Three Awakening Sights: Old Age, Disease, and Death

By Eloise Hart

Is it naive to suggest that we can avoid, prevent, or cure serious illnesses, can solve the horrendous world problems, by living a virtuous life? Perhaps not, if we come to understand the words of great teachers who have told us repeatedly it is the only solution. For by purifying our natures of the negative, life-destroying influences 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. This becomes clear when we examine the purpose of life's most traumatic experiences -- disease, old age, and death -- the very experiences that "awakened" the Buddha and led to his enlightenment.

It happened twenty-five hundred years ago when the young Hindu prince, Siddhartha Sakyamuni, who had been raised amid royal splendor with nothing to fear and everything to love and enjoy, ventured beyond the palace grounds and into the city. The pain and suffering he saw appalled him and awakened in his soul ancient yearnings to help all in need.

The first "awakening sight" was seeing, for the first time in his life, a very old man:

Bent was his back with load of many days
His eyepits red with rust of ancient tears, . . . -- The Light of Asia, Sir Edwin Arnold, 1932, p. 44.

The second, "a stricken wretch," writhing with pain, gasping, and begging for help. As he lifted this man upon his knee and comforted him gently, his charioteer explained that while "some few grow old, most suffer and fall sick, but all must die" [ibid. p. 57]. 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 aloud: How could a god "make a world and keep it miserable," when I "would not let one cry whom I could save" [ibid. p. 60]?

In soul-searching desperation to know the reason for, and the truth about, 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 barren. Exhausted and near death, he sat under a great Bo-tree determined to remain until the truth was known. And then it came, knowledge of the cause and cure of human misery and the purpose of life [ibid. p. 127, et seq].

Exalted and enlightened, he went forth to share his vision with mankind that all might follow the path that leads from suffering and death to peace, light, and life immortal. Over the centuries and in many countries his teachings have been expounded as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path [cf. Fountain-Source of Occultism, G. de Purucker, p. 51].

The Four Truths acknowledge that suffering and sorrow exist and are caused by desires and attachments to people and things of this world; that this cause can be overcome and 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. It is a path open to all, to young and old, to householders seeking a healthier, happier life for themselves and their loved ones, and to chelas aspiring toward spiritual attainment.

In keeping with Buddha's injunction -- "Be lamps unto yourselves, work out your own salvation" -- each individual who treads this path is expected to do so creatively, i.e., to do the very best he can every moment of the day. He is expected to have, first of all and most importantly, right beliefs, for all conduct depends upon understanding and motive; next, to have the highest possible resolve, and to harbor no ill will toward any living creature. Then follows right speech; right behavior -- not to harm or destroy anything that lives; right occupation; right effort -- striving never to allow an unkind, selfish or evil thought to arise in one's heart or mind, and finally the seventh and eighth, right, best, highest, contemplation and concentration. This last quality is essential for success in any field, especially for those seeking spiritual attainment.

The Eightfold Path is not easy; at times it is steep and lonely, for to change the habits of lifetimes and go against social conventions one needs untiring willpower, determination, and motivation. But once we attune ourselves to the spiritual, life is transformed. Understanding comes, and courage. Personal concerns fade as we become involved in helping the needy. And in serving others we discover, as Mother Teresa did, that new strengths develop and fresh opportunities o pen up to serve effectively. For we are part of the universe, are made of its stuff: the carbon in our tissues, calcium in our bones, iron in our blood, are derived not only from this earth but from planets and stars. Our minds, lit by the fire of solar gods, give us power to create and work wonders that reach into distant space and affect in degree all beings and things.

Let us consider the questions that troubled the Buddha: old age, disease, and death. Those who believe in reincarnation, as he did, see birth as the doorway through which souls enter earth life, and death the door of their exit. They regard each soul as the sum total or "aggregation of karma," acquired in past lives. Integrated into the individual's composite nature, these aggregates not only shape its body, mind, and psychological and spiritual nature, but also bring it into conditions and situations appropriate to its needs and desires -- situations possibly of misfortune, accidents, or disease which offer opportunities for the evolving soul to modify, i.e., to harmonize, what it formerly brought into being or disturbed. By this method we develop and perfect the many qualities of our natures and set into motion effects that will benefit or harm ourselves and all living beings.

Ancient cultures frequently referred to human birth as the soul's descent into a period of pain and confinement in comparison to the glories enjoyed in the ethereal realms. We too sense this glory, both in the very old and the young. True, this aura of the spiritual soul becomes obscured when the needs and concretions of material life take over, but it does not depart. It cannot, for it is the radiance of our real Self and remains, though unseen, throughout our life to comfort and inspire. Those who care for the elderly know this, having seen a sweetness and light in the eyes of their patients, having felt a luminous presence when their departure draws near.

We have often heard that ideally old age is the golden harvest of life, a time rich in love, memories, and opportunity. Let us not be fooled by appearances: even when seemingly inactive, weak, lonely, and infirm, our parents and grandparents handle vicissitudes the young would flee. Enriched with the wisdom and courage of their life's experiences, freed from the strenuous demands of family and vocational commitments, the elderly are able not only to right old wrongs, but also to lay foundations for a healthier, happier, and more productive future.

Disease is the second sight that awakened the Buddha. His teaching that we are the makers of ourselves and the cause of our misfortunes is finding expression today among physicists and physicians who tell us that our bodies know what our minds tell them, suffer diseases our thoughts and emotions contract and, that because we take part in the process of getting sick, we can and must take part in the recovery. William James found this the greatest discovery of his time: "that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives" [Love, Medicine and Miracles, Bernie S. Siegel, p. 111].

