Those of our readers who might be familiar with life in Hong Kong might have heard the grumblings and complaints from working people about the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF). The MPF is a government-mandated program under which people of all income levels are required to pay into a personal account managed by a private pension company. These companies take the monthly contributions from Hong Kong citizens and invest them in funds on their behalf. This scheme is intended to grow the people’s pension pots, which becomes accessible upon retirement at age 60. The funds are diverse, but in recent months, some MPF investment advisors have warned their clients that most of the funds have either been stagnant or declining in value due to economic and geopolitical headwinds. There has been one notable exception: the Healthcare Fund, which many view as one of the more stable funds in which to invest.
The supremacy of healthcare funds makes sense for two reasons: firstly, the prevalence of so many diseases and illnesses in the world—the COVID-19 pandemic is only a small part of this story—has elevated pharmaceutical, healthcare, and related industries to unparalleled reach and presence. Secondly, higher standards of living across the world mean that, on average, people are living longer than at any other point in human history. This means that healthcare has become a core service with pioneering technology and considerable public—and private—sector investment.
While one might argue that human beings have always been preoccupied with their physical well-being, advances in medicine and technology have meant that our human condition and destiny have been increasingly bound up with a distinct medical dimension. Paradoxically, as we age more comfortably and with increasingly better amenities, scientists are scrambling and competing to discover the modern equivalent to the elixir of life: an antidote to aging. Yet not only is the human body fundamentally subject to decay, even with the theoretically possible reversal of the aging process, this process is the path by which we come to terms with impermanence and transcend associated attachments and aversions.
It is important to appreciate that, just as religious impulses arose in primeval times as a response to the reality of mortality, the encounter with aging and physical decline was a key obsession of the young Siddhartha Gautama before he left his palatial home to seek enlightenment. An old man was the first of the fabled Four Sights in Buddhist legend, which was immediately followed by the sight of a sick man, before finally that of a corpse. All three sights before that of the wandering mendicant point toward the Three Marks of Suffering: anitya, anatman, and duhkha. Yet the elderly man was perhaps the most visceral sight for young Siddhartha, more fundamental, perhaps, than that of a sick person or even a corpse.
The consideration of time might have factored into how the early Buddhist texts of pre-sectarian, ancient Buddhism prioritized the formulation of “aging, sickness, and death.” While we grow increasingly vulnerable to illness as we age, it is conceivable that one could, however unlikely, live a long life ever without falling ill. But aging, thanks to the arrow of time and entropy, is inevitable and inescapable. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, the fourfold formula is expressed as a search: one that is ignoble, and one that is noble.
“Monks, these four are ignoble searches. Which four? There is the case where a person, being subject himself to aging, seeks [happiness in] what is subject to aging. . . .
“Now, these four are noble searches. Which four? There is the case where a person, being subject himself to aging, realizing the drawbacks of what is subject to aging, seeks the unaging, unsurpassed rest from the yoke: Unbinding.(AN 4.255)
The Unbinding, the Deathless, is the ultimate “medicine” and the only antidote to aging, a universal quality that is matched only by sickness, death, and the defiled.
It is no exaggeration to say that the contrast between the aging, frail, hobbling old man and how the ignorant Siddhartha would have been at the time of the Four Sights—he was physically strong, at the height of health and virility, and had a wife and son—was truly frightening, even traumatic. It was an insight into nothing less than a cosmic truth. Yet, as with all things Buddhism, the correct mindset is key.
The Buddhist author Douglas Penick, writing for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, provides valuable advice on how to approach the phenomenon of aging. He characterizes old age as the path that will prepare us for death itself, and quotes an elderly monastic as having told him:
“Old age. It’s a secret, a kind of hidden magic. It’s right there, this practice, and no one sees it. We’re being shown, given. It is how our lives actually work. What we are told we should not cling to is actually naturally being stripped away. . . . Resistance is not possible or only creates more confusion, pain.”(Tricycle)
Expressed in a slightly more mundane way, what is aging if not simply another word for passing the time? The latter might sound eminently more pleasant, although they really mean the same thing. In everyday parlance, we tell our loved ones that we wish to spend time with them, and in marriage vows we say we want to “grow old” with someone. Yet we grow old regardless. And the elderly are those who have seen a considerable amount of time pass. Despite how far we have come in terms of healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and medicinal technology, our essential human nature, a product of evolution over millions of years, remains unchanged. The arrow of time points to only one terminus, with no detours: death. We are all on this one-way ride, and our mindfulness of this should spur us toward deeper wisdom, broader love, and greater spiritual insight before we suddenly—almost never by choice—find ourselves at the final stop. . . before it begins, all over again.
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