The Buddha's Teachings on
Aging, Illness, Death, and Separation
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
anthropologist once questioned an Eskimo shaman about his tribe's
belief system. After putting up with the anthropologist's questions
for a while, the shaman finally told him: "Look. We don't believe.
In a similar way, Buddhism starts, not with a belief, but with
a fear of very present dangers. As the Buddha himself reported,
his initial impetus for leaving home and seeking Awakening was
his comprehension of the great dangers that inevitably follow
on birth: aging, illness, death, and separation. The Awakening
he sought was one that would lead him to a happiness not subject
to these things. After finding that happiness, and in attempting
to show others how to find it for themselves, he frequently
referred to the themes of aging, illness, death, and separation
as useful objects for contemplation. Because of this, his teaching
has often been called pessimistic, but this emphasis is actually
like that of a doctor who focuses on the symptoms and causes
of disease as part of an effort to bring about a cure. The Buddha
is not afraid to dwell on these topics, because the Awakening
he teaches brings about a total release from them.
This study guide provides an introduction to the Buddha's teachings
on aging, illness, death, and separation. The passages included
here -- all taken from the Pali Canon -- are arranged in five
The first section presents medical
metaphors for the teaching, showing how the Buddha was like
a doctor and how his teaching is like a course of therapy offering
a cure for the great dangers in life.
The second section diagnoses the
problems of aging, illness, death, and separation. This section
touches briefly on the Buddha's central teaching, the four noble
truths. For more information on this subject, see The Path
to Freedom and the study guide, The Four Noble Truths.
The third section contains passages
that use aging, illness, death, and separation, as reminders
for diligence in the practice. The central passage here is a
set of five recollections, in which recollection of aging, illness,
death, and separation form a background for a fifth recollection:
the power of one's actions to shape one's experience. In other
words, the first four recollections present the dangers of life;
the fifth indicates the way in which those dangers may be overcome,
through developing skill in one's own thoughts, words, and deeds.
Useful articles to read in conjunction with this section are
Affirming the Truths of the Heart, Karma, and The
Road to Nirvana is Paved with Skillful Intentions.
The fourth section contains passages
that give specific advice on how to deal with problems of aging,
etc. The Buddha's teachings on kamma provide an important underpinning
for how problems of pain and illness are approached in this
section. Given the fact that the experience of the present moment
is shaped both by past and by present intentions, it is possible
that -- if an illness is the result of present intentions --
a change of mind can effect a cure in the illness; but if the
illness is the result of past intentions, a change of mind may
have no effect on the illness but can at least protect the mind
from being adversely affected by it. Thus some of the passages
focus how practicing the Dhamma can cure a person of illness,
whereas others focus on how the Dhamma can ensure that, even
though a person may die from an illness, the illness will make
no inroads on the mind.
The fifth section gives examples
of how the Buddha and his disciples skillfully negotiated the
problems of aging, illness, death, and separation.
Wed 16 May 2001