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Buddha and Milarepa on Old Age

Below are gleanings of what Buddha and Milarepa show about aging and old age.

From Buddha's Discourses (Sutras)

On one occasion Buddha sat warming his back in the western sun. Then Ananda went to the him and massaged his limbs with his hand and said, "It is amazing, lord. It is astounding, how the Blessed One's complexion is no longer so clear and bright; his limbs are flabby and wrinkled; his back, bent forward; there's a discernible change in his faculties - the faculty of the eye, the faculty of the ear, the faculty of the nose, the faculty of the tongue, the faculty of the body."

"That is the way it is, Ananda. When young, one is subject to aging; when healthy, subject to illness; when alive, subject to death. The complexion is no longer so clear and bright; the limbs are flabby and wrinkled; the back, bent forward; there is a discernible change in the faculties - the faculty of the eye, the faculty of the ear, the faculty of the nose, the faculty of the tongue, the faculty of the body."

"Those who live to a hundred are all headed to an end in death."

[From SN 48.41, Jara Sutta - Old Age]

The aging of beings, their old age, brokenness of teeth, grayness of hair, wrinkling of skin, decline of life, weakness of faculties - this is called aging. With the arising of birth there is the arising of aging and death.

[From MN 9, Sammaditthi Sutta, v. 21-22 - The Discourse on Right View]

The householder Nakulapita went to the Blessed One and said, "Bhagavan, I am a feeble old man, aged, advanced in years, having come to the last stage of life. I am afflicted in body and ailing with every moment. And it is only rarely that I get to see the Bhagavan and the monks who nourish the heart. May the Bhagavan teach me, may the Bhagavan instruct me, for my long-term benefit and happiness."

"So it is, householder. The body is afflicted, weak, and encumbered. So you should train yourself: 'Even though I may be afflicted in body, my mind will be unafflicted.' That is how you should train yourself."

Sariputta added: "And how is one afflicted in body but unafflicted in mind? A well-instructed disciple has regard for noble ones and is well-versed and disciplined in their Dharma; has regard for men of integrity and is well-versed and disciplined in their Dharma - his form changes and alters, but he does not fall into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair over its change and alteration."

[Excerpts from SN 22.1, Nakulapita Sutta.]

On one occasion two brahmans - feeble old men, aged, advanced in years, having come to the last stage of life, 120 years old - went to Buddha and said to him: "Master Gotama, we are brahmans - feeble old men, aged, advanced in years, having come to the last stage of life, 120 years old. Teach us, Master Gautama. Instruct us, Master Gautama, for our long-term benefit and happiness."

Buddha taught:

"This world is swept away by aging, by illness, by death.
For one swept on by aging no shelters exist.
Keeping sight of this danger in death, do meritorious deeds that bring bliss.
Make merit while alive.
When the world is on fire with aging and death, one should salvage [future wealth] by giving:"

[From AN 3.51 and 52, Dvejana Sutta - Two People 1 and 2]

"What serves one well till old age?
What, if well-established, serves one well?
What is a precious treasure for man?
What is difficult for thieves to take away?"

Buddha's answer:
"Moral conduct serves one well till old age.
Sradda [1] if well-established, serves one well.
Knowledge is a precious treasure for man.
The merit of good actions is difficult for thieves to take away."
-   Jara Sutta (Discourse on Old Age), 51.

[1] Sradda (Sanskrit) or saddha (Pali), is confidence resting on inner knowledge somehow. What is meant is hardly blind faith, but deep conviction and even better: confidence based on one's activated knowledge. It is established by living it too.


At death a person abandons what he construes as mine. - Buddha, Sutta Nipata 4.6, Jara Sutta, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

As a water bead on a lotus leaf does not adhere, so the sage does not adhere. - Buddha, in Sutta Nipata 4.6, Jara Sutta, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

A wise man is not deluded by what is perceived. - Buddha (abr.) Sutta Nipata 4.6, Jara Sutta, tr. John D. Ireland.

