A Conversation with an Old Man by Lama Gungtang Konchok Dronme
Homage to the Buddha’s, who, having
Abandoned the seeds of cyclic existence,
Are Beyond the suffering nature
Of Birth, sickness, age and death.
May they inspire us to cut the chains
Of wondering in the samsaric realms
Once upon a time a haggard old man lay
Exhausted by the road in a wilderness.
A haughty youth appeared
And this is the conversation that followed.
‘Old Man, sitting, walking or working
You are unlike anyone I have seen.
What is it that so afflicts you?’
To this the old man replied,
‘O youth, who flies in the pride
Of having strong flesh and blood,
Listen to me, for many years ago
I was even stronger than you.
‘In running I could outrun a horse,
And when I wanted to trap
I caught even the wild yak of the north.
I was as light on my feet
As the birds of the air,
And my face as handsome as that of a god.
‘I wore magnificent clothing,
Adorned myself with jewels,
Ate the finest delicacies
And rode the most swift of horses.
‘There was no sport I did not play
No pleasure I did not know.
I gave not a single thought to death
Or the advent of old age.
The noise of the friends
And relatives who surround me
Constantly held my attention
And turned my face from everything else.
‘But the stealthy suffering of age
Slowly pressed in upon me.
At first I did not notice it,
And when I did it was too late.
Now when I look in the mirror
I am repelled by what I see.
‘When one receives tantric initiation
The initiation waters first touch one’s head
And then descend through the body.
Death comes in a similar fashion:
The crown of ones head turn white
And then the symptoms descend.
‘My hair is white as a seashell.
I did not wash out the color.
The Lord of Death has spat on me
And the frost of his spittle covers my head.
‘The many lines and wrinkles on my face
Are not folds in the baby fat of youth.
They are time measurements sketched
By the hand of the Keeper of Time.
‘This constant squinting of my eyes
Is not caused by smoke.
My powers of vision have diminished
And I must squint in order to see.
‘When I lean forward like this
And cup my ear in order to listen,
It is not that I expect you to
Whisper me a secret message.
But to all sounds seem remote
And I must strain in order to hear.
‘Droplets fall unexpectedly from my nose.
This is the ice of my youth
Being melted by the sun of old age,
Not pearls falling from a necklace.
‘My teeth have fallen out.
This is not part of a cycle
Heralding the growth of new teeth;
The meals of this life have been eaten,
And the cutlery therefore put away.
‘I do not continually drool because
I want o anoint the earth with water.
Rather, all that I once enjoyed
Now only disgusts me,
And my spittle drops of its own accord.
‘My unclear conversation
Is not a dialect learned
In some cold, foreign land.
Once I indulged in meaningless talk without end,
And my tongue is now worn out.
‘This ugly face that you see
Is not a monkey’s mask that I wear.
It is just that my mask of youth-
Mine only on loan for a short while-
Has now been taken back, and
Only the ugly bones of death remain.
‘This constant wobbling of my head
Is not a sign of my disapproval.
The lord of Death has struck me with his club
And ever since then my brain is unsteady.
‘This manner of walking that you see,
My eyes cast down at the road,
Is not in order to find
A needle that has been lost.
The jewels of my youth have fallen to earth,
And I walk in a daze,
Barely able to remember my own name.
‘The way I rise on all four limbs
Is not a playful imitation of an animal’s ways.
My legs will no longer support me,
So I must use both arms and legs to move.
‘The way I drop down when I sit is not
Intended as a display of bad manners.
The threads of my happiness have been broken
And the cords of my youth have been cut.
Hence I can no longer move with grace.
‘When I walk I stagger,
Not as a way to show off
And pretend I am a big man,
But because the burden of age
Rides heavily upon me
And I cannot walk properly.
‘This constant shaking of my hands
Is not because I itch for jewels.
The eye of death is upon me, waiting
To steal life’s gem from my hands
And I tremble in apprehension.
‘The restricted diet that I follow
Is not so fixed because I am a miser.
My digestive powers have diminished and I fear to die of overeating.
‘The light clothing that I wear
Is not planned for a fancy dress party.
My physical strength has so diminished
That even clothing is a burden to me.
‘The way I breath so heavily
Is not because I am reciting prayers
For the benefit of other.
It is a sign that soon the breath
Of my life will melt into the sky.
‘My extraordinary manner of behavior
Is not an inspired artistic expression;
I am held by the demon Death
And I have no power to move as I wish.
‘I continually forget what I am doing
Not in order to demonstrate
That I have no respect for endeavor,
But because my brain is worn out, and
My memory and intelligence have grown dim.
‘There is no need to laugh at me,
For all receive their share of old age.
Within the span of a few years, the first
Messengers of death will come to you too.
‘My words have not yet impressed you,
But soon this same condition will befall you.
These days’ people do not live for long,
And you have no guarantee
To see as many years as have I.
Even if you reach me in years,
There is no assurance that you will have
Even the powers of body speech and mind
Demonstrated by this feeble man before you.’
The youth was repelled
And Cried out in disgust:
‘O miserable creature
Despised by men and harassed by dogs
Your body is ugly and spent
I would rather choose to die now than
To remain alive in your condition.’
