Beginner’s Mind is a special series from Buddhistdoor Global of thoughtful, insightful essays written by 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 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.
Contrary to many of my classmates, enrolling in Buddhist economics (or Becon as I have come to affectionately call it) felt like a natural choice for me. Having been raised in Bhutan, known for its implementation of the Gross National Happiness development philosophy, Becon is familiar territory. In retrospect, it may have been the comfort of studying something so close to home while living on another continent that drew me to the class. Our exploration of Becon has been the one class that has sent me on a truly lifelong learning journey. Studying something so familiar in a foreign context really provided me with insights that I never gained at home. It has allowed me to be more aware of my own implicit beliefs and to become better at putting in the time to research and keep a critical eye on them. It has also inspired me to make changes in my personal life—something that I greatly appreciate about the class. My core values have not changed; in my reflection before the course I mentioned an interest in focusing on the more “human” elements, and this exploration has only helped me to affirm this interest. There are, however, three main aspects that I still struggle to answer; questions that have only deepened since taking the course.
The first is how to define and articulate what Buddhist economics means to me. This requires a clear recognition of my prior beliefs, where they came from, and why I held onto them. Without this, I was constantly questioning my identity in this new land, whose values differed so greatly from those to which I was accustomed. For example, prioritizing stewardship of nature and wildlife as we see in Becon is an almost intuitive need, having been brought up in a predominantly Buddhist community whose values are exactly this. Yet being unaware of the roots of my beliefs and the core values I grew up with meant that they quickly crumbled under scrutiny, and I often found myself helpless as to how to respond to differing opinions. I questioned things I’d never thought of questioning—things I wouldn’t know how to address when speaking to local lamas;questions we analyzed through our various discussions and readings that allowed me to better understand and fortify my values.
Distinguishing the short-term and long-term goals of Becon has also been important in my learning. In Bhutan, mentioning much of what we discussed in class could often feel like stating the obvious. In college, speaking to people from different contexts, I struggled with conversations regarding topics relevant to Becon, especially when the other party didn’t care simply because “it doesn’t affect [them].” This sentiment was hard to overcome when acutely aware of the fact that I, too, act out of my own self-interest. After all, how could I ask them to think about others when there exists this intrinsic selfish, instinctual survival of the fittest? I’d never had to do this before—in my community these things were almost always a given. However, I have accepted that people’s motivations and intents may be important, but accepting that such purity is unrealistic in the short-term has given me peace of mind when trying to contribute what I can.
My second struggle concerns the concept and real-world application of the Middle Path; to find a balance between cynicism and unrealistic optimism, between apathy and caring so much it becomes its own obstacle. This balance was hard to find at home, where the prevalence of Becon values meant that I was paying less attention to them, but having them “wronged” would then affect me. Bronx and Williams-Oderberg’s reading suggested “. . . that commodification does not necessarily accompany a lessening of authenticity or moral value or a decline in religiosity,” referencing the commodification of religion that serves as a livelihood for so many people. (Jerryson 510) Tourists in Bhutan can buy cheap handicrafts that take traditional articles and make them profitable, something I had long felt was “wrong.” Their statement stood out to me, since I’d never thought about this perspective. Seeing these craftspeople’s source of income as problematic and asking them to change their whole lifestyle could have a drastic impact. Everyone’s middle path looks different, and what I see as extreme may be someone else’s normal. I have no specific answer to this particular dilemma, but moderation in thought and remembering to find a balanced perspective are lessons that I have kept.
My last struggle is where to go from here. The beauty of our class is that with our varied interests, we can all apply Becon values as much (or as little) as we would like in our different futures. Becon may refer to economics, but we can identify the incredibly intersectional nature of the world. How do I pick my battles with so much in the world to care about? I don’t know where my contributions will lie, but this once-daunting uncertainty is now more exciting than ever. I will always remember what the Thai engaged Buddhist and social activist Sulak Sivaraksa said in his interview with the BBC: that everyone, regardless of their quality of life or state of being, has the capacity to “breathe deeper.” This is relevant in so many ways, whether it’s the personal journey of an individual attempting to achieve greater clarity, or dedicating oneself to helping others breathe deeper. Becon provides a framework that can bring about structural change, but it is also offers values that resonate with me on a very personal level. It amazes me how, in retrospect, my takeaways from the class seem so simple, but they took much time and exploration in an unfamiliar context to recognize. There is so much I still am unsure of, but this class has allowed me to reaffirm and strengthen my belief in Buddhist economics.
Desel Dorji wrote this essay for her Buddhist Economics course at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Desel, a Bhutanese sophomore, is a member of the class of 2023.
Jerryson, Michael, ed.2016. The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press