Old Age, Sickness & Death

May 01

Every single one of us is getting older by the day. Everyone who survives youth and middle-age will get old. In most human societies the elders are venerated for their wisdom and life experience. In our mass culture, on the other hand, old people are portrayed as figures of fun. In real life they are all too often ignored or abused. A whole industry exists to disguise the effects of aging. Death is even more invisible than age, and in many ways remains the last taboo in polite discourse. People nowadays find more acceptable to discuss intimate details of their sexuality than to mention the topic of death.

Why is western culture so frightened of old age and death? It may be because of the prevalent mechanistic view of human nature. We have become so fascinated by our own machines, that we cannot imagine ourselves in any other way. In the materialist-mechanistic view of life, a human is just a machine, albeit a wonderfully complex one. It follows, then, that an old person is nothing more than a machine that is running down, and spare parts are unavailable. There is no dignity in this conception, much less any hope of liberation.

It is only with the aid of a strong spiritual tradition that we can find meaning in the problems of aging and death. Buddhism begins with a brutally honest look at life as it is actually is. "Birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old-age and death are suffering" said the Buddha at the very outset of his ministry. These things are not shameful catastrophes to be hidden away or denied. They are the very warp and woof of each and every human life.

More to the point, the Buddhist teachings put birth, aging and death into a broader context. This lifetime is one of infinite series. Birth, old-age and death are seen, in this context, as "terrible" precisely because they are so often repeated. But human life is seen as meaningful because there is always the potential for evolution and release.

In the materialist view, life and death are random and meaningless accidents. Consciousness becomes a cruel joke between two oceans of infinite oblivion. In the Buddhist view, a life is journey. We begin with the baggage accumulated in our previous adventures, and it is up to us to fare well or poorly and to lay up the resources for our next birth. If we are very skillful, we can in the end accomplish a release from the cycle of repetitions. This is Nirvana, the absolute or transcendental element in Buddhist philosophy. The existence of this transcendent alternate reality makes all the difference in the outlook on life and death.

One of the aspects of sickness and old-age that people fear most is the loss of their wits. Various forms of dementia and memory loss are a sad reality for many near the end. I will never forget speaking with one woman dying of cancer who told me there was only one thing she feared, and that was the loss of her reason. If human beings are nothing more than biological computers, this would be an absolute loss of the person. I told her that there is a pure clear awareness not bound to the bodily form and untouched by its decay and destruction. This need not be a matter of blind faith, it is possible to directly experience this intrinsic level of consciousness, and to overcome thereby the terror caused by attachment to the failing body.

Punnadhammo Bhikkhu
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