Living a Peaceful Life in Old Age
by Garchen Rinpoche
Awaken: Many elderly feel lost, lonely and distraught when they retire in their old age and discover that they are afflicted with various illnesses or livelihood issues. How would Venerable advise them to deal with these difficulties?
Venerable: When we are young, we are always busy working. However, as we age, before our retirement, we have to start preparing for death so we can ensure that before death comes, we would have cultivated a pure mind. We should not think too much about the pleasures and suffering of this impermanent life. Thinking too much about the affairs of this life binds up our mind. What we experience is related to our karma. We do not have control over results that ripened due to causes planted long ago but we can manage our present reactions. We should accept difficulties with patience and think that we are purifying our negative karma by experiencing them. We must understand that all suffering comes from self-grasping. If we cling to our problems, we will not accomplish anything successfully.
When we pay taxes, think that the money we paid resulted in the services of nursing homes and public hospitals, etc. This is a great benefit actually, for it benefits others and the country. Every time, we pay our taxes, it is not wasted. In the future we will get the merit in return so we should rejoice in our contribution. But if we are greedy and stingy, the negative result will return to us in the future.
Awaken: What is your advice, Venerable, for leading a fulfilling life in old age?
Venerable: By developing love and compassion, and thinking of the Buddha at all times! Cultivate bodhicitta and the Buddha can help you in many future lifetimes. The mind is like a mirror and when the Buddha appears, it is like a reflection in the mirror. The moment you think of the Buddha, you become the Buddha, because there is no real self, and when there is no self, there is also no karma and no habitual imprints. The habitual imprints and tendencies come only from clinging to a self. If you see the nature of the mind as it really is, you purify the negativities accumulated in a thousand aeons. The negativities are cleared away actually by the bodhicitta of the Buddha, because the self disappears. Without a self, thinking of the Buddha, you can be born in the Pureland of the Buddha. That is possible because ultimately our mind is the Buddha, but we are obscured by the clinging to a self. If we let go of that belief, and think of the Buddha, then we will attain freedom and our compassion for others increases.
If you don’t think of the Buddha, it is difficult for the mind to stay still. But when the reflection of the Buddha appears in your mind, the mind is focused. This is the practice of calm abiding. Without a reference point for the mind to focus on, the mind cannot stay still. So for a reference point, you can meditate on the Buddha, do shamatha practice, or meditate on love or the Four Immeasurables.
The root of all suffering is self-grasping and boundless love is the only way to eliminate self-grasping; meditate that “all beings had once been my parents, friends or spouses” and love them as you would your dear ones. Cultivate love for your friends and teachers, and then your mind becomes relaxed. When you die, with that love, you will take rebirth and be endowed with great intelligence and many other great qualities. You will be able to serve your country and be a powerful person in a future life. But if you think, “Oh, poor me, I am so pitiful…”, you will be reborn as an animal. So cultivate the Four Immeasurables and practise shamatha for peace of mind and happiness.
Awaken: Many people are diagnosed with mental illnesses like anxiety disorder, depression and bipolar mood disorder when they are in their 40s or 50s. How can we maintain good mental health?
Venerable: Medications may help temporarily in the short term, but it’s like being intoxicated, in the long run, it may lose its efficacy. It is better to do mind-training by meditating and visualising the Buddha. If the Buddha does not appear clearly, just visualise the colour of the Buddha with your mind. When you focus on that, your mind has some reference point. The Buddha’s Purelands, such as the Western Pureland, actually do exist. When you supplicate to Amitabha Buddha, you can see his Pureland. In Buddhism, this is really the only method we apply. This practice of visualising the Buddha or Bodhisattva is beneficial for any problems we encounter in this life. The more you think about your problems, the more your mind solidifies and becomes like an ice block. If you cut through it by thinking of the Buddha or the love for your friends, your mind relaxes and opens up. The form of the Buddha appears more clearly, and a feeling that the Buddha is really here arises; you will then experience confidence that when you die, you really do have a friend who will be with you and that you’re not alone. You should really develop trust and faith in the Buddha. Train in this technique first, otherwise it will be difficult to do other kinds of meditation. Also, recite mantras or names of the Buddhas; ideally, at all times, if you can. This recitation helps to improve physical and mental health. If you can’t, just think of the Buddha constantly and play mantra CDs of the Buddha. As you listen, recognise that this is the sound of the Buddha.
Awaken: Some people enjoy much wealth and success in their youth but encounter hardship and difficulties in old age. Why is this so?
Venerable: When things go well, it is the result of good deeds we have done in the past out of generosity, patience, kindness and ethical discipline. But that result has an end too. That’s why in the later years, the results of all the negative things we have done ripen.
