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


O[quote=“Gabriel, post:21, topic:12518”]
I guess that’s a matter of defining ‘understand’. A functional Buddhist definition could be that ‘understanding’ precisely includes overcoming.

That doesn’t seem like any kind of definition to me. It’s a psychological theory.

The chain reaction you spoke about might not have as much to do with penetrating insight as the subsequent insight-based tradition would have us believe.

For example, supone you are addicted to chocolate. Everyday you eat chocolate and wake up craving chocolate, and are dissatisfied until you get your chocolate fix. What can you do? Well one thing you can do is go somewhere where there is no chocolate. You might be frustrated for a while, but eventually your addiction will be broken, whether or not you penetrate through to the true nature of chocolate.

Now suppose you are emotionally addicted to your spouse, children, nice clothes and furniture, fancy food, etc. What can you do? Well you can go out in the forest, wander alone and live on what you can gather. Eventually your addictions will be broken.

However, you might still be addicted to other things, like the pleasures of being alive and the beauty of nature. And you will still be powerfully averse to many things, like the sensation of extreme cold and hunger, snakebites and bug bites, etc.

The Buddhist narrative says these deep cravings and aversions - which are universal across the animal world - can be overcome as well. And maybe they can. But I’m not sure the emphasis the later insight tradition puts on knowledge of conditioned production and other kinds of knowledge is really the key.


I think I don’t understand what you are expressing - do you offer a refutation of ‘insight’ practice, or are you asking something specific that can be answered, or benefiting from reflection without a specific goal in mind?


Well, I have read the texts a lot and looked for deeper explanations of how the cultivation of insight related to the various Buddhist theories of causal dependence and the mind are supposed to lead to the liberation from attachment, and I find they are either lacking or not there at all. So I’m inclined at this point to think that the later tradition might have misunderstood how this liberstion is supposed to occur.

There are texts in which the origin of suffering is explained by causal stories that do not begin with “ignorance” as the foundation of it all, and thus do not imply that suffering can be ended simply by ending ignorance.


Well, the two can be intertwined. I find that I’m a lot less concerned about the physical death of my body when I focus on the next world. My physical body seems like small potatoes compared to all the other realms of existence.

I also find focusing on space (rather than flesh and bones) is helpful. Most “matter” is empty space anyway. The flesh and bones is just the tip of the iceberg.


In the Suttas, getting rid of ignorance happens after Samadhi is perfected. That’s why Arhats are described as accomplished in wisdom, but Anagamis are accomplished in Samadhi with still some ignorance remaining.

It sounds like you are confusing right view (which is at the very beginning of the eight fold path, and is seen directly at the stream winner stage) with eradication of ignorance.


It seems that some defilements are simply to be abandoned by patient endurance. Basically I think you just practice getting used to unpleasant stuff and relaxing the mind in whatever situation you find yourself in.

“What taints, bhikkhus, should be abandoned by enduring? Here a bhikkhu, reflecting wisely, bears cold and heat, hunger and thirst, and contact with gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, the sun, and creeping things; he endures ill-spoken, unwelcome words and arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, distressing, and menacing to life. While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not endure such things, there are no taints, vexation, or fever in one who endures them. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by enduring. - SuttaCentral


In youth, abilities increase and horizons extend. With age, the reverse happens. For example, I am going blind. Accepting this reversal as inevitable is crucial to avoid suffering. I don’t need to be blind to apprehend the reality of going blind and to deal with it directly. So yes, it really does make it less painful to simply accept the reality of old age and fading away. In accepting that future decline, there is peace now. In rejecting that future decline, there is only suffering.


If you discovered tomorrow that a 100% reliable and inexpensive cure for your blindness had been developed, would you take it?


I have a macular hole and was offered surgery with a success rate of 70-80%. This translates to a failure rate of 20-30% perhaps resuting in worse outcome. I elected to not risk the worse outcome. I did ask myself at what point I would choose differently. At 100% I would choose differently because that would make me less of a burden. E.g., my wife kindly drives me to the store because I can’t carry all the groceries back home walking.

The acceptance of old age, loss and decline does not entail an apathetic response. Rather it demands an ongoing willingness to adapt and welcome change. I have, for example, taught myself the rather fascinating ability to move about any strange room with my eyes closed and without fear.


It is sometimes thought that progression of insight from impermanence to dispassion finds support only in the Vism., but in fact apart from being a logical natural conclusion as pointed out here, it is also a structure in the suttas if “knowledge and vision of things as they actually are” is recognized as impermanence:

“And what is the purpose of knowledge and vision of things as they actually are? What is its reward?”

“Knowledge and vision of things as they actually are has disenchantment as its purpose, disenchantment as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of disenchantment? What is its reward?”

“Disenchantment has dispassion as its purpose, dispassion as its reward.”

“And what is the purpose of dispassion? What is its reward?”

