These days, when there’s so much worldwide suffering, I think all of us with conscience are looking for solutions, and tonight we’re going to deal with the three subjects, Old Age, Disease, and Death, hoping that together we can find some solutions, that will help remove some of the pain and misery connected with these inevitable  advances. It’s interesting, that these experiences, old age, disease, and death, are considered by psychologists to be traumatic, often devastating, and yet they are the very ones, the very events, that awakened the Buddha, and led to enlightenment. It happened twenty-five hundred years ago, when the young Hindu prince, Sâkyamuni, or Siddhartha Sâkyamuni, who had been raised in royal splendour, with nothing to fear, no pain, or suffering, surrounded by purity, and enjoyment, ventured outside the palace grounds and saw, within the city, sights that so horrified him that they not only troubled his soul, but they awakened ancient memories of a yearning to help all in need.

The first awakening sight was seeing, for the very first time in his life, an old, a very old man. In his Light of Asia Sir Edwin Arnold describes it beautifully, and with these lines:

“Bent was his back, with load of many days, his eye-pits red, with rust, of ancient tears”

The second sight was a stricken wretch, writhing with pain, gasping, and begging for help. As the prince lifted this man upon his knees, and comforted him, as much as he could, with kind words, his charioteer explained that while some few grow old, most suffer, and all, die.

The third sight brought the prince face to face with death, and the agony of those left behind. Greatly distressed, the Buddha to be cried out to God, how could he make a world, and keep it so miserable, when I, I could would not let one cry, whom I could save. In soul searching desperation to know the reason for, and the truth about, birth, disease, old age, and death, Siddhartha left home, and position, to seek the counsel of wise, and holy gurus, for six long years he followed their methods of meditation and austerity, but found them baron. Exhausted, and near death, he sat under a great Bo tree, determined not to move, until the truth was known, and then it came, knowledge, of the cause, and cure, of human misery, and the purpose of Life. Exalted, and enlightened, he went forth to share his vision with Mankind, that they might follow the path that leads from suffering and death, to peace, light, and life immortal.

Over the centuries, and in most countries of the world, these teachings have been expounded, under the heading of the Four Noble Truths, and the Eight Glorious Virtues. The Four Truths acknowledge that suffering and sorrow exist; that these are caused by desires, and attachments, to people, and things, of this world; that this cause can be overcome, can be made to cease, by living in a manner that frees the soul, from ignorance, and attachments. This manner is delineated as the Noble, Eightfold Path. The Path is open to all, to young and old, to householders, seeking a healthier, happier life, for themselves and their families, and to chelâs, aspiring, for spiritual attainment.

In keeping with Buddha’s final injunction: “Be lamps, unto yourself, seek out your own salvation”; he who treads this path is expected to do so, creatively, that is, to do the very best he can, every moment of the day, to have, first of all, and most importantly: Right Belief, for all conduct depends on understanding and motive. Next, to have the best and highest possible resolve, to harbour no ill will toward any living creature. Then follows Right Speech, Right Behaviour, not to harm or destroy anything that lives, then Right Occupation, Right Effort, striving never to allow an unkind, selfish, or evil thought to arise in one’s heart or mind, and finally, Right , best, highest, Contemplation, and Concentration, this last quality is essential for success in any field, especially those seeking enlightenment.

This Eightfold Path is never easy, it is sometimes steep, and lonely, for to change the habits of a lifetime, to go against social conventions, requires tremendous and untiring willpower, determination, and motivation, but once we attune ourselves, with the spiritual, life is transformed, understanding comes, and courage. Fear disappears, and with it, the flames of anguish, and pain. Personal concerns fade away, as we become involved, in benefitting others, and in helping these, those in need, wonders occur, new strengths develop, opportunities open up, and we discover, as Mother Teresa did, that we are protected from ill-fortune, and disease. Is it naïve to say that we can avoid, prevent, and or cure, serious illnesses, that we can resolve horrendous problems that fact the world, by living a virtuous life? No, it is not, if we believe, and accept the words of the great teachers. They have told us repeatedly, it is the only solution, for by purifying our natures, from the negative, misfortune-attracting, life-destroying influence of ignorance, fear, and selfishness, by opening ourselves to the light, life, and love-giving forces of the Cosmos, we benefit ourselves, and all others. Medical and scientific reports reinforce this, citing evidence that our attitudes, knowledge, thoughts, and actions, which altogether make up our collective, individual karma, has everything to do with health, healing, and environment. For we are part of the Universe, Saint Paul is right, “In it we live, and move, and have our being”. More significantly, we are made of its stuff, the carbon in our tissues, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, are derived from planets, and suns. Our minds, lit by the fire of the gods, gives us power, not only to create wonders, that reach into space, but also to understand the spiritual laws, from which beauty, and truth, are derived.

