Sutra on Old Age

A talk given by Dennis Truong on July 13, 2011

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in the Eastern Monastery, the palace of Migara’s mother. Now on that occasion the Blessed One, on emerging from seclusion in the late afternoon, sat warming his back in the western sun. Then Venerable Ánanda went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to the Blessed One, massaged the Blessed One’s limbs with his hand and said, "It’s amazing, lord. It’s astounding, how the Blessed One’s complexion is no longer so clear and bright; his limbs are flabby and wrinkled; his back, bent forward; there’s a discernible change in his faculties — the faculty of the eye, the faculty of the ear, the faculty of the nose, the faculty of the tongue, the faculty of the body."

"That’s the way it is, Ánanda. When young, one is subject to aging; when healthy, subject to illness; when alive, subject to death. The complexion is no longer so clear and bright; the limbs are flabby and wrinkled; the back, bent forward; there’s a discernible change in the faculties — the faculty of the eye, the faculty of the ear, the faculty of the nose, the faculty of the tongue, the faculty of the body."

That is what the Blessed One said. Having said that, the One Well-gone, the Teacher, said further:

I spit on you, old age –old age that makes for ugliness.
The bodily image, so charming,
is trampled by old age.
Even those who live to a hundred
are headed — all — to an end in death,
which spares no one,
which tramples all.

It is difficult to cultivate when there are many karmic obstacles. However, if we are sincere, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will respond to our sincerity, helping us to strengthen our faith and also to remind us of impermanence.

I would like to share some things that I have encountered in my cultivation. After taking refuge in 1987 and studying the Buddha dharma, I began to have dreams of me flying. In every dream, there was always someone chasing me. I would get scared and wake up.

After a while I began to reflect on my childhood. I recalled that I used to chase young birds, catch them and put them in the cage as pets. I also made sling shots to kill birds. My friends knew that I was good with my sling shot so whenever they spotted a big bird they would let me know.

Due to this evil karma that I have created, I began to liberate birds whenever I had the chance.  I also bought bird feeders to feed the birds that come to my backyard.  After a while I noticed that I no longer had these nightmares of flying. But I notice that I am aging more rapidly and also getting sick more often.

I remember one time I went to see the doctor. I walked into the clinic and the receptionist greeted me with a "Chao Chu". "Chao" means hello and "Chu" is how a person addresses someone who is much older than them but about the same age or a few years young than their dad. I looked at her and said “why don’t you call me Bac instead?".  Bac is used to address someone who is older than their father.  She pulled my chart and said “Sorry, big brother", knowing that I was joking.

A few months after coming to CTTB, I was helping Tom Johnson lay some brick near the Dragon Tree houses. At the end of the day I told him that I was tired because I have not done this kind of work in a long time. He looked at me and said "I would be tired too if I were your age." I did not know how old he thought I was so I told him my age.  He quickly turned away covering his mouth with his hand, and I heard him say "oops!”

I told him that he was not the only one who thinks that I am really old. I quickly told him another true story, hoping that he wouldn’t feel as bad. This happened when we visited CTTB in August 2008. After one evening ceremony, I went outside and I saw two dharma masters talking to Ashley. When one of the DMs saw me, I heard her say to Ashley, "you also brought your father along?” I slowly walked away toward a different direction. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw the other DM making gestures with her hand and eyes.  I think she was trying to tell the first DM that I was the husband.  Tom Johnson didn’t even laugh!

Later that evening, I told Ashley to start calling me "dad" and I asked my daughter, Megan who was about 5 years old at the time. “If your Mom calls me "dad" then what would you call me?” She thought about it and replied, “Is it Grand-dad?” Last year when I went back to Kansas to take care of some things, my father-in-law commented that I look like an 80 year-old man. I looked thinner to him and he was concerned about my weight and health. He encouraged me to eat more.

I know I look old for my age, but it’s not as bad compared to my younger brother. My sister was excited when she called me after she showed her wedding video to her friends. When they got to the part where I was speaking, they asked if I was her older brother, which I was.  But then when my younger brother spoke, they asked “is that your father?"  My brother got a good laugh out of it after I told him the story. He knew that aging is a fact of life.

These stories may be funny, but they remind me that old age and death are coming near. There is not much time left, so as the Venerable Master taught, don’t let it pass by in vain.

Now I would like to read a story that I found written in Vietnamese by Hanh Giai.

There is a small river flowing from a high mountain to villages, to the forests, and finally it flows through a desert. It thought: "I have overcome many obstacles, hopefully I can make it through this desert!?" When it decided to cross the desert, it found that its water was being gradually consumed by the sand of the desert, it tried again and again but its effort only ended up in vain. So it got frustrated and gave up.

"Perhaps my destiny is only thus far. I would never see the vast ocean as I have heard others say." It kept muttering with sadness. At that time, the four sides of the desert suddenly rang out a soft clear sound: "If a breeze can cross through the desert, then the small river may also pass through." It turned out that it was the voice of the desert."

The River angrily protested: "This is because the wind is light therefore it can fly through the desert, but a river like me must flow through instead of flying.” Desert replied: "Because you are so attached to your form, that is why for the rest of your life, you cannot pass through this desert. You have to transform yourself into water vapor so that the breeze can carry you across the desert, to where you need to go. All you have to do is to let go of your present form as a river and harmonize yourself into the breeze, then you will pass through this desert. "

The river had never thought about letting go its form of a river to harmonize with the wind, no, no, not like that, it cannot accept the concept. It thought that if its self is disposed, the river would be destroyed, and then there is no use of passing through the desert?! Desert consistently explained, "In the wind, there is water vapor, (which comes from the river).  The wind carries the water vapor across the desert to its destination, then it evaporates to create the rain, after that the rainwater flows and forms into the river, is this not you?

The small river asked, "Will I return to my original form? The Desert replied, "It can be yes, and it can be no. Whether you are a small river or a water vapor that cannot be seen, your inherent nature will never be changed and because you are so attached to the fact that you are a small river that is why you cannot recognize your own inherent nature".

Now the river seems to understand the words of the desert, thinking that before it became this small river, it would have been carried by the wind to the villages, into the forest, across the dessert, forming rain and flowing into the river, which is itself today!!

Commentary: The journey of our life is like a small river.  To overcome obstacles in life, to reach a new achievement, aiming for truthfulness, kindness and beauty, we must have courage to "Let go of the self" so we can get to states which we have not yet known.


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