Thursday, April 14, 2011

CHARLES JOHNSON: Reflections on Life.

There are two days each year when I make sure I sit in formal meditation on my 31-year-old zafu or cushion, and these are the occasions when my meditation practice is most powerful and emotionally moving. The first is at 12:01 AM on New Year's Day, which for the last three decades has always found me in deepest meditation when the old year ends and the new one begins. The other is my birthday, and that day, April 23, is approaching---age 63---soon. My wife and kids always have a brief, quiet birthday celebration for me (we have such a time for every family member on his or her birthday), but I've never been a party person so I prefer for them not to make a Big Production of it.

During the two formal sessions I mentioned the theme I take into meditation has always been a profound sense of thanksgiving for the many blessings I've experienced, especially for the blessing of another year of life, and the hope that in the coming year I can serve well in the many roles I've been assigned in this lifetime. Thanksgiving is a very important theme for Buddhists insofar as the Dharma says again and again how difficult it is to achieve the blessing of a human birth, which is the only realm---not that of gods, demons, animals, or hungry ghosts---in which one can hear the teachings, experience awakening, and follow the Bodhissatva vow.

Ethelbert asks, "Do you have a 'fear' of growing old?" The answer, odd as it may sound, is that I've always looked forward to old age. These are the years when all one's knowledge, experience and acquired skills bear fruit. Writer Tony Ardizzone once told me, "You have an old soul," and I suspect that is true. In all my 62 years, I've never taken a vacation or wanted one. I get bored when I'm not creating, learning, growing or improving in some way. Life for me has always had a single meaning: work and service.

I've never lived for pleasure (only for my duties and responsibilities) because creating has been my greatest pleasure since childhood. Even in my teens I was turned off by America's annoying obsession with youth culture, which I saw as selfish, naive, infantilized, and I always preferred to be around older people who had a wealth of experience, elders from whom I could learn something interesting. Furthermore, in my thirties I made a promise to myself about my fiftieth birthday. In "The Threads That Connect Us: An Interview with Charles Johnson" conducted by Geffrey Davis (Callaloo, Summer 2010, Volume 33, No. 3), I put it this way:

"My creative work will continue until the last day of my life, until I take my last breath. But decades ago I made myself a promise that by the age of fifty, which is the year I published Dreamer, I planned to have all my duties and responsibilities to everyone in my life---parents, teachers, colleagues, editors and publishers, friends and family, and students---discharged or completed. For the last ten years, there hasn't been anything I 'have' to do, only the things I want to do creatively that nourish me spiritually, intellectually, and artistically. 

(My kids are grown, both my beloved parents dead.) See this in terms of the Hindu 'Four Stages of Life.' In youth (spring) our most important job is to study and acquire skills. In adulthood (summer), we enter the work world with its various obligations and put those skills and that knowledge into play. In middle-age (fall), we serve our family and community as householders, creating wealth so that we can help others achieve happiness and avoid suffering. Then at the beginning of old age (winter), we retire from the worldliness of the world to devote ourselves exclusively to matters of the spirit, to knowledge (vidya), and preparation for death.

In every 'stage,' I create, but the intention and motivation behind the creative work matures, changes, and evolves during one's passage through life...I'm confident I did the work God put me here to do."

That promise to myself was 13 years ago so I'm now in the winter of this rewarding journey. There isn't a decade of my life that I'd be interested in repeating. Two years ago, I retired from teaching after 33 years and became a professor emeritus. I like very much one meaning of emeritus, which is "retired or honorably discharged from active professional duty." As a lay Buddhist, an upasaka, when I think of that definition, I always see an image of a soldier who has tried to stay dutifully at his post, serving out his tour of duty in a foreign land, and now he is free.

The Dharma teaches us to cling neither to life or death, youth or old age. We do not think, as Buddhists, about being 63 or 53 or 43 or 33 or 23. We don't live in the past or future. Instead, we try to live in the only place we can live, and that is the present moment, here and now. That makes every moment fresh. And new. And like a rebirth. 

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