Young Voices: The song “Happy Birthday”

- through Francois Leclercq

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Young voices is a special project of Buddhadoor Global bringing together insightful essays written by high school students in the United States who have taken experiential learning-based courses rooted in Buddhist teaching. Inspired by and running in parallel with BDG Beginner's mind project for middle school students, Young voices provides a platform for these students to share essays expressing their impressions and views on their exposure to the Buddhadharma and its relationship to their hopes, aspirations and expectations.

Alice Fan wrote this essay in relation to “Listening to the Buddhists in Our Garden” class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts.

The song “Happy Birthday”

Please sing the following out loud to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” preferably with an audience!

Build your merit. Keep your mind.
Always be kind. Strive to achieve
Anyone who needs it. Make your speech
Match those who teach the true path.

Okay, I get it: the tone of these lyrics doesn't quite match that of the song "Happy Birthday"!

But when I followed my own instructions during the final hours of our four-day residential Buddhist retreat, titled “Story and Chanting: Learning and Living with Buddhist Chanting,” at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in central Massachusetts, I discovered for myself, laughing, tears welling up in my eyes, as my vocal cords croak out the words. My voice slowly awoke from its 11-hour sleep into noble silence, a meditative practice that prompts individuals to look inward while refraining from speaking and vocalizing.

As I sang, cried, and laughed, I reflected on my spontaneous decision to attend this retreat as a high school student who had only studied Buddhism for a few weeks in a virtual classroom during my sophomore year and didn't had not been discussed since. . I had never entered a religious temple. I had never sung for a spiritual purpose – an acute discomfort that was further complicated by our singing in different languages, including Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. (I had never heard of these languages ​​before coming to BCBS!) Never had I practiced such a simple task, singing, for more than four hours every day. Never had I felt so out of place and so hyper-aware of my own social situation: my youth, my non-Buddhist and non-religious identity, and my visibly Asian-American skin.

What was I doing among so many strange and eccentric individuals from very different generations, praying to the Buddha in an isolated building, far from civilization, in a language most of us didn't understand? I felt uncomfortable even putting my hands together in the Buddhist prayer position.

However, as the retreat progressed, I was amazed by the acts of kindness of my fellow eccentric and so-called wacky retreatants; One of the first moments came when Jeri, an older woman, dug through my compost for my paper napkin at the end of our first meal at BCBS, which was very embarrassing. Not only because I was already delaying the dishwasher queue, but also because I spend a lot of time on sustainability efforts: I thought I should know what should be sorted into the compost and what should go in the trash. Another small moment came when Jasmine, the seven-year-old daughter of a BCBS staff member, gave me the drawing below during an evening session.

Image courtesy of the author

These small moments – which often took place not inside the Dharma Hall, the most religious space, but rather during meals and other free times – forced me to reconcile my own preconceived notions about Buddhism with its reality. Although I found a group of intensely religious and witty individuals at BCBS, I also found generous, hilarious, and humble people who were there to learn and further explore their identities as Buddhists, Americans of Asian origin and even as young people.

With this realization came a new awareness of the perspective and experience I brought to the retreat. As an American who is not even accustomed to occupying Christian religious spaces, like a church, living and learning in a seemingly hyper-religious space made me feel uncomfortable. This discomfort was compounded by the fact that Buddhism is an Asian religion, and my Asian Americanness and profound lack of Buddhist knowledge were clearly evident in my frequent awkward glances at the other retreatants as we practiced Buddhist rituals. Additionally, as a young introvert, I tend to stay quiet in new environments and become more vulnerable as I become more comfortable around my peers. This intensive retreat challenged me to share my perspectives and vulnerabilities with a group of older strangers in the span of just a few days.

At the very end of the class, we were asked to share a phrase that we liked the most, to the melody of our choice. After days of remaining silent and absorbing the new experiences the retreat brought, I wanted to present something that truly felt like soft; something that summed up what I had learned and encompassed the different aspects of my social situation that had silenced me in the first place.

Jeri and Jasmine tried to join me at a time when I toilet bag security, appreciation and trust. They were shameless a nice horse to a person they had never met. They kept their minds and didn't judge me when I made a mistake. They followed the true (“middle”) path View Speaking and act with authentic and healthy intention. They build their meritand taught me to pay it forward and build my own.

With this in mind, on our last day of Buddhist retreat, I sang to highlight my youth (sufficiently exaggerated by the silly tune of "Happy Birthday"), my non-Buddhist spirituality (highlighted by the chosen passage , which was simple and I avoided a lot of mention of the Buddhist tradition) and my Asian-American identity (accepted by my unapologetic singing in English).

So, to pay it forward, I invite you to follow these instructions again. Please sing out loud to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” preferably with an audience:

Build your merit. Keep your mind.
Always be kind. Strive to achieve
Anyone who needs it. Make your speech
Match those who teach the true path.


A 17-year-old Asian American student, non-Buddhist.

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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