Friday, May 1, 2015

Aging - A Buddhist's Take on the Stages of Life

Because in our culture we tend to identify ourselves very closely with our bodies, the life cycle of man is usually portrayed visually in its physical manifestation. While this baby to invalid cycle certainly describes the passage of time for man’s body, it is not descriptive of the growth or deterioration of man’s spirit or wisdom over time.

Most cultures, through the ages up to the present day, have thought of the baby at the beginning of the cycle as a virtual blank slate, who knows nothing and who learns as he or she grows.  One exception is the Christian concept of Original Sin, a burden we are told we are born with and which can only be escaped through salvation.

As man grows older he was considered, until modern times, to gain in wisdom from his length of experience and his distance from the passions of youth, unless or until the point that senility struck.  Wisdom being defined as the knowledge of what is true and right, knowledge of how the world works, and the ability to make wise judgments.  As a result, in most societies, it was the elders who were held in the highest esteem.

In contemporary times, however, wisdom is generally not valued or sought after in most cultures  …   certainly not in the West and increasingly not in the East.  The sole remnant is in scholarly circles and to a certain extent, perhaps, in religious orders.  Rather it is simply knowledge that is valued, and knowledge is increasing equated with technological skill, with the ability to be technologically innovative being the highest valued skill of all.  

As a result, not just the old, but increasingly the middle-aged  … who were once thought to be at their prime professionally … are felt to be irrelevant to most everything.  Their way of thinking, of viewing the world, is outdated. One clear exception to this is the financial industry, where the only criterion of value is the ability to make money; it doesn’t matter how old you are.  In politics, it’s hard to say what is valued, other than the ability to get elected.  But no one, old or otherwise, is esteemed because of his or her wisdom.  

The Buddhist perspective on the trajectory of man’s life is quite different, starting with birth.  The Buddha taught that we are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us.  Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693) took this one step further and taught that we are all born with the unborn Buddha mind within us and so are born enlightened.

Thus, as a newborn, we are like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.   We have not yet tasted of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and thus have no knowledge of right and wrong, like and dislike, fear and insecurity.  We are one with our unborn Buddha mind.  Everything just is.  (Note: the Tree of Knowledge is not a metaphor for knowledge in the sense of scholarly learning; it is knowledge in the sense of  judgment of oneself and the world around one.  Thus Adam and Eve had no shame in their nakedness in the Garden of Eden, but afterwards wore a metaphorical fig leaf.)

What happens after we are born is that we do indeed learn.  We taste, one could say are force-fed, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and as a result most of us are thrust out of the Garden of Eden into a life of suffering … of insecurity, fear, doubt, anxiety, anger, greed, lust, negativity, pride (yes, one can be very insecure and very prideful at the same time) … for the rest of our lives.  One may gain much factual knowledge and skill so that one is valued and rewarded financially, but as the years pass most people deteriorate spiritually, becoming ever more trapped by their feelings of insecurity and its destructive consequences, ever more distanced from the purity they were born with.

But the true Buddha nature is always alive within each person.  And so, if he becomes aware of the true nature of his suffering (in short, that it’s not a function of what is, but how one perceives it), if he stops walking through life asleep, he has a choice to return home to his unborn Buddha mind, which I must note is quite different from being saved or being born again, although the latter sounds similar.  

Let me explain.  When you return home to your unborn Buddha mind, you are at peace, judge neither yourself nor anyone else, and have the compassion born of loving kindness towards all.  When people are born again in the Evangelical movement, their faith may be reborn and they may have a “personal” relationship with Christ, but they unfortunately do not become Christ-like, they do not return to the unborn Christ within them.  Instead they become full of judgment towards others and self-righteous.

But I digress.  So, whether as a teenager, an adult, or a senior citizen, if we are lucky enough to experience something that wakes us up (and this something is often a tragedy or something “bad”), we have the opportunity to walk the path of the Buddha and become free of the feelings and perceptions that have made us suffer all our lives.  We relearn that our purpose in life is being compassionate and offering joy to all others (and thus to ourselves), not making as much money and acquiring as much as possible.  Thus, although the body may deteriorate as we age, the spirit may blossom and we may achieve what Buddhists refer to as “perfected wisdom.”

