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.
Sofia Reyes wrote this essay for her Buddhist Modernism course at the University of Southern California (USC), a private university in Los Angeles. Sofia graduated from USC in May 2022 with a bachelor of science in health promotion and disease prevention, and will pursue a master’s in public health after graduating. Sofia is passionate about migrant and refugee rights, and hopes to work toward health equity for all.
Embracing the Unknown – A New Perspective on Buddhism
When I was selecting classes at the start of the semester, my immediate goal was to find a course that fulfilled my last undergraduate requirement, allowing me to graduate in the spring of 2022. With this goal in mind, I had no other pretenses than the “senioritis” preference to find a class that offered a relatively relaxed schedule. In that context I found myself enrolling in Religion 342: Buddhist Modernism. During an initial survey of the class members, I shared that I hoped to be pleasantly surprised by my (not-so-) random choice to take this class. And being the optimist that I am, I also favored keeping an open mind throughout the course to hopefully gain at least one life skill or self-reflective practice.
I share the above motives with which I entered the course because, truthfully, coming from a strict Christian and Latino household, I was never encouraged to explore concepts or practices that might be considered to defame or question one’s faith in God and the teachings of the Bible. For this reason, growing up I had always been taught to associate non-monotheistic and non-conservative practices with paganism or anti-God beliefs and, therefore, anti-me. For example, the “holiday” of Halloween was forbidden in my family, along with scary movies, superstitions, selfish intentions, Western or American lifestyles, drinking, sex before marriage, and partying—just some of the things that my faith would frown on, as taught by my parents.
I have, therefore, always been extremely skeptical about other religions that may place faith in, say, the practice of meditation or healing or crystals and deities. And while this is a very stereotypical and discriminative perspective to have of other religions or faiths, it influenced my internal bias about how seriously I would take this class and how openminded I would be toward Buddhist concepts. As such, I apologize in advance if this may seem like a closed-minded perspective, but I thought it would be better to be brutally honest in this reflection, which might be a testament to the ways in which people fear the unknown when they simply need to give new things a try.
My greatest takeaway from this class has been that not everything is what one may think it is. For example, many times in official religions, the structure and the interpretation of the religion in social contexts can tend to muddy the truth of the religious beliefs. I strongly feel that this is true in terms of Christianity and Catholicism, and I was surprised to hear similar notions from my Buddhist peers in class. Although we have a strong sense of our own faiths, we also are unafraid to critique and address issues within our religions. It is always good to have this sense of awareness—to not only be prepared to confront outsiders who don’t understand us, but also to challenge the sometimes outdated concepts of our peers.
This Buddhist Modernism course has positively changed my opinion of religions and beliefs that are not similar to my own, and which are not monotheistic. I have always respected the beliefs of others, but I’ve never been truly curious about them or interested in adopting them. Now, I feel that—if learned correctly and with the right intentions—I could adapt some Buddhist practices and perspectives in my own life. For example, I very much respect the values of socially engaged Buddhism (SEB) and can see that a lot of the teachings that I value about Christianity apply in the same way: such as treating others in the way that we would want to be treated; being selfless with our empathy; and ultimately showing love for others through service. I also agree with SEB that society, culture, and politics cannot be separated from religion, and instead we should adapt religion to address issues in these areas. In the future, I can envisage myself learning further about SEB and exploring the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh.
From here on, I would like to continue practices that were highlighted in the course. Although it is often taboo in American culture to ask someone about their religion or to explore those topics, I enjoyed being able to engage with my peers and discuss higher philosophical perspectives. In the future, I will engage in more conversations around these topics. I also hope to include meditation more in my everyday life, even if it is not meditation in the traditional sense; I want to be more at ease and present in the moment and I’d like to utilize breathing techniques more effectively. I also thought it was powerful when the professor shared that meditation can even be taught from a young age, such as her anecdote about meditation as an alternative to throwing tantrums as a toddler!
If I were to describe this course and my learning experiences with Buddhist Modernism, I would say it has been enlightening, refreshing, and calming. Calming in the sense of how we centered meditation at every class meeting, enlightening in how I learned so many new things about Buddhism, and refreshing in the perspectives of my classmates and our professor. I will say, however, that as my first exposure to Buddhism, this course was a little overwhelming when it came to understanding so many new terms and concepts, and a bit too fast-paced in the beginning when trying to synthesize these weighty concepts.
In summary, perhaps (in line with the Buddhist principle of karma) a past well-intentioned action brought me to this class, rewarding me for my hard work throughout my other undergraduate classes with a relaxed and free-learning course that expanded my horizons!