As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more toward the refuge of Dharma, in particular to the penultimate Buddhist wisdom as revealed in the Hard Sutra. This teaching both paraphrases and surpasses the Heart Sutra, as follows: “No form, no feelings, no perception, no mental formations, no consciousness, no eye, ear, nose, no neuritis or neuralgia, no hardening of the arteries, no sore knees, no rotting teeth, no swollen prostrate, etc.” And in the end, the Hard Sutra proclaims with an Earth-shaking lion’s roar that, even though it all exists in emptiness, it is still hard.
Throughout his teaching, the Buddha constantly mentions “old age, disease and death,” presumably as a way of reminding us of the dukkha inherent in this human incarnation. Even so, when we are younger these inevitabilities can remain somewhat abstract. It is now clear to me that I hadn’t really grasped this teaching; I didn’t understand aging until I started doing it more often.
How do you know you are aging? Your body lets you know, without equivocation. Your energy starts decreasing, your senses begin losing acuity, your muscles and joints start resisting various movements and often take to complaining when called into action. A biologist I spoke with told me that as we age “our hard parts get softer and our soft parts get harder.” Doesn’t sound like fun to me.
Another sign you are aging are these little “age spots” that begin to appear on your skin. Evidence suggests they are nature’s way of marking you as a member of the next group for elimination.
Finding myself in an aging body might be easier if I had done more preparatory practices. For instance, I could have spent more time reflecting on the “repulsiveness” of the thirty-two parts of the body—hair, pus, phlegm, urine, etc. Maybe I should have done a few more sessions of body awareness practice, repeating to myself the line from the Satipattana Sutra: “This, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down from the crown of the head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things.” Yuck! Who wants to schlep that load around?
The Buddha is certainly no romantic. His intention is to deconstruct and thereby demystify human existence, to break down any sentimental feelings we may have about this face and form. Since we are so deeply attached to our survival, equating our “selves” with our bodies, the Buddha feels the need to remind us over and over again that these bodies will break down, die and rot. He urges us to look at old people and see what we will become: “crooked as a gable-roof, bent down, resting on crutches . . . with broken teeth, gray and scanty hair or none, wrinkled with blotched limbs.” He instructs his disciples to go to the charnel grounds and sit among the bodies left there for cremation, to look at “a body dead one, two or three days, swollen, blue and festering,” or a body “being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms” and then to apply this perception to their own bodies: “Verily, my own body is of the same nature; such it will become and will not escape it.”
Unfortunately, there are no charnel grounds in my neighborhood, and I haven’t run across any jackals lately. So I settle for doing an occasional visualization of myself as old, I mean really old. I picture myself looking dry and brittle, shriveled, feeling feeble and stiff in the joints, shuffling slowly around my house or down the street, awkwardly lifting my head to look for blurred obstructions along my path. Lately I also look with new interest and with more tenderness toward those already “crooked as a gable-roof, bent down.” My compassion for the aged is increasing right along with my age.
Another practice that I use regularly is to let my consciousness sink into my body while reflecting on my life as part of the biota. I feel my body’s existence intertwined with the elements of earth, air, fire and water, while acknowledging that I am certified organic—Earth-born and Earth-bound. I remember that the aging process is perfectly natural, nothing personal.
The Buddha understood that aging—as well as life itself—is easier when we loosen our attachment to this physical form. I find it helpful to reflect on the biological causes and conditions that have shaped this body. For instance, take my head. (Please!) As we age the head goes through some obvious changes: the skin of the face grows wrinkled, the hair changes color, and inside the skull the memory begins to falter. We can be especially sensitive to these changes, probably because most of us experience ourselves as residing inside our heads—up there behind the eyes, at the controls, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons. However, when I reflect on my head’s evolutionary origin and purpose, it begins to feel somewhat impersonal, less connected with an “I” or “self.”
Genetic studies show the first head appearing 700 million years ago as a cluster of extra nerve cells growing near the mouth of marine organisms. This higher concentration of neurons allowed these early life forms to manipulate their mouths more efficiently. The sense organs then grew up around the mouth for the express purpose of leading it toward the food and away from becoming food. (Look! Smell! Listen!) What it comes down to is that your head and its accoutrements are really just extensions of your mouth. Like the big bad wolf said, “The better to eat you with, my dear.”
When I regard the practical reasons for my head, it starts to feel more generic, like a simple tool—albeit finely crafted—designed for the sole purpose of survival. And like all tools, the mechanisms of the head will eventually grow rusty or start leaking fluids; the synapses will begin to misfire, the sensors lose acuity, and even the hard-edged chewing device, the teeth, will finally succumb to the persistent hunger of the bacteria. The head will have lost its usefulness in the world. (Just thought I’d give you a head’s up.)
Is this all too cold? Unappealing? Do you resent that your head could be considered just a tool of evolution? I imagine that the Buddha would approve of this reflection practice. As he once declared, “This body is not mine or anyone else’s. It has arisen due to causes and conditions.”
Aging is not as hard when we remind ourselves that bodies are natural phenomena with their own demands and destiny. For instance, evolutionary science informs me that my body was not designed specifically for me. As I move through the world, I feel myself in a particular form, but it is a shape I hold in common not only with other humans and primates but with almost all species of fauna. We are not so different from other organisms, a fact that becomes obvious if you look around—at a dog, a horse, a fish, a frog, a bird or even a spider. A head is on one end and a tail or waste pipe is on the other. A segmented spine holds the body in place, with arms, legs, fins, flippers or wings growing out of similar positions. The basic floor plan is the same. Nature found a good design and keeps using it.
Much to our chagrin, an intrinsic part of nature’s design is aging and death, and not only does it happen to every body but also to entire species of life. Over the course of biological history, ninety-nine percent of all species have become extinct. In fact, nature depends on death as part of the process of creating new life forms, those better adapted to changing environmental conditions. Strange as it sounds, without aging and death, life itself may not have survived.
I find one of the hardest parts of aging to be the anticipation of the end of my personal story. The solution to this difficulty is to practice more with the Buddha’s teachings of anattā, in which we are instructed to examine just the fundamental elements of our experience, before they become part of “our” story. What this reveals is that our personal narrative is essentially a fiction woven around simply “seeing and that which is seen, hearing and that which is heard.” As it says in the Visuddhimagga, “The thought of self is an error, and all existences are as hollow as the plantain tree and as empty as twirling water bubbles.”
I sometimes use an evolutionary reflection to weaken my intense engagement in my personal story. I remember that my feelings and impulses at any given moment have their origin in the distant past, in DNA molecules and the world of instinct. I can feel myself being moved through life by variants of the biological imperative of survival: feeding, reproduction, security, plus all of the status issues that come with being an animal who moves in a pack or tribe. I even sense my typical human obsession with “self” as just a complex elaboration of the survival imperative. I did not choose to be a “self.” I don’t own this life.
If these practices and their conclusions sound extreme, that is because they are the hard truth. Humans tend to be romantics—which itself may have something to do with survival—and these practices shatter our illusions that life is simply wonderful, or that we might escape its suffering and inevitable conclusion. In fact, it is precisely these kinds of practices that can make our lives easier, and especially as those lives start to come to a close. Even so, as it has been said and will no doubt continue to be said, at least until the deathless is attained: it is still hard.