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.
Isabella Livits wrote this essay for her Buddhist Modernism course at the University of Southern California (USC). Isabella is a sophomore majoring in Biomedical Engineering at USC, with a Pre-med emphasis. After graduation, Isabella hopes to attend medical school. Isabella is passionate about dance and enjoys hiking, skiing, and cooking.
Connecting with Interconnection
When selecting classes for spring of 2022, I was looking for a GE that I would find interesting and from which I could gain valuable information. I stumbled across REL 342 (Buddhist Modernism), and I was immediately interested: I didn’t know much about Buddhism and so I was sure that I’d have an opportunity to learn about an interesting religion while learning how to integrate certain practices from Buddhism into my own life. I was especially interested in learning about how Buddhists interact with our modern world as many modern aspects of modern life seem to conflict with traditional Buddhist ideas. Our obsession with consumerism and physical belongings have permeated society while traditional Buddhism insists that these are things we must change. Thus, I was interested in learning how Buddhism can be incorporated into a society that embraces many things that the traditional teachings reject.
As this course began, I quickly started to learn how much traditional Buddhism has changed, and how Buddhism can be adapted to help society. As someone who, deep down, had no faith in meditation and saw it as something unimportant, my perception was greatly altered when I started to practice on my own. I felt myself becoming more relaxed and better able to cope with my feelings and mental state simply by meditating a few times a week, which honestly shocked me. Meditating has also allowed me to recognize other practices that help me feel more connected with the world. Dance is something I’ve been engaged in for most of my life, but when I meditated I understood more clearly why it matters to me. It is a time when I feel free, like I am connected with the world, regardless of what is going on around me. Overall, due to adopting these meditative practices I really do feel a greater connection with the world.
Although I have long supported various movements for social change, I chose to stay in the background, holding my own opinions and not really acting. 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 player in the world and what happens in the world directly influences my own life and the lives of those around me. Thus, I have realized that I must do more to work in some way to pursue social change and focus less on separating myself from the world.
Furthermore, before this class I was an enthusiastic believer in secularism. Although I come from a Jewish background, I did not have a religious upbringing, and I believed that religion does not have a place in the affairs of the state. In my opinion, once religious ideas are introduced into those kinds of places, they cause problems and are used to justify various actions that would not otherwise be justifiable (anti-abortion, racism, and so on). However, my opinion here has also changed. Although I still believe that we must be careful when incorporating religion into secular matters, I do believe that there are certain Buddhist values that could be incorporated in a beneficial manner. Socially engaged Buddhism must be integrated with the state in order for it to fully work. Also, the Buddhist values of peace, mindfulness, and teaching people to recognize their interconnectedness with the world are good values for the state to have.
Overall, I have enjoyed the structure of this class. It has allowed me an opportunity to develop my own thoughts and to engage in thoughtful discussion with myself and with others. It was difficult at first, as I had only a basic knowledge of Buddhism and I did feel as if this class jumped into this rather quickly. One thing that I believe that could be a nice change would be to add more assignments that involve visual media rather than only readings. While the reading was all very informative and interesting, it presented a lot of information that was not all easy to comprehend. Thus, incorporating information presented in other ways could be helpful.
Finally, I have become very interested in how Buddhist ideas can be incorporated into advocating for and encouraging environmentalism. I hope to learn more about this and to incorporate some of those practices into my own life. I’m still curious about all the different interpretations of Buddhism. I feel that so many people interpret the teachings so differently, and I’m curious to understand whether 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 class I feel that I now have more tools to handle 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.
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