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Apr 21
Dharma Teachings
Aging in the Buddhadharma 2

Part Two of an interview on aging and meditative practice, with Acharya Han de Wit

by Adrienne Chang

AC:  What role does your practice and the Buddhadharma have in aging—how do they help the adjustment process?

HW:  Being aware. Practice helps in that sense. Practice helps you have a little more clarity of mind. You can see how this all plays–not to become overwhelmed by the social limitations connected to old age. I notice it. Take it into account. The willingness to accept limitations and willing to work with it…that’s all connected with my practice.

When I was younger, I did not expect this would be a limitation I would run into. When you’re young, you look at the changes; you’re happy to make use of the changes; you’re happy to have your first computer, find out how it works.

AC:  When you talk about our ability to adjust gets less, what adjustment do we need to consider? Cognitive, physical, attitudinal, social, spiritual?

HW:  All of it. Obviously, you have to have a good stable mind to adjust to the changes of physically aging. Then there is the change happening around you:  social change, cultural change. Language. One of my books is having a new edition come out. I wrote it 20 years ago. Now, I had to change a lot of words because the language has changed. It sounded old fashioned. And I just wrote a new book with a young, 25-year-old philosopher, because my publisher thought it would be good to write the book with a young person. He would ask all kinds of questions coming from a western philosophical perspective and I would answer how Buddhism looks on that particular point (such as perception, reality, etc.) He would interview me, and would write it down.

I’m very happy about this little book, because now people around their 30s can read this book more easily. His use of language is very different from the language I would have used. It’s very accessible. I couldn’t have done that, so only on the level of me being interviewed could it have happened. But when you get older, this ability to take in new information, learn new strategies, that becomes less. That is a reality. There is no practice that helps against it. There is a practice to help you accept this fact, and not become depressed about it or not feel worthless.

AC:  You speak a lot about how the individual navigates through society, and how obviously, society is shaping the individual as they move through life. In Shambhala, we talk about an enlightened society. In your view, what does aging in an enlightened society mean?

HW: Compared to our society, in our society, aging is almost looked upon as a mistake of nature. Old people are often looked down upon; they are not up-to-date. And in a fast-changing culture, young people are right about that, old people are not up-to-date. There really are two kinds of society:  one with a fixed social structure, and one with a lot of innovation and change, like our society:  very dynamic, a continuous process of rapid change. For me, an enlightened society has also to do with how you respond to change, which includes your willingness to accept your inability to adapt all the time. From a Buddhist point of view there is no shame in it.

Deeply speaking, enlightened society is right here. It’s looking at your whole field of experience. As it says in one of the Sakyong’s texts (I believe it’s the Ashe Mahamudra text):  if you realize the nature of mind, that is Shambhala. It brings it to a personal level of practice. Then you can look at old age and the place of older people in society:  how do we take care of older adults; ensure they have a good living situation; not treat them as something which has no value.

AC:  But what does that imply in terms of organizing our society?

HW:  Someone once asked me, “What is the political program of Shambhala; what is Shambhala’s political view?”, because they understood that Shambhala is a social movement. I had to think about that, and I realized that there is no such thing. It is much more on the spot. To look at the situation from the experience of basic goodness, you will respond in a certain way:  that is enlightened society. So, you don’t have to first give a definition of how enlightened society should look like, not like that. In the moment that you act from the view of basic goodness, you are living in enlightened society. Do you see what I mean? I would say that is the same for old age.

A long time ago, I was Kusung for the Vidyadhara and he asked me, “What are you proud of in Holland? What are you proud of as a Dutch people?” I didn’t know what to say at first. I responded and said, “Umm, the dykes? Rembrandt? Our paintings?” He told me, “When you’re back in Holland, look at your culture, and look at what elevates people. Bring all that together because that is the dharma.” Nowadays, we would say, all that is enlightened society. All these things are expressions of basic goodness. It struck me at that time, because I then understood what he was doing in Western culture. He was exactly doing that: drawing out the expressions of basic goodness in our Western culture, like recognizing that the music of Mozart has enlightened quality.

So, that for me is the key point of creating enlightened society– as opposed to having a political idea in mind of how enlightened society should look like. Because that would lead to political ideology and preconceptions. What the Vidyadhara said and what the Sakyong is saying, is that we can look at situations and see how to nurture those aspects that support our basic goodness, that give room for basic goodness.

The issue is:  how to nurture the experience of basic goodness in our world. Of course, there are things like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, and other moral implications of basic goodness. There are certain things that support that experience, and some things that make it difficult. We have to look at society, in terms of what nurtures our basic goodness and what doesn’t. It’s just a matter of where you want to put the money as a society—you can put the money on war, on organized aggression, on organizing greed in the form of consumerism and all that, or on taking care of people who may have no “productive” or “economic value”.

AC:  Thank you for your time, Acharya de Wit.

Editor’s note: To explore more issues related to aging and the Buddhadharma, visit the Aging Hub: https://aging-hub.shambhala.org

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