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Beginner’s Mind: Reflections on Buddhist Economics and My Buddha-nature

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Beginner’s Mind is a special series from Buddhistdoor Global of thoughtful, insightful essays written college students in the US 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 Buddhdharma. 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.

When signing up for this class, I underestimated the “economics” aspect of Buddhist economics. I wanted to continue my spiritual practice founded on the Buddhist teachings, and I was sure that this class could give me that. I felt ready for the Buddhist teachings, but the economics perspective took me by surprise. I had thought that Buddhist economics was a groundbreaking new field of study, only to find out that people have been writing about it since the 1970s (I’m talking about you, E. F. Schumacher). As a humanities major, I was overwhelmed by the economics jargon. On the first day of class, as we went around the room to introduce ourselves, I kept thinking, “Why are there so many econ majors in the room?” From the start, I perceived a dissonance between Buddhism and economics, failing to see how these seemingly incompatible subjects could work together. My perspective on Buddhism was limited to the few spiritual practices I had encountered in the past year and a half. These include a more relaxed form of meditation, some textual excerpts from Dōgen, and, more recently, efforts by American Buddhist teachers such as David Loy to intersect environmental activism with the Buddhist path. None of this is particularly new (definitely not Dōgen!), but rather only a small glimpse of what Buddhism can be. Yet, it was new and innovative for me, having grown up in the institutionalized shadow of the Catholic Church. Buddhism was a breath of fresh air; a reconnection with my spirituality that I so longed for but did not know how to seek.

As I continued on my path, I began to see how Buddhism could become political. The writings of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and David Loy contextualized Buddhism with contemporary political issues, from racism to climate change. Buddhism was no longer just a path for spiritual growth, but also a tool toward social justice. I often think of the words a friend of mine once said: “Everything is politics, everything is religion.” And the two of them are interconnected. But again, this was not the full picture. 

Professor Susanne Ryuyin Kerekes often refers to her teaching as “showing the other 99 per cent” of Buddhism. While it may be impossible to learn about the other 99 per cent during a single semester (especially one interrupted by COVID-19), my perspective on Buddhism began to expand, slowly reaching places where this religion has been a principal aspect of their culture, where Buddhism, politics, and economics have historically crossed paths. Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Happiness and Thailand’s sufficiency economy are two relatively recent examples in the long list of Buddhism’s interactions with the economy and politics. These examples also expanded my initial notion of Buddhist economics first influenced by Dr. Clair Brown. Many of us in the class were disappointed with her book and eight steps for a Buddhist economics: the first chapters felt promising and with potential, but the ending left us with an “is that it?” aftertaste. Saskia Sassen’s Expulsions was a completely different experience. However, I remember sensing some dissatisfaction from a few classmates regarding her conclusion; after laying out all the facts and everything that is bad with the world, she provided no solution. I think it was a little unfair to expect that from her—or any author really. I think the answer to the solution lies in us, in her audience who reads Expulsions and feels anger toward the injustices of the world. Maybe we should also cut Dr. Brown some slack. If we don’t like her eight steps, can we come up with a better plan?

That’s part of what lies beyond this class: finding a plan that works for me, but more importantly, sticking with it. Maybe I should stop nitpicking every possible solution that comes my way and acknowledge that almost all of them are better than our current carbon-dependent, profit-seeking, inhumane system. I’m not saying we should stop critiquing and questioning—there’s value in not accepting an answer at face value—but that should not stop us from doing something. Our goal should not be a perfect solution, but a better solution. And now, in our own lives, we can begin to make a change. Using a reusable bottle won’t end climate change or even reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but, if I have the choice, I feel ethically obligated to choose the one that doesn’t add to this marine dumpster. The effort, however small, matters.

One activity in Becon class that still lingers in my mind is the social media cleanse. Like many others from the class, I continued to mindlessly scroll on my smartphone, consuming media for the sake of it, albeit now it came from emails and the news. The social media cleanse uncovered the deeper roots of my behavior. I think often about my relationship with my phone, especially now during quarantine. I now spend more time on the Internet, often watching video after video on YouTube. Part of me wants to excuse my behavior. After all, we are in the midst of a pandemic and many of us are spending way more time in front of screens anyways. But maybe I shouldn’t let myself off the hook quite so easily when I know I’m trying to stare at my screen long enough to numb myself from real-life events. This class  has widened my perspective on what a healthy relationship with social media and the Internet could look like. Maybe I could delete all the apps on my phone, but that can only take me so far. I must also question myself, question the root of my actions, my intentions and motivations, and have self-compassion, withoutjudgment. A self-critique, not self-criticizing. Maybe I can get there someday, but I think being on the path is the most important step.

Fernanda Gonzalez wrote this essay for her course on Buddhist Economics at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Fernanda, a member of the class of 2023, and is studying Comparative Literature and French and is passionate about social and environmental justice.

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