The old man smiled.
‘You want to be young forever
And you do not wish to become old.
You say you prefer death to old age,
But when the time of you death draws near
You will discover that it is not so easy
To face death willingly and with confidence.
‘If one never harms the gentle,
Always guards one’s precepts
And follows the threefold application
Of study, concentration and meditation,
Perhaps it would be easy to die happily.
‘But my mind did not for a moment
Give thought to spiritual values.
Even though my body is grown old,
I now cherish every day as an opportunity
To train in the principles of Dharma,
And I do not wish to die so soon.’
When the old man had spoken thus
The attitude of the youth was transformed.
‘Yes, aged one, it is true.
What I have seen with my eyes
And what I have heard with my ears
Indeed confirm what you have said.
Your words have moved me deeply.
The sufferings of age are indeed great.
You are old and have gained much experience,
So tell me truly, is there no method
By which one can overcome this terror?’
The old man smiled once more.
‘Yes, there are such methods,
And these are not particularly difficult.
Everything that is born must die
And not many live even to old age.
To live and not to die would require
The fabulous elixir of immortality,
And that seems rather difficult to acquire.
‘All great beings of the past have died:
Buddha’s, bodhisattvas, saints and kings alike.
The righteous as well as the evil,
All must one-day face death.
How can you be any different?
‘However, if one practices the spiritual path
The mind abides in joy, regardless of ones age.
Then when death falls one is like a child
Gleefully returning to his home.
Even Buddha did not speak of
A more profound method than this.
‘This is my innermost advice to you;
It is from my heart, not just my mouth:
Your fate is in your own hands
And you must follow your deeper instincts.’
To this the youth replied,
‘Indeed, you are correct. But before
Devoting myself to the intensive practice,
There are matters I should clear up,
Such as the needs of my family,
As well as my house and property.
When these have been accomplished
I shall return and speak with you again.’
The old man grunted,
‘Your attitude is empty of reason.
Previously I also lived with the thought
To engage in practice soon.
Work is like a man’s beard:
No matter how much you cut it,
The cutting never ends;
The beard just grows out stronger.
For me, years passed like this
But the work never reached an end.
Procrastination is merely self-deception.
‘If your idea is to procrastinate forever
You will have no hope of spiritual accomplishment
And our conversation has been in vain.
You should just return to your home
And leave this old man to meditate in peace.’
The youth cried out in shock,
‘Old man, do not be so harsh with me.
It would be insane of me to simply
Abandon everything I have undertaken!’
To this the old man replied,
‘Yes, you can say this to me.
But the Lord of Death who dwells in the south
Does not consider the state of ones plans.
You should speak with him.
When he comes to cal on you,
He will not ask if you are young or old,
High or low, rich or poor, ready or not.
‘All are forced to go alone,
Leaving behind their unfinished works.
The thread of life suddenly is broken
Like a rope snapping under a heavy load.
‘There is no time for plan making.
To die without spiritual knowledge
Is to die in pathetic helplessness.
At that time one’s attitude will change
Toward the importance of ephemeral works.
‘Would it not be more useful
To change the mind now
While time for training remains?
But useful advice is rare in this world
And those who follow it even rarer.’
At this the youth was overcome with emotion
And prostrated to the old man, saying,
‘Not the highest guru on the most ornate throne
Nor any of the greatest scholars or yogis
Has ever been given me a more profound teaching.
Old man, you are a true spiritual friend
And I will follow your advice.
Please speak to me further on this matter.’
The old man answered,
‘I have lived on this earth for many years
And thus have seen much of life.
Nothing is more difficult to understand
Than the principles of the spiritual path,
The way producing higher being, liberation
And omniscient enlightenment.
‘It is not easy to cultivate an experience
Of the truth taught by the enlightened ones
And even more difficult to do so in old age.
Youth is the time to learn and
To become familiar with the teachings.
Then as one grows old with the passing years,
It is easy to dwell within practice.
‘If one really understands
Even a single point of the teachings,
All activities are accordingly benefited.
There is no need to intellectualize;
When spiritual experience has been generated,
All actions of body, speech and mind
Take on a spiritual perspective.
‘The root of practice is to rely
Correctly upon a spiritual master,
And to guard one’s teachings
As carefully as one does one’s eye’s.
‘Turn your back on worldly works
And engage in study, contemplation and meditation
Upon all the beneficial essence teachings
Of Buddha, and of Lama Tsongkhapa, his regent in Tibet.
‘By applying oneself in this way
While establishing as a background
The methods for collecting merit
And purifying the mind of negative traits,
Illumination falls into one’s very hand.
Then, my son, you will know joy
And all your aspirations will be fulfilled.’
The conversation proceeded in this way
And the two became spiritual friends.
They dwell together in the forest
Free from the eight worldly concerns,
Fully absorbed I the practice of meditation.
Thus is complete my story of the old man
And the youth, who met in the forest one day,
And the record of the conversation that ensued.
I have written it out to inspire
Myself and others in the practice of Dharma.
I, the author Konchok Tenpai Dronme,
Am not particularly experienced in life
But I thought that if for posterity’s sake
This conversation were to be written down,
Some benefits may arise in the hearts of mankind.