensations changing in, and in conjunction with, our body weave together: the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling all intertwine in varying proportions and with varying intensities; depending on our attention, the senses filter in and out of our awareness as a body in its entirety. A body is an array of elements constantly changing.

Everything is changing constantly, but the awareness, the fact of being aware of sensations and change, does not change. There is always awareness. Awareness appears in the poles of subject and object. These polarities are inseparable and are, in fact, the natural display of awareness, which has never been divided.

Awareness has never moved or stopped moving, never been stable or composite, never been one thing or no thing.

The heart of Buddhist practice is to cease placing limits on the vast expanse of the awakened state. To let go of thinking that seeks to make the awakened state serve our anxious purposes, to let awareness, observation, attentiveness dissolve into the vast awakening as streams flow to the sea.

Lying in a hospital bed, confined in a nursing home, surrounded by chaos and noise, lost in a world we do not recognize, can we do this?

Dogen Zenji said: “When the world ends, and the fires blaze unobstructedly through everything, and all falls to ruin, we just follow circumstance.” (Trans. Kidder Smith)

Like light in air, we cannot stop,
Every instant dissolves.
Awakening is not something we make happen
Awakening happens without reference point
Without boundary.
Like light in air
Moments do not stop in one self or an other.
Awakening breaks open in the experience of whatever and all.

Here’s Dogen again: “The master doesn’t say that greatly awakening is becoming buddha, nor that returning to confusion is becoming a being, nor that greatly awakening gets frayed, nor that it vanishes, nor that confusion somehow just shows up. Greatly awakening has no beginning or end, returning to confusion had no beginning or end. Why? It just goes off everywhere, while the worlds are being destroyed.” (Trans. Kidder Smith)

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