Autumn of Life
When I first heard the word Dukkha I had absolutely no idea what it meant and perhaps you are like me, so allow me to tell you what I have learned. Dukkha is one of the core philosophies of Buddhist spirituality. It is fascinating because it deals with certain aspects of pain and suffering in life and shows you a way of coping with it. It also helps you come to the realization of your perspective of how you feel about that personalized sorrow. To understand the full picture, I decided to reflect on one of my own personal Dukkha experiences. This is an ongoing experience for me, as it deals with the gradual decline of my grandpa’s abilities as he grows older. By reflecting on his situation and limitations and how they affect my family and I, I was finally able to discern the best way of coping with this form of Dukkha. Finding a way to cope with this situation was extremely important for me, because if you don’t find a way to deal with your pain it is easy to be overcome with grief.
Old age can sneak up on you without you noticing and affect you in many different ways. My grandpa was never really “young” to me; when I was born he was seventy-seven years old and by the time I realized who he was, he was at least eighty! Yet, he was always spry. Even as he approached ninety years he was still outside working in his garden, feeding his mischievous chickens or fixing something for my grandma. It was only in the last few years that I actually began to notice the changes in him. Slowly it became more and more difficult for him to walk across the yard or get into the car without someone’s help. Having lost his appetite, he no longer ate the same foods he was once so fond of, and eventually he required oxygen from a machine and hearing aids. It took some time to adjust to these changes, especially when he reached the point when he couldn’t distinguish who I was.
The Buddhist term “Dukkha” refers to pain, sorrow, suffering, impermanence or emptiness; and there are various aspects of the term Dukkha: “1) Dukkha as ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha). 2) Dukkha as produced by change (viparinama-dukkha). 3) Dukkha as conditioned states (samkhara-dukkha)” (Rahula 19). The cycles of old age and the pain and suffering as well as the joys and pleasure are known as ordinary suffering or “dukkha-dukkha.” Because old age and death are a natural part of life they are considered ordinary; yes, they may hurt, but you are always able to anticipate the pain.
Watching my grandpa grow more dependent on others, including me, has also triggered the third form of Dukkha, samkhara-dukkha, which has to do with your senses and the conditions under which they arise. I always have known that death and growing old was a part of life, but whenever grandpa would talk about “when he died” it would never really compute because I knew he was like Superman, totally invincible. But when I saw him in the hospital totally debilitated, it changed something in me and I realized that he truly was capable of defeat. It is difficult to know that one day he won’t be here and until then he is surviving only with the help of others. Although sometimes this realization is crippling, I believe that our loss will be temporary and I have faith that I will see him again one day. I also believe that when he does die he will no longer be dependent on oxygen machines or hearing aids, and wanting him to remain with us in such a fragile condition is a rather selfish desire. This is our thirst for permanence, the vain hope that he will never leave us, which triggers the origin of Dukkha.
As I still have this strong image of my grandpa as the man who is always helping others, never getting sick and constantly running around his backyard followed by a trail of small animals, it came as a tremendous shock to me when I got the call that he had fallen in the middle of the night, hit his head and was now in the hospital. Since my siblings and I always overestimated his strength and resilience we underestimated the seriousness of his situation.
There are four different truths that explain the existence of Dukkha and the path to rise above it. They are called the Four Noble Truths, and the second of these truths explains the arising or the origin of Dukkha (Rahula 31). In this truth there is talk of thirst for existence and becoming, thirst for sense pleasures and non-existence. My siblings and I had a thirst for permanence with my Grandpa. We harbored the desire that he would never grow old and frail, but this thirst, according to the second noble truth, is the cause of the arising of Dukkha, pain, sorrow, suffering. “Here our function is to discard it, to eliminate, to destroy and eradicate it” (Rahula 50). It is not healthy to hold on to Dukkha.
When I finally got the chance to go see Grandpa, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was flat on the hospital bed, white as the sheets that covered him, his skin so thin I could see his bones. I had never ever witnessed my grandpa in this fragile and vulnerable state. I felt like someone in those slow motion scenes in hospital shows with the nurses bumping them, completely frozen in the crowd.
My grandpa was in the worst place I had ever seen him. He kept trying to stand up, thinking he was at his own house, and “go out on the porch.” When he came back to his right mind the next morning all he could talk about was going home. Having grown up on a farm and being used to back breaking labor, Grandpa has found it increasingly difficult to let go of control of his own life, as people now sometimes need to force him to do things he doesn’t want to do. He has always been the strapping “man of the house,” standing up for his woman and kids, never letting anyone talk down to him. And now I observe how difficult it is for him to let go and have his son and wife stand up for him instead. It is hard to see him so helpless. I long to magically heal him, but you cannot cure someone of old age. Now that he is home from the hospital we are all on hold, wondering what’s going to happen next.
