I’m old enough to remember when November 11 was called “Armistice Day.” It didn’t become “Veterans Day” until I was 10 years old in 1954. While It is useful that we have a day to recognize those who have served in the military, it is regretful that we’ve lost a reminder of the end of one of the most insane wars in a history of insane wars, a reminder of the needless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of young men because of the stupidity of their generals. The recent Netflix production of All Quiet on the Western Front depicts this insanity in all its horror. Even the pending armistice was the occasion for Field Marshall von HIndenberg to order a fruitless final attack in an attempt to be holding a particular piece of territory at the end of hostilities.
Thinking of Armistice Day reminds me again of getting old. I will turn 79 next month. The start of my 80th year. This birthday is turning out to be like my 29th. I spent all of the year I was 29 thinking about turning 30, so much so that when people asked how old I was I’d say “30.” For some reason I embrace the idea of being 80 years old as much as I fought the idea of turning 30. Of course, my younger brother James had told me that I was over the hill when I turned 26. And I actually knew the Berkeley radical who coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
Now I listen more to the words of the Buddha. Take it easy. Get over yourself. To avoid the media induced anxieties of Election Day this week, I spent much of that afternoon studying the Bhikkhusutta (SN 12.28), which begins “A mendicant understands old age and death, their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation.”
The sutta asks and answers:
And what is old age and death? The old age, decrepitude, broken teeth, grey hair, wrinkly skin, diminished vitality, and failing faculties of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings. This is called old age.
The passing away, perishing, disintegration, demise, mortality, death, decease, breaking up of the aggregates, and laying to rest of the corpse of the various sentient beings in the various orders of sentient beings. This is called death.
Such is old age, and such is death. This is called old age and death.
Birth is the origin of old age and death. When birth ceases, old age and death cease.
The practice that leads to the cessation of old age and death is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
For someone who is not sure about the notion of rebirth in another life, even if it is not the same as reincarnation, the claim that “when birth ceases, old age and death cease” is challenging.* There are similar problems with the lines that speak of the ending of “eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind” while this body still remains alive. The problem for me reading the suttas is that I still have a Western mind that thinks in terms of lasting, self-subsisting entities, things. The Buddha is talking about processes, about doing, about seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking, and how the practice of the eight aspects of the path changes these processes.
In that vein, a key point for making sense of these lines while practicing aging and dying is how the process of grasping links together the conditions from which “this entire mass of suffering originates.” The sutta asks “And what is grasping?” It answers that there are “four kinds of grasping,” grasping at sensual pleasures, clinging to views, holding on to sectarian precepts and observances, and espousing theories of a self. In an economy based on pursuing sensual delights, we are being torn apart by political and religious views.
As for holding on to a self, what is the point of all my talk of not-self when I keep focusing on the idea that “I” am getting older. If our existence is really characterized by constantly changing impermanence, the self that I’m doing this instant is new, an infant of the moment. This body may age and fall apart, “I’ am being born each moment. In fact, this body is not really 79 years old. None of the cells, molecules, and atoms that made it up in 1954 are here today. Moreover, what is the big deal about the death of the body when a self has died multiple times as this sentence is being written. And being born again.
*Obviously, if one is never born, one will never age and die. But the Pali word here refers to rebirth, just as the entire set of 12 conditions listed in the sutta refers to the cycle of rebirth-death-rebirth. The Buddha is not Job lamenting that he’d ever been born.