Birth, aging, and sickness
Stages of the Path #90: The First Noble Truth (Eight Sufferings)
Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks on the Stages of the Path (or Lamrim) as described in the Guru Puja text by Panchen Lama I Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen.
- The bookends of our lives: birth, aging, sickness, death
- The suffering of birth
We’ve been talking about the eight kinds of dukkha of samsara that are usually explained especially in relationship to the human realm, but they apply to almost all beings. We talked about not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. Those are the big themes of our lives, aren’t they?
In addition to that, what forms the framework for our lives, the bookends of what we call life in samsara, is birth, aging, sickness and death. It’s these four that really set the Buddha out in search for a remedy, because no matter how rich you are, how famous you are, how much honor you receive, everybody is subject to these four and there’s no way out.
While we usually say birth is good, and we’re happy when a baby is born, birth is the cause for the aging, sickness, and death. If you think about it it’s kind of peculiar that we celebrate the cause which brings aging, sickness, and death as a result. Because as soon as you’re born those three are what happen, unless you die in the very next instant.
Even birth…. On one hand we look at it as a happy occasion. On the other hand it’s definitely suffering. They don’t call it “labor” for no reason. It’s called “labor” for a very big reason, because it’s one of the biggest labors that there is, giving birth to a child—for the mother and then also for the baby. Our psychology usually sees sitting in the fetal position something really nice and pleasant for the baby, in the Buddhist texts they say, actually that the baby can feel very squished and unable to move, that’s why it starts kicking at some points in the pregnancy. And then when it’s going down the birth canal then it’s really getting squished because it’s such a small opening.
Then of course, when you’re first born and come out, we can’t remember it, but I look at the situation (if you’ve ever been at a birth) and you can see that it must be incredibly confusing for the child, because it was in one environment, then it goes through this stage of getting squished, and the muscles contracting, or maybe getting pulled out with forceps or something, and then not only whacked on the bottom (which you have to do to make sure the baby’s breathing), but it must be so confusing to come out and all the sensations in your body are completely different than the way they were in the womb. And having to breathe, and the sights and sounds, and the whole sensory thing must be quite a big shock to an infant, when you think about it.
- Seeing continued birth as continued aging, sickness, and death
- How we idolize youth, but nobody is getting younger
- Contemplating these teachings to become more realistic
Seeking continual rebirth in cyclic existence just sets us up for…. It’s like seeking continual aging, sickness, and death, because that’s what follow from birth.
Sickness we’re all very familiar with, aren’t we? Especially here at the Abbey, so many people write us consistently about their health problems and ask us to do prayers and practices on their behalf. We’ve seen people we know, people we don’t know, be afflicted by all kinds of illnesses. And all these emails that we get requesting prayers are just a forewarning for us personally because sometime our turn will come.
Aging, it happens automatically, from the moment that you are conceived in the womb you’re automatically aging. And it’s so peculiar that our society loves youth while nobody is becoming younger. It’s really a little bit crazy-making when you think about it, how we idolize youth, and nobody’s becoming younger. Nobody. We’re all in the process of aging and there’s no way to stop it. And there’s this kind of ignorance that you have when you’re young of feeling like aging and death, they don’t happen to me. That’s kind of my parents’ generation. And it’s real interesting at family gatherings you’re always in the younger generation. And then after a while, even if you don’t have kids yourself, “Oh, all my cousins and siblings, I have nieces and nephews, I’m in the middle generation, not the younger generation.” And then your school friends now are having kids. Then you wait a few more years… My high school roommate had a grandchild. I was like “Oh my goodness.” You begin to see, wow, aging, yes, it happens to me.
They always say that it’s good that it happens gradually because if we were to wake up one day and look in the mirror and from one day to the next see the change in our face, that we would probably really freak out. You can see that. Have you looked at people who are very old and tried to imagine what they looked like when they were young. Do you do that? I do that when we have people (all the old people, because you know, I’m still young) come here, and then think, “I wonder what they looked like when they were twenty or thirty or forty.” And some people it’s so difficult to imagine what they must have looked like.
And then also what happens when you see friends that you haven’t seen in some years, and they look really different, and you think you look the same. And then also as your body starts changing. I remember in my late 20s, I don’t know if you experienced this, late 20s I noticed a real shift in my body energy. Somebody told me Saturn was doing something….. [shrugs} Who knows? I think it’s just plain old aging. But it’s interesting to watch how the body changes and how things you used to be able to do your body doesn’t have the energy to do. And how you relate to risk differently. And you begin to sound like your parents. That’s really scary. But then you think, but it makes sense. So, you know, aging sets in, too, and it’s a big thing.
Especially for people in our culture who are so attached to their body, to being young, and looking young, and being fit, and the body ages, and when you’re very attached to that then it’s a setup for experiencing a lot of pain, because it’s impossible to maintain that. So you not only have the pain of the physical transition, but then the pain of how your mind relates to it, when you no longer look like those attractive people that the magazines are telling you you’re supposed to look like. And you know what? Nobody else thinks you look that attractive either anymore, and so then you start looking for Viagra and everything else. But it’s aging, sickness, and death are right there. No way out of it.
It can be very helpful to us to contemplate these things, not in the sense of using them to get depressed, because that doesn’t do any benefit, but in the sense of really facing the reality of the situation that we’re in and seeing that this situation is caused by ignorance and karma, and that if we want to be free of it we have to destroy the ignorance which produces the afflictions which lead to the karma. And so contemplating this can really energize us in our meditation on the path.
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.