This approach gives us an appreciation of our bodies which labor tirelessly not only to neutralize the poisons we consume, but also to fight off the hordes of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and viruses that surround and infest us. It reminds us too that it is the often thoughtless, overindulging, self-centered human consciousness which catches diseases and inflicts them on our physical and psychological bodies which may have become so weakened or impaired by our dissipations they no longer function as they should. Preoccupation with self, anger, jealousy, hateful thoughts, overeating, overdrinking, or any excess, increases vital tempos, blocks, disrupts, or depletes energy flows that normally maintain health and healing. Nature strives for balance, harmony, wholeness. If we give her a chance, learn about and follow her laws, she will restore and maintain healthfulness -- which is balance -- all through our lives.

The first of the Buddhist virtues, right belief, applies on all levels of our natures, for each reflects and acts upon the others. When our attitude is constructive and our knowledge complete -- as far as possible -- whatever type of therapy we select is likely to be beneficial: whether allopathic, homeopathic, surgical, faith healing, or psychotherapeutic. This is because we participate intelligently with a trusted physician or healer in the treatment and healing processes.

Norman Cousins discovered the magic of such participation: "I have learned never to underestimate the capacity of the human mind and body to regenerate -- even when the prospects seem most wretched" [Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins, p. 48]. He and his colleagues would readily admit that physicians do not heal, nor do their medicines or treatments. It is the self-correcting life-forces of nature that heal us, and in them physicians place their trust.

Yet, we have one advantage over the doctors: our bodies tell us what is wrong. Through pain, hunches, and sometimes dreams, they pinpoint the trouble, suggest cures, or sound warnings either to get professional help at once, or to change our attitudes and behavior. Physicians, discovering such advice is often more revealing than examinations, are encouraging their patients to "listen to their bodies" -- right attention!

How about right thoughts? The real seeds of dis-ease, and of accidents too, are our thoughts. These mental-emotional dynamos can actually cure or kill according to the power we give them. They work unseen on all levels of our natures, and occasionally lie dormant for ages until conditions are ripe for their expression.

When we think, feel, or desire we generate energy -- karmic cause-and-effect energy. This energy then seeks expression, motivates action. If a thought is loving it flows into action clothed in peace and beauty and benefits all it contacts. But if it is selfish or hateful, it damages or pollutes everything it touches and forms the "fetters" or "obstacles" Buddhists speak of. These obstacles create conditions that break down the immune system, block circulation, and foster diseases of mind, heart, and body. Or, perhaps they cause tensions that build up and explode in a plethora of misfortunes. Could we follow the sequence of thought-desire-will, the act, and all its subsequent effects and after-acts, we would understand that the misfortunes, accidents, and illnesses which beset us are self-caused, just, and deserved. As H. P. Blavatsky, a longtime student of Oriental thought, explained:

But verily there is not an accident in our lives, not a misshapen day, or a misfortune, that could not be traced back to our own doings in this or in another life. If one breaks the laws of Harmony, . . . "the laws of life," one must be prepared to fall into the chaos one has oneself produced. -- The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky, I, 643-4.

We know this intuitively, and when we get in touch with our spiritual Self, we accept what happens as being an opportunity to harmonize the forces we have set awry.

Why then do doctors' prognoses fill us with dread? Is it because we have lost touch with the Knower within? Or because, being human, we fear the unknown and change? Or is our dread the result of some real or imagined occurrence in childhood that left us with an inordinate fear of sickness and death? Whatever the cause, fear is destructive. Most of us know from experience that it can paralyze the mind, upset the body, and isolate us in a cell of self-centered depression.

Knowledge, on the other hand, dispels fear. Understanding the prognosis and realizing that we brought this upon ourselves and can resolve it, gives us incentive to rid ourselves of the causes that are upsetting our system. However, getting over an illness isn't always essential; restoring harmony is. On the day we face our condition, welcoming physical and psychological suffering as a chance to transform our lives, we free ourselves of 90 percent of our troubles.

And what greater help can we have in this lifesaving endeavor 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 knowledge generates self-confidence, strength, and a sense of well-being throughout our constitution. Those who, under the stress of modern life, find it difficult to follow this formalized pathway can strive simply to infill themselves with love and light, giving love to all with no thought of return. Love not only awakens our spiritual capacities, it keeps us well. According to doctors, love is the most powerful healing force in the world: it stimulates development of the immune globulins that fight off disease, lowers blood levels of lactic acid, and increases the endorphins, that make us euphoric, more energetic, and less subject to pain.

When our hearts are filled with love there is no room for dis-ease or fear or darkness, not even in the presence of death, for at that time love "takes us into itself," as Meister Eckhart so beautifully observed:

The bodily food we take 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 things. But divine love takes us into itself, and we are one with it. -- Meister Eckhart, trans. Blakney, quoted by Siegel, p. 182.

When this occurs, death, the third awakening sight, becomes, especially to those who have suffered intensely, a welcome experience, one that enables them to move with dignity into realms of light. People who are sensitive feel something of this wonder as the soul begins to depart: they sense its vitality collecting, then feel it rise, in a flash perhaps, yet leaving a part of its glory behind, enriching those it cherished.

A nurse who had cared for an elderly patient told me after his passing, "There was so much joy in his room that day, I lingered, unable to depart." As she spoke, I knew that she, who had comforted so many, had discovered the real meaning of the "three awakening sights" -- had seen the beauty of man's soul!

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)

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