Yesterday, as we were walking through the streets of our little village, in Northern Thailand, Ajahn (teacher in Thai) suddenly reflected that he was looking forward to getting old. We had just passed a young woman in her late teens accompanied by an older lady whose wrinkled face and humble demeanour gave her an air of wisdom and dignity. Like everyone else in the village who had prepared alms food for the monk, they had offered their donations kneeling in the dirt, eyes downcast, raising their offerings to their forehead before depositing them in Ajahn’s bowl. No words were exchanged, and we proceeded a few metres before Ajahn explained that this teenaged girl was a newborn baby when he first moved to the area 18 years prior, and that he had seen her grow up. He declared with a smile that this made him feel old, and that for him, age means wisdom. He told me that he had recently looked at himself in the mirror, something he rarely does, and discovered some lines he’d never noticed before. They reminded him of Ajahn Maha Buwa and Ajahn Chah and other great wisdom teachers of his country, and he laughed as he told me he was getting there, catching up slowly.
I love Ajahn, because so much of what he says is thought-provoking and wise. I told him after a few seconds that I wasn’t excited about aging. “So how can you be happy when you get old, then? If you don’t like aging, how can you not be miserable?”, he asked. Yes, you’re right, Ajahn, I thought. I explained that in Western societies, youth is a prized value, and people are scared of losing it through disease and age. The conversation continued for the rest of the alms round, as we walked through the streets of the village collecting donations. Ajahn speaks excellent English for a Thai person, especially for a Thai person from the North. He is remarkably sharp, curious and intelligent, and he studied English at a Bangkok University many years ago. As a monk, he spent a year in England some ten years ago. He is very curious about the human mind, and about cultural differences. I am not the first falang (foreigner, in Thai) to stay at his monastery, and he seems to enjoy my company.
He said softly that in Thailand, it is quite common to find two or three generations under one roof, and older people are respected by everyone because of their experience and their accomplishments. Younger generations feel gratitude and care toward their elders. I felt sad as I told him that this is what I have observed in Africa and Latin America as well, but that in the West, old age is often an object of shame, and that older people themselves buy into this because it’s part of our collective programming. We rarely find more than two generations in one house, and grandparents often spend their last years by themselves in retirement homes. We have lost much of our family values, and this separation has sparked an epidemic of loneliness, not just among the elderly. “Ah yes, development”, exclaimed Bhante (monk) lucidly. “Yes, Ajahn, so-called developed societies are based on capitalism, and capitalism is based on productivity, vigour, competition, speed. This model makes little room for wisdom and aging. We want to hide those things away. And we want to export this model to the so-called developing world because you obviously need it.” Catching on to my irony, he quietly retorted, “No, we don’t”.
We reached the final donor, an older lady with white powder on her face, who has been supporting Ajahn since he first established his monastery 18 years ago. They softly exchanged a few words, him looking around with his usual air of benevolence, and her still kneeling by the side of the street. She is his oldest supporter, and has missed only a couple of days in all those years, he once told me, because she was sick in the hospital. Another supporter was waiting for us a few metres away to drive us back, us and our three baskets of donated food, to the monastery. Another alms round, another lesson in caring and devotion from people of all ages.