Every moment we age, yet every moment is born anew. Zen teacher Lewis Richmond contemplates the koan of growing old.
There is a classic koan in the Zen tradition, called “Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha.” In this koan story, Zen master Baso is dying. The head monk comes to visit him and asks Baso, “How are you doing?” Baso replies, “Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha.”
In the Buddhist sutras, it is said that Sun Faced Buddha lives for a thousand years, while Moon Faced Buddha lives for a single day. What Baso is saying is that though he has lived for a long time, still his whole life has been nothing more than a succession of days, or moments, or breaths. Today he is dying, but it is really just like any other day, one breath at a time. He is ready for whatever happens because on each breath he has always been ready. As my root teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, said, commenting on this koan, “Whatever happens to Baso, he can accept things as it is.”
To be vulnerable in the face of setback or tragedy is not to be weak; it is to be real.
“Moon Faced Buddha” means that life is a succession of moments, and we never know when this moment may be our last. Yet in that very uncertainty we can find dignity and beauty, and a chance for a vivid spiritual life. Each moment can be an opportunity to start over, to begin again.
Suzuki Roshi, who is famous for his teaching of “beginner’s mind,” taught us that with each breath we start over, like a beginner. Each breath is itself like a whole life, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And each exhale is a kind of dying. If, through our meditation practice, we can become accustomed to this fading away of exhaling—fading into a “sheet of white paper” as Suzuki Roshi described it—then when the moment of death comes, our last breath is familiar and comfortable. There is no need to be afraid.
Recently I attended a lecture by a Tibetan lama in which he said, “Dharma is reality.” I was impressed by this simple statement. It seemed both pithy and profound. Afterwards I asked him what he meant, and he said, “The Buddha’s teaching is about what is true. It is not philosophy or speculation. Everything changes and passes away. No one can argue with that.”
I have been writing about the connection between aging and Buddhism for many years, but after hearing this teacher speak I realized that aging is also a truth you can’t argue with. In fact we are aging from the moment we are born, but it is only when many years have passed and we are on the downward slope of our life that its truth really hits us.
While aging is a universal experience, my recent aging research has focused on men’s aging. Today’s older men were raised and socialized in the 1950s and 1960s with a masculine stereotype that is sometimes referred to as the “boy code.” It’s expressed in such phrases as “Boys don’t cry,” “Suck it up,” “Are you a whiner or a winner?” This code included bullying and exclusion of any boy who did not fit the stereotype. As a consequence, today’s aging men tend to be more ego-identified with job and career, and suffer ego loss—even depression—on retirement. We older men don’t like to feel or appear weak, we have a harder time accessing emotions, and we use denial to avoid or cover over our vulnerability and fears.
I don’t exclude myself from these tendencies. In spite of my lifetime of immersion in Buddhist study, psychologically I am still a man of my generation. From my own experience of life-threatening illnesses—after one of them I was teary and emotional for several months—I have concluded that for me as an aging man the deepest truth of aging is that vulnerability is strength. To be vulnerable in the face of setback or tragedy is not to be weak; it is to be real, and it is that very vulnerability that will get us through. In fact, real men do cry, and their tears express their authenticity.
Aging is a kind of koan, in the sense that it is a deep reality the intellect cannot resolve. Although as a longtime Zen student I am familiar with all the traditional koans, when it came to aging I felt I needed a different approach, a practice that I have come to call “deep mind reflection.”
These are inner inquiries that, like koans, utilize key words and phrases. In working with a koan you set intellect aside and use intuition to push against the koan from every direction. A koan doesn’t have an “answer” the way an ordinary problem does; you yourself are the answer, which often comes to you unexpectedly.
My first deep mind reflection used the key word “aging.”
“Aging, aging,” I said inwardly to myself. What did it mean? I repeated the word silently until my intellect grew tired and a different inquiry—one driven by intuition—started to awaken. An image came to mind—the image of my white head of hair I see in the mirror every morning. I included that image in my inquiry. “Aging, aging, white hair, white hair.”
Suddenly, the word “aging” changed. It became “ancient.” Was I not just old, but ancient? Or did “ancient” refer to the ancient universal journey of aging that each human being has to traverse, each in their own way. I thought of the ancient Buddhist teachers like Baso who left us clues about how to make this journey in the light of Buddha’s wisdom. Suzuki Roshi once said that we meditate to “enjoy our old age.” At the time I was young and his answer seemed strange. Now it doesn’t.
As my deep mind focused on “ancient,” the word changed again, this time to “patient.” Yes, I needed to be patient, I thought, but the image that came to mind was a different kind of patient—a patient in a hospital deep in a coma and near death. That was me once. Against all odds I recovered, but one day I won’t be so lucky. Life will end. The Buddha taught the noble truth of “old age, sickness, and death.” I always thought that phrase seemed depressing, but now I realize that it is just reality, as the lama said. It is just “things as it is.”
“Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha” expresses our universal human situation—we are all fragile, impermanent beings, here today and gone tomorrow. Yet this very fragility is also an opportunity and an expression of beauty. As we approach the last part of human life, there is an opportunity to become softer, more vulnerable, more caring and loving. I think my Buddhist practice has helped me develop this way, and I have come to believe that this softness is the best way to be genuine and authentic, as well as helpful and useful to others, especially those we love.