It becomes clear, as we move into old age, that the world is moving away from us. It is no longer possible for us to leap into the world, as children do, and try to seize it. It is no longer for us to work at forming ourselves, to find how to join the world, to embrace it. This we did as young women and men. The time when we strive to shape the world, to hold it in our grasp, to pass it on, all this is no longer possible. It cannot be helped. We feel it all moving away, and with that comes a great gift of seeing new patterns, feeling new intensities, new love, new gratitude. There is an expanded display, a deeper response to colors and smells and tastes, and a tenderness we could not have imagined. The world seems to expand as we feel ourselves contract.
And the world others create around us means less and less. As younger people, we aimed to find and make our place in the adult world in which we were growing up. That world now is unknown to the younger; its values not dismissed but no longer recognized. Our learning, insight, and appreciation apply to a domain that has vanished. Our teachers, the friends with whom we shared our journey, are all gone. And there is no anchor even for nostalgia. What we have cared for fades away in the encompassing present.
Now our senses begin to fail. We cannot hear; ambient space loses its dimensions. We are not sure of understanding what is said. We talk so that we don’t have to pretend to hear. Our seeing fades, taste and smell flatten. The civilized control of bodily functions that has allowed us to be adults falters. We become “management issues” for others. Our memories, even if they had become relevant, begin to dissolve. Who are we now? And what?
What did my mother say when she arrived in the emergency room having drunk too much, fallen, hit her head, and been picked up by an ambulance?
“I demand an autopsy.”
In 1979, just before the lunar New Year, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote a private letter to two students who had asked to be sent to another teacher. The two, husband and wife, felt they had reached an impasse in their study and practice. Their path seemed suddenly to have hit a wall. Rinpoche, as he said, was shocked at how they felt. He wrote: “I hope you will understand I have a certain integrity and sense of belief. My existence is not just based on the logic of growing up, becoming educated, getting married, having a job, bringing up children and then dropping dead. . . . As you well understand, even if I were tortured to death, I would never give up my cause, my respect for my teacher and my heritage . . . what I say and feel is true, there is nothing hidden.” He was puzzled.
Even now, almost 40 years later, these words seem nakedly simple and painfully blunt. Even if one is inclined to find the phrase “even if I were tortured to death” overly dramatic, one might reflect that this indeed had been the recent fate of Trungpa Rinpoche’s own teachers. What strikes us now as almost embarrassing is the openness with which Rinpoche could state his life’s purpose and meaning. And throughout his life, he placed great emphasis on the earliest teachings of the Buddha. He returned again and again to the Buddha’s search for the truth that lies within the constant confusions and emotional upheavals of daily life, and he often referred to the Buddha’s earliest formulations of his discovery. Throughout Trungpa Rinpoche’s life of exile and wandering, these teachings remained the lodestar.
The Buddha spent years of his life examining the nature of existence. He explored the innate qualities and dispositions of mind itself. He did not learn from a book or a god or a superhuman entity. He proceeded by long and direct examination of experience. What he then discovered were intrinsic aspects of mind itself. He discovered amid all the aspects of mind, like water flowing through a dense forest, the life and light of the awakened state. And what he taught was how to live in the world where change and the unchanging, delusion and clarity, selfishness and compassion, bondage and liberation are intertwined.
As the great 13th-century Zen master Dogen Zenji put it: “If you search for a buddha outside birth and death . . . you will cause yourself to remain all the more in birth and death and lose the way to liberation. . . . Birth and death is the life of a buddha.”
The Buddha’s teachings are not a method for transforming one state of mind into another. They are, pure and simple, a way of exploring what is. The essence of what the Buddha discovered and the core of what he then taught are the four noble truths. These are called truths because they are not the result of inference. They are true on their own merits and as a matter of circumstance. They are the discoveries of direct observation. When we look at life, without adding or subtracting anything, these are what we see. What is special here, and hence
“noble,” is that the Buddha found great value in what we usually do not wish to acknowledge. He presented these truths as doorways and paths in the world of our imprisonment and—simultaneously—our liberation.
