Beginner’s Mind is a special project from BDG collecting insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning 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.
Loupgarou Whitesides wrote this essay for his class Brutal Buddhism at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Loupgarou is a student of anthropology, religious studies, and a lifelong quixote.
A Tree Grows in Hartford
By what metric does one judge the growth of an old oak tree? Does one measure the length of its branches, or the complexities of their convolutions? Is it their width or breadth that is important? Of course, there is yearly growth in each branch and the trunk; almost imperceptibly, the tree is always growing. Yet how does one tell when the tree has grown as a course of simply maturing, or as a result of what it has fed upon? I feel compelled to compare myself to that old oak tree when I speak of growth because, as an older student, it can be hard to measure growth. But perhaps not so difficult on this occasion.
I came to this class knowing little about actual Buddhism and even less about “buddhisms” in general. My knowledge was limited to one colonialist title, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957), and a lot of fantasy-based “space Buddhism” from the Star Wars film franchise. After all, what are the Jedi but Shaolin monks of Western fantasy with laser swords? In this case, returning to my tree analogy, it’s much easier to recognize growth as much of this growth is actually green, new growth on an old limb.
Take, for example, my vocabulary, which has expanded with its inclusion of the terms dukkha, samsara, dosa, lobha, moha, bodhisattva, and of course, the meanings that come with them. Consider, for another example, my views on Buddhism. Whereas before I would have seen it as a single, monolithic religion, like, say, Catholicism, I now see it as an assemblage of sects, septs, and independent variations on a religion. I can speak, albeit limitedly, to the differences between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, of which I was barely aware prior to this class.
I cannot say that I am an expert in any single aspect of Buddhism(s) after this class, nor can I say that I meditate now more than before. I cannot say that my daily routines have changed to be more Buddhist in their nature. But I can say what was there already in practice has become more refined, better understood, and clearer in scope—particularly the five precepts. In this way, the convolutions of my branches have become more complex and have strengthened in their undulating shapes.
I will not be so bold as to say that I have routed out all vestiges of my own inherent orientalism. Its roots penetrate too deeply into culture for a single class to undo an entire lifetime of belief and skewed observation. What I can say is that I have partly dismantled some more of it. Some of that dismantling has been exciting, opening up new avenues of thought and understanding into Buddhism(s) and other cultures. Others, such as learning of the existence of fascist monks, have been truly disappointing. There appears to be no organization or religion that fascism cannot infect. In this way, as the tree, my width and breadth have expanded tremendously.
And in the end, I find it fitting to compare my growth on Buddhism at the close of the class to the growth of an old tree. As we discussed, Siddhartha Gautama attained nirvana beneath a tree, albeit not an oak. But were I an oak, it would be easy to say that my growth is thorough, spanning all metrics at least a little, and it is certainly based on what I have been fed and not on the simple passage of time.