All beings have the same suffering of birth, ageing, sickness and death. Even someone with a long life will experience suffering, for it is the nature of a human body. Like a flower, the human body will wither one day. The moment you are born, you are bound to age. Everyone suffers from that.
We should reflect that this process purifies our obscurations, and think that, “It’s not just me. Everybody ages.” Then, practise tonglen or the ‘sending and receiving’ meditation: “May I take upon the suffering of all other elderly. Through my suffering, may I represent the suffering of all sentient beings so that they suffer less.”
Some people do not suffer much in their bodies and minds in old age due to their karma. This is due to the result of having cultivated bodhicitta in previous lives. In brief, if you experience well-being, it is due to love. So you should cultivate more love for all beings. If you suffer, it is because of selfgrasping and negative emotions, and so in the future you must be careful not to create more causes of suffering. Everybody in this world experiences suffering, and most people suffer even more than us. So cultivate compassion for them and you purify negative karma. This will definitely help you in your future lives. Experiencing a small amount of suffering in a precious human body can purify the negative karma that would otherwise have to be experienced in the hell realms for many hundreds of aeons. For example, if you have a loan to pay back, a precious human body is like a piece of gold. You only need a little bit to pay back the loan.
Awaken: What can children and other family members do to help the elderly in their families cope with old age?
Venerable: Tell them not to cling to this life and the attachments in the mind. If they are Buddhists, ask them to focus and visualise Amitabha Buddha. If they are free-thinkers, introduce them to shamatha practice. If they are not keen to practise, play and loop a mantra CD* so that they can hear and be mentally accustomed, for example, to the mantra of Amitabha Buddha. The sound of a mantra is very pleasing and will relax their minds. You can also place Buddha images around the house, so that the elderly can look at the images. Tell them that when they die, the Buddha will appear to them and will be their only support and refuge. It is better to develop confidence and faith in the Buddha while one is still healthy and alive.
Awaken: When the elderly experience great fear in their suffering, for instance at the moment of death, how can family members help them?
Venerable: The degree of their fear correlates to the degree of their self-grasping. The stronger the self-grasping, the stronger their fear will be. Family members can recite mantras for them, or play such CDs to calm their fear. The antidote to self-grasping is compassion, and that is the best thing we can do for them, by cultivating compassion and thinking of Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin Bodhisattva) or Buddha as we help to comfort them. Family members can also ask the fearful elderly to pray to Avalokiteshvara and Amitabha Buddha by showing him or her an image, and telling the elderly that the Bodhisattva and Buddha will help him or her. This will help to release the fear and may help the elderly to cultivate devotion in the Triple Gem. Reciting the Amitabha Sutra to them is helpful too, as they may develop the wish to be reborn in Buddha Amitabha’s Pureland.
Awaken: Many people don’t think about the issues of ageing until they have hit their 40s or 50s. How can we prepare to lead a meaningful life in old age?
Venerable: Actually, life is impermanent and death can come at any age. We do not know when death will come knocking. Young people too can face untimely deaths. We do not know for sure, so actually it is a mistake to think that one will die in old age. Anyone can die at any moment. It is important to prepare for death when we are still young. We can prepare by thinking of Amitabha Buddha and reciting his mantra, even as we work, upon waking up or in the evening. Think that when the time comes for us to pass away, Amitabha Buddha is our only friend who can help us. Amitabha Buddha and his retinue will bring us to his Pureland. Don’t think of worldly friends. Contemplate on the Amitabha Sutra and the qualities of his Pureland. Think of all the happiness we will experience there and how lovely that Pureland is. Also look at the image of Amitabha Buddha before falling asleep and develop a strong trust.
It is important to habituate to visualising the Buddha and reciting his mantra while alive. This will release the bondage of your fixating mind from thinking and grasping which gives rise to afflictive emotions and suffering. Your mind will calm down due to the compassionate blessings and love of the Buddha and your own devotion. As a result, you will experience mental peace and later on, at the point of death, no suffering.
By preparing, it’s possible that one will have a longer life, and when you live longer, you will experience less suffering in old age, because you start habituating to the Amitabha Buddha practice at a young age. Naturally, by the time you are older, your mind is more at peace. If you do not meditate or focus on the Buddha, then there is only self-grasping and that only gives rise to fear, as that is its nature. For instance, if you are alone in the house, you will be afraid, thinking that there are ghosts and evil spirits. But if you focus on the Buddha, there are no ghosts. If you focus on evil spirits, you are creating them with your mind and they come to you as your mind’s reflection, and you see them. All the perceptions that appear outside of us are really the projections of our own mind.