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.
Sofia Reyes wrote this essay for her Buddhist Modernism class at the University of Southern California (USC), a private university in Los Angeles. Sofia graduated from USC in May 2022 with a Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and will pursue a Masters in Public Health after graduation. Sofia is passionate about migrant and refugee rights and hopes to work towards health equity for all.
Embrace the Unknown – A New Perspective on Buddhism
When selecting courses at the start of the semester, my immediate goal was to find a course that met my final undergraduate requirements, allowing me to graduate in the spring of 2022. With this goal in mind, I had no excuse other than the “seniority” preference to find a class that offered a relatively relaxed schedule. In this context, I found myself enrolling in Religion 342: Buddhist Modernism. In an initial survey of course members, I shared that I hoped to be pleasantly surprised by my (not so) random choice to take this course. And being the optimist that I am, I also preferred to keep an open mind throughout the course to hopefully learn at least one life skill or self-reflection practice.
I share the above motives with which I started the course because, honestly, coming from a strict Christian and Latino home, I was never encouraged to explore concepts or practices that could be considered defaming or questioning one's faith in God and the teachings of the Bible. For this reason, growing up, I was always taught to associate non-monotheistic and non-conservative practices with paganism or anti-God and, therefore, anti-God beliefs.soft. For example, Halloween “holidays” were forbidden in my family, along with horror movies, superstitions, selfish intentions, Western or American lifestyles, alcohol, premarital sex, and partying—some of the things my faith frowned upon, as my parents taught.
So I've always been extremely skeptical about other religions that might believe in, for example, the practice of meditation or healing or crystals and deities. And although this is a very stereotypical and discriminatory perspective of other religions or faiths, it influenced my internal bias as to how seriously I would take this course and how open-minded I would be towards Buddhist concepts. As such, I apologize in advance if this may seem like a closed perspective, but I thought it best to be brutally honest in this reflection, which might speak to how people fear the unknown when they simply need to try new things.
What I take away the most from this course is that not everything is what one might think. For example, often in official religions, the structure and interpretation of religion in social contexts can tend to blur the truth of religious beliefs. I strongly believe this to be true in terms of Christianity and Catholicism, and I was surprised to hear similar notions from my Buddhist peers in class. Although we have a strong sense of our own religions, we are also not afraid to criticize and address issues within our religions. It is always good to have this sense of awareness, not only to be ready to face strangers who do not understand us, but also to challenge the sometimes outdated concepts of our peers.
This course in Buddhist modernism has positively changed my opinion on religions and beliefs that are not similar to mine and that are not monotheistic. I've always respected other people's beliefs, but I've never been really curious about them or interested in adopting them. Now I feel that if I learned correctly and with the right intentions, I could adapt certain Buddhist practices and perspectives into my own life. For example, I have a great respect for the values of Socially Engaged Buddhism (SEB) and see that many of the teachings I value about Christianity apply in the same way: for example, to treat others as we would like to be treated; to be selfless with our empathy; and ultimately showing love for others through service. I also agree with SEB that society, culture and politics cannot be separated from religion, and that we should instead adapt religion to solve problems in these areas. In the future, I can imagine myself learning more about SEB and exploring the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
From now on, I would like to continue the practices that have been highlighted in the course. Although it is often taboo in American culture to ask someone about their religion or explore these topics, I appreciated being able to engage with my peers and discuss higher philosophical perspectives. In the future, I will engage in further conversations on these topics. I also hope to include meditation more in my everyday life, even if it's not meditation in the traditional sense; I want to be more comfortable and present in the moment and would like to use breathing techniques more effectively. I also thought it was powerful when the teacher shared that meditation can even be taught from an early age, like her anecdote about meditation as an alternative to tantrums as a toddler!
If I had to describe this course and my learning experiences with Buddhist Modernism, I would say it was enlightening, refreshing, and calming. Soothing in the sense that we centered meditation at each class meeting, enlightening in how I learned so many new things about Buddhism, and refreshing in the perspectives of my classmates and our teacher. I will say, however, that as my first exposure to Buddhism, this course was a little overwhelming when it came to understanding so many new terms and concepts, and a little too fast at first when trying to synthesize these important concepts.
In summary, perhaps (in accordance with the Buddhist principle of karma) a well-meaning past action brought me to this course, rewarding me for my hard work throughout my other undergraduate courses with a relaxed, free-learning course that broadened my horizons!