The Buddha describes features of the seasonable and unseasonable time for making effort.
Read the Sutta
Index to available translations: AN 5.54
This is a discouraging sutta for these times and this old man.
What can it mean that Gotama who is always so encouraging is here saying that there are times which are just no good for making effort?
I believe what is being spoken of is better thought of as 'all-out effort' directed at attaining nothing less than arahantship as opposed to the home life where realistically the highest one can hope to attain is non-returning (arahantship for the layman is possible, but extraordinarily difficult to manage).
For all out effort what is needed is a the complete, virtually unretrievable renunciation of one's worldly goods and the total dependence on one's kamma.
Complete abandoning of every tie to the world.
This is not going on retreat for two weeks on one's vacation.
This is not even retiring into a monestary as they are set up today where one can count on one's food, cloting, medicine and shelter and the politics of monestary management.
Think about what 'total renunciation' would mean here today. [USA, Tuesday, July 15, 2014 3:24 AM]. Step out into this land without money with only one set of cloths and a bowl and in all likelihood one would be in jail before nightfall.
It isn't that people are not generous. I have seen people survive on the streets of New York for five years and more with the assistance of the antifreeze alcohol. But their's is a life of misery and endless fear an harassment.
The people here are the most generous in the world, but there are also very many that are so intollerant or fearful of poverty that they are easily persuaded to act violently towards any person projecting an image of what can happen to them too should their flimsy supports dry up.
To voluntarily jump into that fire would be to risk everything for a situation that would not be conduscive to serenity, methinks.
And I think that it is this degree of commitment that is intended in this sutta, not the abandoning altogether of the quest.
Again the seeker who begins the journey in old age is not only faced with the disagreeable effects that result from the giving up of old habits, but he must also face the continual unpleasantness of a body in decay.
There are a number of cases in the suttas where those who have just started in old age have even attained arahantship, but the case with the better prognosis would be the one where in youth one got a running start so as to establish control over the mind before the onset of the painful decay of the body.
So again I think in this case the ideas is the encouragement of the young to take advantage of their youth when that is possible more than the idea of discouraging the elderly from any idea of effort.
Again, imagine attempting the life in places in Mexico where there are violent drug gangs kidnapping anyone with the least prospect of bringing in a ransom and murdering seemingly at random, a peaceful people in fear and suspicious of any abnormal behavior, and violent and corrupt vigalantes and police.
Or think about becoming a beggar in one of those African countries continually plagued by famine.
Do you have enough personal power to be able to assure yourself that food given to you is of more benifit to the giver than eating it himself?
There are things that one faces in the highly sensitive state of one near starvation and without the assurance of conventional resources that can drive one mad.
I think the advice given in this sutta can be seen not as discouragement but as a warning to those whose faith might lead them into taking useless action.