“Dispassion has knowledge & vision of release as its purpose, knowledge & vision of release as its reward.” AN 11.1


here is an excerpt from “Magic of mind” by Ven. Nananda

Since the obsession of self persists whether one runs towards the shadow or away from it, the solution advanced by the Buddha was the comprehension of the very conditioned nature of the five aggregates of grasping, thereby recognizing the shadow for what it is.

“He who sees Dependent Arising sees the Dhamma, and he who sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Arising. These are but dependently arisen, namely, the five aggregates of grasping. That desire, attachment, involvement and entanglement in regard to these five aggregates of grasping, is the arising of suffering and that disciplining, that giving up, of desire-and-lust in these five aggregates of grasping, is the cessation of suffering,” - M. I 191. Mahà Hatthipadopama S.

By seeing things as they are in the light of wisdom, one comes to understand that the shadow is cast by a narrow point-of-view in the murk of ignorance. This vision or insight is the result of the arising of the dustless, stainless “Eye of Truth” (viraja vãtamala dhammacakkhu) also called the `Eye-of-wisdom’ (pannàcakkhu) which reveals to the Stream-winner, the Noble Norm summed up in the words ‘Whatever is of a nature to arise, all that is of a nature to cease’.

The disillusionment brought about by this extraordinary vision is so pervasive and transforming, that the Buddha compares it to the case of a congenitally blind man who, as soon as he gains eyesight, becomes disillusioned about a greasy grimy cloth with which he had been deceived. And even as that man would regard with disfavour the trickster who gave him the cloth saying that it is a beautiful piece of pure white cloth, the Noble Disciple too, on gaining the ‘Eye of Truth’, undergoes a change of attitude towards his own mind :

”. . . . . . Even so, Màgandiya, if I were to teach you the Dhamma, pointing out to you that state of health that Nibbàna and if you, on your part, were to understand that state of health and see that Nibbàna, simultaneous with that arising of the eye in you, whatever desire-and-lust you had in the five aggregates of grasping, will be abandoned. And furthermore, it would occur to you: ‘For a long time, indeed, have I been cheated, deceived and enticed by this mind; for, in grasping, it was merely form that I had been grasping, it was merely feeling that I had been grasping, it was merely perception that I had been grasping, it was merely formations that I had been grasping, it was merely consciousness that I had been grasping.And from my grasping there arises becoming; conditioned by becoming, birth; and conditioned by birth there arise decay-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair. It is thus that there comes to be the arising of this entire mass of suffering.”’- M. I 511f. Màgandiya S

on the original question

In AN 5.57 SuttaCentral . contemplation of old age, sickness, and dying supposed to break us away from the vanities of health, youth, and life. which would prevent us doing bad action by that vanity. In dhammapada pair section, doer of evil suffer from that.

By Ven. Buddharakkhita
The evil-doer suffers here and hereafter; he suffers in both the worlds. The thought, “Evil have I done,” torments him, and he suffers even more when gone to realms of woe.

The doer of good delights here and hereafter; he delights in both the worlds. The thought, “Good have I done,” delights him, and he delights even more when gone to realms of bliss.

here is the closing poem of AN 5.57 by Ven. Sujato

For others, sickness is natural,
and so are old age and death.
Though this is how their nature is,
ordinary people feel disgusted.

If I were to be disgusted
with creatures whose nature is such,
it would not be appropriate for me,
since my life is just the same.

Living in such a way,
I understood the reality without attachments.
I mastered all vanities—
of health, of youth,

and even of life—
seeing safety in renunciation.
Zeal sprang up in me
as I looked to extinguishment.

Now I’m unable
to indulge in sensual pleasures;
there’s no turning back,
until the spiritual life is complete.”


I find it implausible that we can overcome the dukkha of attachment simply by understanding conditioned things better. I don’t think people are attached to impermanent things solely because they do not fully grasp their impermanent nature. It seems possible that one could fully grasp the impermanence of something and yet remain attached to it.


Like all buddhist (me too) on their buddhism. :yum:
Or the monkey who continually jump from one branch to the other.

It seems in the text understanding not-self characteristic of things bring about radical change in worldview.


Quoting Bhante Guneratana @Viveka said:

I think that this oversteps the bounds of what is knowable. Yes, one can certainly look at ones past lives and know that one has lived before, but this is speculation into the future based on the past (which is reasonable in a scientific endeavour, but not in a spiritual one). From what I’ve read in the EBTs so far this idea of knowing the future is not found. Is there any passages where the Buddha suggests that he knows the future, or is it that the future is always unknown in EBTs?

And again from Bhante Guneratana:

Death might be the birth of greater opportunities, but I think that kamma is more complicated than that in the EBTs, isn’t it? You might’ve struck lucky this time to have a human birth, but (for example) the dark kamma of many lifetimes ago might ripen next time and you may be cast into a hell realm.

