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Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 11: Old Age

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


This chapter feels very dark. The language ruminates on decay and death. It’s a visceral reminder of our mortality, a theme familiar from the other chapters, but here, it’s displayed in full gory detail. We can’t escape the topic with this imagery. It reveals the truth, no matter how we may try to cover it up.*

A question echoes in a couple early passages in why we take joy in this life, when we’re lost in the delusion of it all. In the visceral displays of mortality, I take the delight to be precisely that we don’t clearly see what it is to be a human being — an unfolding process that is impermanent, without underlying permanence, slowly decaying toward death. When we look at the bleached bones, we see ourselves and recognize that we should seek wisdom. To do otherwise is to grow old like an ox, as line 152 tells us: our body bloats but our insight into life remains small.

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Like the previous chapter, line 151 shows us that our actions upon others evoke reactions:

Even the splendid chariots of the royalty wear out.
So too does the body decay.
But the Dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay
[For it is upheld when] the virtuous teach [it] to good people.
-Trans Fronsdal (151)

I take this to show that like the violence of striking the bell reverberates, our words can plant seeds in the minds of others that can come into fruition. In such a way, the Dharma is propagated by each one of us, and as a planted tree can grow beyond our meager lifetimes, our insights can grow and blossom long after we are gone.

Lines 153-154 make clear that the path to ending the cycle of birth, old age, and death is to end craving. In these lines, craving is revealed to be the self-builder. It’s our karmic nexus that continues the process of “self-ing”, of being born and dying in the cycles of samsara. Ending craving ends the cycle.

To close out the commentary on this chapter, I wanted to return to the opening line about delight amidst the fire:

Why the laughter, why the joy,
When flames are ever burning?
Surrounded by darkness,
Shouldn’t you search for light?
-Trans. Fronsdal (146)

I find this line doubly evocative. First it reminds me that an early sermon by the Buddha is called “The Fire Sermon” and was delivered to a group of new converts who had performed fire rituals. It speaks of  perception as being a blazing fire and finding liberation by seeking non-attachment. While this passage is not from the Fire Sermon (I checked at this wonderful resource I recently discovered), it reminds me of that message. Furthermore, I’m reminded of a much later part of the Buddhist tradition in which a parable is presented in The Lotus Sutra wherein a rich man coaxes his sons out of his burning house, the burning house that they are in, blithely ignorant of, as they focus on their toys at hand. He does this by lying to them about gifts he has outside (see more details here). There’s much more that could be said about this parable, but I’m caught by the point that we fail to see the ongoing flames of suffering we’re already in and how our behavior keeps us sitting in them, in the darkness.


May this point you towards insight to age wisely.

Gassho!

*Once again, this focus on vivid imagery of death, our sometimes disgusting corporeality, and how all is impermanent resonates with similar passages in the Stoic tradition.

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