The first noble truth is that the nature of existence is suffering, pain, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. We cannot prevent continuous discomfort, sickness, old age, and death. We want to have security, pleasure, and esteem. The feeling of wanting is painful. And when we get what we desire, we change, or whatever we sought changes. The truth of the matter is that we cannot maintain or hold on to or make permanent anything in our lives. And we cannot escape the anxiety caused by fear, loss, pain, and death.
We, the aging and the old, are entering an alien land. It is as if we are now moving into a delta where a river joins the sea. There are thousands of tiny islands. We find ourselves engulfed denser in mist and fog, moving uncertainly from isle to isle. There is no solid ground, nor is there any landscape that does not shift and change.
The second noble truth, the origin of this suffering, is that we are always trying to make and remake ourselves and our world. We are always searching for pleasure, satisfactions, and stable ways of being. We are constantly trying to find forms of thought and belief in which we can find refuge. Seeking control over ourselves and our circumstances, we feel anguish because we cannot find them. The first truth refers to impermanence and dissolution, while the second concerns illusion and birth. The two move together. They weave and unweave in the fabric of the mind and senses.
The world around us dissolves, reforms, now in more pallid tones. And in the same way, we feel we are dissolving and reforming. Reaching and reforming. We struggle to continue what we understand less and less.
The third noble truth is cessation. Here is the ever-present continuum of deep awareness that never changes, even amid change. Amid sound, it is silence. Amid ever-shifting clouds, it is the sky. It is beyond all concepts and conventions, it is awareness not constrained by words or thought processes or sensation. In the earliest of the Buddha’s discourses, the Buddha describes this as “the unborn, unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme security from bondage.” It is “profound, hard to see and hard to understand . . . unattainable by mere reason” (trans. Nyanamoli Thera).
In the fourth noble truth, the three preceding truths are put into practice. It is the way we discover for ourselves that these truths both unfold in succession and are simultaneous. The eightfold path is the way to be in a world that is simultaneously painful, delusory, clear, and free. It is the way we can move through birth, sickness, old age, and death without losing contact with our primordial and unchanging nature of wakefulness.
The late Joshu Sasaki Roshi was once having dinner with some students and a well-known translator.
“Wouldn’t you say, Roshi, the core of Mahayana Buddhism is shunyata [emptiness] and compassion?”
“Yes . . . ,” replied Roshi, “and . . . of course . . . reality.” There was a long silence.
“Expansion and contraction.”
As we move further into the outer reaches of old age, we enter a darkness of continuous instability and deterioration. It is as if we have moved through a radiant sunset and now enter a night of uncertainty. Loss expands and encompasses us. We contract in the narrowing compass of our own body. We do not know where this is leading. What seems to guide us through the dark moves with its own logic like the waxing and waning moon. We grope, defenseless and naked, through a wilderness. We pull inward. We try to hide our fear by making demands. But we know that even tomorrow, our faculties and functions may change. A slip, a leaky blood vessel, some slight metabolic shift, and we are no longer who we were. Sudden emotional displays counter all we used to think of as ourselves. We cannot control ourselves. We do not understand. Relatives and friends find the spectacle unbearable. It is as if they are standing on a distant shore, watching us drown. They know they may end up as we are now, but truly they cannot imagine it. Now they can only lovingly move to imprison us. But we already know we are trapped, and despair tracks us like a shadow. When we are with them, we try to act like the one they’ve known. Alone, we let the current take us.
The fourth noble truth is the eightfold path. These eight aspects are the means to discover intrinsic freedom within ourselves, awareness not shaped by survival or suffering and its causes. In the Nagara Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 12.65), the Buddha speaks of the eightfold path as “the ancient path, the ancient road,” which was followed by all the “rightly self-awakened ones of former times.” The eightfold path is not, from the Buddha’s point of view, his personal invention or method; it is a path through life that has been discovered and rediscovered again and again throughout human history. It is a way of living. The Buddha taught it in many places and times to many people and varied his presentation accordingly, but it constitutes the core of all other Buddhist teachings.
