AGING - "What a drag it is getting old" - The Rolling Stones
Aging is Buddhism’s second specified form of suffering, following just after birth, and preceding sickness and death. It may be argued that even in the womb, the aging process is in full flower. If we accept this notion, then aging is not a process that begins at a certain point in life, but is present in each moment, from the very beginning. Apparently eggs age, losing viability before being impregnated by sperm, and certain birth defects are now associated with sperm from aged fathers. Everything ages, including insentient beings; e.g. a great deal of technology is devoted to preserving the shelf life of foods. But as human beings, as with all other causes and conditions, we tend to take it personally.
Visiting my brother and sister, my seniors by four and two years, provides me a kind of reality check. My brother represents where I may be four years from now, in terms of health and wellbeing. It is a wake-up call as to my own aging, which is not as apparent from, say, looking in the mirror each day. It also illuminates changes to his lifestyle and circumstances somewhat dictated by older age and increasing infirmity.
A visit to my mother and father when they were alive, or to elderly friends now living in extended care, does not have quite the immediacy of siblings. Especially when the visits are few and far between, which accelerates the perception of change, like watching a grandchild growing up from a distance. A brother or sister hits a bit closer to home.
There sometimes arises a cloying nostalgia that grips the heart, for which it is difficult to discern a specific source. Is it self-pity, concern for the loved one, or simply sadness at the passing of what used to be? A kind of melancholy colors everything, suggesting that what has been lost may be more vibrant than what is left.
Where there has been dramatic change of circumstances, including loss of home, family and friends, dislocation from community, and isolation in a new setting with little to no control over the normal pattern of living day to day, the emotional reaction is aggravated. It is easy to fall back on hopeful clichés, such as that time heals all wounds, or suggestions of activities and engagements that will restore the positive attitude that we once enjoyed when life was full and potential was unlimited; all evasive maneuvering.
It is clear that part of what we feel in such situations, especially at the inevitable parting, is partly empathy for others, partly our own cross to bear — emotional reactions no one else may be feeling. When others tear up, or are visibly overcome with emotion, it seems we are sharing the same experience. When emotionality slides into pity or depression, then we are probably indulging ourselves, wallowing in our own reflection.
But in Zen, we are not supposed to be sentimental. We are expected to be, and expect ourselves to be, above this kind of ennui, are we not? Well, no.
Zen, and Buddhism in general, does not teach the avoidance of suffering. Cessation of suffering, the third Noble Truth, cannot come about through avoidance. It is only through the relinquishment of craving, the second Noble Truth, that suffering can come to an end. And even then it is only the kind of unnecessary suffering that we inflict upon ourselves and others that can end. Natural suffering (Skt. dukkha) does not and cannot end. It is simply change, and if there is anything permanent in existence, it is change.
The Tao te Ching has a passage that, if memory serves, says something like, “In terms of family, just be completely present.” This sounds easier than it actually is, when confronted with deterioration of the body and relation to the environment. In the case of visiting my brother, or in the past, my father and mother (who died at the ages of 70 and 94, respectively), it means being present with all of the facts — causes and conditions — that are operative in reality, as well as all the emotions that accompany them.
Being present with the facts while ignoring or suppressing the emotions is a form of neurosis, I believe, though it may not be technically so in psychology. The habitual suppression of any form of unpleasant emotion may be regarded as a source of mental or emotional disorder. Most people accept this natural tendency as an unhealthy one, if carried to an extreme.
Feelings of melancholy, or other such ‘negative’ reactions as embarrassment or shame, are usually considered to be undesirable, certainly not to be expressed publicly, but kept to oneself. The idea is that they eventually will pass, and we will get back to “normal.” In Zen, however, and in the Eastern cultures in general, they are considered precious, not only because they are rare, but because they are, in a sense, closer to the truth than the more acceptable state of being “happy, happy, happy all the time, time, time.” If this is normal, then it follows that we should do all we can to achieve this state of happiness. This is the source of the culture of consumption, from overeating to wretched excess in every category of products and services on offer.
The happiness we practice in Zen is not dependent upon our control of circumstance. Indeed, it is practiced in the face of the causes and conditions of our existence. If we cannot honestly register and acknowledge the Truths as they actually are, we cannot be truly happy. Our happiness, like everything else about our self-existence, is a pretense, and a pretext for behavior that is not conducive to real happiness, but leads to greater and greater despair, as the objects of our desires lose their luster and fail to produce the hoped for effect.
If, however, we can come to an honest assessment of the true conditions of existence, we may find that we can be happy in spite of them, indeed, ultimately because of them, just as they are.
Take aging and its inevitable end, death, for example. Is there anyone so befuddled by their imagination that they think that NOT aging and dying would be a good idea? Is the idea of ENOUGH so far removed from their perception that they can conceive only of MORE? I am afraid that this is monkey-mind reinforced by convention.
Witnessing the wisdom of the body in its inexorable decline from what we conceive of as health and wellbeing into decrepitude, do we simply develop a sense of resignation as the highest learning? Isn’t the process of natural aging teaching something worth knowing, indeed perhaps the main principle of existence — impermanence? What is it that we imagine would survive?
Rebirth is a theory of Buddhism. It is not the same as reincarnation, which is from the Hindu belief system. Nothing survives to be reincarnated in Buddhism, as I understand the premise, but causes and conditions that stem from actions taken in life do have a carryover effect. This is only a theory, and not necessary to debate as over against other theories that may be less complicated and more appealing, such as that of the eternal soul.
The only thing that is immortal in Buddhism is everything. In this, Zen agrees with some of the tenets of science, that everything that is in the universe has always been, and will always be, ‘here.’ ‘Here’, of course, is changing every moment to being ‘there’, and everything within space-time is changing into something else, leaving us with the reality of ‘no-thing-ness’.
All of this is very interesting, of course, and probably true, but it does not help with the emotional level of confronting it. When this kind of change by attrition gets up close and personal, it is natural to regard it with dismay and to search for an escape.
Zen is not an escape, but zazen always offers a place to go. Zazen is a practice that enables the direct confrontation with, and even the willing embrace of, reality as it is. It may be that in this very embrace, we find that WE are what is embraced, “marvelously embraced within the complete,” as Tozan has it in Precious Mirror Samadhi. In “the complete” there is no avoidance of sickness, aging and death, but life would be incomplete without them. No one would argue that an incomplete understanding is better. Ignorance is not necessarily bliss, but may be the beginning of wisdom.