New Year: Sickness, Aging and Dying

“JUST AS A SNAKE SHED ITS SKIN, WE SHOULD SHED OUR PAST OVER AND OVER AGAIN.”
~The Buddha

By Joshua Sumitta Hudson

The big holiday season comes at the end of the year. We celebrate the coming of winter, the shortest day of the year, good will towards men, peace on Earth, resolve to be better to ourselves and others. This time,for most in America, is spent with family and loved ones, huddled over dinner tables of potatoes and yams.

As the end of the year came, I had an experience that brought this time of year back to the first realizations of the Buddha. The Buddha Gotoma, who was always sheltered from the world, had made four trips outside his castle and had his eyes opened to the world around him. He saw the sick, the old and the dying that is the condition of all mankind. He also saw the spiritual people of the world who found happiness.

Sickness and Two Arrows

The holiday season saw a lot of sickness for me: primarily my own sickness. I did not walk into the New Year, but saw it come from my bed as I made two trips to the hospital ER in less than a month.

Applying my Buddhist practice, I worked hard to be mindful of the experience: the arising of the conditions of my illness. The quality of my experience was made more tolerable and positive as I took the time to clear the clinging and aversion of the experience.

With each breath in, I remembered that all things are impermanent. This sickness will pass. With each breath out, I observed the nature of my pains and recognized that my body is not me, and that “I” am a construct of the processes of the moment. Throughout it all I let go of the ideations of the pain lasting forever, the “woe is I” mental anguish, and all of the “only if,” “should have,” and “would be” comments that come when we want the world to be other than it is.

Did my practices stop my illnesses and cure me? No. But as the Buddha says, when we feel pain it is the pain of two arrows: the first of the physical pain, and the second of the mental. I believe that I had a much better illness with one arrow only.

The Aging of Candles

This American holiday season, I also turned 40. For many, it seemed an important age marker, and for awhile, I fell into the conditioning of seeing it as important as well. It took a lot of meditation to remember the tricky natures of mara and samsara.

As the New Year approached, as well as my birthday, I had to renew my own revelations of the nature of the world. All things that arise and are born will eventually die: all things are impermanent.

We so often lament the loss of what we no longer have—youth, friends, lovers, etc.— that we forget that life is not about holding onto the past but living in the present with appreciation.

In our temple, we celebrate birthdays by lighting a candle and sharing it. It is not a celebration of how many years we have collected to carry with us, but a reminder that our time is being used up as we speak, and that we must share it and use it wisely.

The Buddha said a thousand candles can be lit from a single candle and the life of that candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared. I would add that we do not measure candles by how much has candle used to be there, but how much is left. In this way, we should always remember that our time should never be measured but how much time we have had, but how much time we have left on this world to spread our light to the world.

Dying to Get Out of Here

As 2009 ends and 2010 begins, we give rebirth to our concept of time. In all reality, January 1st is just the day after December31st. In all reality, January 1st doesn’t really exist,but is a reference point for us to measure our relative space in time. We as a collective society have given time measures and created universes within them.

And so the existence of the time we call 2009 dies, as all things do. The TV shows to retrospectives on what happened all year, and we think back on the good experiences we wish we could keep and run from the bad experiences we wish never happened.

But how is this different from any other aspect of our lives? As we practice Buddhism, we are always slipping into states of samsara,where we crave and avoid. We must continue our practice daily to be mindful of these states and see the nature of the arising of craving and avoidance.

One craving that I hope we can all put aside is the craving for Nirvana. So many Buddhists, I talk to speak as if it is a place they are trying to get to like heaven. But Nirvana is not a place but a condition of being. Reaching a state of nirvana is not a state of transcendence but a condition of liberation. The flames of our candle no longer crave the fuel for which it is fed (in Pali “nibbuti”).

Nirvanna is a BIG subject, but as we continue our practiceof a contemplative life, I wish that all of us learn that (according to Bhikkhu Bodhi) all phenomena are rooted in desire, which creates the “there” in consciousness. So we must explore if our desires long for a “there” to get to,or a “here” to find happiness within. Be in a world where the light from our candle has no “there” to cast a shadow on, no “places” it wishes to go, “desires”it craves for.

Let this time, in which we exist now, be where we work to find our happiness. Our lives are temporary: don’t be dying to get out of here craving.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Divorce, Ethics, Four Noble Truths, Kharma, Lifestyle, Mahayana, Marriage, Meditation, New Age, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Relationships, Theravada, Tibet, Virajana, Work

Author:Sumitta

Born Joshua Hudson, Reverend Sumitta (his ordained name) finished a twenty-year career as a military photo-journalist, and became a Licensed Social Worker with continuing studies in Mental Health, Healthcare Advocate, and Buddhist Minister. Currently, he works as the Director of Psychological Health and Primary Prevention of Violence for the U.S. Air Force. Previously, he served as the healthcare patient advocate for the Veterans Healthcare Administration, and is a License Clinical Social Worker, with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, public speaker, trainer and personal/family advisor. His dharma name "Sumitta," which translates to "Good Friend" in Pali.

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3 Comments on “New Year: Sickness, Aging and Dying”

  1. January 21, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

    Thank you for your patience and your teaching. As I proceed with my studies, I’m surprised to find in the 10 precepts that #7 says we should refrain from playing music or singing.

    I can understand the basis for the other precepts but this one seems meaninglessly harsh. Playing music is disciplined and brings me great joy. Why is that not a mindful practice?

    I know this is somewhat off topic to your post, but I don’t have anyone else I can ask.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    • January 21, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

      When taking the 8 or 10 precepts there is the seventh precept, “nacca gíta vádita visukadassaná málá gandha vilepana dhárana mandana vibhúsanattháná veramaši sikkhápadaµ samádhiyámi.” or “I will abstain from listening or playing music, songs, wearing flowers, jewellery and other ornaments.”

      These are not normal daily vows for lay people. These are vows taken by anagarikas and lay people during special ceremonies to avoid the temptations of sensual pleasures which distract us from our practice. When I was a kid, my father would turn off the radio when I studied my homework, “How can you study when you are distracted?”

      How can we dedicated our lives, or just a day, to serious practice if we are distracted by music, TV, movies, dressing up to attract the eye of the opposite sex, etc.?

      For most of our daily lives, the 5 precepts are enough. They are affirmations to a level of commitment of practice and not rules.

      • January 23, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

        Thank you, that’s a very clear explanation. I appreciate it.

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