Old age, sickness and dying: how is it possible to accept and remove the fear

Well, perhaps I can generalize the questions to remove the personal element:

First question: How is it, according to theories of Buddhist practice, whether found in the EBTs or in later work, that contemplation of old age, sickness and dying is supposed to remove the fear of of age sickness, and dying?

Second question: What does it mean to accept old age, sickness and dying?

Third question: If one, earlier in life, achieves acceptance of old age, sickness and dying before one has experienced them oneself, will that really make old age, sickness and dying less painful when one later undergoes them personally?


When the Buddha-to-be saw old age, sickness and death in the street he realized the existence of suffering, and his subsequent quest was for the removal of suffering, not for “the removal of fear about old age sickness and death” per se, although his achievement of nibbana does liberate from cyclic existence.

Accepting old age sickness and death means understanding impermanence, which is evidenced in the human body most pointedly, but is a general property of all conditioned things, while nibbana is unchanging, this is the division between conventional and ultimate reality.

Objectivity about anything removes the emotional content, and understanding that the body is impermanent, and therefore if clung to as permanent its changes will result in suffering, this is the message that the Buddha teaches.

"What do you think, monks — Is form constant or inconstant?"

"Inconstant, lord."

"And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?"

"Stressful, lord."

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

"No, lord."

SN 22.59


I guess I would have to say I’m skeptical about this.

What I meant was that I am skeptical that merely achieving an objective view of something is enough to remove emotional attachment to it.

I’m not sure that contemplation of these things is supposed to remove fear. The purpose of contemplating them might in fact be to arouse fear or something related to fear, urgency. Knowing that death might come at any time might compel one to give up complacency and practice for the removal of unskillful qualities.

“Mendicants, when mindfulness of death is developed and cultivated it’s very fruitful and beneficial. It culminates in the deathless and ends with the deathless. And how is mindfulness of death developed and cultivated to be very fruitful and beneficial, to culminate in the deathless and end with the deathless?

As day passes by and night draws close, a mendicant reflects: ‘I might die of many causes. A snake might bite me, or a scorpion or centipede might sting me. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me. Or I might stumble off a cliff, or get food poisoning, or suffer a disturbance of bile, phlegm, or piercing winds. And if I died from that it would be an obstacle to me.’ That mendicant should reflect: ‘Are there any bad, unskillful qualities that I haven’t given up, which might be an obstacle to me if I die tonight?’

Suppose that, upon checking, a mendicant knows that there are such bad, unskillful qualities. Then in order to give them up they should apply outstanding enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. Suppose your clothes or head were on fire. In order to extinguish it, you’d apply intense enthusiasm, effort, zeal, vigor, perseverance, mindfulness, and situational awareness. In the same way, in order to give up those bad, unskillful qualities, that mendicant should apply outstanding enthusiasm … - AN6.20


It is giving up craving that brings freedom from fear.

From endearment springs grief, from endearment springs fear. For one who is wholly free from endearment there is no grief, whence then fear?

From affection springs grief, from affection springs fear. For one who is wholly free from affection there is no grief, whence then fear?

From attachment springs grief, from attachment springs fear. For one who is wholly free from attachment there is no grief, whence then fear?

From lust springs grief, from lust springs fear. For one who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear?

From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear. For one who is wholly free from craving there is no grief; whence then fear? - SuttaCentral

“There are no painful mind-states, chieftain,
in one without longing.
In one whose fetters are ended,
all fears are overcome.
With the ending of [craving]
the guide to becoming,
when phenomena are seen
for what they are,
then as in the laying down of a burden,
there’s no fear in death.
I’ve lived well the holy life,
well-developed the path.
Death holds no fear for me.
It’s like the end of a disease.
I’ve lived well the holy life,
well-developed the path,
seen states of becoming
as devoid of allure,
like poison spit out
after it’s drunk.
One gone to the far shore
without clinging,
his task completed,
welcomes the ending of life,
as if freed from a place of execution.
Having attained the supreme Rightness,
unconcerned with all the world,
as if released from a burning house,
he doesn’t sorrow at death. - Thag 16:1  Adhimutta & the Bandits


The method of progress on the path is through right effort- the replacing of erroneous conventional views which are widely held, by facts, impermanence being the prime example. This process requires persistence and effort, as the name indicates. This is described in terms of the wholesome and unwholesome, since a belief in permanence leads to sensual thoughts. That this method works is evidenced by the arahants, stream winners and anyone who has made progress in the practice.

