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.
Dolores Marcial-Modesto wrote this essay for her Brutal Buddhism class at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where she recently earned an honors degree in psychology and a minor in religious studies. Dolores is currently conducting biomedical research in Colorado and hopes to apply to MD-PhD programs in the near future.
Beyond the stereotype: challenging the perception of a peaceful religion
The name of the course was already captivating: Brutal Buddhism. What brutality can the word Buddhism convey? Before this course, I took a course called Buddhist Thought during my second year in 2021. We learned everything we could about the teachings of the Buddha, and it all related to compassion, non-attachment, and non-harm. The terms of brutality or violence were never mentioned, at least to my memory. Therefore, I decided to explore how Buddhism interacted with violence during my spring semester of my senior year (2023).
The first part of the course was learning about the teachings of the Buddha, which started off gently. The material seemed familiar, so nothing was alarming at first. I remember the midterm review session and how we would play mini-games like charades to memorize terms. Just imagine hearing the term bhumisparsha mudra and seeing people instantly collapse in the famous hand-touching-the-earth gesture.
Once the midterm was over, we moved on to the framework of Orientalism. It was the first time I discovered the imaginary perspectives that the West creates on the Middle East and Asia through stereotypical representations. (Said 2012, 3:08) Cross-cultural mimesis (Tweed 2008) and the media (King 1999) have exacerbated these stereotypes, but they also encourage us to view Buddhism as only capable of peace and harmony, with no space for violence. Although the course was only 15 hour and XNUMX minutes long, this discussion served as a foundation for the rest of the course.
The idea of a peaceful religion was shattered when I heard a monk from Myanmar say: “. . . we do not accept illegal immigrants” (Al Jazeera 2019, 14:49) despite words such as “peacemakers” and “accept” in the same sentence. This statement echoed the xenophobic sentiments prevalent in the United States, and it particularly resonated with me as the child of immigrant parents. We learned that Buddhists have for years employed “just war” ideology, rationalizing violence and murder in the name of protecting the Dharma. I started thinking about how often we tend to separate Buddhism from other religions because we don't want to believe they can do harm. At the same time, Buddhists in Myanmar are depriving the Rohingya people of their human rights. (Al Jazeera 2019, 19:45 p.m.)
This course has led me to examine my own views and evaluate the sources (e.g. media) to which I have been exposed. I remembered that throughout the semester, whenever I talked about taking a Buddhism class, most people would comment on meditation and stillness. I then realized that I was constantly experiencing what I was learning.
Although I am not religious myself, I chose to major in religious studies because I recognize the importance of religion in many people's lives. Brutal Buddhism helped me understand that every religion has the potential to cause harm. However, it is up to each person to recognize this and act, even if it means opposing their own religion. It was a privilege to learn about such an intense topic in one semester. Nonetheless, I hope to continue exploring difficult topics that may seem unconventional at first, much like the study of brutal Buddhism.