Talk given by Sayadaw U Silanandabhivamsa on Sunday, December 29th, 2002
Today is my 75th birthday according to the Myanmar Calendar [which is a luni-solar-socio-religious calendar]. According to the Gregorian Calendar, my birthday fell on December 16th. Since you [the devotees] requested to hold a Pu Zaw Pwe (Paying respect ceremony) on my birthday, I said, “If that’s your wish, so be it.”
I suffered a mild stroke on the early part of this year [2002 A.D.]. I’m still feeling some effects of that [stroke]. But, generally speaking, I have recovered [and can discharge my normal duties]. The time when I had the stroke, there was apparently nothing out of the ordinary. At the daily morning prayer session, I missed a few words here and there. That’s the only unusual thing that I remembered about that time. I did not notice that I had suffered a mild stroke. In the afternoon, I did some walking and doing some chores. Well, towards the evening, the resident monk [at TMC] said, “Sayadaw, you don’t seem well. [You need urgent care]” and arranged [some devotees] to take me to the [Kaiser Permanente] hospital [in San Jose]. After four days [of treatment], I was discharged from the hospital. Although I had a stroke, I believe nothing serious happened. One side of the face [cheek] looked slightly “distorted” [disoriented] for a while. It’s now back to normal.
However, after that, there were irregularities in my blood pressure. It swung up and down, and for quite some time, I did not feel cool and calm. Now, my blood pressure has stabilized for a while; it’s back to normal, also. During that time, [due to side effect of the medication] I suffered some depression. I faced some difficulties during that depression period. Now, it has also gone away.
During those times, what thoughts came to my mind? I pondered about old age. I pondered about sickness. In this age, 75 years is considered “quite old”. As one becomes old, one appears to lose “congruity, harmony, and balance”. One feels bodily ailments past 60. When you’re over 70 and turn 75, it’s worse.
I remembered reading this story [in the scriptures]. King Kawrabra told Venerable Rahtapal, “I am now 80 years old. When I take a step, I land up in a spot different from the one that I had intended. Things like that are happening.” In fact, I had read that story a long time back, but at that time I could not and did not relate the events [since I had good health] and did not pay much attention to the meaning. Now, I can relate it with own experience. There are times when I take a step, I land up in a spot different from the one that I had intended. Those are signs of old age. Then, there’s some loss of memory. That is due partly to old age, and partly due to the mild stroke. Some words do not come out easily out of my mouth [in the midst of a talk].
What is that [one suffers] after old age? Sickness. No one can evade sickness [totally]. No matter how much one takes care of oneself, one can still fall sick [without advance notice]. I tried my best to take care of my health [and take medication prescribed by my physicians]. I did not know why I had a stroke. May be, because of the high blood pressure. May be, some other factors that I don’t know. Well, we can also say that “disease [or ailment] can [seemingly] appear at will.” So, I also pondered about sickness.
No one can avoid old age and sickness. No beings can avoid these two natural phenomena. All of you, the devotees listening to this dhamma talk, have noticed some degree of old age. Some people believe that one gets old only when one reaches a certain age, say 50 or 60. That’s not true. According to Abhidhamma, all moments starting from the conception in the mother’s womb are moments of aging. When we were young, we used to say that we are growing up. That, in reality, is gradual aging. Aging is a natural phenomenon that no being can avoid. So, can you also avoid aging? You cannot.
Plastic surgery is quite popular as a means of making people look better and younger. Plastic surgery may be able to make your old body [and face] better looking, but can it really prevent the natural phenomenon of aging? It’s not possible. As one lay on the operating table [or chair] for plastic surgery, one is in fact aging [even momentarily]. It is important for one to think about aging. What if one fails to think of aging? One might feel haughty and proud [say of one’s youthful appearance]. To prevent such [false] pride, one should ponder about aging. Aging is akin to “firing a shot that no one can evade”.
Sickness is also a “no-miss” shot aimed at all beings. One can look after one’s health, and even claim that one is healthy. The natural phenomenon of sickness still exists for all beings. So, one should contemplate seriously about both aging and sickness. Then, [false] pride of youth and good health will lessen and eventually go away.
After sickness, what else? [Every one will face] death, for sure. No one knows for sure when one will die, but it’s try that every one is getting closer to death [with each passing moment]. Traditionally, people say that old people are closer to death, and young people are farther from death. Really, that’s not true. Age – young or old -- does not matter for dying. Some die when they are young. Some die when they are old. So, one should ponder that “since every one is bound to die one day, one should always be aware of the natural phenomenon of death”. Why is that important? After one dies, one will be reborn. Unless one attains arahantship in this very life, one is sure to be reborn [and have a new life]. In the subsequent lives, do you want to be reborn in the good [abodes/planes of existence], or do you want to be reborn in the woeful states? In other words, do you want to have good future lives? Naturally, you would want to be reborn in a good abode. No one wants to be reborn in the woeful states.
But, whether you are reborn or not in a good abode depends on your actions, your kamma. Have you performed good actions, or bad actions? Please think [and answer] carefully. If you have done good deeds, you will generally be reborn in the good abodes; that’s a [logical] conclusion. If you have done bad deeds, you are bound to be reborn in the woeful states. When someone says, “I’m afraid of dying”, it really means, “I’m afraid of being reborn in a woeful state.” So, what should you do to ensure that you will be reborn in a good abode and not the woeful states? From this moment, one should plan and perform as many meritorious deeds as possible. If you accumulate the kusalas, the potential and momentum of the kusalas can propel you to be reborn in the good abodes; that’s what we believe. You should practice what the late [Tipitakadara] Mingun Sayadaw preached: “Right now from this moment, before we age, let’s do the meritorious deeds. Right now from this moment, before we get sick, let’s do the meritorious deeds.
Right now from this moment, before we die, let’s do the meritorious deeds.”
That’s why it’s important to perform meritorious deeds diligently. When we say accumulate kusalas, one should not think only about doing grand deeds. Seemingly small good deeds that you perform daily also constitute kusala. It is much more important to do such daily kusala acts rightly and consistently. Say your prayers in front of a Buddha’s statue, recite the parittas (protective verses), practice vipassana (insight) meditation, and so on. If you do those acts daily, you will be assured of a good next life. Just staying status quo will not guarantee of a good next life. It is important to realize the natural phenomenon of dying; it’s much more important to make sure that you will be reborn in a good abode after death. Only if you continuously contemplate on the nature of aging, sickness, and death, will the [false] pride decay and you will accumulate lots of kusala.
Isn’t it true that birthday is considered a happy event [a time to be happy.]. When one gets birthday presents, one feels happy. In a sense, it’s true. But, on one’s birthday, it is important for one to also think this way, “I was born. I will grow old. I will get sick. Eventually, I will die. Before I get old, before I get sick, before I die, I am resolved to accumulate meritorious deeds as much as possible.” And, one should also keep the resolution. Then, one is assured of a good abode [after death]. So, on this 75th birthday celebration, let us contemplate on the nature of old age, sickness, and death, and as in the verses we mentioned a while ago,
“Right now from this moment, before we age, let’s do the meritorious deeds.
Right now from this moment, before we get sick, let’s do the meritorious deeds.
Right now from this moment, before we die, let’s do the meritorious deeds.”
try to do and accumulate meritorious deeds before we get old, before we get sick, and before we die. If you practice that way, there is a high chance that you will be reborn in a good abode. So, all those who are here for the celebration should think deeply about this dhamma talk and practice accordingly. I urge you not forget to prepare to accumulate kusala -- your “personal possessions”. With this simple rejoinder, I conclude this dhamma talk.