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Buddhadharma : Spring 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly SPRING 2 0 09 22 N owadays, even older people in their seventies feel they have a lot of time to fool around. I don’t know where this comes from. Maybe it’s because in modern cul- tures people stay healthier, active, and mobile longer due to a better diet, more vitamins, and the latest medicines. Elderly people also have more things to distract themselves with: pack- aged holiday cruises, workshops, and different kinds of physical activities. You hear people say, “The forties are the new thirties, and the fifties are the new forties...” People put a lot of effort into staying and looking young. This kind of thinking changes our concept of aging and how we relate to growing old. When I first came to the West, most of my students were quite young, except for a dedi- cated group of women who were forty and older. They started a dharma study group, which they affectionately called the old ladies’ group. I asked one of my older students in her seventies if she attended the old ladies’ group, and she got offended. People are a little eter- nalistic in this way. In more traditional cultures, seventy is considered old, and people have no problem saying so. These cultures recognize old age as a time to prepare for death. People who in their youth engaged in naughty, unwholesome Take Charge of Your Practice behavior often start to soften and go in the direction of practice as they get older. Instead of being diligently naughty, they diligently dedicate their remaining years to saying man- tras and doing prostrations and prayers. I see this happen all the time, even in myself. In Tibet, as people age their children will say, “Mom, you’re getting old, go do some mantras and circumambulations!” This has a dual function: the children know this will get their parents out of their hair, but it is also a cultural push—a push to prepare for death. People expect this; it helps them get ready. It’s good to look at life pragmatically, rather than as how we might want it to be. Taking care of our bodies is intelligent enough; we certainly don’t want to get old and infirm pre- maturely. We don’t want to lose our sense of curiosity and interest in life, our spark. But the focus on prolonging life rather than accepting death is futile. Youth goes by in a flash, and then we enter adulthood and old age. That’s about it. Patrul Rinpoche suggests we look at our life cycle as the length of a day: infancy at dawn, childhood and adolescence in the morning hours, adulthood at noon, and old age with the setting of the sun. If you want to prepare the mind for death, putting time into perspective is a realistic thing to do. (Facing page) Untitled #219, 2005 by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche Years ago Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche realized that if he didn’t take charge of his schedule, it would take charge of him. His advice? Organize your schedule, let go of distractions, and make a clear aspiration to practice.