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.
Taking a course in Buddhist Material Culture was not what I had in mind for my first semester at Williams. I’m a prospective physics major, and while I absolutely love reading and am considering minoring in English, I definitely was not expecting to take a religious studies course so early in my time here. As a result, I didn’t have many preconceptions about what to expect—social studies are quite removed from what I focused on in high school, and dedicating large amounts of time and effort to any form of religious study was very foreign to me. I came into this class equipped with a shoddy, whitewashed, 10th-grade AP World History view of Buddhism, an admitted distaste for my high school social science courses, and not much else.
I had never really felt engaged by social studies in the past, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself genuinely enjoying the first few weeks of the course, and for that matter, all of it. One of the standout moments early on was a story from the Powers reading, in which the Buddha’s “penis emerges from its sheath, winds around the mountain seven times, and then extends upward to the heaven of Brahmā” (Powers 14), as part of an effort to convert skeptical Jains. This story, and the Powers reading in general, marked quite the departure from other social science readings I had done and really bucked any preconceptions I had that this course would be boring or stuffy.
Another moment I quite enjoyed was when we were presented with various artworks and had to match each piece to a step in the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. This activity was especially rewarding for me because, for the first time, I felt like I was applying knowledge in a social studies course instead of just regurgitating. I’m excited to return to museums I’ve visited in the past, such as the Norton Simon Museum with its wide array of East Asian art, armed with what I now know about Buddhist culture and practice, to see if I am able to draw connections between that knowledge and what’s on display. In general, the early part of this course gave me knowledge about Buddhism that I didn’t even know I didn’t have—I found I was mostly unaware of almost everything outside of the very basics, and so the first part of the semester gave me a look into Eastern culture that I have never had nor expected to have.
The introduction of New Materialism and its application is what really made me love this course. As someone born and raised in textbook suburbia, the influence and power of humans have effectively defined my life. Cookie-cutter homes placed in never-ending grids of pavement meant that everything I interacted with on a daily basis was distinctly human. Even the little bits of nature I was surrounded by were only there by the will of humans—parks were constructed, not cultivated, and it was only on rare occasions that I escaped to my favorite hiking trail away from the din of the I-5. Thus, being forced to take a step back and think about how all of these things have affected me was quite revelatory. I think my transition to this new viewpoint was aided by the environment of Williams in general. I always feel different after running or walking off into the forest and hanging out with the trees. Our introduction to New Materialism happened to coincide with a hiking trip my PE class took out into the woods, where we were instructed to find a nice tree to sit on for 10 minutes. Laying down on a log in silence, the idea of affect theory finally clicked. In my stillness, I realized that there wasn’t much difference between me and the tree I was pseudo-napping on—just as much as I was laying on the log, the log was supporting me. This support came from the log itself, and had nothing to do with the fact that it was me laying on it, nor with the fact that I was human and not a bird, skunk, or even another log. Whether or not I was “me,” the log would still do something.
This realization is my biggest takeaway from the course. Approaching everyday life now, I think about how our environment acts on me and everyone else. My room has tended toward being cleaner as I’ve realized that clutter inhibits my ability to think clearly. I’ve tended toward avoiding the news as I’ve realized that it frustrates me immensely. And I’ve started opening the window of my room every day because the constant newness of the air and sunlight keeps me feeling refreshed. Thinking about how the world acts on me instead of focusing on what I do in the world has led me to be more aware of, and in tune with, what I experience. I hope my ability to frame myself within the world instead of holding a more egocentric view continues to help me find contentedness within my surroundings, and I especially hope that this viewpoint allows me to become a more positive presence in the worlds of others, whether or not they realize that my existence has an effect on them.
Justyn Friedler wrote this essay for his Buddhist Material Culture course at Williams College. He will graduate in 2024 and is a prospective physics major. Hailing from sunny So-Cal, tennis and hiking take up much of his time. Justyn is also interested in alternative farming methods and grew plants aquaponically for many years.
Powers, John. 2012. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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