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Old age

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Old age (jarā) is the period towards the end of an organism’s natural life span. The Tipiṭaka defines old age as being elderly (vuḍḍha), worn out (mahallaka), far gone in years (addhagata), approaching the end (vayo anuppatta, A.I,68), and the Buddha described it as characterized by ‘brokenness of teeth, greyness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of vigour and the failing of the facilities’ (S.II,2). At the time of the Buddha, the life expectancy was much shorter than today and few people lived to be ‘eighty, ninety or a hundred’ (A.I,68). However, the problems most often associated with old age – senility and illness, loneliness and fear of death – were as common then as they are today. The difference is that with people living longer than ever before, at least in developed countries, such problems affect a much larger section of the population.

The Buddha taught the Dhamma for the overcoming of suffering (dukkha) and because old age is one of the manifestations of suffering, he had much to say on this subject (S.V,421). The most obvious symptoms of old age are physical – frailty, incapacitation and sickness. Because these states are inherent in old age they cannot be avoided completely but only postponed or minimized. Avoiding drinking and smoking, having a healthy diet and regular exercise before the onset of old age, and prompt medical intervention after its arrival, all help to do this. However, the psychological problems often associated with old age can, with the right attitude, be minimized to a much greater degree or even avoided completely. Once a man came to the Buddha and said: ‘Sir, I am now elderly, worn out, far gone in years, approaching the end, always physically sick and ailing .... Tell me something cheerful and comforting that will benefit me for a long time.’ The Buddha replied: ‘Train yourself like this, “Though my body be sick, my mind shall not be sick.”’ (āturakāyassa me sato cittaṃ anāturaṃ bhavissati, S.III,1). These words of wisdom are a positive and cogent reminder that we can be emotionally stable, happy and content despite physical decline.

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The Buddha recommended a range of strategies to help keep the mind healthy in the face of old age and impending decline, and we will briefly look at three of these. The first is learning to accept old age. Modern society sees old age as a state to be feared and denied. Science, medicine and surgery are marshalled in a frantic effort to stave it off for as long as possible. The results can be both comical and sad – the aged matron going for her sixth face lift, the 70 year old man putting on his toupee and teenager’s attire, Mae West at 90 still asking young men to come up and see her some time. Of course, the old men who marry women decades younger than themselves were known at the time of the Buddha too (Sn.110). The Buddha asked us to be realistic about old age and see it as a natural and inevitable process. Doing this will help us to ‘gracefully surrender the things of youth’ so we can use the energy we would otherwise expend on denial in filling our time with meaningful endeavours and in preparation for the end.

The Buddha said: ‘Old age comes to the learned, noble disciple but when he is old he thinks: “Not just I but all who are born grow old. And if when I am old I were to weep and cry, food would not interest me, my body would become ugly, I would neglect my affairs, my enemies would rejoice and my friends would grieve.” And so when old age does come he does not weep and cry. He is rightly called a learned, noble disciple, he has pulled out the poisoned arrow of sorrow with which the ordinary person is tormented.’ (A.III,54). The Buddha also asked us to consider that longevity is perhaps not as important as what we do with ourselves in the time we have. He said: ‘It would be better to live for one day wise and meditative, than for a hundred years stupid and lacking awareness. It would be better to live for one day full of vigour, than for a hundred years lazy and idle.’ (Dhp.111-12). These statements are, of course, rhetorical, but their point is clear. The quality of our life is more important than its length. If we fully utilize and appreciate our life now, we will become less concerned with staying young for as long as possible.

Two common psychological problems many elderly people face are regret – about having done or failed to do certain things – and a sense of having wasted one’s life. Such feelings can fill an elderly person’s days with sorrow and bitterness. Living with integrity now and developing the mind now will preempt these problems. Another aspect of old age that the Buddha addresses is the issue of caring for the aged. In the past, growing old was compensated for to some degree by the deference and respect given to the elderly. Grandparents often had the job of caring for their grandchildren and this kept them occupied and made them feel needed. But in modern consumer societies, old people are often ignored or even shunned as an unwelcome reminder to the young of what is in store for them, and as an economic burden. The Buddha said that loving and grateful people think like this concerning their parents: ‘Having supported me I will support them in return.’ (bhato nesaṃ bharissāmi, D.III,189).

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