On September 27, 2009, while living in Sagaing, Myanmar, I turned 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,” and also as a “Wrong View.” In my case this delusion of a mental formation arose many years ago complete with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not surprising that that Self is someone actually 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:
Under this choice I 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 now without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except when I’m sick or have 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 get me a skateboard, and what I think they call a “Walk Man” so I can listen to the latest “Disko” music, just like the youth of today. 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.
After I began, with such thoughts, to settle into a happy state of denial my daughter emailed from America, “I don’t think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you are 60.” That suddenly took the wind out of my sails. I then began to realize how denial must always slide the slippery slope gradually into depair. So I placed my mind there to see how it felt.
Under this choice I 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 in a room next to the elevator or over a, uh, disco. I might even try to organize something to do about it, like a protest.
Or I might just relish the despair. You know, I would probably make a really great Bitter Old Man, famous for my Bodhidharma frown. I would learn the art of striking fear in the hearts not only of children, but even of dogs and cats. And it would just get better as I get older and older and older, and more and more bitter. The Despair I would experience with Flair, with a Penetrating Frown and a Horrifying Glare. Wigglet, the dog I had adopted in Sagaing, would no longer want to come to my door, relieved instead by the mangiest mongrels of Sagaing, MY kinda dog . I would learn to peal paint and wilt flowers as I walk by. Haha. If I have to be a Bitter Old Man, I’m going to do it right. Bynext rainy season my mere presence will pop meditators right out of Samadhi into a thicket of unwholesome impulses. My former fans will say, “Don’t do It, Bhante, don’t become a Bitter Old Man,” and “No, Not Bhikkhu Cintita.”
… But wait, what am I thinking? Am I not just replacing one Self with another, the Young with the Old, then clinging equally to the new (Old)? Do I really think I can find satisfaction with the Old (new) Self, any more than I could with the old (Young )? Is not the new (Old) equally subject to dissolution? Oh, Impermanence, What Vexation Have You Wrought? And what would the Buddha say? One of his monks turning into a modern (new but Old) Mara. Besides, I can see that this Bitter Old Man bit will wear thin pretty quickly. “Oh, Wigglet! Wigglet!”
Under this choice I regard this situation as a good Practice Opportunity and Topic for Contemplation. This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:
If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is that 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.
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. 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 me what a difference it makes when it is done. That is where my heart is as I join the ranks of the Newly Old.
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 at Sagaing told me he thought I was already 70! That suddenly propelled me back to Square One. If you see someone zipping around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes this spring, that will be me.