See MN136

But some other person here refrains from killing living creatures, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, or using speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical. And they’re contented, kind-hearted, and have right view. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell.

Now, Ānanda, take the case of the person here who refrained from killing living creatures … and had right view, and who is reborn in hell. They must have done a bad deed to be experienced as painful either previously or later, or else at the time of death they undertook wrong view. And that’s why, when their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in a place of loss, a bad place, the underworld, hell. But anyone here who refrains from killing living creatures … and has right view experiences the result of that in the present life, or in the next life, or in some subsequent period.


The conditioned, impersonal, impermanent nature of phenomena extends, of course, to the constructed ‘self’ too. Without the conceit ‘I am this; this is my self; this is mine’, clinging cannot arise.
Would you agree?


@Media, I understood the parts you quoted as being related to the law of causality, dependent origination and dependent cessation, in general terms rather than specific knowledge about an individuals specific future outcomes.

Furthermore, In my opinion, it is the realisation that birth and death are continually linked, are just 2 temporal points, in the process of existence, that helps with the perspective on life… If one has awareness of this all the time, as the background to all experience, then the process of aging sickness and death is really just the same as breathing. Death is only the last out-breath of this body :slight_smile:
Sorry being just a little provocative here … :skull_and_crossbones: :smile:

Here is an interesting article on this subject, by Bhikkhu Ninoslav Ñāṇamoli



Im not sure I would. Why couldn’t you be attached to something without having at the same time a thought of the form “This is mine”, or “This belongs to me” or “I have this”? After all, even very simple animals appear to experience attachment and the pain of loss, but it is not clear that they are all capable of having I-thoughts or a sense of self.


You’re right that the suttas contain rather dogmatic statements than plausible explanations. I think we can either dismiss the statements because of their vagueness, or engage with them in the sense “the texts seem to present something fundamentally true with words that don’t make sense to me - let me find out which psychological reality could be meant”.

I don’t have a clear policy myself, but I am very ready to dismiss dogmas that appear to be late and make more efforts with the ones which appear to be very old, or even original…

The idea that I could attach only to objects of desire that I conceive as permanent is very silly. In fact, I’d posit that the profound understanding (and experience) that something is impermanent is essential for the desire and satisfaction that comes with it.

Ice cream in the summer is only pleasant on the background that I know that it’s not ice cream that I have to eat for the rest of my life. But if I have a stored memory of last year’s satisfaction with a specific ice cream, and this year I try it again with the expectation to get the same joy as I remember, then I might be disappointed - and eventually over the years I will be disappointed inevitably. In a similar fashion my whole mind is paved with (or even consists of) similar and much more complex formulas of memorized and possibly repeatable joys/satisfactions. And eventually, if I just follow them, I will be disappointed royally.

So the psychological reality tells me that I will experience dissatisfaction when I attach to the belief/hope to have found a formula of satisfaction, a repeatable event, not a random one - but also not a ‘permanent’ one.

And this is not in the register of high cognitive function. The activity of going to the same place where once pleasure or satisfaction was experienced is the same for the animal kingdom as well. Since the recognition of patterns and acting on them is essential for the survival of any species, you could say (you don’t have to) that there is a process of ‘I-making’ at place. Any animal will seek to repeat patterns of successful food-finding, nest-building, mating, moving, etc.

Again, if you go into the details of the mechanics of the mind, you will not find the simple dogmas of Buddhism. At the same time, they are in this case not terribly far off, if we decide to understand them as pointers and if we allow them the liberty to be vague to an extent. But we don’t have to, we can choose of course very different conceptual frameworks to encapsulate the reality of the mind we experience.


The assumed permanence or avijja is sub-conscious. It’s removed at later stages of the practice and at the beginning it may sound like theory. It’s not dogma :dog2: but simply like a fish swimming in water :droplet:, we are not designed to note its presence.


This all boils down to how much you are willing to believe.

You say “Bhante G sounds like a man trying to talk himself into not having certain normal emotional states through “cognitive” therapy. That seems delusional.” Might you not ask the same type of question regarding the objectifs of Buddhism as a belief system (or any other religion or spirituality, for that matter)?

The underlying question is how to deal with a fundamental fear. Do you accomplish that by trying to escape life, attempting to snuff it out in the process?

I would suggest looking at life – and its many fears, disappointments, etc. – face on. As you have alluded to in other parts of this thread, it’s not by avoiding something that you get rid of it.

But you could, if you believe it.

You could also believe in ten thousand other things. But what about accepting fear, life and death on its own merits (and not what some holy man, scripture or belief system has found as a purported ultimate truth)? Not because you want to …or that it is necessarily going to give you some kind of succor. Rather because that is simply the name of the game: you are faced with life, suffering and death. Then again, what else is new?

As you are a philosopher (or so I have read), you might read The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, if you haven’t already. I find he addresses many of the problems that this issue raises.