The Dharma of Aging

by Tōnen O’Connor

tonen-landscapeAt 84, I’ve become a resident of that mythical land so feared by many and called “old age.” Or as it is expressed in early Buddhist texts, “old-age-and-death,” a condition that is #1 in the chain of suffering from which the Buddha urged our escape. Yet at the same time that the Buddha insists that a way may be found to go beyond old-age-and-death, the Buddha also insists that in the conventional sense it cannot be escaped. See this from the Sutta Nikaya:

Sitting to one side, King Pasenadi of Kosala said to the Blessed One: ”Venerable sir, for one who has taken birth, is there anything other (to expect) than aging and death?”

For one who has taken birth, great king, there is nothing other (to expect) than aging and death. . . . Even in the case of those bhikkus who are arahants whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetter of existence, and are completely liberated through final knowledge, even for them the body is subject to breaking up, subject to being laid down. (Bhikkhu Bodhi p.167)

It would appear that I am not being offered the opportunity to avoid this condition, but to transcend it. A hint as to how this may be accomplished can be found in another passage from the same text:

Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still a bodhisattva, not yet fully enlightened, it occurred to me: ‘Alas, this world has fallen into trouble, in that it is born, ages and dies, it passes away and is reborn, yet it does not understand the escape from this suffering (headed by) aging-and-death. When now will an escape be discerned from this suffering (headed by aging-and-death)?

tonen-phoneThen, bhikkus, it occurred to me: ‘When what exists does aging-and-death come to be? By what is aging-and-death conditioned?’ Then, bhikkus, through careful attention, there took place in me a breakthrough by wisdom: ‘When there is birth, aging-and-death comes to be; aging-and-death has birth as its condition.’

Then, bhikkus, it occurred to me: ‘When what exists does birth come to be? By what is birth conditioned?’ Then, bhikkus, through careful attention, there took place in me a breakthrough by wisdom: ‘When there is existence, birth comes to be; birth has existence as its condition.’” (Bhikkhu Bodhi, p. 537)

This early passage goes on to posit the rest of what has come to be known as the Twelve Linked Chain of Causation. What I take from this is that if existence itself is lacking, none of the slings and arrows of our everyday life have ultimate reality. When I think of dependent origination and impermanence as the sources of no-self, of no fixed existence, I am relying on an understanding that self-sufficient existence as a true reality is in the ultimate sense simply not there, even though in the conventional sense I conceive it to be so.

The illusory nature of what we mistakenly take to be real is found throughout the teachings of the Buddha and it is these teachings that we rely on to help us relinquish our grip on “this person.” So how do we work with this when faced with our own aging, the perception of which may come to dominate our horizon? Do we view aging as diminishment or as a doorway opening into the workings of Dharma?

I first sat zazen some thirty years ago at the age of 54 and at one time even sat half-lotus. The deep silence of zazen, the safe surroundings of the zendo and the intensity of sesshin were the structure that I relied on as my practice of Soto Zen. The challenge was, and remains, how to let the intuitions grasped in those settings flow into my everyday life of distractions and confrontations. We can easily become attached to zazen and the other time-honored physical practices of Zen as the principal means to be relied upon if we wish to walk the Buddha’s path to awakening.

tonen-side-viewSo what happens as those supports are taken away? When we can no longer sit cross-legged and suffer from backache even when sitting on a chair; when prostrations become a laborious exercise involving the use of hands and a bit of puffing? When we no longer have the stamina for extended sesshin? These questions strike at the heart of the nature of practice and it’s no wonder that as a whole generation of Zen practitioners begins to age we see an increasing number of magazine articles and books assuring us that there are still ways to approximate what we used to be able to do or telling us how to develop a “life of the spirit” that can act as a palliative to the unpleasant experience of growing old.

