Buddhism in the West began its latest emergence in the middle of the twentieth century. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first, those baby-boomer converts find themselves ready for a new phase of life: retirement.
Mu Soeng, the study center’s program director, resident scholar, and a core faculty member, observed this emergence, and the questions it was generating from people who come to Barre. He thought it might be useful to combine the knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings with related ideas from Indian culture on the phases of life.
As the course description notes, retirement confronts us with existential issues in altogether new ways. While there are many ways this idea could unfold, the initial weekend course is meant to be an exploratory workshop for establishing an ongoing discourse on these vital issues. Can the Buddha’s insights into the human condition be articulated and contextualized in ways that can help guide and support a new kind of community? It will also be the first step in creating an online retirement community that will inspire the daily practice of a far-flung network of Buddhist practitioners.
Building upon the ancient Indian paradigm of retirement being a precious opportunity for personal growth, the course will use the classical teachings from the Pali texts as the primary source material for reflections and conversations, with input from later Buddhist traditions as well.
Insight Journal asked Mu Soeng to say a bit more about the origins of this idea.
Insight Journal: What inspired you to offer this idea?
Mu Soeng: I have been thinking for some time along the lines of a Council of Wise Elders. To some extent, it is a Native American model but it also has echoes in the kalyāṇa-mitta model of Theravada monastic community which is structurally quite horizontal.
So my thinking has been to start a discourse among Buddhist practitioners who are nearing the retirement age or have retired to see if a horizontally structured community can be created that could serve two functions: one, to find resources for greater depth of personal practice; and, two, if these “Wise Elders” could find skillful ways to interact with their own family and friends through a core sensibility of restraint and renunciation, and thus be an inspiration to next generations.
IJ: The image of the Indian model for the later life phase has the feeling of increasing detachment from worldly affairs, a kind of renunciation. Is that accurate? Does involvement with family continue, for example?
MS: The Indian model, which is at heart of my own exploration in modeling an intentional community, is indeed nestled in a culture of restraint and renunciation. To that extent, the teachings of the Buddha are embedded in that cultural container. But this model—the four stages of life: childhood and education; married householder; retirement; and walking alone into the yonder—fits in very well with how the lives of Buddhist householders in various countries of Asia have been modeled.
This is not so much a matter of details as a vantage point of reflecting on the human life. If that vantage point is the explicit Buddhist teaching of letting go of craving and clinging, then it becomes a matter of embodiment which I am hoping will be part of discourse among this envisioned Council of Wise Elders.
So, yes, this letting go of craving and clinging is a kind of renunciation and the nature of this renunciation among lay Buddhist practitioners in twenty-first century America is at the heart of the discourse. It is not so much a matter of involvement with family as it is a matter of embodying the letting go of greed, hatred, and delusion in your own life that your family can see and be inspired by.
IJ: The course description is somewhat open-ended. It seems that you are making the minimum number of assumptions about what this idea could become. Is that intentional? Why did you decide to do it that way?
MS: This open-endedness is largely an issue of cultural translation. I don’t have any answers as to how this translation will take place any more than the next person; that’s why I place my trust in the unfolding of the discourse. If the horizontal community is able to stay focused on the issues of craving and clinging, then I think it will be a skillful for everyone to work with. If we get sidetracked by peripheral issues then it could be chaotic.
IJ: How do you see your own attitude toward practice changing as you enter a new phase in life? What about your own life has had the greatest impact on this?
MS: In recent years I have started making a distinction between training and practice. “Training” is the word I use for retreats that people do in structured and disciplined ways under the guidance of a teacher or a mentor. By “practice” I mean a keen and constant mindfulness of one’s view and intention in the engagements of everyday life. You will notice that view and intention are the wisdom factors of the eightfold path; hence an acute sensitivity to view and intention in everyday life is the expression of wisdom and practice. Training refines one’s view and intention and practice modifies its expressions.
I have been fortunate in my conditioning that ever since I was a teenager I had a deep intuition about the unsatisfying nature of saṃsāra. By saṃsāra, here, I mean the seductions and temptations of the things of the world. But I don’t hold this in any militant nihilistic posture. It is more a matter of sadness that the shape of greed, hatred, and delusion has not changed much since the time of the Buddha. I like to think that there are people out there who have the same intuitions and who would like to join hands in creating a community that can be an inspiration for future generations.