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Old Age

Chapter 11 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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In this next section of the Dhammapada Buddha insists that we face the truth about the aging, deterioration and mortality of the body and indeed of this whole world and all in it.


What is this laughter, what is this delight, forever burning as you are? Enveloped in darkness as you are, will you not look for a lamp? (Dhammapada 146).

What is this laughter, what is this delight, forever burning as you are? We all have heard about Nero fiddling while Rome burned–having himself set the fire–and we do the same. Through desires and aversions, egotism and illusions, we have set ourself on fire and burn along with everyone else. Yet we claim to be happy and have a good life at the same time. It is amazing the number of obviously miserable people that insist everything is just great and could not be better. It makes me think of a dangerous psychotic who was asked by a friend of mine how he was doing. “Oh, I’m still thrilled with Christ!” he answered with a twisted, miserable face. There you have it.

This laughter…this delight is only a cover of the truth of people’s devastated lives. And until they admit the truth, misery is going to continue through this life and into many future ones. At any price people keep saying they are happy, but it does not make it so.

Enveloped in darkness as you are, will you not look for a lamp? Not as long as we keep calling the darkness light and believing in it as the sole reality. As the Gita says: “The man of restraint is awake in what is night for all beings. That in which all beings are awake is night for the sage who [truly] sees” (Bhagavad Gita 2:69).

The puppet

Look at the decorated puppet, a mass of wounds and of composite parts, full of disease and always in need of attention. It has no enduring stability (Dhammapada 147).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “Behold this illusory human image, embellished (by rich attire and jewels), full of corruptions, a structure of bones, liable to constant illness, full of countless hankerings, in which there is nothing permanent or stable.”

It is essential for us to realize the real nature of this body and all it implies. So Buddha continues:
This body is worn out with age, a nest of diseases and falling apart. The mass of corruption disintegrates, and death is the end of life.
When these grey bones are cast aside like gourds in autumn, what pleasure will there be in looking at them?

It is a city built of bones, and daubed with flesh and blood, in which old age and death, pride and hypocrisy are the inhabitants (Dhammapada 148-150).

The unaging and enduring

Even kings’ splendid carriages wear out, and the body is certainly bound to grow old, but the Truth found by the saints is not subject to aging. That is what the saints themselves proclaim (Dhammapada 151).

Harischandra Kaviratna: “The gaily decorated royal chariots wear out. So likewise does this body. But the truth of the righteous does not wear out with age. Thus do the enlightened proclaim it to the wise.”

When Buddha speaks of truth he does not mean intellectual ideas, but principles of dharma which never change as long as we are in the human form. That is why the term Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Dharma, was coined. Yet there is a bit more than that. The Immortal Dharma makes those who follow it immortal, so when the body breaks down, the real part of us lives on unharmed and unchanged by the dream of death, and is nevermore subject to birth and death in this material plane. Such does the enlightened tell the wise who are wise because they hear and act upon their words.

In ignorance

I grew up with the expression “dumb as an ox” and the shorter one “dumb ox.” It must be as old as Buddha, for he says:

An ignorant man ages like an ox. His flesh may increase, but not his understanding (Dhammapada 152).

Out of ignorance

I have passed in ignorance through a cycle of many rebirths, seeking the builder of the house. Continuous rebirth is a painful thing. But now, housebuilder, I have found you out. You will not build me a house again. All your rafters are broken, your ridge-pole shattered. My mind is free from active thought, and has made an end of craving (Dhammapada 153, 154).

It is possible to spend lifetimes unaware of the fact of rebirth and what produces rebirth, and therefore be helpless in attempting to free ourselves from that truly vicious cycle. Karma is the force or material from which a seemingly endless chain of house-bodies are built for our habitation. Karma means action, but action is not the root cause. Rather, the root of action is desire (kama) or craving (tanha/trishna). This is a fundamental teaching of Sanatana Dharma, very thoroughly expounded in the Bhagavad Gita. It is so simple it is easy to miss it, but Buddha very dramatically expresses it in this verse. When the mind is free from running after outside objects and has been so transformed that desire is no longer possible, then freedom, Nirvana, is attained.

Without the holy life

Those who have not lived the holy life, and have not acquired wealth in their youth, grow old like withered cranes beside a fishless pool (Dhammapada 155).

In this and the following verse, the word translated “holy life” is brahmacharya, which has the primary meaning of celibacy (and is so translated by the Venerable Thanissaro Bhikkhu), but can also mean the entire range of necessary ascetic disciplines. (Obviously chastity would mean little for a drunken, drug-addicted thief.) The idea is that those who do not from their early life strive for higher consciousness, for Nirvana, will not acquire the true, inner wealth and richness. Such people will grow old in perpetual torment, like desperately hungry cranes standing in a lake that has no fish. I can think of no more apt description of the material world than that of a fishless pool. Yet nearly all the human race is busy pecking away at the empty mud, hopelessly hoping to be satisfied. And this goes on life after life after life. It is a terrible prospect!

Those who have not lived the holy life, and have not acquired wealth in their youth, lie like spent arrows, grieving for times past (Dhammapada 156).

This is no better seen than in those pathetic old men who are utterly obsessed with sex, leering at women, speaking of sex all the day long, desperately trying to titillate themselves and get some sexual jolt, often turning to the molesting of children.

Even those not sexually obsessed are constantly going over their past and drawing no ease from it. As Solomon said: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). I grew up listening to morally frustrated ministers gabbling on about when they were “a sinner boy,” obviously yearning for a repetition of those days, yet unable to get any satisfaction from those memories.

There is a particular type of fundamentalist Protestant that loves to recount their peccadilloes as a testimony to show how “saved” they have become. Anyone can hear the nostalgia in their voices as they recount their past sins. There is a joke about an old lady who was beating a bass drum in a Salvation Army street-corner meeting. At one point she gave her testimony, saying: “Before I got saved I used to get drunk, lie, steal, commit adultery, brawl and live like a devil. But then I got saved, and now all I do is beat this G-D drum!”

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: The Self (Atta Vagga)

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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