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Beginner’s Mind: On Wisdom

Beginner’s Mind is a special project from 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.

Dylan Chennault wrote this essay for his Buddhist Modernism course at the University of Southern California, a private university in Los Angeles. Dylan graduated from USC in May 2021 with a BS in chemical engineering and a minor in accounting, and plans to move to Bakersfield, California, to begin a career as a petroleum engineer. Dylan is passionate about hiking and being in nature, and plans to drive to Zion, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks with his roommate after graduating.

When I began this course on Buddhist Modernism, I had very little understanding of what to expect. I had no experience with Buddhism, except for an early Asian art GE I took as a freshman, much less any knowledge of modern Buddhism. However, the course completely exceeded my expectations and was highly appropriate for navigating the complex social climate of COVID-19, BLM, anti-Asian hate crimes, and more. Socially engaged Buddhism provides a new lens through which to look at the world, and I am changed as a result.

One of the most interesting sets of concepts I learned during this semester was how to interface with the self. This was emphasized through RAIN meditation,* readings on no-self, and the lecture by Lama Rod Owens on rage and love, among other readings. I’ve long struggled to understand and accept myself, including my anger and rage, and Buddhism gives me tools to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings. In his book and lecture, Lama Rod presented an interesting idea: that there is no such thing as an evil or bad person, but rather that some people are more complex. As someone who struggles with splitting—categorizing myself and others as all good or all bad—this was an intriguing idea. Viewing the self as complex, rather than simply good or bad, allows me to engage in self-discovery and improvement more easily and objectively as it frees me from the dichotomy of good/bad that limits self-engagement.

Another area of discovery this semester was the introduction to the idea of attachment and unsatisfactoriness. I am extremely prone to attachment to those around me, specifically close friends and romantic partners, and it was interesting to learn about the Buddhist view of attachment and how it leads to suffering. I still struggle significantly with this, but I am now aware that excessive attachment is one of the causes of my pain and that I can take steps to reduce this attachment and thereby reduce the suffering.

An interesting topic we discussed when talking about ethics was the idea of cetana or intention. It is important to understand that while Kantian intentions matter, the end result of the action is also incredibly important. This is something that I will keep in mind when making decisions that impact others in the future, and I hope that the knowledge that both intention and outcome matter will result in more moral decisions.

Over the course of college, I have learned a great deal about meditation from various group therapies and yoga courses, and this class continued that education on mindfulness and awareness. I learned that I meditate best while engaging in practices such as yoga or going for a walk, rather than sitting in a stationary position. Meditation and mindfulness are skills that I intend to practice for the rest of my life, and learning more about how I best meditate, in addition to RAIN meditation, will allow me to be a more skillful, effective meditator.

An area that I look forward to continuing to explore after graduation is Buddhist economics. I have always had a fascination with economics, which is one reason I chose to pursue a minor in accounting, and Buddhism has a host of interesting views on capitalism and economics. I was especially interested in the Wenzhou Model and ritual economy reading, and hope to explore that topic further.

Overall, I felt the course was taught very well and I left knowing substantially more about Buddhism than when I entered. I enjoyed that the course was interactive, with a heavy focus on meditation, group work, and in-class activities. In general, I felt that the reading load was appropriate and group discussions about the readings were helpful. If I were to change one thing, I would increase the variation in the meditations we did in class. RAIN meditation was good, and by the end I knew the script very closely, which is beneficial, but I also enjoyed when we did different meditations with guest speakers. The speakers were stimulating, and if it were possible to have another one or two additional guests, I think the course would benefit.

To conclude, this was an incredibly successful semester and it brought me closer to becoming a bodhisattva. I still have a great deal to learn about Buddhism, the world around me, and myself, but this course brought me nearer to understanding all three. The meditation strategies I have learned made me more loving and compassionate toward myself and others, and this growth is no small feat.

If I had to describe the course in one word, that word would be “wisdom.” As a result of this course, I not only have substantially more book knowledge, but I have also gained much more spiritual wisdom. The world and my self make more sense, and I am wiser now than when I began the course.

* Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture: Recognize what is happening; Allow the experience to be there, just as it is; Investigate with interest and care; Nurture with self-compassion.

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