On Aging

On Aging

Discussion date: Thu, May 02, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

There is an enormous amount of discovery that goes on in later life
that young people have no idea about.
— James Hillman, Jungian psychologist

Dear Still Water Friends,

I’m now in my early 80s and find myself often thinking about the aging process and its conclusion. This means my life is now routinely filled with reflections on and repeated moments of profound loss. The loss of a child, along with the closest of friends and relatives. My and my wife’s increased health concerns, my loss of physical abilities and personal freedom because of Covid.

In my best moments I think back over my life with great satisfaction. I took some chances and explored widely. I was blessed to experience, and learn, much of what a human can experience. This sense of satisfaction gives me great joy. I understand that the pain I experienced was as valuable to my growth process as was my joy.

Still, the past four or so years have been among the most difficult of my life. Of course I would have preferred it otherwise. But that’s not what happened. I felt it deeply. It’s been my reality.

Buddhism teaches that we best deal with pain via transformation. Instead of trying to ignore or suppress unpleasantness, we work with it – even play with it – and then try to transform it. So this is my practice: to transform my concerns about the end of life into another of life’s many adventures.

The end of life has long been a strong motivation for my embracing the Dharma.

Decades ago I decided that our last moments of life are among the most important we experience. My thinking went as follows: if all we have is the moment, it doesn’t matter how happy or sad we were in the past. All that matters is our state of mind as we expire. Ipso facto, the purpose of meditation, of the practice, is to prepare oneself for death. To die with self-awareness and equanimity.

Lewis Richmond, a California-based Dharma teacher, wrote in his article “Aging is Reality”:

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” doesn’t sound all that nice — it may come off as possibly morbid or depressing. …

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.

Our teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh said a similar thing in a 2014 Dharma talk:

In the practice of Buddhism, dying is very important. It’s as important as living. Death is as important as being born, because birth and death inter-are. Without birth, there could be no death. Without death, there is no birth. Birth and death are very close friends, and collaboration between the two of them is necessary for life to be possible.

So do not be afraid of death. Death is just a continuation, and so is birth. At every moment, death is happening in your body — some cells are dying so other cells can come to life. Death is indispensable to life. If there is no death, there is no birth, just as there can be no left if there is no right. Don’t hold out hope that life will be possible without death. You must accept both of them—birth and death.

If you practice well, you can gain deep insight into the ultimate dimension while remaining in touch with the historical, or relative, dimension. And when you are deeply in touch with the historical dimension, you also touch the ultimate dimension, and you see that your true nature is no-birth and no-death.

Living is a joy. Dying in order to begin again is also a joy. Starting over is a wonderful thing, and we are starting over constantly. Beginning anew is one of our main practices at Plum Village, and we must die every day in order to renew ourselves, in order to make a fresh start. Learning to die is a very profound practice.

Looking forward to being with you.

Another excerpt about Shunryu Suzuki Roshi by Lewis Richmond is below.

Warm wishes,
Ira Rifkin


From “Aging is Reality” by Lewis Richmond

After [Shunryu Suzuki Roshi] 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.”

Suzuki Roshi [was] stressing the truth of impermanence. I learned from [my] 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.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, May 02, 2024


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