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December 14, 2019

On Turning Age 74

As we all know, age is the time we pass through from birth to grave. I  would have turned 74, come next June. Once we reach the age of 74—only one year short of the average life expectancy of 75 years— we are, of course, approaching the end of the human life span on earth. Not many years remain to us and our own ends may not be too far off in the ordinary course of things. It is also time for us to take stock of our situation and do whatever is necessary for winding up our affairs in preparation for the final passage out of this world. W. Somerset Maugham, a well-known British writer, wrote at the age of 40, “The Summing Up,” in which he summarized all his thoughts on philosophy, religion, literature, the meaning of life, etc. that had occupied his mind for a long time. He said it was a sort of rounding off his worldly affairs before he met his fate. But he added that one does not die immediately after one has made his will. Of course, he himself had proved the truth of what he had said; he had lived to an advanced age of 97, if I remember correctly. His reading covers a wide range of subjects, including literature, old and modern, philosophy, religion, etc.
As for myself, I have all along been occupied in earning my living as a public servant for a family of four. It has proved a hard job making both ends meet on my monthly salary. Thus I have not had a good opportunity to seriously study those great books of world knowledge that had advanced our civilization to the present stage of space age, Internet, multi-national corporations, globalization, etc. I had to read western philosophy for my graduate course of studies at the university. But then it only scratched the surface of the subject which I had studied just enough to pass the exam. My reading of English literature has been confined to the Sherlock Homes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, and some novels by W. Somerset Maugham, Pearl S. Buck, Hemingway, etc. I like the writing styles of those writers better than those of any other writers I have read—especially the styles of Arthur Conan Doyle and W. Somerset Maugham, which are simple and easy to understand. Soon after I arrived in Yangon and worked at the Directorate of Commercial Audit, I joined the Sapaybeikman Library as a member and took out on loan “Ivanhoe” by Sir Welter Scott. I had read that novel in the retold series while in the Matriculation class at high school. In fact, it was a prescribed English text for the 1957 Matriculation Exam. I thought I would enjoy more reading that novel in the original than the retold text. Nothing could be further from the truth. I could make neither head nor tail of it; it was written in Middle English, I supposed. Sentences were long and very complex, and I could not find some words in the modern dictionaries. So, I had to give up reading those classics in the original. I turned my attention to more modern novels that were easily available from the British Council library.    As a matter of fact, I have learned English mainly from my reading of those books, not through direct contact with English-speaking people.
My own roots lay deep in the countryside far away from big cities. My secondary schooling was finished at a small town about 90 miles north of Yangon.  So my knowledge of those great subjects is very limited, and consists of only odds and ends gleaned from my study of technical literature of my accounting profession as well as reading of current news journals like Times, Newsweek, and the Reader’s Digest. To speak the truth, accounting is a subject for which I have had no aptitude because I have no head for figures. Mathematical problems have always baffled me. In fact, it was forced upon me by the circumstances of life, in which I had found myself. I think a diplomatic career would have suited me best, since I take a great interest in the study of the English language and literature as well as in world history and current international affairs. During my years in public service I have been so buried in my studies of technical literature and building up my professional career, that I have not had the time to turn my attention to the study of the Buddha’s teachings that alone can show the way to an escape from “samsara”. Up until recent years I have been a Buddhist only in name. “Vipassana” meditation is something I have heard elderly people talk about and I have not taken any interest in it. Thus my thoughts on philosophical, literary and religious matters are only superficial, not subtle and profound.
My ambition has been to master the English language well enough that I can write it flawlessly on any subject under the sun. I have directed my efforts towards that end over the years. But now, after a life-time of study, I have found that it is impossible to master it in the social and intellectual environment, into which fate has thrown me, and in which I don’t have any chance to write it or to practice it on native speakers of English. Reading books by Dr. Htin Aung, Dr. Maung Maung, and Daw Khin Myo Chit, I am inspired to write articles on various subjects of general interest for publication in the newspapers, and journals in English. My literary efforts included some letters to the editor, published in the then Working People’s Daily, prize-winning English translations of passages culled from the writings of famous Myanmar writers in the “ Light of English.” I have, therefore, given up my hope of mastering the English language in all aspects of reading, writing and speaking and made up my mind to be content with the present level of proficiency I have achieved in that language, which I know still leaves much to be desired.