"The monk rouses his will to avoid the arising of evil, unwholesome things not yet arisen … to overcome them … to develop wholesome things not yet arisen … to maintain them, and not to let them disappear, but to bring them to growth, to maturity and to the full perfection of development. And he makes effort, stirs up his energy, exerts his mind and strives" (A. IV, 13, SC).

Yes, and I wonder if the abandonment of craving really results from insight of some kind, like insight into impermanence, or tather than from something else.

I don’t see why someone couldn’t fully understand that something is impermanent, and yet still crave it.


The liberating factor of the path is progressive insight, as described in the perfection of eight kinds of knowledge . Knowing a thing is subject to dissolution is reinforced by deliberate contemplation to conform with reality, which builds from impermanence to step five as the contemplation of dispassion ( Vism. XXI).

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You’re just giving me chapter and verse, but not making a persuasive case.

Progressive meditative stillness might be an alternative route. But I think contemplating impermanence is a supplementary boost to spur one on in dwelling in restful states rather than pursuing higher activity, and therefore more agitating, pleasures.

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Yeah, I don’t recall where the Buddha encourage death contemplation as a way of eradicating fear of death. From what I can recall, when the Buddha is asked how to overcome fear of death, he generally brings up virtue. Take SN 1.75, for instance:

Faithful, gentle, charitable, and kind:
standing on these four principles,
standing on the teaching one need not fear the next world.

I agree. It’s worth pointing out that MN 14 acknowledges that a “Noble Disciple” can understand the Dhamma yet still crave sensuality due to lack of piti and sukkha.


In my experience there are different degrees of acceptance. Intellectually I can accept the inevitability of old age and death, but accepting it at a deeper level is still a work in progress - I’m aware of a resistance to it, a resistance to change, a resistance to deterioration.


Buddhist reflections on death, by Bhante G

Extract from above
"In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha has said, “Oh Monks, there are ten ideas,
which if made to grow, made much of, are of great fruit, of great profit for
plunging into Nibbana, for ending up in Nibbana.” Of these ten, one is
death. Contemplation on death and on other forms of sorrow such as old age,
and disease, constitutes a convenient starting point for the long line of
investigation and meditation that will ultimately lead to Reality. This is
exactly what happened in the case of the Buddha. Was it not the sight of an
old man followed by the sight of a sick man and thereafter the sight of a
dead man that made Prince Siddhattha, living in the lap of luxury, to give
up wife and child, home and the prospect of a kingdom, and to embark on a
voyage of discovery of truth, a voyage that ended in the glory of Buddhahood
and the bliss of Nibbana?

The marked disinclination of the average man to advert to the problem of
death, the distaste that arouses in him the desire to turn away from it
whenever the subject is broached, are all due to the weakness of the human
mind, sometimes occasioned by fear, sometimes by tanha or selfishness, but
at all times supported by ignorance (avijja). The disinclination to
understand death, is no different from the disinclination of a man to
subject himself to a medical check-up although he feels that something is
wrong with him. We must learn to value the necessity to face facts. Safety
always lies in truth. The sooner we know our condition the safer are we, for
we can then take the steps necessary for our betterment. The saying, “where
ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise” has no application here. To live
with no thought of death is to live in a fool’s paradise. Visuddhi Magga

“Now when a man is truly wise,
His constant task will surely be,
This recollection about death,
Blessed with such mighty potency.”

Although this isn’t EBT based, this short 15 minute video speaks to how to respond to the ‘unbearable’ in the present moment, and that the transformation of it is possible, by looking deeply into suffering.

At the 2 minute mark he speaks of having many options for joy in the present moment, that one can choose, though usually people choose to ‘run away’ from unpleasantness . By instead focusing on it, one can care and transform the present moment even if it is unbearable. This reminds me of the Story Ajahn Brahm has told of someone falling from a cliff - and on the way down seeing a beautiful strawberry growing and appreciating it - in the present moment.

It also makes links to virtue towards the end.


Whenever I think about the sadness and fear we non-arhants experience in connection with death, I like to reflect on the Cunda Sutta (SN 47.13).

There, the venerable Ananda describes in visceral terms his shock when the novice Cunda informs him of his beloved friend and mentor Sariputta’s death:

“Then, Lord, my own body became weak as a creeper; everything around became dim and things were no longer clear to me, when I heard of the final passing away of the Venerable Sariputta”.

Such reactions arise out of ignorance. The only way to prevent them arising is to cut off delusion entirely.

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I wasn’t really thinking about fear of the next world, but fear of dying itself - the dying process.