Let us consider the sights that troubled the Buddha, old age, disease, and death. At first, of course, there is birth. Those who believe in reincarnation, look upon death as a doorway, through which the soul enters earth life, and death, the door of their exit. They regard each soul as the sum total, our aggregation of karma, acquired in past lives, and now integrated into the individual’s composite nature, these aggregates, this karma, not only shapes the body, mind, psychological, and spiritual nature, but also brings it into conditions and situations appropriate for its needs and desires, situations possibly of misfortune, accident, and disease, which offer opportunity for the evolving soul, to modify, that is to harmonise, that which it formally created, or disturbed. By this methodology, we develop and perfect the many qualities of our nature, and set in motion effects that will benefit, or harm, ad infinitum, ourselves, and all living beings.

Ancient cultures refer to human existence as a period of pain, and confinement, in comparison with the glories enjoyed in the ethereal regions. Even now we can sense this glory, both in the very old, and the young, something about them, especially with newborns, tells us they “come from afar, not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory, and that soon, shades of the prison house began to close, and glories they had known, fade, into the light, of common day”. This aura of the spiritual soul does become obscure, when the needs, and concretions, of material life, take over, but it does not depart, it cannot, for it is our real self, and it remains nearby, though unseen, to comfort and inspire.

Those who care for the elderly know this, having seen the sweetness of light, in the eyes of their patients, having felt a luminous presence, when the departure draws near. We’ve often heard that, ideally, old age is the golden harvest, of life, a time rich in love, and memories. In addition it offers special dividend, opportunities, to make, and remake karma, which many take advantage of. Let us not be fooled by appearances, though seemingly inactive, weak, lowly, and infirm, our parents and grandparents, handle vicissitudes that the young would flee; nor does life lack compassion, no one is burdened with more than he can handle. The elderly, enriched by the wisdom and courage of long and bitter experience, freed at last from the strenuous demands of personal, and vocational, commitments, are at this time able, not only to right all wrongs, but to lay foundations for a healthier, happier, and more productive, future life. Furthermore, once they understand the opportunities offered, they participate in them, and the inevitable transitions, serenely and constructively, enduring, often overlooking, the daily reminders that their vital, and normally restorative powers, are withdrawing. In doing this they find new appreciation, for the world they are about to leave, new opportunity, to follow the trail-marks of thought, they set into motion, and best of all they find time to love, reflect, and listen, with understanding, to those in need .

Disease, the second of the awakening sites of Buddha, was the second sight that awakened the Buddha, his teachings, that we are makers, of ourselves, and the cause of our misfortune, is finding expressed today in the writings of physicists and physicians alike. They tell us that our bodies know what our minds tell them. Some are diseases our minds, and emotions, contract, and that because we take part in a getting sick process, we can, and must, take part, in our recovery. Williams James found this the greatest discovery of our age, that human beings, by changing their inner attitudes of mind, can change the outer aspects of their lives. This approach gives us an appreciation of our bodies, that that labour so tirelessly, to neutralise the poisons we consume, to fight off the hordes of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and viruses, surround and infest us. (laughter) It reminds us too, that it is we, the often thoughtless, overindulgent, self-centred, human consciousness, who catch diseases, and inflict them, onto our bodies, our physical and psychological bodies, which are often, which have often become so weakened that they are by dissipation, that they are no longer able to function as they would. Preoccupation with self, anger, jealousy, hateful thoughts, overeating, over drinking, any excess, increase our vital temples, block, disrupt, and or deplete energies, that flow normally, to maintain health, and healing. Nature wants us to be healthy, strives for balance, harmony, and wholeness, if we give her a chance; learn about, and purposely follow, her laws, she will restore, and maintain healthfulness, which is now, throughout our lives, but the chance we must give, means being considerate, harmonious, and cooperative, at top to bottom, and inside, out. Remember the first of the Buddha’s Virtues, Right Belief? This applies to all levels of our nature, because each is reflected upon, and acts upon, the other. When our attitudes are constructive, our knowledge complete, at least as far as possible, whatever type of therapy we select, will be beneficial, whether allopathic, homoeopathic, surgical, faith, healing, psychotherapeutic, or any of the New Age methods, this is because, by giving the physician or healer our trust, we make a positive commitment, and participate intelligently, in the healing processes. Norman Cousins discovered this magic, of participations, saying:

“I have learned never to underestimate the capacity of a human mind, and body mind to regenerate, even when prospects seem most wretched”

He and his colleagues readily admit physicians do not heal, nor does their medicine, nor their treatment, it is the self-correcting life forces of nature that heal us, and it to them that physicians give their trust. Isn’t it a pity they keep this a secret. We go to them with our problems, they examine, and treat us, and then, confident that nature will heal us, they send us home! Had they explained, we would be spared a great deal of anxiety and pain. Yes we have one advantage over our doctors, our bodies tell us what is wrong, through pain, hunches, sometimes dreams, we, they pinpoint the trouble, suggest cures, or, sound warnings, either to get professional help at once, or, to change our attitudes and behaviour. Physicians discovering such advice, is often more revealing than examinations, now tell their patients: “Listen to your bodies”.

