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Verse 32-4: Aging gracefully

Verse 32-4: Aging gracefully

Part of a series of talks on the 41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra).

  • Aging in a society that idolizes youth
  • Aging is a completely natural process
  • The importance of keeping the body healthy, but without attachment

41 Prayers to cultivate bodhicitta: Verse 32-4 (download)

“May all beings be free from illnesses.”
This is the prayer of the bodhisattva when seeing someone sick.

We’ve been talking about how to work with the body when it’s getting old and dying. You can really see how the more attachment we have the more difficult it is, especially in a society where we really idolize youth and good looks. It really encourages that kind of attachment. Then as people age, it’s like “Uh oh, I’m doing what your not supposed to do.” It’s a completely natural process, but everybody thinks something is wrong with you because you’re doing what is completely natural. As a result: “I’d better dye my hair. I’d better have a facelift. I’d better do the liposuction.”

When I went to Coeur d’Alene—I went to give a talk there—all of these billboards were advertising liposuction, where they suction out your fat. Or then you have to have your stomach stapled. Sounds like fun. Or you have to go to the gym and then of course you have to get the right clothes to wear to the gym…. You get into this whole thing of total dissatisfaction by being attached to the body. The more attachment we have to our body when we are young, the more difficult it is to age. We are encouraged to be attached to our body, to it’s appearance.

Here I’m talking more about the appearance aspect and the attachment to the appearance making aging difficult. Also when we’re very attached to our body doing what we want it to do, that also makes aging and sickness difficult because our body doesn’t always do what we want it to do. I’m not saying that detachment means you just throw up your hands and say, “I don’t care,” and you don’t take care of your body. I am not talking to anybody in particular. I am not saying that you go to the other extreme and dwell on your body all the time, being so anxious about it. Again I am not talking to anybody in particular, because we all suffer from these two extremes.

It’s very important to keep the body healthy, to keep the body clean, to use it to practice, but not with attachment. Then when it breaks down, and it becomes less attractive, and it doesn’t work as well as we want….

What I think is very important is to think, “How can I age gracefully? And how can I be sick gracefully?” Now, “gracefully” doesn’t apply just to ballerinas, because some of us can be klutzes. But we can still age and be sick gracefully. By “gracefully” I mean with acceptance that this is the situation of having a body, and with acceptance that we may not look as we would like to look, that we may need other people’s help that we didn’t need before.

Think about this: about when you start becoming incontinent, or when you can’t take a bath by yourself, or different things like this which are going to happen, unless we die first. How can we do this in a graceful way, in a way that benefits ourselves and benefits other people?

So often people generally want to help us, but we feel ashamed of our body, or ashamed of our incapacity to regulate our body in a way we used to do, and so we push away help that we need, or we feel embarrassed when we accept the help. Here is where I think that having a good sense of humor is really important. Like when you get to the point of when you need a Depends to be able—when that happens to us—to joke about it and have a sense of humor about it. Or if we need somebody’s help in bathing, or in going to the bathroom, or whatever, just have a sense of humor about it instead of making this big “I” about the whole thing. Because it’s this sense of “I” that makes so many problems, doesn’t it?

That’s what I’ll talk about tomorrow, about the sense of “I” regarding the body. As much as we can diminish the attachment to our appearance and our health, then we can still have whatever appearance we have and take good care of our health. It becomes much easier as we age and as the body goes through the natural process of aging, illness, and eventually death.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.