It is a failure in life not to be true to the best one knows. [With Buddha] Try and stick to right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, as aging is stressful. - Cf. Buddha, Beyond Coping, Teachings on Aging, Illness, Death, and Separation, II. The Doctor's Diagnosis - 11 and 12, extracts.

In whatever beings, of whatever classification of beings, there is old age when there is decrepitude, broken teeth, gray hair, wrinkled skin, the dwindling of the life force, and the decaying of the sense faculties. This is called old age. [Buddha, in Holder 2006:51]

Tibet's Patron Saint Milarepa on Old Age

✑ The life of Milarepa in a nutshell: [Milarepa's life]

✑ Teachings of Milarepa, a rosary: [Milarepa teachings]

Jetsun Milarepa (c. 1052 - c. 1135) is one of one of Tibet's most famous yogis and poets. In many of his songs and poems lie exquisite realizations.

This is the happy song the old man sings!
There is no need to farm when there's no demand for food. [ in Chang 1999:29-30, excerpt]

If one is really determined to free himself from the sufferings of Samsara, such as birth, old age, illness, death, and so on, he will have peace of mind all the time and will not need to make any effort. Otherwise he should bear in mind that the sufferings in a future life could be much more durable and long-lasting than those in this life; and the burden could also be much heavier. It is therefore of paramount importance to take steps to prepare for the next life. [Milarepa, in Chang 1999:114]

Worldly folk who anticipate old age, illness, and death, in this world, seek to evade or ameliorate the intensity and anguish by means of medical treatment. But the wealth of the rich cannot ward off the end of life anyway. [Milarepa rendered - in Evans-Wentz 1969:259]

Remember the "boastful talk" of this old man! If you want happiness in life, then practice the Dharma, renounce distractions, and remain in solitude. [Milarepa, in Chang 1999:116]

Milarepa survey from the 100 000 Songs


One day, Jetsun Milarepa descended from the Great Light Cave to the happy Village of Mang Yul. People of the village asked, "Are you the much-talked-about yogi Milarepa?"

He replied, "Yes, I am."

They cried in respect, "Oh, here comes the wonderful yogi!"

And a wealthy couple cried, "We would like to adopt you into our family! We have a good strip of land which we can give you; you can then marry an attractive woman, and soon you will have relatives."

Milarepa replied, "I have no need of these things, and will tell you why":

Home and land at first seem pleasant;
But they are like a rasp filing away one's body, word, and mind!
How toilsome ploughing and digging can become!

A wife

The married couple said, "Please do not talk like that! We will find you a fine girl from a prominent family, who is fit to be your bride and who will suit your taste. Please consider this."

Milarepa sang:

At first, the lady is like a heavenly angel;
[Then] You strike her with your staff, but back she throws a ladle.
I keep away from women to avoid fights and quarrels.

A son

The husband then said, "Dear Lama, it is true that when one grows old and close to death he has not the same capacity for enjoying life or for being pleasant as when he was young."

Milarepa sang on:

In youth, a son is like the Prince of Heaven;
In middle age, he becomes a ruthless creditor to whom you give all, but he still wants more. Driven from the house are his own parents. His father calls, but he will not answer; His mother cries out, but he will not listen. Then the neighbors take advantage, spreading lies and rumors.
Thus I learned that one's child oft becomes one's enemy. Bearing this in mind, for sons and nephews I have no appetite.

A daughter

Both husband and wife agreed with him, replying, "What you have said is indeed true. Perhaps it would be better to have a daughter. What do you think?"

In answer Milarepa sang:

In youth, a daughter is like a smiling, heavenly angel; In middle age, she is good for nothing. Her parents will suffer from her bitterness and temper.
In the end, she becomes red-faced and wields a sword.
At her worst, she will bring mishaps and disaster.
Woman is always a trouble-maker.
For women, the primary source of suffering, I have no appetite.

Other relatives

The husband and wife then said, "One may not need sons and daughters, but without relatives, life would be too miserable and helpless. Is that not so?"