@DKervick perhaps this passage from Ven Gunaratanas ‘Buddhist reflections on death’ might illustrate how a complete change of understanding can alter perception of the current moment even at the moment of death.

with metta

“Now what is the relevancy of a knowledge of the law of conditionality to the
question of our attitude towards death? Once we thoroughly comprehend the
fact that the will to live proceeds from life to life, we come to appreciate
the view that this life and the next is but one continuous process. So also
the life following and the next thereafter. To one who understands life thus
as nothing more nor less than a long continuous process, there is no more
reason to grieve at death than at life. They are part of the same process –
the process of grasping, the process of giving effect to the will-to-live.
Death is only a change in the thing grasped. The man enriched with the
knowledge of the law of conditionality comprehends that birth induces death
and death induces birth in the round of sansaric life. He therefore cannot
possibly be perturbed at death. To him birth is death and death is birth. An
appreciation of the law of conditionality will reveal to him the importance
of living his life well and when he has lived his life well, death is the
birth of greater opportunities to live a still better life. That is how he
regards death.

In truth, birth and death are phases of an unbroken process of grasping.
Death is a departure to those whom the dying man leaves behind. It is also
an arrival to the members of the new family into which he is re-born. It is
death or birth according to the way we look at it, but we can only be
one-way observers. If we observe the death-process, we are not in a position
to observe the birth process, and if we observe the birth process, we are
not in a position to observe the death process. So, birth and death do not
get co-ordinated in our minds as one connected process. By our failure to
see the close sequence of the two processes, the co-ordination of birth with
death or death with birth, we are led to the illusion, or at least the wish,
that we can have the one (birth) without the other (death). We want life but
we do not want death. This is an impossibility. Clinging to life is clinging
to death. The salient feature of life is clinging-grasping – and the
logical result of clinging according to the law of conditionality is death.
If you want to avert death, you have to avert life, you have to reverse the
process of conditionality. This can only be done by abandoning the desire to
cling, the desire to grasp. Let there be no attachment to life. If you
attach yourself unduly to the things of life, happiness you may have for a
brief time, but some day when the things to which you have attached yourself
disintegrate and disappear as they must, by virtue of that mighty law of
change working in conjunction with the equally mighty law of conditionality,
then the very objects of joy become objects of sorrow. You will then agree
with the poet who said, “Earth’s sweetest joy is but pain disguised.” As
great was the joy of attachment so great will be the sorrow of detachment.
Is not this suffering? Is not this wearisome – one day to pursue a phantom
with excitement, next day to abandon it with disgust, one day to be exalted
and the next day to be depressed? How long will your sense of self-respect
allow you to be thrown up and down this way and that, like a foot-ball? Is
it not far more satisfactory, far more dignified, far safer and far wiser to
go through life unattached? If misfortune has to come, it will; if sickness
has to come, it will. We cannot change the events of life but we can
certainly change our attitude towards them. The laws of change and
conditionality will help us here. Fears and sorrows will change into hopes
and joys. To such a one living a life of calm and peace, viewing life with
equanimity, death holds no fears and terrors. Cheerful and unafraid, he can
face the phenomenon of death with fortitude and calm.”

There are many passages like this in the suttas, but they don’t really explain why and in what way Ananda’s reactions and state of mind are based on ignorance. Of course, putting something in the mouth of Ānanda is a standard technique in the suttas for disparaging something as the outlook of the unenlightened worldling. But that’s just a literary technique, not an explanation.

I don’t understand how knowledge of these laws and processes ends our deepest attachments and the suffering that comes from loss. Bhante G sounds like a man trying to talk himself into not having certain normal emotional states through “cognitive” therapy. That seems delusional. The fact that one fully understands the causal interdepencies among various stages in the life process doesn’t mean those stages won’t occur.

Im not denying that there might be ways of successful letting go of all attachments, and thus ending the grief that comes from painfully severed attachments. But it seems doubtful to me that that transformation can come about simply as the result of improved knowledge.

I guess that’s a matter of defining ‘understand’. A functional Buddhist definition could be that ‘understanding’ precisely includes overcoming.

A way how the practice could go is that the practice of impermanence/death-contemplation could ideally have a chain reaction effect on the mind. So that when starting with contemplating the end of my life -> the end of my experience -> the end of sensual experience -> the end of the precondition for emotions -> release from consciousness -> release from the present moment. For example.

It’s surely not enough just to contemplate the end/death of a specific object (even ‘my life’). There must be some leaps that apply themselves to applications I haven’t considered yet - to specific yet-unknowns. If the practice applies itself only to where I want it to go, it will touch 99% concepts and maybe 1% a vital part of consciousness. The ‘virus’ somehow has to spread.

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