A Serious Mistake

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu

A Serious Mistake

The Buddha’s Dhamma—his teaching—is primarily focused on the question of how not to suffer from aging, illness, and death.

It answers this question by offering practical advice on two levels:

(1) how to experience aging, illness, and death without suffering from them; and

(2) how to find a dimension where aging, illness, and death are never experienced ever again.

As we will see, the two answers are closely related.

Some people, especially in the West, will be surprised to learn that these issues are the Dhamma’s central focus. After all, questions of aging, illness, and death deal with what will happen in the future, whereas modern versions of Buddhism focus almost exclusive attention on the present moment.

In fact, modern Buddhism could, with little exaggeration, be called the cult of the here and now. It extols the present moment on two levels: as the exclusive focal point for the practice—the means to the goal—and as the goal itself. Meditation practice is portrayed as a means for keeping the mind fully alert to the present. Once this skill is mastered, you’ve arrived at the goal: The ability to stay fully in the present is all that’s needed to live life without suffering.

In this view of the Dhamma, questions of how to prepare for the inevitable aging, illness, and death of the body are usually put off to the side, on the grounds that they’re distractions from the real work at hand.

When these questions are addressed, they’re often treated as if they were of interest only for people who are already old or sick, who should take the lessons for how to dwell easefully in the present moment and adjust them to fit their particular needs. Next to nothing is said about finding a dimension where aging, illness, and death don’t occur at all.

As for the question of what happens after death, it’s often treated as illegitimate or in bad taste: There’s no way anyone can know the answer to that question, we’re told, so it shouldn’t even be asked. Some teachers go so far as to teach that it’s best left as a mystery. The most that anyone can do is to stay mindfully alert, open to the wonder of the unknown in the present moment, all the way up to the moment of death. After that, who knows? You’re on your own.

But when we look at the Buddha’s early teachings, we’ll see that this state of affairs is very ironic, in that it has its priorities backwards. And it’s worse than ironic. It’s a serious mistake on two levels.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Undaunted : The Buddha’s Teachings on Aging, Illness, Death, & the Deathless, “Introduction.”