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The Experience of Growing Older

Nichiko Niwano, President of Rissho Kosei-kai

RKINA president NiwanoWhat Does Aging Mean?

As students of Japanese learn, each kanji character has its own meaning. Regarding the character for "elder" (pronounced ro) associated with Respect for the Aged Day, the Japanese holiday honoring the elderly celebrated every September, it indicates people over seventy years old, while another character (pronounced ki) is used for those over the age of sixty.

Both of these characters convey the concept of growing older. When we are involved in our daily
lives we may tend not to notice that our bodies are gradually aging, until the use of certain words reminds us that we are getting older, and then we begin to understand what is happening.

Shakyamuni said, "People who merely gain in years have grown old futilely and aged without meaning," and clearly stated that "those who have become filled with sincerity, virtue, and consideration for others—people of such deep compassion—are considered 'elders.'" In Buddhism an elder is a practitioner of great virtue.

Shakyamuni also left us these rather harsh words: "Those of little learning grow old like cattle. They gain in flesh without increasing in wisdom." According to Masahiro Yasuoka (1898–1983), renowned Japanese authority on Eastern thought, aging is the process that leads us to accumulate experience, deepen our thinking, and complete our lives, and to this end becoming older offers us the opportunity to develop our mental proficiency while continuing to learn something new.

No matter what age we reach, making the effort to overcome our faults and shortcomings, and
showing consideration toward others based on the wisdom we have already attained—that is part of aging that should come along with the passing of years.

The Joy of Being Older

Having said that, it is a fact that many people seem to resent and strongly resist accepting the inevitability of growing older.

Shakyamuni explains the law of impermanence with calm detachment in such passages as "Time passes as day turns into night. The beauty of youth gradually takes leave of us." This is because he has such a compassionate mind and heart that encourage us to firmly grasp the lesson of birth, old age, sickness, and death—the Truth of this world, so that if we do so, we need not fear the coming of old age and death, and can live each day to the fullest.

Professor Ko Hirasawa (1900–1989), former president of Kyoto University, thought of birth, old
age, sickness, and death not as the four kinds of suffering but as the four joys. He commented that just as the year has four seasons, it is noteworthy that we experience birth, old age, sickness, and death and are able to find joy in each of them.

Concerning death, Professor Hirasawa said, "Life received from nature returns to nature—it returns to being a part of nature, and again takes part in nature's development. Death is not a return to nothingness but a renewed participation in nature's continuing development." He accepted old age and death as representing the compassion of the Buddha.

When we are able to consider these stages with acceptance as he did, we can perceive the significance of growing older and take joy in it.

For example, when we have reached an advanced age and deepen our thinking and increased our understanding of life, we are able to say without hesitation things that could not be easily spoken when we were younger. In that regard, one of the roles of the elderly should be to bear in mind the important lessons they have learned and pass them on to the younger generations.

Transmitting to future adults the joy of having been born in this world as a human being, along with gratitude and respect for the sanctity of all life, is a manifestation of the deepest consideration for others. This is a shining example of bodhisattva practice that we can perform verbally no matter how old we may become and even if we become enfeebled.

Our attitude of striving to continue advancing to attain the wisdom that will enrich us spiritually as we gain in years generates the dynamic power that results in joy and appreciating the meaning of life that lasts throughout our lifetime.


September 2011
From “Kosei” Translated by Kosei Publishing


Read past Guidance messages from President Niwano.



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