Bhikkhu Cintita Joins the Ranks of the Newly Old

On September 27 I will turn 60! In Buddhism we have this Self thing,
or rather don't have it. To be a Self requires the view that there is
something in or around this body that is unchanging, besides a Social
Security Number. That unchanging Self is what is known in Buddhism as
"a mental formation," which in my case arose many years ago complete
with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not
surprising that that Self is someone much younger than me. The
landmark event of turning 60 puts me once again face to face with that
unchanging youthful Self, and gives me three choices:

One, I can try all the harder to convince myself that I AM this
youthful unchanging Self. After all, I have the still unchanged energy
to be an international globetrotter, like I was in my 20's, and
without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except
when I'm sick or pulled a muscle. I can always grow my lush head of
hair back (I think; I haven't actually checked for a while). I've had
many more years of experience being young than any of the young of
today — the whippersnappers — so I should be really good at it.
Why, I just might buy me a skateboard when I get back to the States,
and what I think they call a "Walkman" so I can listen to the latest
disko music. Monks don't have hats to speak up that they could wear
backwards, but maybe I'll express my youthful rebellion by wearing my
robe over my RIGHT shoulder.

Two, I can lament the unfairness of the universe for not being the way
it is supposed to be, for failing to respect who I really am, for not
according me what was promised to me, for being like a fancy
restaurant that has inexcusably lost my dinner reservation or a hotel
that has put me next to the elevator. I might even try to organize
something to do about it, like a protest. Or I might just quietly
experience the despair.

Three, I can regard this situation as a good practice opportunity.
This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:

If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is this guy, and
who am I? I seem to have his memories of who he is supposed to be, so
we must have intersected at some point, maybe that time in 1965. If he
is not me, he must be around here somewhere, since he is unchanging.
And I must be another Self, so two Selves. And if there can be two
Selves that I identify as me, aren't there likely to be more? But I
know that guy used to be me, so what happened? The mind not able to
wrap itself around any of this, exhausted, all the Selves shatter and
what is left is nothing but the recognition of change, a continual
relentless morphing of the whole universe into new forms. Even as the
idea arises that THIS IS ME, all the parts and their relations are
already morphing into something else. Any Self that tries to hold onto
itself does not fit into the way things really are, is no more than
the product of a very active imagination trying to find something
solid in an ocean of change. It is silly to try to hang onto something
I never was and could not possibly be.

Thinking this way gives me the ability to lighten up, … and to sound
very philosophical while I'm at it.

Just when I had not only resigned myself to no longer being a youth,
or a Self, but also thought I was joyfully present with this reality,
one of the monks here told me he thought I was already 70! That
suddenly breathed new life into option (1). If you see someone zipping
around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes next spring,
that will be me.

As a Buddhist monk I take on a large set of vows which if followed
scrupulously give very little opportunity to feed a Self. They don't
guarantee that I won't entertain a Self secretly, and they allow for
the basic requirements for well-being of the body and mind that the
Self also sometimes wants, but they divert almost all of my life's
time and energy to purposes other than keeping a Self alive. This has
two benefits. First, protecting or enhancing that Self is always a
losing battle. That becomes easier to see as I become older; it will
all end up in the rubbish bin. Second, a self is insatiable. It could
easily drain all my life's time and energy, and leave no room for
worthy projects. There is an enormous sense of liberation that comes
with monastic vows, there really is. (Not that all monks experience
this: the vows Don't Mean a Thing if You Don't Have that Swing.)

So what are my selfless worthy projects? More than ever I intend to
devote my remaining years to the cultivation and flourishing of
American Buddhism. I say, "more than ever," because I am enormously
inspired by what I see of Buddhism here in Burma, and at a distance
dismayed at what I know of the spiritual state of my own country. I
also have great fears about the direction of Western Buddhism in
America, much of which has become a form of New Age Feel-Goodism. It
will take selfless wisdom, energy and patience, on the part of
countless dedicated disciples of the Buddha to see Buddhism firmly
planted in American soil. But Burma has taught me it can be done and
shown what a difference it makes when it is done. That is where my
heart is as I join the ranks of the newly old.

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