Aging and Buddhism
A Dharma Talk by Don Katz
The Buddha’s great journey to seek awakening was a journey inspired by the recognition of the suffering caused by old age, sickness, death, and separation. In the Buddha’s myth, as the sheltered child and young man who was the son of a king, he had been carefully kept away from any experience of the physical suffering of life, until one day he traveled into the community surrounding the palace, and there encountered someone who was very sick and dying, someone who had the disabilities of age, and someone who had just died. Shocked by discovering the suffering in the world, he embarked on his hero’s journey to seek liberation.
Our lives during our youth and adulthood have some similarities to the myth of the Buddha’s life – we also have minimized our exposure to sickness, aging, death, and separation, and when these have four inevitable facts have intruded unwelcome into our lives, we have chased them away as best we could.
Now we are older, closer to death ourselves. Our bodies are decaying and becoming infirm. Our friends are getting sick and dying. Our loved ones are changing and leaving our lives. These facts that drove the Buddha on his spiritual journey are the ever-present facts of our lives as we age.
Our opportunity, if we choose it, is to make this time in our lives a time to follow such a spiritual journey, to ask and explore the questions that the Buddha asked – why is there so much suffering in the world, and is there something I can do to relieve it, and liberate myself and others?
For most of us our time of contributing to the world in material ways is over or mostly over. We are no longer working; our children are grown and can take care of themselves.
As we choose how to use these years of our lives, I encourage you to consider the possibility of using these last years of your life to contribute to the world in spiritual ways.
We usually think of spiritual and religious practice as something we do for ourselves – we read the scriptures, we study and reflect, we pray and meditate, all to make ourselves more peaceful and ourselves more connected to and at home with the divine, however we define that.
But Buddhism has a different view of the spiritual journey that I find helpful. In Buddhism, the highest attitude or aspiration is something called bodhicitta, which literally means “awakened heart”. Lama Zopa Rinpoche calls it “practicing the good heart”. Bodhicitta is the aspiration that all beings may be free from suffering, and that our efforts may support that goal. Bodhicitta is the knowledge that ultimately we are responsible for the happiness of other beings, and the aspiration that each action we take is in the service of their happiness.
So, in Buddhist practice, we ground all our spiritual efforts in the aspiration that they be in the service of the liberation of all beings from suffering. This means that all our efforts, all our prayers and meditation, all our study and reflection, serve this larger goal.
The spiritual journey doesn’t require a huge amount of physical energy – meditation and prayer, the predominant forms of spiritual practice in Buddhism, are done while sitting, with the mind quiet. Study and reflection require more energy, but also help keep us alert and fresh.
And each action that we take during our day – the smile that we give the server of our food, the kind words we say to our friends – can be grounded in this aspiration: “May my life and actions serve and support other people, to pacify their sufferings and bring them happiness; this is the purpose of my life.”
So, as we age, we have the opportunity to change the world in a different way than we did while we are younger – we can change the world spiritually instead of materially, grounding all our actions in the aspiration to support the liberation of all beings from suffering, and spending our time practicing meditation and prayer, and pursuing study and reflection, to give us a deeper understanding and ability to act in accordance with that aspiration. Like the Vietnamese King Tran Nhan Tong, who left the throne to his son when he became older and dedicated his life to spiritual practice, spiritual practice in the service of all being can give meaning to our lives as we age.
Engaged Buddhism: Practice in Action
by Danielle Thai, Susan Schwaab, and Zach Smith
Thich Nhat Hanh believed strongly in taking our meditation and mindfulness practice off the cushion in order to address social and political issues and to alleviate the suffering caused by violence and injustice. Thay created the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ during the Vietnam War. Monks, nuns, and laypeople were keenly aware of the suffering all around them through the sounds of bombs falling and the cries of the wounded. They were motivated to do something to relieve this suffering, and their practice of sitting and walking meditation gave them the stability and peace they needed to go out of the temple and help.
In Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society, Thay writes, “Engaged Buddhism is Buddhism that penetrates into life. If Buddhism is not engaged, it’s not real Buddhism. This is the attitude of the bodhisattvas, beings whose whole intention and actions are to relieve suffering. We practice meditation and mindfulness not only for ourselves; we practice to relieve the suffering of all beings and of the Earth itself. With the insight of interbeing – that we are inherently interconnected with all other beings – we know that when other people suffer less, we suffer less. And when we suffer less, other people suffer less.”
Many of us in SnowFlower Sangha are engaged in social justice work as an embodiment of our Buddhist practice and beliefs. To explore Engaged Buddhism in action, the SnowFlower Sun will dedicate a section of future newsletters to highlight how SnowFlower members embody their practice of mindfulness in an engaged manner to reduce suffering in their community and in the world. In this way, we will have an opportunity to get to know our fellow Sangha members and open the possibility of joining with others in this noble work.
SnowFlower Volunteer Needs
It takes a village to support SnowFlower Sangha. By volunteering you will not only support SnowFlower, but you will enhance your sense of belonging. Some of the volunteer positions we are looking for include:
- Education – coordinate with long time SnowFlower practitioners or other Buddhist leaders to put on educational programs. One example would be a series on the Divine Abodes.
- Coordinate or help organize SnowFlower social events.
- Work with Walt to plan and put on the Spring Day of Mindfulness.
- Be a part of the Scholarship Committee, providing guidance on the support SnowFlower offers.
- Help keep the SnowFlower website up-to-date on WordPress.
- Work with an experienced scheduler this year so you can take on a two-month scheduling period for Tuesday and Friday nights in 2025.
You may have other skills you can offer to SnowFlower. To express interest or explore volunteer opportunities email Gloria Green at email@example.com.
- To send an e-mail to the groups send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- To receive SnowFlower emails, please sign up for our Google Group by sending an email to email@example.com.
- To see past SnowFlower e-mails (including the one you just sent) go to comand click on the link for SnowFlower Sangha.
To receive SnowFlower meeting announcements, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday Night Sit: Time: 07:00 PM
Meet in person at the Friends Meeting House at 1704 Roberts Court (two blocks north of Trader Joe’s and a block west of Monroe Street). Please do not attend if you have any symptoms of illness. You can also join via Zoom.
Wednesday Afternoon Sit: Time: 1:30 PM
Location varies, see email announcement.
Friday Night Sit: Time 7:00 PM via Zoom
Sunday Morning Zoom Sit: Time 10:00 AM via Zoom
Sunday Morning In Person Sit: Time 10:00 AM
Edgewood College, 959 Edgewood College Dr, Madison, WI 53711 – Anderson Auditorium (Predolin Hall). Once inside the main entrance, there will be signs and one of us will be there to help guide you to the Nona McGreal Room, which is on the 3rd Floor. There is an elevator.