The eightfold path consists of eight interlocking practices or points of focus as we move in space and time. Like paths through a forest, they meet at different points, provide differing perspectives, and explore different aspects of the same terrain.
Somehow, we habitually think that some things we experience—particularly those that are pleasurable, supportive, and expansive—are what we really are. And we think all that is painful, insulting, or limiting is not what we really are. But according to the Buddha’s way, the meaning of path is that we accept everything in our experience, satisfactory or not, painful or not, as our path. Path means accepting all our experience as our own. This is the spirit in which we walk the eightfold path.
The eightfold path explores the human world as a place of inevitable suffering, a place animated by the desire for permanence and satisfaction, and, simultaneously, a place where the underlying truth and reality cannot be limited by cravings, goals, or concepts. What is ultimately true and real here cannot be known or possessed. It is free. The eight paths that Gautama Buddha described enable us, the wanderers, to know simultaneously a world that is utterly delusory and completely true.
The first path of the eight is the path of right view. If we wish to be free of confusion and self-imposed suffering, we must see the world clearly. The world does not exist to confirm our existence or to deny it. We cannot rely on conventional beliefs or wishful thinking for a happy life. We cannot turn away from seeing that all actions have consequences. There is nothing that exists independently in the net of our phenomena. Birth is inseparable from death, and death does not end the flow of life. Life may provide joy and happiness, but pain is inescapable. If we look at the world clearly and directly, there is no view other than this. Since it is not an intellectual outlook, there is no refutation. And there is no escape. That we can experience the truth of ourselves and our world—this is unchanging mind, ever free of confusion. It is the unchanging path of right view.
The second path is the path of right intention. Mind is continuous motion, unstoppable. Our minds move from emotional state to emotional state. Everything that arises in expectation is tinged by dissolution and loss, sorrow and anguish. Thoughts appear and vanish, return and again dissolve. Nothing we have learned provides enduring refuge: not belief, not logic, not theory. The path of right intention is the innate power of awareness to open our minds into deeper understanding. We can move beyond the limits of our own survival. We can indeed overcome conventional desires and concepts to act selflessly for the benefit of others.
These first two paths reflect the intrinsic wisdom of our minds; the next three are the kinds of actions we can take to support our search as well as to make our paths manifest. Accordingly, the third path is right speech. We define and shape our lives with words. Words link the outer and inner, the past, present, and future, the near and far, the unfamiliar and familiar. Speech is the instrument and expression of our understanding and our aspiration. Lies, violent language, discourtesy, and deception distort our innate intelligence and corrupt the bonds between us all. Avoiding clichés and mindless chatter, we may finally hear the world. Right speech is as much about listening as speaking.
Right Action is the fourth path. Body, speech, and mind together endow us with the capacity to enhance or degrade our world, our culture, and ourselves. Even if we are uncertain about what might improve things, we can act to avoid degrading them. We can live without imposing our personal desires, beliefs, needs, concepts, and so forth onto those around us and the world at large. We may then find that our world manifests in unexpected ways. What we do can go beyond received ideas and selfish needs to become part of a deeper and more vital pattern.
Fifth is the path of right livelihood. Can we live without causing harm to others? Without taking advantage of others? Without exploitation and pollution? The essence here is to try to live only on what one is given, living without having more than one needs in the simplest sense. We strive not to increase our own neediness or the poverty of others. This is also living without killing or stealing. Here we move to sustain ourselves in ways that do not hurt others or damage the world we share.
The last three paths represent the specific ways for directing the mind to explore the dimensions of wakefulness; of these, the last two are the most detailed. Thus, the sixth of the Eightfold Path is right effort. Here we are striving to direct our energy away from engagement with plots and dramas and from the desire for entertainment. Right effort involves not just intending but actually turning our mind to the openness of what we do not know, toward the ungraspable. Boredom and uncertainty mark this moment of the path. When longing, ambition, and doubt arise, one need not follow. Not following thoughts into habitual patterns—into the known—is the effort that engages the awakened state in the present moment. We enter the terrain that is not delineated by concepts. We engage our experience without seeking any confirmation.