Right Belief, Right Attention, so far, so good, how about Right Thoughts. The real seeds of disease, and of accidents too, are our thoughts. These mental emotional dynamos can actually cure, or kill, according to the power we give them, they are subtle, work unseen on all levels of our nature, and occasionally lie dormant for ages until conditions are conducive for their expression. When we think, feel, or desire, we generate energy, karmic, cause and effect energy, this energy then seeks expression, or motivates action, it is through it the thought is loving it flows into action clothed with peace and beauty, and benefits all it contacts, but if it is selfish, and harmful, it damages, shrivels, pollutes, everything it touches, and in doing this, forms the fetters, and obstacles, that the Buddhas speak about. These obstacles create the conditions that break down our immune system, block our circulation, cause the diseases of the mind, thought, and body, or they cause tensions, that build up and explode, in a great fullness of misfortune. Could we follow this sequence of thought, desire, will, act, after-act, cause, and effect, and all the subsequent after-acts, we would understand, that the misfortunes, accidents, illness, that beset us, are self-caused, just, and deserved, just as H. P. Blavatsky, a long-time student of oriental thought, explains:

“But verily, there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen way, or misfortune, that cannot be traced back to our own doing, in this, or another life. If one breaks the law of harmony, one must be prepared to fall into the chaos one has himself produced”.

We know this, instinctively, intuitively, and when we get in touch with our spiritual selves, we accept what happens, as being our due, and opportunity to harmonise, the forces we set awry. Why then do doctors’ prognoses fill us with dread? Is it because we have lost touch with the norm within, or, because being human, we dread the unknown, and changes in our lifestyle, or, is our dread a result of some real, and imagined, occurrence, that happened in childhood and left us with this inordinate fear of disease, and death? Whichever, fear is destructive, and should be avoided. Most of us know from experience how it paralyses our minds, plagues us with nightmares, upsets our digestion, puts nerves on edge, contracts blood vessels, activates the sweat-glands, shortens our breath, and isolates us in cell, of self-centred depression. Knowledge, on the other hand, dispels fear, understanding the doctor’s prognosis, realising that we’ve brought this condition upon ourselves, in one way or another, and we can resolve it, gives us an incentive to rid ourselves of the causes that are upsetting our system. However, getting over the illness is not always essential, restoring harmony, is; on the day we face our condition, welcome physical and psychological suffering, as a chance to transform our lives, on that day we will free ourselves of 90% of our troubles. And what greater help can we have, in this lifesaving endeavour, than the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, what can bring peace and happiness more quickly, than knowing that we are doing  the very best we can, every moment of the day. Such knowing generates self-confidence, strength, and a sense of wellbeing, throughout our entire constitution. However, there are some, who under the stress of modern life, find it difficult to follow this pathway of virtue; there is an easier way, infilling ourselves with love, and light, giving love to all, with no thought of return. Love not only awakens spiritual capacities, it keeps us well, for it is the most powerful, healing force in the universe. According to doctors, love fights off disease, by increasing the immune system, and globulins. It lowers the level of lactic acids, and gives us additional energy, it increases the endorphins, which now have been found to exist not only in the brain, but throughout the body, and it is these endorphins which make us euphoric, more energetic, and less subject to pain. When our hearts are filled with love, there is no room for disease, or fear, or darkness, not even in the presence of death, especially not in the presence of death, for at that time love takes us into itself, as Meister Eickhart so beautifully observed, when he wrote:

“The bodily food we take in is changed into us, but the spiritual food we receive changes us, into itself. Therefore, Divine Love is not taken into us, for that would make two, but Divine Love takes us into itself, and we are part of, with it”.

When this occurs, death, the third awakening sight, becomes, especially for those who have suffered intensely, a welcomed therapy, one that enables them to move with dignity into the realms of light. People who are sensitive feel something of this wonder, when a soul begins to depart, they sense its vitality withdrawing, feel it rise, in a flash perhaps, yet leaving a part of its glory behind, amongst those it loved. I once knew a nurse who cared for an elderly patient, and after he was passing she told me: “There was so much joy, in the room that day, I lingered, unable to depart”, and as she spoke, I knew, that she, who had comforted so many, understood these three awakening sights, and that she had seen the beauty of Man’s soul.

If you wish to contact the author please email: andrewrooke@hotmail.com