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.
Gus Demerath wrote this essay for his Brutal Buddhism course at Williams College in Massachusetts. He is a sociology major with a focus on Latinx studies. Born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, Gus enjoys doing as many things outdoors as possible, including practicing the cello, which he plays with great joy.
I took this class in the fall semester of my sophomore year at Williams College in hopes of learning more about Buddhism. Of course, I expected to be surprised. The title of the course, “Brutal Buddhism,” forced us to put aside our preconceptions in an attempt to understand the honest, sometimes violent, realities of Buddhism. Last year I took a class with Professor Jason Storm called “Virtue Ethics.” The main idea of this course was that virtue ethics – guiding principles and road map for living a fulfilling life – could be applied to daily life and academia through repetition and practice. We studied Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and I left that class feeling ready to continue my spiritual, normal journey through life, perhaps deepening my connection with my vague, spiritual self, my Quaker history or even my mother's Catholic history. Seeing “violence” in the title of this course under the “Anthropology” and “Religion” tabs on my course schedule website made me realize that it might not provide the same sense of spiritual growth or of virtuous stability. Recognizing this, I did not expect to find any form of abstract personal growth, spiritual or non-spiritual. What I found was refreshing academic growth with wonderful classroom conversations and a new way of looking at our diverse world, its many cultures, religions and issues.
Before the course, I had viewed Buddhism as a solution to inner discontent. I thought that taking a course in the religion department would help me mature and give me some sort of stability. Another part of me was interested in the anthropological and social factors involved. I was curious about it all, academically and emotionally. I knew I was going to grow up, but I didn't know how. Telling my friends that I was taking the course I titled "Buddhism and Violence," I already suspected that my preconceptions about Buddhism as a nonviolent religion were incorrect, understanding that every human being can make mistakes or get angry, including Buddhist monks. As I dove into the course, I was happy to not only have access to a comprehensive overview of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, but also examples of violence in our day. I found that situating our case studies of violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand within the broader sociopolitical context of the present was just as important as understanding Buddhist scriptural connections and excuses for violence. Coming away from each case study, I began to understand that, as with any historical event, acts of violence were often just a small part of the larger social machinery. Violent rhetoric and brutal actions have become intertwined with larger ideologies, movements, and political parties. Money, revenge, favors, historical tensions, love, hate, and confusion are all part of the swirling storms that pit people against each other. It is not – and never will be – black and white.
This is what I remember most from the course (strongly informed by Professor Kerekes' final words on the last day of class): when we discuss a religion, a nation, a language and a culture that are foreign to most of our society and community, we need to be aware of our biases and how we interact with information from afar. Our Western perspective orientalizes us and marks us with subjectivity. Our place, thousands of kilometers away and without be there, desensitizes us. When drawing conclusions, we must be holistic in our analytical process. We must examine all facets of a conflict, even when it appears to involve only one religious sect or ethnic enclave. We need to dig a little deeper, question our assumptions and conclusions, and question some more. This is especially true in our current era of global politics and large-scale capitalist markets. More people than ever are affected by business choices. More people than ever can vote. Translations are more available than ever. Even if globalization homogenizes us, we must not forget the countless differences that remain across the globe: inequalities, social class, gender, race are all factors to take into account.
Where to go from here? I'm not entirely sure. We didn't come up with perfect answers in class, and I don't think we were supposed to. I dove in and tried to understand as much as I could, but I still couldn't. How to take into account contradictory points of view? Does it start with being empathetic? Maybe. The global reach at our fingertips by pressing Google lets us see what we want, but I don't think it necessarily helps us understand ourselves better. Being in a place, talking to people, listening to them, that’s when I believe we connect.
When I go to Ecuador (where my family is from), I see people who look like me. Sometimes I feel like we come from two different worlds, and in a way, we do. I don't fully understand their rapid Spanish, so I feel like I can't get to know them. Yet we talk and see our differences et our similarities. We are not that far apart. We still share the same sky, worship the same Football team. We are not too different, we are just rooted in our respective places and have a deep understanding of our local knowledge and communities. We are both meaning-makers and care-givers.
We share this with everyone in the world. Perhaps this is the way to see things: to see the meanings embedded in places, beliefs and connections; to see what we share and what we do not share; recognize the many angles and perspectives that take us off course. Then we sit down, share food, and hang out again.