Old Age, Sickness and Death
The story goes that the Buddha lived in three palaces, one for each season, and never travelled outside. In the palaces he was given every comfort, and wanted for nothing. The reason he was so protected was his father king Suddhodana had been told a prophesy that his son would either become a world conquering monarch, or a religious recluse. Naturally the father chose the former.
Yet one day the young Buddha to be, journeyed out of the palace against his father’s wishes. There he met with 4 Devadutta – heavenly messengers. (if you speak Thai you can note that ‘dutta’ is root of the Thai word for Embassy.)
First was an old man, the second was a sick man, and the third was a dead man. After these he saw a Samana – a religious recluse.
He had never seen an old person before, and asked his charioteer in shock what he was seeing. Same for each of the other messengers. This ‘shook’ him from complacency (samvaga), and began his spiritual yearnings.
Of course, we do not have to read the story literally. Yet a prince might well be over protected, and oblivious to the suffering of the world around him – epitomised in Marie Antoinette’s immortal advice to those starving for lack of bread – ‘then let them eat cake’.
Still, without these messengers what would cause someone to take up a practise? The Samvega is vital – one has to be stirred from complacency.
One suttas says just hearing about these four is enough for some people. For others you have to see it with your own eyes. The slower of wit wait until they affect ones family, and the slowest of all wait until they themselves are afflicted before experiencing the samvega. The Buddha was in the second group – he had to see it first.
To maintain this shaking up, monks and nuns around the world recite the lines ‘for frequent reflection’
- I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging
- I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness
- I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying
But what if humanity manages to cure sickness? What if we halt or even reverse the ageing process?
Aubrey de Grey presented a talk on TED some years ago suggesting just that. He says that it is not so far off in the future either – some people around today will be alive long enough to see reverses in ageing. Now scientists from Harvard report that they have managed to do just that with mice. Or at least their headline writers suggest that – reading through the article there are a number of reservations; reactivating cells that had naturally stopped splitting, could aggravate or even cause cancer. Also, what works in mice does not necessarily work in man.
Nonetheless, as our life expectancy grows, so too does the need to rejuvenate or replace ageing organs. If the above ever becomes a real treatment – how will we limit the world’s population? Will governments try to control (or tax) who gets to live – only allowing the great and good contributors to society to live double or triple lifespans (sounds like a film score for Tom Cruise to save the world again).
From the perspective of the 4 messengers would postponing our mortality lessen our samvega? The mythology goes that humans have more chance to practise Dhamma because our suffering and pleasure are evenly balanced. Too much happiness in a heavenly realm lessens the urgency – and this is borne out in this world; very few couples newly fallen in love come to learn meditation at temples. Too much suffering and one cannot control the faculties enough to meditate.
While the experiments only worked on mice so far bear in mind that, while we share 98% of our genes with chimps, we also share 95% with mice.