Which brings me to the issue of aging … valuing the elderly and death.  In our society we typically warehouse the elderly, whether well-off or poor.  If you’re well-off, you will have more comfort, but basically you will still be separated from your loved ones and, as you become more infirm, increasingly isolated from the rest of society, from that which gives life its context and meaning. 

It didn’t use to be this way.  In an earlier day, when family values and options were very different, the elderly were cared for by their families in their homes.  It was often difficult and burdensome, but the elderly were given love (I know it wasn’t always this ideal), and at least were surrounded by family rather than segregated into the unfamiliarity of an independent living apartment or a nursing home.

At the same time as we have made the process of aging more isolating, modern medicine combined with religious mores have resulted in more people aging and suffering in a way oddly appropriate in this age in which technology is worshipped.  Many elderly people are kept alive now who in earlier days would have died.  We typically see this as something wonderful.  And often it is.  But is it wonderful for the person if their quality of life is gone, as it is for so many?

There are several aspects of Buddhism which are relevant to how we treat the elderly and death.  The first is that all people are valued, all are respected.  Whether wise or not, at peace or troubled, old or young, a doer of hurtful things or good things … a Buddhist has compassion flowing from loving kindness for all, knowing that everyone suffers and that we all are they way we are because that’s how we’ve been programmed by our life experiences.  Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Without question, the elderly are to be especially respected and treated with compassion because many are wise and all have weathered so much of life.  Yet I think it can be safely said that our current way of “dealing” with the elderly is neither respectful nor compassionate.  It is mostly convenient … for us.  And so this must change.  

I don’t know what the practical answer is to the way the elderly are segregated in our society and end their lives … which can take many years … in surroundings where the norm is boredom and loneliness.  But society must start talking about this problem and find a way to return human quality to the last years of life.  The elderly deserve to be treated with respect and offered joy.

Second, in Buddhism, death is seen as a natural part of life.  There is nothing to be scared of.  And so instead of running from death, Buddhists live life prepared that death may come at any moment.  They live, or try to live, in what Christians would call a state of grace … to be at peace, free of psychological suffering, offering others joy, and finding happiness in each moment.  

Most people unfortunately do not end their lives in this state, despite a last minute visit from a priest, minister, rabbi, or imam.  Such ministry may bring some comfort perhaps, but not peace.  Hospice programs work more toward that end.  Again, I don’t know what the answer is, but we should do whatever we can so that all people who are dying, whether young or old, are helped to find that state of peace before death.  

This also impacts the question of whether people have a right to die, or to death with dignity.  When your mind and/or body fails you in a major way and you are suffering, society should give you an option to end your life, peacefully, legally, rather than making you suffer even more.  

That’s all the Death with Dignity or Right to Die movement is asking for.  Actually, they’re asking for something far more limited, just in cases of a diagnosed terminal illness … i.e. the person is going to die soon anyway, so why not let them end their suffering.  

But the medical profession’s fear of being sued and the religious establishment’s argument that since God gave life, only God can take it away have come together to create a huge hurdle to enacting such legislation, abetted by a fear of death that most people have.  Interesting how the religious will support human intervention to extend life, when if it were up to God and the natural process the person would die, but won’t allow human intervention to end life even when that is what a person clearly desires.  So much for leaving things in the hands of God.

Bottom line, we are talking about human beings here.  All people have the right to be treated with respect.  And if a person decides, while he or she is of sound mind, that when a defined irreversible (not necessarily terminal) physical or mental state is reached that he or she wants to be aided by a physician to die in peace with dignity, then that person’s will should be respected and the law should allow for such physician-assisted death.

So much suffering is inflicted upon mankind in the name of society’s values and customs.  At least at the end of one’s life, one should have the option to be free of suffering and to die in peace, free of fear, free of anger, free of pain.