In the seventh, the path of right mindfulness, we leave our mind in whatever frame of reference arises in each moment of awareness. Body is awareness of body; each feeling is the awareness of feeling. Thoughts, emotional states, and so forth are likewise the awareness of themselves and nothing beyond that. Not moving by inference or implication, right mindfulness is the natural experience and resolution of duality.
On the path of right mindfulness, when we contemplate our bodily existence, we do not regard our body and world as permanent reference points. Contemplating the transitory nature of our feelings, we neither covet nor grieve. Contemplating thoughts and insights as unstable mind objects, we do not try to hold or abandon them. We set aside craving and regret.
The 20th-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi explained to his students:
“There is no limit to our mind; our mind reaches everywhere. It already includes the stars, so our mind is not just our mind. It is something greater than the small mind we think is our mind.” He was speaking in the context of commenting on a poem that is chanted daily in Soto Zen temples, the Sandokai of Shitou Xiqian (700-790 CE). What follows are part of his remarks on this verse:
In the light there is darkness,
But don’t take it as darkness.
In the dark there is light,
But don’t see it as light.
“Darkness refers to the absolute, where there is no exchange value or materialistic value or even spiritual value—the world that our words and thinking mind cannot reach. . . . There is a very close relationship between light and dark . . . You may think that this darkness is a world quite different from our human world, but this is . . . a mistake. When you have light, you can see many things. . . . These things appear in the light.
“How we suffer will be our practice. . . . To find the oneness of [dark and light], the oneness of joy and suffering, the oneness of the joy of enlightenment within difficulty, is our practice. This is called the Middle Way. . . . Where there is suffering, there is the joy of suffering or nirvana. Even in nirvana, you cannot get out of suffering. We say that nirvana is the complete extinction of desires, but what that means is to have this complete understanding and to live according to it.”
The eighth of the eightfold path is the path of meditation or concentration. This is resting in the unity of all outer and inner phenomena, abiding in awareness itself. This is the natural ground and the unsought fruition. Mind does not disperse itself in the seeming reality of other or freeze itself in the notion of self. The subtle need for confirmation of the senses dissolves, moment by moment. Thoughts pass. Equanimity dawns of its own accord. The dichotomy of pleasure and pain dissolves.
Neither still nor moving, neither confirming nor denying, neither increasing nor diminishing, beyond life and death, hearing and silence, vision or invisibility, pleasure and pain, hope and fear, what is sometimes called primordial mind reveals itself as unceasing and without limit in all the displays of the world of confusion, suffering, and delusion.
We, as we are old and dying, are entering a new terrain. You may not yet know what it is. You do not know us now. So as we move through the dark night of life’s end, the chaos of bodily collapse and mental instability, reality pulses, opens, closes. This is the treasury of all the buddhas, which cannot be seized or hoarded. But as we enter the twisting paths of the dark forest, we cannot know what, if anything, is the best way to proceed. We cannot say whether we will stay on a path or lose our way; and if we lose our way, we cannot know whether we will realize that we are lost.
Addressing our deep uncertainty, the great 10th-century Buddhist yogi Tilopa summarized the path in six words, which can be translated as:
Don’t dwell in your memory.
Don’t imagine your future.
Don’t keep thinking about the present.
Don’t try to have control.
If we practice in this way, an expanse free of concepts, hopes, and fears may dawn. Perhaps we will find confidence as we engage in the life that is carrying us onward.
The lineage of Tilopa’s instructions has passed from teacher to student for more than ten centuries, and it has flourished in Tibet, where many people have lived according to his words. One of the foremost contemporary practitioners was the 16th head of the Karma Kagyu lineage, Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. He lived most of his life in Tibet, escaped the Communists and went to India, and came to a hospital in America when he was dying of a virulent and painful cancer. Students flocked from around the world. A follower was weeping beside his bed. The Karmapa patted him on the head, gave a radiant smile, reached out and took his hand. “Nothing happens,” he said.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.