A Conversation
With an Old Man

Lama Gungtang Konchok Dronme
"Old man, in 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
And 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 surrounded 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 a 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 one's head turns 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 a 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 me 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 all fallen out.
This was 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 to 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 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 breathe so heavily
Is not because I am reciting prayers
For the benefit of others.
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."

--- From Living in the Face of Death
Glenn Mullin
©2008 Snow Lion Press
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