The third instalment in a series of short writings on Buddhism’s “Five Great Fears,” by Zen teacher Lewis Richmond.
What a downer of a topic! Who wants to think or talk about dementia, Alzheimer’s, losing one’s mind? Yet it is the “third great fear” in Buddhist teaching, so clearly the ancient Buddhists wanted to talk about it. They knew that the best way to transform and dissolve fear is to face it. Well, today I’m going to try something that may not be possible — find a positive, uplifting and encouraging way to talk about this.
Well, let’s start by being honest: pretty much everyone over a certain age either knows someone who has dementia (maybe a parent) or worries about getting it themselves, or both. It’s the new great taboo topic, replacing sex and money. Try bringing it up at a party and see how far you get. Let’s also point out one obvious bright side: until recently most human beings didn’t live long enough to acquire dementia, so this illness is a byproduct of modern medicine’s gift to us of longevity. I somehow doubt that anyone reading this is uplifted by that fact, however.
I said in an earlier post that ego can’t conceive of death. But it can conceive of losing control, of losing its capacities, of witnessing its own slow dissolution. For many people that prospect is more terrifying than death, precisely because not only can we conceive it, we can watch the devastating toll it takes on other people and their families.
So this fear is the big kahuna, so to speak. But until the day comes that you get that diagnosis, what is this fear, really? It is nothing more than a thought form, something that might be, could be, that would be terrible if it were real, but isn’t real now. What a teaching! The lesson of all Buddhist teaching, really, is that most of what we think is real is just a construction out of the bits and pieces of memory, sense perception, imagination, and emotion — the flotsam and jetsam of body and mind, what Buddhism technically calls the five skandhas or “heaps.” See through this construction project and freedom dawns.
Yes, terrible things could happen to us, at any time. Terrible things are happening right now, everywhere. If you would like to scare yourself, make a mental list of such terrors, go over it several times until your heart pounds, and prepare yourself for a sleepless night. If you would like put some space around these fears, here is a teaching that Thrangu Rinpoche gave once when asked directly what happens to practice and wisdom when a person has Alzheimer’s.
“The sense faculties and mental processes are damaged,” he said, “but the underlying Buddha nature is unchanged.”
These words provide a strong hint as to what this Buddha nature might be, and what its qualities are. One of them, according to the teachings, is luminosity.
I don’t know if I have succeeded making the topic uplifting, but I’ve managed to write 500 words about the unspeakable and I’m still here. I hope you are too!
Read Lewis Richmond’s Five Part series on Fear here:
- Fear of Life, Fear of Death
- Fear of Death
- Fear of Illness
- Fear of Loss of Livelihood
- Fear of Public Speaking