Part 1: Happiness; Chapter 9: Creating a Brilliant Final Chapter in Life [9.7]

9.7 Changing Our Attitude toward Aging

President Ikeda talks about the Buddhist attitude toward aging with reference to Shakyamuni’s teaching that to ignore the realities of aging, sickness, and death is a form of arrogance. An excerpt on this topic from his 2013 SGI Day Peace Proposal also appears at the end of this section.

In the Buddhist scriptures, Shakyamuni is said to have meditated on aging, sickness, and death and overcome three types of arrogance or pride.1 In other words, aversion to the elderly is the arrogance of the young; aversion to the ill is the arrogance of the healthy, and aversion to the dead is the arrogance of the living.

These three types of arrogance indicated by Shakyamuni are by no means things of the past.

In discussing the problems of aging societies today, people often point to changes in society and inadequate institutions as their cause. Those are important factors, but I believe we must focus on the more essential issue of the arrogance in our hearts and work to transform human beings themselves.

People have a strong tendency to scorn or despise whatever is different from themselves. During a lecture I gave at Harvard University [“Mahayana Buddhism and Twenty-First-Century Civilization,” in September 1993], I referred to this as a prejudicial mind-set, an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences. Shakyamuni described it as a single, invisible arrow piercing the hearts of the people.

By clinging to this prejudicial mind-set, we are narrowing and diminishing ourselves through our own actions. We are limiting ourselves to our present state, refusing to change.

As long as people today try to ignore the realities of aging, sickness, and death, they are rejecting their own possibilities for the future.

We need to change our attitude toward aging. The enormous life experience the elderly possess is a precious treasure—for the elderly themselves, for others around them, and for society and the world as a whole.

In one of his writings, Nichiren Daishonin notes that the long Chou dynasty of ancient China, spanning eight centuries, flourished because its founder King Wen took care of elderly people and respected their wisdom (cf. WND-1, 916).

The words of the elderly, rich with maturity, have an often startling degree of wisdom and substance. I know many elderly people who glow with great beauty.

Those who have built an indestructible self through engaging in activities for kosen-rufu shine. Please live out your lives with self-confidence and courage.

From Daisan no jinsei o kataru (A Discussion on the Third Stage of Life—Aging in Contemporary Society), published in Japanese in October 1998.

Supplementary Reading

In ancient India, Buddhism arose in response to the universal question of how to confront the realities of human suffering and engage with people ensnared in that suffering.

The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha or Shakyamuni, was of royal birth, which guaranteed him a life of earthly comforts. Tradition has it that his determination as a young man to abandon those comforts and seek truth through monastic practice was inspired by the “four encounters” with people afflicted by the pains of aging, sickness, and death.

But his purpose was never simply to reflect passively on life’s evanescence and the inevitability of suffering. Later in life, he described his feelings at that time as follows: “In their foolishness, common mortals—even though they themselves will age and cannot avoid aging—when they see others aging and falling into decline, ponder it, are distressed by it, and feel shame and hate—all without ever thinking of it as their own problem,”2 and he noted that the same holds true in our attitudes toward illness and death as well.

Shakyamuni’s concern was always with the inner arrogance that allows us to objectify and isolate people confronting such sufferings as aging and illness. He was thus incapable of turning a blind eye to people suffering alone from illness or the aged cut off from the world.

There is an episode from his life that illustrates this.

One day, Shakyamuni encountered a monk who was stricken by illness. He asked him: “Why are you suffering, and why are you alone?” The monk replied that he was lazy by nature and unable to endure the hardships associated with providing medical care to others. Thus, there was no one to tend to him. At which Shakyamuni responded: “Good man, I will look after you.” Shakyamuni took the stricken monk outdoors, changed his soiled bedding, washed him, and dressed him in new clothes. He then firmly encouraged him to always be diligent in his religious practice. The monk was immediately restored to a state of physical and mental well-being and joy.

In my view, it was not just Shakyamuni’s unexpected and devoted care that affected the monk in this way. Rather, the fact that Shakyamuni encouraged him using the same strict yet warm language that he used with other disciples in good health revived the flame of dignity that was so close to being extinguished in this man’s life.

This story as I have outlined it so far is based on an account in The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions.3 However, when we compare this to the version transmitted in other sutras, a further aspect of Shakyamuni’s motivation comes to light.

After having tended to the sick monk, Shakyamuni is said to have gathered the other monks and asked them what they knew about his condition. As it turned out, they had been aware of his illness and the gravity of his condition, and yet none among them had made any effort to provide care.

The Buddha’s disciples explained themselves in terms almost identical to those of the ailing monk: he had never attended to any of them in their time of illness.

This corresponds to the logic of personal responsibility as it is often used in contemporary settings to negate the need to care for others. For the ailing monk, this attitude fostered feelings of resignation, and for the other disciples it manifested itself as an arrogant justification of their disinterest. This logic atrophied his spirit and clouded theirs.

“Whoever would tend to me, should tend to the sick.” With these words, Shakyamuni sought to dispel the delusions clouding the minds of his disciples and spur them to a correct understanding.

In other words, practicing the Buddha’s way means to actively share the joys and sufferings of others—never turning one’s back on those who are troubled and in distress, being moved by others’ experiences as if they were one’s own. Through such efforts, not only do those directly afflicted by suffering regain their sense of dignity, but so too do those who empathetically embrace that suffering.

The inherent dignity of life does not manifest in isolation. Rather, it is through our active engagement with others that their unique and irreplaceable nature becomes evident. At the same time, the determination to protect that dignity against all incursions adorns and brings forth the luster of our own lives.

By asserting an essential equality between himself and an ailing monk, the Buddha sought to awaken people to the fact that the value of human life is undiminished by illness or age: he refused to acknowledge such distinctions and discriminations. In this sense, to regard the sufferings of others due to illness or age as evidence of defeat or failure in life is not only an error in judgment but undermines the dignity of all concerned.

The philosophical foundation of the SGI is the teachings of Nichiren, who emphasized the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra which, he stated, marks the epitome of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. In the Lotus Sutra, a massive jeweled tower arises from within the earth to symbolize the dignity and value of life. Nichiren compared the four sides of the treasure tower to the “four aspects” of birth, aging, sickness and death (cf. OTT, 90), asserting that we can confront the stark realities of aging, illness, and even death in such a way that we remain undefeated by the suffering that accompanies them. We can make these experiences—normally only seen in a negative light—the impetus for a more richly dignified and valuable way of living.

The dignity of life is not something separate from the inevitable trials of human existence, and we must engage actively with others, sharing their suffering and exerting ourselves to the last measure of our strength, if we are to open a path toward authentic happiness for both ourselves and others.

From a peace proposal commemorating the 38th SGI Day, January 26, 2013.

The Wisdom for Creating Happiness and Peace brings together selections from President Ikeda’s works under key themes.

  • *1Cf. “The Book of Threes,” in The Book of the Gradual Sayings (Anguttara-Nikaya) or More- Numbered Suttas, translated by F. L. Woodward, vol. 1 (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1995), pp. 129–30.
  • *2Translated from Japanese. Hajime Nakamura, Gotama Budda I (Gautama Buddha Vol. I), (Tokyo: Shunjusha, 1992), p. 156.
  • *3Cf. Xuanzang, The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions, translated by Li Rongxi, (Berkeley, California: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 1996).