Beginner's mind is a special BDG project bringing together insightful essays written by American students who have taken experiential learning courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify themselves as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with Buddhadharma. All share their thoughts and impressions on what they learned, how it impacted their lives, and how they could continue to engage in teaching.
Krista Nguyen wrote this essay for his Buddhist Modernism class at the University of Southern California. Krista is a sophomore in health sciences and humanities at USC, majoring in pre-medicine. After graduating, she will go to medical school in hopes of becoming a doctor.
I chose this course because my family is from a Buddhist background and I wanted to deepen my understanding of Buddhism. Knowing less about the core philosophies of Buddhism, I was also confused about how Buddhism fits into the modern world and the reality around me. With the rise of political movements in recent years, I previously had the idea that Buddhism was very separate from all that. And as an activist, I had often hoped to find a sense of inner peace while still believing in those same causes. It can easily become exhausting because modern activism, especially among the generation that grew up with the internet, is entwined with heavy emotions and mental chaos. However, I am now beginning to see how one can be a passionate activist while developing inner strength and endurance, which will ultimately help prevent exhaustion and burnout.
So far, I have enjoyed readings on Buddhism in Education, Thich Nhat Han, and Medina's Beyond Vietnam.* I was surprised to see the connection between Vietnamese Buddhism and the civil rights movement in the United States, and it was interesting to note how these two seemingly opposing movements actually supported each other. Before the course, I had questions about how Buddhists, if they behave conscientiously and peacefully, can still be the type of activists we see on the ground today.
We saw examples of Buddhists engaging in their own forms of activism of all kinds, and it forced me to see the methodologies of different activists in a new light. I learned how we can analyze the Buddhist religion from a secular point of view without discrediting any religious belief. There are also many different forms of the same religion which are not necessarily good or bad, as there is no one true form of the religion itself. What I learned the most from this course were the basic Buddhist philosophies of suffering and no-self, which I hadn't fully understood. Overall, I think having a sense of not-self helps us connect to others and the world, strengthening our compassion and understanding of social justice movements.
My relationship with my own daily routines changed because I began to see other movements or value systems in alignment with Buddhism. For example, I learned from an education-themed course on new movements to understand students' backgrounds to cultivate their learning and give them better opportunities. This was created to understand the educational institution as a fundamental experience in the education of children. From this course, I now see how it is a value supported by Buddhism. Similarly, I take a yoga class that has a small lecture part with many Sanskrit terms. The course instructor did not specifically explain the religious context of the terms we are learning so as not to impose religion on us, but it reminded me of our class discussion when we talked about how institutions often do not recognize not the religious origins of a practice. .
When it comes to the mindfulness practice we learned in class, I feel like I'm much more in tune with how I feel and react in certain situations. Over the past year, I have begun to experience a variety of strong emotions, but have found it more difficult to identify the root causes of my feelings. Meditation and mindfulness helped me accept to identify my emotions and let them pass. I often felt that my emotions would control me, but I have since strengthened my ability to see them as thoughts running through my mind. I also generally feel calmer and more understanding of others because while my initial reactions may be harsh, my thoughts and first actions are more aligned with these principles.
If I could design this course myself, I would try to implement real-time thought experiments or simulations in which students could "experience" Buddhism. Acting out different scenarios and analyzing possible Buddhist or non-Buddhist reactions or opinions could be a great hands-on learning experience. For example, we could reenact a particular historical war background prompt, and different members of the class could embody their possible reactions and try to justify their reasoning with secular or religious logic. This might provide some insight into why some Buddhist monks and lay practitioners chose the paths they took in great historical moments. Using Buddhism as a logical point to explain the participation of activists in different movements interested me a lot. Although not everyone in this movement needs to be of a certain religion, it can be an additional source of support for a participating individual and help them to persist.
If I had to describe this course and my learning experience, I would say come prepared to come with a cynical yet open mind. Across the many topics we discuss in class, there are often layers and nuances to how socially engaged Buddhists are viewed. We often wonder if Buddhists are committed enough or if socially committed people are Buddhist enough. We wonder if the proposed strategies and theories are not enough or if they go too far. This course taught me to question what has already been established, and the readings themselves helped expand my initial thought processes.
* This research article reveals the connection between the committed Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh and the civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King.