Why the laughter, why the joy,
When flames are ever burning?
Surrounded by darkness,
Shouldn’t you search for light? (verse 146)
Even the splendid chariots of the royalty wear out.
So too does the body decay.
But the Dharma of the virtuous doesn’t decay
[For it is upheld when] the virtuous teach [it] to good people.
(verse 151, translated by Gil Fronsdal)
The first verse in the chapter titled “Old Age” lays out the challenge: Can’t we see the dukkha all around us? This doesn’t mean we should never laugh or be joyful, only that we shouldn’t be oblivious to the larger framework, and we should look beyond superficial amusement. Verses 147 – 150 all have to do with the putrefaction of the aging body, so we’ll skip over them and continue by looking at verse 151. The words [in brackets] above are added by Gil to make sense of the final line, as he explains in his note.
Our attention is brought to the fact that everything wears out in time, including our bodies. The process may be gradual enough that we can ignore it day to day, but if we live long enough, a time will come that we are shocked by the signs of decay we observe in the mirror or with the naked eye. Death awaits all of us — keeping that in mind might improve our ability to prioritize how we spend our precious time in the human realm.
Unlike us, the Dharma, as expressed in the lives of those living according to the Buddha’s teachings, does not decay but is continuously renewed.
Ajahn Chah often made the point that our bodies can be our primary Dhamma teachers. No matter how fervently we wish that the aging process would not apply to us, it does. No matter how hard we pray that we will never become ill, illness comes. We’re assaulted by external stresses, insects, extreme temperatures, unpleasantly loud noises, and visual disturbances. Can we think of these circumstances coming and going as impersonal? Can we see that nature is simply taking its course and we are a small part of the picture?
What can we do in the face of this seeming insignificance? We can do things that might ripen as we age and even last beyond our lifespan. We can teach what we have learned, formally or informally, and become more skilled in our own understanding and in our ability to convey and embody wisdom. Simply by living an ethical life of inner calm, we become small lights in the world.
Being on the Buddha’s path is not a state, it’s an activity. Sometimes we’re right at the center of the path, striding forward, other times we meander or stand still, but if we keep ourselves oriented in the direction of wisdom and releasing dukkha, we can be of great benefit to ourselves and the world.