Beginner’s Mind is a special project from Buddhistdoor Global collecting insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning-based courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhadharma. All are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.
My experience with this course on Buddhist Material Culture began with confronting a question in the pre-course survey that I was not adequately prepared to answer: what is your dream job in a world where all salaries are identical? Stated another way, this question asks what job would provide me with the most personal satisfaction from its day-to-day activities. I realized that I had never considered such a question and thus had no idea how to answer. My goals had always been, at least implicitly, tied to money. After considering the question for about 30 minutes I came to no conclusion on my ideal job, although I did conclude that I needed new perspectives to inform my thinking. That search for new perspectives was my goal in taking this class.
My learning from this course can be separated into three main groups.
The first bucket of knowledge can be characterized as the basic Buddhist teachings. We learned these in the four weeks of Peter Harvey and Damien Keown readings. I really enjoyed this, finding the story of the Buddha incredible and his teachings both astute and familiar. We talked about the Buddhist principles and secondary beliefs surrounding those teachings. While interesting to think about, I probably will not be taking those secondary beliefs, such as Buddhist cosmology, with me after this class. I do foresee applying the core Buddhist principles to my future life, however. It was eye-opening to notice how many activities I engage in without batting an eye that are frowned upon through a Buddhist lens. Above all else, I have realized that lobha (Pali. greed) guides my life, blinding me from many momentary pleasures that I often lose sight of. I think that my tānha (craving) leads me unnecessarily toward dukkha (suffering), just as predicted by the teaching of paticcasamuppāda (dependent arising). The work we did with mindfulness during the experiential activities showed me that my approach to life can be best described as sacrificing the present in the name of the future. I can no longer convince myself that this approach is fully justified.
The second set of knowledge gained was about new materialism theory. As may have been obvious from my discussion posts and my comments in class, such concepts were not initially intuitive to me—I think stemming from the anthropocentric perspective I had held prior to this course. The idea that “things” affect the trajectory of human lives was so foreign to me because I had believed that people—and people alone—hold agency over their own fate. It was during this period of the class that I had to focus on keeping an open mind so that I could fully gain new perspectives, my goal for the course. By keeping this open mind, I think that I learned more than I ever could have otherwise. I now acknowledge that “things” hold power over people, including myself, and that a denial of this fact only hinders my own development.
The third and final grouping of learning for this course took place at the intersection of the previous two: analysis of examples of Buddhists interacting with objects. By looking at these examples, whether it was amulets or yantras or meat (as discussed in my final paper), the lessons learned were not singularly about Buddhist principles or about new materialism; they were about how Buddhist principles and new materialism can help to explain each other. Basically, “things” and morality both inform our behavior, and behavior cannot be well defined without taking both factors into account. What these findings mean to me is that it is perfectly normal that my actions are not in line with my sense of morality because my actions, just like those of material Buddhists, are informed by actors, human and non-human. The new materialist perspective has helped me—and will continue to help me—understand my actions and the goals providing impetus for those actions.
This is not to say that I now believe that any journey toward self-betterment is doomed to failure. In fact, now that I better understand the forces at work, such a journey has a better chance of success. This is a powerful feeling that cannot be understated. I now understand that what I had considered to be fulfillment was actually the quest for future fulfillment. Now cognizant of my lobha and the material forces driving it, I can more capably remove the blindfold that had prevented me from seeing that which truly provides satisfaction. I plan on being more present, whereby I will recognize and appreciate the little pleasures around me, instead of having my head in another place (or looking at my phone). Being at a defining point in my life, I can choose what much of it will look like through my actions in the near future. If anything, this course has left me with more questions to ask of myself than answers to the questions that I began with. It is for this reason that this Buddhist Material Culture course was, for me, like stumbling upon a toolkit full of unknown tools designed to fix problems that I did not realize existed. I would rather have the opportunity to learn how to use these tools and to improve myself than to have never found the toolbox in the first place.
Ben Washburn wrote this essay for his Buddhist Material Culture course at Williams College, where he will be graduating in 2023 as a physics and economics double major. Ben is also on the Varsity Crew team at Williams. He is from Connecticut and loves to go fishing.
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