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The Buddhist Retirement Plan

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Photo by Josh Adamski

A financial adviser once told me that most people only really begin saving for retirement in their mid-forties. It would be better to start earlier, of course, but most of us don’t think that far ahead—I am sure I never imagined retirement would be part of my future when I was 20. Although I have been putting money aside for years, I was not particularly concerned about the faraway future until recently; it was lifetimes away . . .

But it isn’t anymore and I have finally begun to take the prospect of my future retirement more seriously (in my mid-forties no less), and I am doing what I can to prepare for it. No one wants to retire into poverty, yet to retire with some financial means at one’s disposal requires a great deal of planning.

Preparing for financial comfort is not the only kind of retirement planning I have been thinking about lately: perhaps equally important (if not more so) is a kind of spiritual planning that I also had not considered. And spiritual planning may prove to be even more difficult to navigate if I don’t lay a foundation ahead of time.

Indian spiritual traditions have long debated this aspect of retirement. In the classical āśrama system* outlined in Hindu literature, it is argued that life presents us with natural stages of progression: one begins one’s life as a student, then moves into the life of a householder (with a family and profession), and in one’s later years, pulls away from worldly desires and begins a process of gradual renunciation. In other words, renunciation becomes a kind of ultimate retirement plan. The argument is based on the understanding that, while worldly life might have its appeal for the young, as one grows older this appeal fades and one begins to look elsewhere for inspiration. A life of renunciation is therefore not supposed to be a dramatic cutting away of one’s past life in exchange for a radical new one, but is often understood as a natural—perhaps even inevitable—reorientation.

The problem, however, is that turning toward the spiritual life in one’s later years may not be as easy as it sounds. Although there may be something natural about changing direction in this way, one is not likely to have the discipline or flexibility of mind to take on any kind of rigorous training then. The spiritual life is not merely about wearing sandals and flowing clothes. It requires—at least for most of us—a rigorous discipline of study, concentration, and practice. We each have our own spiritual capacity, but most religious traditions agree that these capacities require fine-tuning if they are to lead us anywhere.

The Buddhist counter-argument to the Hindu āśrama system is therefore not to wait for the later years, but to take the robes early in life, when one is young and flexible enough to face the challenge of radical transformation. The Buddha left the home life when he was 29—not when he was old and grey. The Buddhacarita (a 1st or 2nd century Indian hagiography) articulates this debate by creating a scene in which the Buddha’s father argues against his son’s decision to walk away. The father begs the Buddha to stay and tells him that he is too young to renounce, that his passions are too strong and that it will be too difficult. One of the saddest lines in the text is when the father adds that it is his time to renounce, because he—as an old man—is finally ready to walk away. By leaving the worldly life in his youth, the Buddha was disrupting an age-old system that would leave his own father in the dust.

But the Buddha would not wait a moment more than was required. As he explained to his father in this scene, his house was on fire and he would not stay behind to be swallowed by it, no matter who asked it of him. He had to leave, and by doing so he created an alternative path to renunciation. Although renunciation may be difficult when one is young because the passions are strong, it is—at least according to the Buddhist argument—the only chance one really has to take such radical transformation on. When we are old, we might be more naturally inclined to let the world go, but we will be too tired and inflexible to do the work. The only way, according to Buddhism, is to go now.

It’s this argument that I find myself contemplating as I begin to focus on a retirement plan for my own future. I have not followed the Buddha’s advice (at least insofar as the Buddhacarita records it), having chosen to remain a householder instead. I have not focused on radical spiritual transformation to the extent that I might have been able to had I chosen to walk away when I was young. If I were to listen to some of the early narratives, it may be that I have lost any chance of achieving serious spiritual transformation in this lifetime.

But I don’t buy that argument anymore. Such black-and-white views about renunciation are too extreme for me now. Renunciation does indeed require training, but I don’t think that all is lost because the training was not performed in a monastery from the age of 20 onwards. I do, however, believe that as retirement planning looms, more consideration must be granted to the spiritual life than before. If we hope to be able to face the closing years of life with some honesty, if we have a chance at facing illness, old age, and isolation (never mind death), we must begin the work before the flames engulf us.

My life these days is hectic and full. There are people to see and places to go, and the busyness sometimes borders on the absurd. But the day will come when there will be fewer people to see and fewer things for me to do. I will face the beginnings of stillness then and I want to know that I will be able to do so with at least some measure of ease. When that era dawns, I don’t want to be financially devastated and I don’t want to be frightened. I want to have peace. I know the road to peace is long, so I will begin the work now.

(Between appointments), the cushion calls.

Aśramas are four age-based life stages discussed in ancient Indian texts, comprising: brahmacarya (student), gr̥hastha (householder), vanaprastha (forest dweller), and sannyasa (renunciate).

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