Looking back over the years, I know that my life has not been a success in the sense that most people would have thought in terms of material wealth, social status, and education. As a matter of fact, I have lived a simple, honest life with my family and moved in a limited circle of a few close friends.  I neither smoke nor drink, but indulge myself in a bit of drinking on some social occasions. During my years of public service, I have earned just enough salary to live on. But when I have retired on a pension as director from the office of the Auditor- General and worked in the private sector, my income has risen well enough to meet the daily living costs, with a little bit left over to save against a rainy day. These days, when medical care costs have rocketed sky-high, especially at so-called private specialist medical centers in Yangon, it will, of course, be a prudent policy to set aside a certain amount from our monthly earnings for saving purposes. Only then will we be able to dip into our savings to meet emergency medical costs that may arise when we are suddenly struck by unexpected diseases that are common in old age rather than in youth. However, whatever savings we may have made over the years can be wiped out completely in case of month-long hospitalization at any one of those medical centers. As we grow older, it is inevitable that one ailment or another will strike us and we have to fend such ailments off as best we can through proper medication or dieting until we breathe our last.
In recent years a few of my friends, who are my contemporaries, have dropped off one after another. Most of them were in their late 60s when they passed away. It brings home to me the realization that death is at an arm’s length for every living thing and that it can strike any one without warning like a bolt of lightning out of a blue sky. We must awaken to the fact that time is running out, especially for those of us who have already crept into old age. With age there comes pain, decay and finally death from which no mortal of high or low class, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, can escape until the day we attain the end of suffering—enlightenment. There is no escape from the conclusion that old age, pain, decay and death are the ever-present companions of all those who possess body and soul.
At my age of 74, I should have retired completely from my active career and retreated into a life of leisure and “vipassana” meditation, as befitting a true Buddhist. But the trouble is that I am in no position to give up my present career, because my monthly pension is not enough to maintain my family at a comfortable standard of living what with the rising costs of commodities these days. That is more or less the fate that has fallen on most of retirees.
For the past 25 years I have tried to keep the Buddha’s five precepts—not to kill, not to steel, not to lie, not to have illicit sex, and not to take intoxicated drinks—every day of my life. To speak the truth, the last two precepts—not to lie and not to drink liquors of any kind—have proved the most difficult ones to keep. I have been taught that whatever precepts I could have kept will bring me good merits that may come to fruition for me, if not in the present life, then in the after-life. I have realized that I must turn my attention away from mundane affairs of life and towards the Buddhist studies and literature, especially on vipassana meditation and practice, if I want to escape from ‘samsara’—rounds of births and rebirths in which we worldlings have to circle until we attain enlightenment– ‘nirvana’—the end of all suffering. In recent years, I have had access to religious literature on vipassana meditation practice and discourses on discs by many venerable monks. From the study of the religious literature, I learn that we can escape from ‘samsara’ only after we have attained the stage of the stream-winner (sotapanna) through vipassana meditation in the present life. Dana (donation), Sila (morality), and Samahta (concentration), no matter how much merit may be acquired through them, can’t provide a good enough protection against any mortal beings falling into the four lower planes of existence after death. Good merits (good Kama), so acquired, may enable us to be reborn in the higher planes of existence, but when the force of that good “Kama” is exhausted, we will come down again to the lower planes. Only vipassana meditation, if pursued right up to the fruition stage of sotapana, can save us from being reborn in the lower planes of existence for ever. In this context, it is noted that a stream-winner needs to pass through only seven higher planes of existence before he finally reaches the end of suffering—“nirvana.” As a matter of fact, that is the goal all Buddhists should strive for in life. I have decided to pursue vipassana meditation whenever I can take time off from my daily round of activities at night when all is quiet and at peace. My pursuit of vipassana meditation practice may not enable me to attain the stream-winning stage in the present life, but can help me pile up perfections (paramis) that can make for the continuation of such practice in future existences, until the final goal of ‘nirvana’ is reached. This is the pattern of life that I have sketched out for myself to follow for the rest of my life, as a way to gain as much merit as I can to save myself from falling into any type of lower planes of existence. However, I must confess that I am not making as much progress as I desire in my efforts at vipassana meditation practice. Unlike at a meditation centre, I can’t practice very well at home because of the disturbances that assail me from all sides. But I don’t give up easily; I keep on trying despite the difficulties I have to face. As they say, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. In the meantime, I should try as best I can to keep myself away from Dosa (anger), Moha (ignorance), Loba (greed), and Mana (conceit)–the factors that can drive one headlong into hell. My message to people of 74 and above is this: live a pure, simple life of high morality and high thinking without harboring any evil thoughts of harm towards anybody, friend or foe alike.
