As a pastor, hospice worker, and someone who was involved in the long-term care of my father and mother-in-law, I have walked through the door of nursing homes many times. At one point I realized the thoughts and feelings I (and many people) experience are something we share with that of Siddhartha Gautama before he became the Buddha, as is recounted in the story of the “Four Passing Sights.”
There are different versions of the story goes, but one captures for me the connection with nursing homes.
Siddhartha was born into a royal family. His father wanted to protect him from the harsh realities of life and become a great king, and so had him live within a walled palace. Within the palace, he never saw anyone suffer.
But at age 29, he felt a need to venture outside the walls in his chariot, taking with him his charioteer Channa. On the road he encountered four people.
The first was an old person, bent over and struggling to walk. This confused and disturbed Siddhartha. Channa explained that aging was a natural stage of life.
The second was a person who was sick. Channa had to explain that our physical life does not last, and we are all subject to disease.
The third was a corpse, decomposing by the road. Channa had to explain to him that our lives will come to an end, and our dust will return to the dust of the earth.
These three sights deeply disturbed his sense of well-being. He wondered what kind of life this really is if we can become sick, old and dead.
He then saw a fourth person walking in the same path in the presence of the same three people. But this person was not avoiding the three, but seemed to be seeking to understand and live with clarity about these realities. The fourth person was an ascetic, and Siddhartha became intensely curious as to what the ascetic was finding.
Siddhartha decided to leave his life of comfort and privilege and become an earnest spiritual seeker. Seven years later, sitting under the Bo tree, he experienced enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Our culture spends a great deal of energy blocking out the realities of sickness, aging and death. But when we walk into a nursing home, those realities are inescapable. There are people there who are sick. There are people who are too infirm to live on their own. And there are people who are dying.
When I see, smell and encounter these sights, my first reaction is fear and resistance, as my ego is faced with these truths. But I am reminded that these patients were once healthy. And I am reminded that if I don’t die suddenly, these realities will be mine as well. I try to hold space, as we say, for the feelings of fear and flight, but then focus on the spiritual importance of love, compassion and wisdom.