Beginner’s Mind is a special project published by BDG 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.
Gus Nordmeyer wrote this essay for his Buddhist Economics course at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Gus will graduate in 2023 with a double major in Economics and Chinese. Gus calls Madison, Wisconsin, home and in his free time he rows and fishes.
Māgha Pūjā – A Day Alongside Dukkha
On the morning of Māgha Pūjā, I started my day with a run. Undertaking the eight precepts of the Ovādapātimokkha sermon—one of which is to abstain from listening to music—I apprehensively crawled out of bed and tied my shoelaces in silence. Greeted by the crisp, cold air, I soon fell into a rhythm, focusing on my breath and the crunch of my feet against the icy pavement. On any other day, my wireless earbuds would have transported me to a nightclub in Ibiza, providing a thumping bass to help drown out any pain or unpleasant thoughts I might experience while running. Today, the birds and morning sounds of Williamstown were my soundtrack.
Participating in the Buddhist holiday of Māgha Pūjā was a difficult undertaking, yet it proved to be invaluable. Committing to the practice not only made me more conscious of dukkha (Pali. unsatisfactoriness) through direct confrontation, leading to a greater degree of introspection around the Four Noble Truths; it also convinced me of my own ability to apply the Buddha’s teachings—exercised by the saṅgha—to my own life.
Restrictions outlined in the eight precepts led me to experience a variety of strong emotions throughout the day, and I reflected on this journey as a necessary step toward solidifying my understanding of dukkha and the khandas, the five aggregates of attachment. Going about my day without the normal comforts of music, social media, and the mindless consumption of food made me feel vulnerable at times. Being forced to confront my thoughts and the sounds around me, instead of stimulating my mind to distract from the cravings I feel, helped to reveal the cyclical nature of dukkha. Peter Harvey articulates this type of unsatisfactoriness, this unstoppable craving that is rooted in dukkha: “[Craving] propels people into situation after situation which are open to pain, disquiet, and upset.” (Harvey, 63)
If one truly wishes to extinguish the cycle of dukkha and attain nibbāna, craving must be confronted. An avoidance of craving simply breeds more craving, and my experience undertaking the eight precepts of the Ovādapātimokkha sermon showed me, albeit only for a day, that there can be a certain peace found if one leaves desire unanswered. While I was most hungry around dinnertime—my mind cloudy and yearning for a meal—my hunger gradually tapered off as the evening wore on, and I was reminded of the ever-changing nature of the khandas.
My undertaking of the Māgha Pūjā practice helped demonstrate to myself the applicability of Buddhist teachings to my own life. Hesitant to take on an overtly Western view of what I experienced, by likening it to helping me achieve some end goal and borrowing bits and pieces from Buddhist culture, I was genuinely surprised by the direction in which the precepts steered me. While I was not as wholly invested as those in the saṅgha, I found that the intentionality of the experience and my commitment to the Buddha’s teachings was powerful. It is easy to study the Buddha’s teachings and conclude one of two things: 1. I am inadequate to apply any of these teachings to my life, so it is not worth trying; or 2. I am prepared to undertake the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings in this moment and attain nibbāna. What I experienced on Māgha Pūjā was the “middle way” of these two sentiments: “. . . general societal deterioration can be reduced by this Buddha’s teaching, which causes the mind to be freed from greed, hatred, and ignorance.” (Lay, 211)
On the evening of Māgha Pūjā, I ended my day with pizza. To clarify, I ended my day sipping tea and watching others eat pizza on the 21st birthday of a close friend. I sat while my intoxicated friends consumed slice after slice. I acknowledged dukkha and enjoyed my tea.
Harvey, Peter. 2013. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practice, Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lay, Tin Tin. 2014. “Building Up of Peace and Harmony through Buddhism: Pragmatic Values of the Ov¯da Pātimokkha” 199–213: http://www.icdv.net/2014paper/ws4_13_en__Building_up_of_Peace_and_Harmony_through_Buddhism_841041173.pdf