住在道場已五年多，這次回去，人事已非，隔壁阿伯兩年前車禍身亡；三樓的胖阿姨上個月因久病生厭跳樓自殺。搬家的搬家，鄰居多換成陌生面孔。父親、母親都老了許多。祖母除了不易變白的捲髮依舊，記憶力變得很差，類似老人失憶症。一天之中她問我數十次：「你吃飽了沒?」我總是笑笑回她。（突然間想起上人講「性如灰」1 的公案，就當眼前這老人是白衣觀音的化身吧！） 如果顯的不耐煩，會令她很難過、很自卑。許多人不能體會晚景的淒涼，便會對這樣的長輩又吼又叫。
Holding my eighty-some-year-old grandma’s hand, I pointed to the colorful evening sky and said: “Grandma, look! Gorgeous colors.” The elderly woman nodded and smiled: “Yes, I have not taken walk for a long while, so I hardly see the sunset. Really pretty!” Two minutes later, she lifted her head and asked me, “What did you just say?” I repeated it. Taking ten more steps, she lifted her head again and touched her chin in embarrassment: “See? I’m too old to be useful. Now, I cannot remember what you just asked me.” I look ed at her wrinkled, tiny, slim face, patted her shoulder and sang a song, “The red sun is setting, Yiyahai—yahai—! The little sheep are going home, Yiyahai—yahai—!” “Grandma, let’s go home and eat.” Walking in the light left after the sunset, we slowly headed for home, followed by our shadows, one short and one long. A poem emerged in my mind:
The sunset is magnificently beautiful, only but near dusk.
After living in the monastery for more than five years, I got back home this time and realized there had been a lot of changes there. The man next door had been killed in a car accident; the plump lady on the third floor had committed suicide by jumping from her apartment after a long illness. As some people moved in and others moved out, neighbors became strangers. Both my dad and my mom looked much older. Other than keeping up her white-resistant curled hair, grandma’s memory had degenerated and she had something akin to Alzheimer’s. She asked me numerous times in a day: “Did you eat?” I always smiled in return. Suddenly, I remembered the story the Master had told about the man who strove to have “A Nature Like Ashes.”1 . Was this elderly lady possibly the manifestation of the white-robed Guanyin? If I responded impatiently, she would feel very sad and suffer from low self-esteem. Many people fail to understand the distress of old age and yell and scream at elderly people.
I still remember that grandma took care of all the kids at home when I was little. I did not like to take baths in the winter. She was worried that we would catch cold, so she would put one set of clothes inside another, four or five layers altogether, and then warm them up on top of coal heater for each of us. A few times the layered clothes almost got burned. Quiet often, she brought home big heaps of sweaters and trimmed the threads as a part time job. As soon as she got paid, she would buy lollipops for me. Many times when I had fever and needed emergency care, she carried me on her back to ask for help from the neighbors.
I did not remember exactly when her strong arms became too sore and painful to lift something heavy, and her back became bent. All the events of the past are engraved in her wrinkles. All of our forbearers have selflessly devoted themselves to their offspring; how can we abandon them when they are old, or treat them spitefully? Unless a person is short-lived, who can avoid getting old? Besides, who can avoid death? The Great Wall is still standing there today, but who can see Emperor Chin of old? When we complain about elderly people for being so slow in moving and being bedridden because we lack the patience to take care of them, have we ever considered that we might be worse than them, someday?
I have heard a story: Being tired of taking care of his aged father, a young man put his father into a big bamboo basket and got ready to dump him in the mountains. The little grandson watched and told the young man: “Daddy, after you dump grandpa, don’t discard the bamboo basket. I will put you inside it when you are old.” In contrast, the Petition submitted by Mi Li in the Jin Dynasty is worthy of eternal admiration. This man submitted his resignation to the emperor so he could take care of his elderly grandmother; we should seriously reflect on ourselves.
We cannot calculate the cost to society of supporting the elderly, the way we calculate foreign currency exchange. Nor can we treat the elderly like machines whose value depreciates with age. Flowers blossom and then wither; the moon waxes and wanes; humans go through birth, old age, sickness and death; the merciless law of cause and effect has never changed since time immemorial.
“Whether Buddha manifests in this world, or does not manifest; the Dharma exists forever; the Dharma exists in the Dharma Realm.” Since “all dharmas are born from conditions and all dharmas cease due to conditions,” from the moment of birth, life moves towards death. Following the Twelve Links of Conditioned Causation, life proceeds in order from birth to death unless one cultivates, thereby swimming against the current like the three-striped fish. Due to impermanence, the youth will get old for sure. Thus, why not empathize with the elderly and try to understand how they feel.
This is a world of sensations, just like an enormous fan-shaped network of affinities. Each individual life has its cause and conditions. Whether it is in politics, culture, history, construction, or biology, all of us have benefited from our ancestors’ silent contributions. We, the current young generation, will someday become one of the numerous affinities for our offspring. Understanding this, how deeply we can appreciate those honorable elderly people! The Venerable Master purposely set up “Honoring Elders Day” in order to remind us to be filial towards our elders. In the spirit of treating all elderly people as our own elders, we invite the seniors in town to celebrate this particular day which belongs to them. One year when few Dharma Masters and I went to visit a senior home and presented the invitation for Honoring Elders Day, an elderly resident excitedly held our hands and said, “I look forward to this day every year. Look, I still keep the gifts you gave me in the past two years.” Some exclaimed, “I don’t know if I can come to join Honoring Elders Day next year.” Most elderly people do not demand much, so please give them warmth and respect! Other than checking on their living conditions, we also need protect their dignity. If we do not treat them with respect, then what is the difference between caring for them and feeding dogs and horses?
Watching the sunset through the window, I could not help but set down my pen to appreciate the magnificent, colorful sky—truly beautiful. I am thankful to the sun for its hard work during the day, emitting light and heat to brighten up the world and nourish all lives. Even before it sets in the west, it consoles all that lives by painting the sky with colorful clouds. From an economical perspective, the sunset should be cursed—for it is followed by darkness and lights in thousands of homes will consume a lot of energy. However, looking at it from different angle, we should be grateful for it deserves our praise and is the subject of immemorial hymns. I modified the poem written by the ancients: “The sunset is magnificently beautiful, but only because it is near dusk.” — We will always respect you, our elders.
Note1: The story of “A Nature Like Ashes.” A cultivator who believed that he had reached the level of being free from anger wrote, “A Nature Like Ashes” on his door. An elderly lady asked him numerous times, “What does that mean?” He finally got irritated. The elderly lady laughed, “There is still fire in your ashes!” It turned out that the lady was Guanyin Bodhisattva coming to test him.