Yet, as the Buddha pointed out, we will experience old-age-and-death. The challenge is how to remove that experience from the realm of suffering. This quandary is expressed in the Heart Sutra, so dear to the Mahayana: “no old age and death and no extinction of them.” On the metaphysical level, this may be taken to mean that if something does not exist in the first place, it cannot be extinguished. Yet, even though my arthritis may be “empty” of reality, I am still faced on the conventional level with the question uttered in exasperation by the Zen monk who, upon painfully stubbing his toe, asked, “If all is empty, why does my foot hurt?” If it is not real, why do I experience it? “no old age and death and no extinction of it.” I suffer from gout and its here-and-now reality is that I cannot touch my painful foot to the floor. Does an understanding of emptiness as the absolute nature of existence help with the conventional experience of pain?

hojosan-tonen-walkingIn one sense, no, of course not. The foot hurts, period. If that is not real, I don’t know what is. But in the sense that for something to be real and immune to the process of impermanence/interdependence it must be permanent, then, no, it is not real. Moreover, impermanence promises that it will change, although of course I cannot predict what form that change will take. I remember asking a physician years ago whether the back pain from a slipped disc would ever get better. His answer could have been straight from the mouth of a Zen master: “Either it will or it won’t.”

If a vivid realization of the fact of impermanence can be considered Buddhist practice, then old age is its vehicle par excellence. Physical change speeds up and I watch, dismayed, as I become three inches shorter than I once was and as my walk becomes a bit uneven (My God, am I tottering?).

If my Zen practice points in the direction of an acceptance of this moment as a way to reduce suffering, old age offers a superb opportunity. When one is old it is hard to ignore the truth of the Dharma. And it is in appreciating this truth that I believe we alleviate the suffering called “old-age-and-death.” As the former physical components of practice become memory, and the future is too short for speculation, they are replaced by a vivid appreciation of the life of each moment, the one thing we truly have.

We slip the bonds of suffering by not comparing this moment with what used to be. We practice the dharma by living more fully in the present than ever before and appreciating more deeply the joy of each moment as a gift that we never before received so gladly.

dokai-shuri-tonen-shoot-photo-japanese-gardenAs always, Dogen says it concisely and well: “It is a mistake to think you pass from life into death. Being one stage of time, life is possessed of before and after. For this reason, the Buddha Dharma teaches that life itself is as such unborn. Being one stage of time as well, cessation of life also is possessed of before and after. Thus it is said that when there is death, there is nothing at all apart from death. Therefore, when life comes, you should just give yourself to life; when death comes, you should give yourself to death. You should neither desire them, nor hate them. (Shoji, Wadell & Abe, p. 106)

Aging is not to be mourned as suffering, but welcomed as a richer and deeper understanding of the truth of impermanence, interdependence and no-self. It is a time filled with the joy of being deeply present, the boundless joy of the realization that each moment is a treasure beyond price. The golden trees of autumn blaze in the sun. This is a time when Dharma may be deeply realized at last.

The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, a translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, by Bhikku Bodhi
The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, translated by Norman Waddell and Masao Abe

Tōnen O’Connor


Tōnen is the resident priest emerita of Milwaukee Zen Center, retiring after having led the center for more than 12 years.  She received ordination from Tōzen Akiyama in 1994, dharma transmission in 1999 and in 2000 performed the ceremony of zuise at Eiheiji and Sojiji, head temples of the Soto school in Japan. She trained in Japan at Shogoji, Hosshinji and Hokyoji, and holds the rank of nitokyoshi within the Japanese Soto system as well as a four-year assignment as kokusaifukyoshi.  

For more than seventeen years she has worked extensively with inmates within the Wisconsin correctional system, serving on the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Religious Practices Advisory Committee and giving a presentation on this work at a conference in Tokyo in 2008. Tōnen served as chair of the Committee on Interfaith Understanding, is past President of the Board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association and, with Zuiko Redding of the Cedar Rapids Zen Center, is co-founder of the Great Sky Sesshin, held annually for eight years at Hokyoji Zen Practice Community in Minnesota.

Prior to entering the Zen world, Tōnen had a 40-year career in the professional theater and was managing director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1974-1995. She holds a Bachelor’s degree with high honors from Swarthmore College and an M.A. From Tufts University. Tōnen is the editor of Buddhas Behind Bars, has a response included in The Hidden Lamp and her translation of Kodo Sawaki’s Commentary on The Song of Awakening was published in spring 2015.  She was editor of and a contributing author to Milwaukee Zen Center: 30 Years of Reflections, published in August, 2015 and contributed a chapter to The Eightfold Path, published August 2016..  She has two sons, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and lives happily with two splendid cats.