Some people are afraid of old age, because once they reach old age, with its frailties of mind and body, they do not have any ability to engage in any physical activity that requires the strength and energy of young people. They are prone to many kinds of illnesses, because their bodies have lost resistance powers that can fight off an invasion of quite a host of disease-causing viruses and bacteria. To make matters worse, they have to give up, though unwilling, many of the sensual pleasures they used to enjoy in the prime of their life. They are compelled to take great care of their health which has begun to decline with the advancing years of their age. They can’t eat any kind of food they like to their heart’s content on health grounds. They can’t go on long journeys alone either by car, train, or plane without any trusted companion, or their family members to look after them. As a matter of fact, it is time they put all their pursuits of worldly pleasures behind them and spend the remaining period of their life profitably in their respective religious practices. By so doing, they are more than likely to gain peace of mind and freedom from all kinds of worries and anxieties that may torment them for the rest of their days. Thus, they will be able to live to the full extent of their life span enjoying the fruits of their religious practices not only in the present life but in the life after.
On the other hand, old age has its own compensations, too. When we reach old age, our minds have more or less matured through the life experiences we have piled up and our passions that have been burning in our younger days have already cooled. What we have thought to be important in our youth is no longer so in old age. Also, our jealousy, anger, greed, hatred, etc. that are considered as vices from the perspective of the Buddha’s teachings have gradually lessened as we grow older and older, even if they are not totally wiped out or got rid of. Once we are free from those vices, we will be able to live a more peaceful and happier life until our eyes are finally closed.
Now I would like to recount the experiences of my next-door neighbor, who was brought back from the edge of death, because he recalled one of the attributes of the Buddha. He was hospitalized at the Academy Medical Center in Yangon because of lung ailment, which had caused him labored breathing and pushed him to the very edge of death itself on the third day of hospitalization. He was taken to the intensive care unit. While in a state of semi-consciousness, he found himself in a strange place where big tongues of flames were thrown at him with such great force that he had a hard time fighting against them with sheets of glass. He also saw white-robed persons going upwards to the haven above as well as ball-like creatures moving on a distant hill-side, which he considered to be “pe-tas” our Buddhist monks often mentioned in their religious discourses. As he then remembered ‘Ah-ra-han’, one of the nine attributes of the Buddha, he recited it in his mind and the flames receded gradually until they disappeared totally from the scene. Afterwards he found himself in a big golden hall where he had the chance of paying homage to the sitting gilded image of the Buddha. Soon afterwards he came round to his senses. He believed that while on the verge of death when it was uncertain whether he would be allowed to live on or not, he was shown the places he would have to go to, if he were to meet his fate then–the hell, the abode of gods or the nether world. So, he was convinced that it was the very force of the merits he had gained through donations and good religious practices in the present life that had given him a new lease on life and had resolved to devote the remaining years of his life to doing meritorious deeds all the more by giving away to donation as much of his wealth as he could afford. From his experiences we must take lessons that meritorious deeds we have performed can save us even from the jaws of death at a crucial moment even in the present life. So let us resolve to do good deeds now as best we can to gain merits for passage into the world of ‘nats’(gods) after death. The other day I have had the chance to listen to a religious discourse by the Mahamyaing Sayadaw. He said that if we die with fear, we will surely go to hell; that if we die with greed, we will be reborn in the