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The ageing tetralemma
February 8th, 2014
illustration

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The ageing tetralemma

The tetralemma is a tool extensively used in Nargarjuna-inspired Buddhism, describing reality in terms of "neither existence, nor non-existence; neither both-existence-and-non-existence, nor neither-existence-nor-non-existence."

It is an extremely rich tool for enquiry.

Most people initially interpret the tetralemma in relation to the "two truths" (in conventional and ultimate terms), e.g. as "neither purely ultimate  existence, nor purely conventional  existence; neither both, nor none," but it sustains much further enquiry (notably without 'opposing' the two truths; reality doesn't split itself according to our concepts).

A classic application of the tetralemma is to enquire into the emptiness (of essence) of time. But a practical application I would promote is in relation to 'individual' ageing rather than the 'universal' time…


When considering your existence, you're usually "neither too old, nor too young; neither both-too-old-and-too-young, nor neither-too-old-nor-too-young."  Age cannot be ignored but doesn't provide an inherent barrier to anything. It doesn't prevent talent from arising, it doesn't prevent energy from enduring, it doesn't shut down one's creativity. Social narratives in relation to age are much stronger factors to perpetuate cyclical frustrations from one generation onto the next than age itself!


You may spend a lot of time postponing actions because you're not ready yet (too young), or abandoning projects because your prime is past and the opportunity is gone (too old), but the tetralemma is a reminder that these are narratives in people's head.

These narratives might feel very convincing because they provide a reassurance that you 'know' yourself, you 'know' who you are (even if that's not who you dream to be), you 'know'… A reassurance that people crave for, due to the associated sense of predictability and security.
These narratives very much provide a temporarily-fixed 'self' to appropriate as yours… The temporarily-fixed is soon appropriated as permanently-fixed, be it by "this is the past that explains who I am today,"  or by "the older one gets, the less flexible one becomes."  The transition to permanency provides the reassurance of an undying  'soul' by relinquishing the freedom to let go and move on, adapt, respond, improve… It promotes disengagement from suffering, instead of the only approach constructive (wise engagement).


Age itself is part of reality, the tetralemma doesn't allow to deny facts… but it questions the projections we associate to these facts.

The status quo is a social condemnation. It provides the reassurance —to yourself and to others— that everyone knows how to deal / control with you, but it's mostly a projection.
Telling someone they're too young commonly is just a way to refuse to help and to say 'no' to an intention of reform / change. You want to lead and take big responsibilities? You're too young. You might shake the boat and then we'd lose our certainties? No, no, no…
Telling someone they're too old commonly is just similar. You want to still be active and produce and take risk? You're too old. You might prove more dynamic than the young ones, you might successfully grab some form of power and then we'd lose our certainties about our 'turn' coming? No, no, no…


When considering your existence, you  are often "neither too old, nor too young; neither both-too-old-and-too-young, nor neither-too-old-nor-too-young."

Others too are "neither too old, nor too young; neither both-too-old-and-too-young, nor neither-too-old-nor-too-young."

What do you project on others, and on yourself, in relation to age?
What do you blame on age when it is causally explained by lack of education (which experience doesn't automatically compensate)?
What do you blame on age when it is causally explained by sickness (which youth doesn't automatically compensate)?
What do you blame on age when it is causally explained by habit (which may strengthen with age, but may also loosen up e.g. as a result of spiritual enquiry)?
How wide-ranging is the web of your associations to the concept of age?

What do you project on others, and on yourself, in relation to age instead of looking at reality as it is and assessing each situation on its own merit?
It is tempting to consider that the "wisdom of the crowd", the status quo, the traditions hold more value than they do: did they ensure the lack of frustration, the absence of suffering, of yourself, of those close to you, of those around you? Are old lessons still valid? Were they ever valid (beyond mere survival)? Should we 'think' the same way as before, solely because it is assumed to have been useful so far (classic "survival bias": we're alive, so it worked, so it was 'right'… without considering that other paths might have been a lot more successful, or wholesome, if only they had gathered critical mass or not met some unrelated natural disaster, etc.), regardless of the dramatic progress in medicine?


#Buddhism
Drawing: "old man's eyes" by © sillyteapot (sillyteapot.deviantart.com)