Death and decadence, birth and rebirth: cycles of life in nature and in ourselves

- through Francois Leclercq

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Autumn vineyards, France, 2022. Photo by the author

Where I live, it may be leaning toward a sweltering summer, but thoughts of fall are knocking at the door. When I was a child, the autumn months left me nostalgic. As the weather got colder and the days got shorter, it seemed like everything was changing for the worse. On top of that, it looked like the trees were dying. At least I thought they were dying as their leaves changed color and fell to the ground. The adults in my life said that the trees “just sleep,” but I didn't believe them. “How could a tree lose all its leaves and still be alive? " I was wondering.

As I grew older and a few more autumns passed, I realized those adults were partially right. Yes, the trees were sleeping, drawing nutrients from their branches and storing sugars for the winter months. But other things were happening too. I learned that the leaves aren't really green. They only look like this because they are filled with chlorophyll. It's only in the fall, when the chlorophyll dries up and the leaves are about to die, that we see their true colors.

(Death, in) its deepest essence is not against us (as one might sometimes assume), but it is knowing life more than we are in our most vital moments. I always think that such a great weight with its enormous pressure somehow has the task of forcing us into a deeper and more intimate layer of life so that we can come out of it all the more dynamic and fertile.

(Letters on bereavement by Rainer Maria Rilke (The Paris review))

Autumn leaf, France, 2022. Photo by the author

When the leaves fall to the ground, they provide habitats for a host of insects that need resting places for the winter. The leaves insulate the soil so that earthworms in the soil do not freeze. Finally, when the leaves decay and decompose, they fertilize the soil, adding nutrients to support the growth of trees and other plants in the spring.

As I learned more about the natural processes of the world, my childish unawareness was replaced with knowledge and I gained an appreciation for the impermanent nature of trees. As we age, Buddhism helps us gain this same appreciation for the transience of people. As human beings, by nature, we are born, grow old, get sick and eventually die. At first, getting old is a good thing. It is a transition that adds richness and complexity to our lives. At 16 you can drive, at 18 you go to university and at 25 you can rent a car! But there also inevitably comes a tipping point when life stops giving us things and starts taking them away from us.

The author in France, October 2022. Photo by Marie-Laure Jacquet

Aging means that our body begins to break down. Diseases may become more common, and we may find it difficult to keep up with new technologies or popular culture. These changes are at best unpleasant, and at worst can cause immense suffering. This suffering is multiplied by a secular world rooted in ignorance; a world that tells us our bodies should never change. According to the ads that appear on our digital devices, every 50 year old should look 25 and every sick person just needs to adopt a more positive mindset or buy the latest supplements.

In contrast, Buddhism teaches that change is a natural and unavoidable part of life. Everything in the universe, including people, is in a constant state of transition. If we can learn to accept life's transitions, we can appreciate them the same way a child might appreciate the poignant beauty of fallen leaves. When we approach the aging process with this new wisdom, we find beauty amid aching joints and graying hair.

Autumn vineyards, France, 2022. Photo by the author

Our youthful vigor is replaced by a wealth of life experiences that help us make better, more thoughtful choices. We realize that a quiet evening with good friends can be more enjoyable than a night out on the town surrounded by strangers or a fancy trip. And we find more time for spiritual practice when we let go of outdated desires.

More than that, as the autumn leaves fall from our proverbial tree, we realize that they make way for new growth, even wisdom. It may feel like a new activity or the deepening of our relationship with a friend or partner. When we approach the aging process with a spirit of acceptance, the world opens up to us. And the suffering that is normally associated with the process of birth, aging, illness and death can diminish. Instead, it is replaced by quiet joy and contentment as we gaze upon the fallen leaves of our past and look forward to the new growth that will emerge in our future, however limited.

Decaying autumn leaves, France, 2022. Photo by the author

Like a child looking at the orange and red leaves of autumn, who now understands that they announce beautiful days after winter, we experience aging as proof that life has new and worthwhile challenges in store for us. And when the day finally comes when our human shell ceases its worldly function, we can let it go without fear. If we have cultivated meditation, we know that the end of one life leads to the beginning of another. In the same way that autumn leads to winter and then to a new spring.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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