Beginner's Mind: A Tree Grows in Hartford

- through Francois Leclercq

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Beginner's mind is a special BDG project of insightful essays written by American students who have taken experiential learning courses related to Buddhism. Some authors identify themselves as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhadharma. All share their thoughts and impressions on what they have learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they could continue to be involved in teaching.

Werewolf Whitesides wrote this essay for his brutal Buddhism class at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Loupgarou is a student of anthropology, religious studies and a lifelong chichotte.

A tree grows in Hartford

By what metric do we judge the growth of an old oak tree? Do we measure the length of its branches, or the complexity of their convolutions? Is it their width or their breadth that is important? Of course, there is annual growth in each branch and in the trunk; almost imperceptibly, the tree still grows. But how can we know if the tree grew simply during its maturation or thanks to what it fed on? I feel compelled to compare myself to this old oak tree when talking about growth because, as an older student, it can be difficult to measure growth. But maybe not so difficult on this occasion.

I came to this course knowing little about current Buddhism and even less about “Buddhisms” in general. My knowledge was limited to a colonialist title, Zen Flesh, Zen Bone (1957), and a lot of fantasy-based “space Buddhism” Star Wars film franchise. After all, what are Jedi if not the Shaolin monks of Western fantasy with laser swords? In this case, going back to my tree analogy, it's much easier to recognize growth because much of that growth is actually green, new growth on an old branch.

Take, for example, my vocabulary, which has expanded with the inclusion of the terms dukkha, samsara, dosa, lobha, moha, bodhisattva, and of course, the meanings that accompany them. Consider, as another example, my views on Buddhism. Whereas previously I would have seen it as a single, monolithic religion, like, say, Catholicism, I now see it as an assemblage of sects, septs, and independent variations of a religion. I can talk, albeit in a limited way, about the differences between Theravada and Mahayana traditions, of which I was barely aware before this course.

I can't say that I am an expert in any single aspect of Buddhism after this course, nor that I meditate now more than before. I can't say that my daily routines have changed to be more Buddhist in nature. But I can say that what already existed in practice has become more refined, better understood and clearer in its scope – especially the five precepts. In this way, the convolutions of my branches became more complex and strengthened in their undulating shapes.

I wouldn't dare say that I have eliminated all vestiges of my inherent orientalism. Its roots run too deep into the culture for a single class to undo a lifetime of biased belief and observation. What I can say is that I partly took apart more. Some of this unraveling has been exciting, opening up new avenues of thought and understanding of Buddhism(s) and other cultures. Others, like learning about the existence of fascist monks, were truly disappointing. There appears to be no organization or religion that fascism cannot infect. In this way, as a tree, my breadth and breadth have expanded greatly.

And in the end, I find it appropriate to compare my growth on Buddhism at the end of the course to the growth of an old tree. As we have discussed, Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana under a tree, but not under an oak tree. But if I were an oak tree, it would be easy to say that my growth is complete, covering at least a little of all parameters, and it is certainly based on what I have fed and not the mere passage of time.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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