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.
Isabelle Livits wrote this essay for his Buddhist Modernism class at the University of Southern California (USC). Isabella is a second-year biomedical engineering student at USC, with a pre-medical focus. After graduation, Isabella hopes to attend medical school. Isabella is passionate about dancing and enjoys hiking, skiing and cooking.
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When selecting courses for spring 2022, I was looking for a GE that I would find interesting and from which I could draw valuable information. I came across REL 342 (Buddhist Modernism), and I was immediately interested: I didn't know much about Buddhism, so I was sure that I would have the opportunity to discover an interesting religion while learning to integrate certain Buddhist practices into my own life. I was particularly interested in learning how Buddhists relate to our modern world, as many modern aspects of modern life seem to conflict with traditional Buddhist ideas. Our obsession with consumerism and physical possessions has permeated society while traditional Buddhism insists that these are things we need to change. So, I was interested in learning how Buddhism can be integrated into a society that embraces many things that traditional teachings reject.
At the beginning of this course, I quickly realized how much traditional Buddhism had changed and how Buddhism could be adapted to help society. As someone who deep down had no faith in meditation and viewed it as something insignificant, my perception was greatly changed when I started practicing on my own. I felt like I was becoming more relaxed and better able to deal with my feelings and mental state just by meditating a few times a week, which honestly shocked me. Meditation has also allowed me to recognize other practices that help me feel more connected to the world. Dancing is something I have been involved in for most of my life, but when I meditated I understood more clearly why it was important to me. It's a time when I feel free, like I'm connected to the world, no matter what's going on around me. Overall, through adopting these meditative practices, I truly feel a greater connection to the world.
Although I have long supported various movements for social change, I have chosen to stand back, have my own opinions, and not really take action. I focused on myself and my own life, and separated that from the world. However, I have since realized that this is not a skillful action. I am a world actor and what happens in the world directly influences my own life and that of those around me. Thus, I realized that I had to do more to somehow work towards the pursuit of social change and focus less on my separation from the world.
Moreover, before this course, I was an enthusiastic supporter of secularism. Although I am of Jewish origin, I had no religious education and believed that religion had no place in the affairs of state. In my opinion, once religious ideas are introduced into these kinds of places, they cause problems and are used to justify various actions that would otherwise not be justifiable (anti-abortion, racism, etc.). However, my opinion here has also changed. Although I continue to believe that we must be careful when incorporating religion into secular matters, I believe there are certain Buddhist values that could be beneficially incorporated. Socially engaged Buddhism must be integrated into the state for it to function fully. Also, the Buddhist values of peace, mindfulness, and teaching people to recognize their interconnectedness with the world are good values for the state.
Overall, I enjoyed the structure of this class. It allowed me to develop my own thoughts and engage in thoughtful discussion with myself and others. It was difficult at first as I only had a basic knowledge of Buddhism and felt like this class got into it pretty quickly. One thing that I think could be a good change would be to add more assignments that involve visual media rather than just readings. Although the reading was very informative and interesting, it presented a lot of information which was not all easy to understand. Thus, the incorporation of information presented in other ways could be useful.
Finally, I became very interested in how Buddhist ideas can be incorporated into the advocacy and encouragement of environmentalism. I hope to learn more about this and incorporate some of these practices into my own life. I am always curious about all the different interpretations of Buddhism. I feel like so many people interpret the teachings so differently, and I'm curious to understand if there are certain interpretations that are more "correct" than others, or if the Buddhist teachings are designed for these various interpretations.
Coming out of this course, I feel like I now have more tools to manage both myself and the world around me. I feel more comfortable in my own skin and I feel more empowered to act in ways that I hope can inspire change.