Recently I found this old comic from Sinfest,1 and wanted to talk about it here.
The Buddha described the “Four Sufferings” (or “stresses” as I like to call them) in his first sermon:
- Birth is stress (as a parent, I understand this now after watching my daughter being born)
- Old Age is stress
- Disease is stress (we all know this one)
- Death is stress
Old Age is the worst in some ways. It’s very slow, drawn out and leads to increased chances of disease and death. Someone who’s healthy and robust at 30, may discover at 60 they have colon cancer, or succumb to pneumonia like my wife’s family neighbor did recently. Or as in the case of my late grandfather, dementia slowly sets in, and one simply becomes more and more feeble until one finally wastes away.
But even if we know in our minds that we’re getting older and it’s unavoidable, it still frightens us deep down. That’s really part of something very fundamental to our identity, our sense of self. Or rather, our illusion of self.
I remember a quote from Rev. Fujiwara in his book “What is Zen?” (reviewed here) where he describes the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment like so:
It began to dawn on Shakyamuni that the right way to live is to accept the four sufferings and live our this life one has received to the fullest. And in this fashion, Shakyamuni’s meditation gradually deepened.
But then he noticed a negative energy arising from the depths of his being that refused to accept the four sufferings. He discovered that desire, the refusal to accept the four sufferings as a part of life, was actually the cause of the four sufferings. He recognized a kind of negative energy underlying and controlling that desire, a primal, dark force that could not be dealt with by reason or intellect. That primal darkness is ignorance, or mumyō (無明).
Shakyamuni went on to continue to explore the self. The self that was controlled by the powerful force of ignorance could not be the true self. He concluded that without conquering this fundamental ignorance, it was impossible to accept the facts of birth, aging, sickness and death and liberate the mind.
This is very much how one might feel about their own mortality. We know logically it will happen, but our deeper, primal self will still resist it when we least expect it. And that “hidden” self is our fundamental ignorance, the root of our problems.
Getting old and dying is perfectly natural, but our behavior toward it is something worth observing and learning from.
Namu Shaka Nyorai
1 For those who may not be familiar, the character in the 4th panel is the Devil. In the Sinfest comic, the main character, often sells his soul to the Devil to get things