These days grandpa doesn’t do much; sometimes he can go out in the backyard and enjoy the sun, but mostly he is stuck in his chair talking with my grandma, eating chocolate or sleeping. He is truly incredible, because through all of his increasing handicaps he has kept a positive attitude. Grandpa is a strong, southern Christian, and it never ceases to amaze me that when so many difficulties are thrown his way, he always proclaims to us that his Lord is good and will never cease to bless him. His outlook on life has impacted me on so many levels. Just the simple fact that he is always spreading joy despite his handicaps inspires me to take his glass half full attitude. As difficult as it is to see him lose most of his abilities, I have made peace with the fact that no matter what happens it will all be for our good.
One of the aspects of Dukkha is what is known as, “The Middle Path” or the “Noble Eightfold Path.” This is made up of eight different levels of rightness that if perfected will lead you straight to Nirvana; Right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. “A mere knowledge of the Path, however complete, will not do. In this case, our function is to follow it and keep to it” (Rahula 50). These factors promote the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline, Ethical Conduct, Mental Discipline and Wisdom. We can try to improve ourselves in these areas so that one day we might obtain Nirvana, and even without the hope of reaching Nirvana, we can learn a lot by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
For example, I can apply Right Thought to my own situation with my grandpa; Right Thought is training your mind to dwell on good, pure and positive thoughts (Rahula 49). With Grandpa it’s easy to turn my thoughts on myself and how much time I dedicate to his care, or the massive amounts of time he spends telling stories, or I can take my thoughts off myself and focus my mind on how special grandpa is, be thankful he is still around and pray for his daily struggles. As the Bible says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This relates to the philosophy of Right Thought. We need to train our minds to meditate on good and positive things, and steer our thoughts away from an evil, unkind and judgmental mentality.
Another applicable aspect is Right Action. This will generally follow along with Right Thought, as it is defined as moral, honorable or peaceful conduct (Rahula 47). Once your thoughts are in a positive place generally, your actions tend to follow along. Technically I am not required to do anything for Grandpa; he would never ask me for help. I might focus on how little time I have to spare for helping him out around the house or doing odd jobs for him. Yet if I turn my focus on Right Actions I can put my needs on the shelf and see how much he truly requires help. So whenever I go to his house, I make myself available for anything he might need me to do for him, plus I can do it with a positive attitude.
By reflecting on this Dukkha situation with my grandpa I was able to search within myself and discern how it all affected me. After pondering the “Noble Eightfold Path,” I came to recognize some aspects of my life I could improve on or change to make it easier for my grandpa. Lastly, I have found the best way for me to cope with his situation and extract the good from it. My main take away from this brief study of Dukkha is that there will always be pain and suffering or a sense of emptiness in our lives, but there will always be a way of dealing with this pain.
I found it interesting that so much of Buddhist philosophy coincides with Christianity. The whole aspect of the “Noble Eightfold Path” and improving yourself by being a better person, thinking right thoughts, and acting in an honorable and peaceful way, and speaking words of truth coincides with the Christian doctrine. The similarities continue in the very fact that Buddhism encourages universal love and compassion for all beings and Christianity teaches that love is important above all else (Rahula 46). In fact, the most important commandment for Christians is to love the Lord their God first and foremost, followed closely by love for all people (Exodus 20). Both Buddhism and Christianity tell us to abstain from telling lies, gossip etc. they encourage Right Action and peaceful conduct and training your mind in Right and pure thoughts.
Along with these similarities I also found some differences; one being the fact that in Buddhism you are capable of reaching perfection, while in Christianity you realize that you can’t do it on your own and must rely on God’s grace. Another difference is that Buddhism does not claim to be a religion. “It has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship or ceremony. In that sense, it has nothing which may popularly be called ‘religious.’ It is a path leading to the realization of ultimate reality, to complete freedom, happiness and peace through moral, spiritual and intellectual perfection” (Rahula 49-50). Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion where you find peace and joy in God, because we are incapable of attaining it on our own. I always look forward to learning about other religions and their philosophies and I do believe that there are many true points in Buddhism even though I don’t agree with the core religion. I have faith that whatever happens next in this whole Dukkha experience will make me a stronger person, build character and work out for our good.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974. Print. 16-50
Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.