Milarepa again sang:

At first, when a man greets his relatives, he is happy and joyful; with enthusiasm. He serves, entertains, and talks to them.
Later, they share his meat and wine.
He offers something to them once, they may reciprocate.

In the end, they cause anger, craving, and bitterness;
They are a fountain of regret and unhappiness.
With this in mind, I renounce pleasant and sociable friends;
For kinsmen and neighbors, I have no appetite.


The couple then said, "Indeed, you may not need kinsmen. However, since we own a great deal of property, would you like to have and take care of it?"

Milarepa then burst into another song:

Wealth, at first, leads to self-enjoyment,
Making other people envious.
To amass wealth and money invites enemies and stirs up ghosts.
One works hard to gather riches which others will spend;
In the end, one struggles for life and death." [122, modified somewhat]

He did not have plenty of appetite.

[Source of this section: Chang 1999:119-22, passim]

Jetsyn greeting an old woman

In a large field Jetsyn came across a very beautiful girl, about fifteen years old. He went up to her , and she kindly invited him to her house, pointing, "It is over there. Wait for me at the door. I will come directly."

Accordingly, Milarepa went to her home, pushed the door open with his staff, and went in. At once an ugly old woman with a handful of ashes rushed at him, shouting, "You miserable yogi-beggars! In the summer you all show up begging for milk and butter! In the winter you all come for grain! I'll wager you wanted to sneak in to steal my daughter's and daughter-in-law's jewelry!"

Grumbling and trembling with rage, she was about to throw the ashes at Milarepa, when he said, "Wait a minute, Grandmother! Please listen to me!"

He then sang:

Grandmother, you are an angry woman,
Question your own thoughts and examine your mind.
Practice [the best of] the Buddha's teaching.

When you were first sent here,
Did you dream you would become an old nanny-goat?
In the morning you get up from bed,
In the evening you go to sleep,
In between, you do the endless housework;
You are engrossed in these three things.
Grandmother, you are the unpaid maid.

Question your own thought and examine your mind. Then things may be different for you.

The head of the family is the most important one,
Income and earnings are the next most longed-for things,
Then sons and nephews are wanted most.
By these three you are bound.
Grandmother, for yourself you have no share.

Question your own thought and examine your mind [if you can, so far as you can].
Grandmother, you are burned up with fury.

Gossip about other women and their manners is what interests you;
To talk of widows and relatives is your delight.

Grandmother, are you so gentle when you gossip?

To lift you from a chair is like pulling out a peg;
With feeble legs you waddle like a thieving goose;
Earth and stone seem to shatter when you drop into a seat;
Senile and clumsy is your body, Grandmother, you have no choice but to obey.

Question your own thought and examine your mind. From that you may find out how you have changed.

Your skin is creased with wrinkles;
Your bones stand out sharply from your shrunken flesh;
You are deaf, dumb, imbecile, eccentric, and tottering;
You are thrice defonned.
Grandmother, your ugly face is wrapped in wrinkles.

Your food and drink are cold and foul,
Grandmother, you are now a wretch,
half woman and half bitch!

Now, with fear and grief at heart,
You watch the time of death draw nigh.
Grandmother, can you face death with confidence?

Upon hearing this profound, melodious song, the old woman was so moved that she regretted what she had done to the Jetsun, and could not help shedding tears. [139-39, passim, and slightly modified.]

According to Paul Carus

Shut up and confined, as it were, in an egg . . .

Of those beings who live in ignorance, shut up and confined, as it were, in an egg, I have . . . broken the eggshell of ignorance and . . . obtained the most exalted, universal Buddhahood. [From Paul Carus' Buddha, the Gospel, "Entering into Nirvana"]


Buddha and Milarepa, Old Age quotations in Buddhism, Literature  

Holder, John J, tr. and ed. Early Buddhist Discourses. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006.

Chang, Garma C. C., tr. The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, London: Shambala, 1999.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, ed. In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.

Walshe, Maurice, tr. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Evans-Wentz, Walter Yeeling, ed. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

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