Aging in the Buddhadharma: Interview with Acharya Han de Wit (Oct. 2016)

by Adrienne Chang (for Shambhala Working Group on Aging)

Acharya Han de Wit was an early founder of the European Shambhala sangha and close student of the Vidyadhara. In addition to his decades of teaching and work within the Shambhala sangha, Acharya de Wit is an internationally-renowned psychologist and one of the original thought-leaders within the field of contemplative psychology. As a research psychologist at Dutch and American universities, Acharya de Wit is author of over a dozen books exploring Buddhism and the intersections of academic and contemplative psychology, some published by Duquesne University Press, USA. Now with over four decades as a practitioner and teacher, Acharya de Wit sat down with us to share some of his views and experiences of aging in the Buddhadharma.

Adrienne Chang (AC):  How has the dharma shaped how you view growing older?

Acharya Han de Wit (HW):  Well, I believe that first you have to recognize you’re aging. For me, it’s a natural thing:  we see increasing limitations we didn’t have before that are connected to aging, but in and of itself, these limitations are not a new thing.  There have always been obstacles and compromises in our life, like going to a new school, having a job you only partly like, losing a good friend. Old age is too much of a solid concept to me. For me, limitations that come with old age are not a special thing. The whole idea of impermanence is that I’ve grown up with it:  things come and go. For example, I had a small stroke, and I couldn’t lift my arm for a while. This could have happened at any age.

I’m not surprised that I’m aging and I have no trouble with it. I see my dog, we’re both getting older, we’re both old men. It’s nature. It’s natural. I have to adjust to certain limitations. I’m less strong. But I have complete acceptance of that fact. Buddhism teaches us to be sick in a healthy way, to get old and to die in a healthy way. Having a healthy attitude—the acceptance of the limitations that come with growing old.

The Buddhist path helps people to accept impermanence, and accept the naturalness of one’s body getting old. For me, I see my body as part of nature, part of the physical environment which belongs to the earth. It is made of the elements, water, earth, wind, fire, if you like. It’s not so much mine. I don’t know if that view is connected with aging or practice or both, but maybe when the body starts to give in, gives up, you become more aware of how much it is part of the physical reality. It belongs to that plane.

But there is another aspect to aging, which I find intriguing: Our ability to adjust gets less; you and the world begin to go separate ways. I think this is maybe more difficult than accepting your changing body and mind– feeling as if you’re living in a world that is less and less yours anymore. It’s like immigrating to another country. It’s a slow process of culture shock. So, the culture in many respects looks like a culture you know, but it’s actually changing very fast. It’s going to be faster and faster. Would I want to live for 200 years? New research into repairing telomeres [parts of the chromosome which affect cellular aging] is exploring how we can live longer, and they are beginning to do this with mice. Mice can live longer. This is not science fiction anymore I thought– no, this is not what I want to do. Why do I feel that way? Because it’s not just your body that is changing, but it is the world around you that changes as well. The technical and cultural changes that happen around us are so fast. For example, I have a new heating system in my house that is a very technical, wireless and sophisticated system, and I resent to learn it! But it’s the only thing they have nowadays. My grandson is much quicker with smartphones than I am.  If I lived for 200 years, I think I wouldn’t have the ability to adapt. I would feel increasingly isolated and not part of the culture. That side of aging, I think is at least as challenging as relating to one’s own physical old age, sickness and death.

AC:  It’s aging in the 21st century– this very rapid pace of change. How do we work with both phenomena happening in the West right now:  an ever-increasing aging society (we are demographically aging in many Western countries) and a rapidly changing culture?

HW:  I believe the separation between the younger and older people will be bigger.

AC:  How so? Culturally, psychologically, physically?

HW:  A bigger difference in how they live their lives.  Culture is determined by customs, cultural habits– these habits are so engrained, you hardly know you’re using them. But then the culture changes, and then you suddenly notice that your way of relating doesn’t apply anymore. You realize your way of relating isn’t used any more. As I said, it’s a slow process of culture shock.

So, the sense of belonging in society is not a given. You have to navigate new ways; you have to find new ways. They are new ways for me, but for my grandson, he’s growing up with it. This difference of culture change, it intrigues me.

My Tibetan son-in-law took three years to adjust when he came to Europe. I’m very interested in different cultures; how it feels to move from one culture to another. I saw that it took him three years to get rid of all unnecessary fears. He knew things were different, but how are things different? We do so many things naturally, habitually, without even knowing it.

So, if you live forever, or even if you live for 200 years, that cultural adjustment would be even more so. I would be happy not to live 200 years, even if this science of telomeres advances—it doesn’t help you learn to adapt and adjust to new things. That ability to adjust becomes more difficult. I tried to learn Tibetan, because of my family. It was so difficult, because I couldn’t remember! When I was 5 or 6 years old, I could remember more easily, but this is the reality now.

AC:  What role does your practice and the Buddhadharma have in all this—how do they help this 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.

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