world of ‘pe-tas’—creatures with large bodies but small mouths. Thus they suffer a constant state of starvation for as long as they are alive. And if we die with obsession with our material possessions, we will become small creatures around our house like mice, house lizards, etc. The only way to die, if we wish to escape from the lower planes of existence, is to breathe our last with thoughts of ‘dharma’. But to do so needs long years of practice in ‘vipassana’ meditation, as taught by our lord Buddha. Of course, it is a feat that can’t be achieved without hard work and strong determination and last but not least, good health. Here, I remember having read about a donation of Kyat 100,000 to Sayagyi U Thu Kha by Sayadaw Ashin Sandadika, one of the famous preachers of the Buddha’s teachings. One day that Sayadaw went to the house of U Thu Kha and donated Kyat 100,000 to him. Sayagyi was much taken by surprise that a monk should donate money to a lay man. The usual practice is for lay men to donate money or things to monks, not the other way around. Therefore, Sayagyi refused to accept the Sayadaw’s donation. At that, Sayadaw explained that as Sayagyi had pointed out in one of his books that religious practice should be pursued by any one when he was young, vigorous and in good health, he had followed Sayagyi’s advice, from which he had much benefited and that it was in appreciation of Sayagyi’s advice that Kyat 100,000 was offered in donation to him. Only then did Sayagyi U Thu Kha accept Kyat 100,000 from Sayadaw. Thus, it is clear that age 74 is already a bit too old to effectively pursue the Buddha’s vipassana meditation practice, because by that age one cannot persist in the meditation practice long enough at one sitting to attain concentration of mind that is so essential to vipassana meditation. Be that as it may, we have to engage in that religious practice as long as we are in good health, despite our age of 74 or whatever it is.
During 74 years of my life I have seen great events that have taken place in the history of the world: the Second World War, the Korean War that left Korea divided into two countries, the Vietnam War, the Middle-East conflict, the India-Pakistan War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of democracies in Eastern Europe, the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are still raging on, the rise of China to the status of a super power, to say nothing of the economic and financial crises the world has passed through occasionally. Strife and conflict are still going on in many parts of the world without any sign of their ending on the horizon. As for myself, I think it is quite fortunate that I was born and brought up in Myanmar, which is peaceable and stable enough, and in which the rule of law and order prevails, as compared with those regions mentioned above. If I were born in one of those reigns which are in a perpetual state of political unrest and racial conflict, my chances of living to see my 74th year are very slim. Another advantage of being born in Myanmar is that Buddhism—the religion that shows the way to the end of suffering—flourishes here. We would surely reap the benefits from the practice of the Buddha’s teachings, if we really pursue it with determination. It is up to us not to waste our precious time we are allowed to enjoy within the period of the Buddha’s “sasana”. We must strive to gain the eye of wisdom or insight knowledge that will enable us to see things as they really are—i.e. that things are in a constant state of flux, arising and disappearing from moment to moment all the time and that nothing lasts forever in the natural scheme of things. That is, as far as my knowledge goes, the very essence of Buddhism. That insight knowledge can be achieved only through serious practice of vipassana meditation as taught by the Buddha. So, we must try our level best to practice it for as long as there is a spark of life left in us and do all we can to gain the eye of wisdom before death claims us, as Mogoke Sayadaw Gyi said in one of his discourses on “vipassana meditation.” But—it is a big “But”—it is one thing to make a decision, but another to put it into real practice. To get the most benefit, decision and implementation must be fused into one, which, however, may prove a harder task for most of us than we think.

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