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.
Aidan Bloomstine wrote this essay for his Buddhist Modernism course at the University of Southern California, a private university in Los Angeles. Aidan is a freshman and is majoring in public policy while pursuing a minor in religion. Aidan enjoys running, hiking, and walking on the beach.
Where Did Buddhism Take You?
Last year, when I was selecting my classes for this semester, I came upon Buddhist Modernism and was immediately intrigued. I have grown up with a strong religious background. My family regularly attended church and went to a kindergarten-through-12th-grade Christian school. When I first came to USC, I enrolled a class called Christianity in the Roman Empire. My choice to designate myself as a religion minor came from my strong desire and learn more about Christianity. After Christianity in the Roman Empire, I knew that I didn’t want to only study Christianity, I wanted to broaden my horizons to other religions.
While I was searching for classes to fulfill my religion minor, I came upon Buddhist Modernism. This class, I thought to myself, would be a perfect way to broaden my horizons. At first, I was intimidated by the required clearance from the department. I had never taken a course on Buddhism before and going into a higher-level Buddhism course sent nerves through my body. But on the first day of class, those nerves subsided and I knew that Prof. Zu and Buddhism 342g was the right fit for me.
After being in REL 342g for more than half a semester now, I can say with assurance that I look at situations and the world through a new lens. I noticed a major shift as I gained an immense amount of hope for myself and for others. In particular, with the Buddhist teaching that we are impermanent and that our thoughts and feelings are also impermanent, I find I can cope with negative feelings and actions that maybe are not the right ones in a much more hopeful perspective. I find hope because I know that tomorrow I am not going to feel the same feeling, or tomorrow I know that my current self is not going to be the same.
This same level of hope, for me, translates into being able to better deal with people who are rude or dismissive toward me. I know that if someone treats me poorly or in a way that I know I do not deserve, I am able to brush it off and give the person another chance. This ability stems from the idea that I know that this person is not going to have the same feelings toward me tomorrow. They themselves are going to change and be reborn again the next day.
When I was first introduced to the idea of impermanence, I was terrified. It took me hours of thinking through this concept to recognize it as a beautiful thing. I think that this idea of self-impermanence carries with it the potential to help a tremendous number of people who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental and emotional challenges. If someone helped those folks to understand that what they are feeling is not going to last forever and that tomorrow their thoughts and feelings can change, I think it would dramatically change their lives, as it did mine.
Through REL 342g, I have come to think more deeply about the origins of the things around me. I found it fascinating when students in class shared different aspects of life that I had no idea were stolen from other cultures or other religions. I gave an example in class of a Marvel movie called Dr. Strange, which tells the story of a surgeon who suffers a traumatic car accident that leaves him unable to operate. Unfortunately for this surgeon, his entire identity was centered on his profession and he was now unable to sustain his identity. The surgeon then sets off on a quest, to a place intended to represent Nepal, in order to find a person who can heal him. This character, whose name is Dr. Strange, finds himself in a temple at the top of a mountain being mentored by a bald woman in monastic robes. Under this woman’s instruction, Dr. Strange gains special powers that allow him to fight, control time, and travel between dimensions.
When I first watched this movie, I enjoyed it. I thought the action was fantastic, the score was wonderful, and the story of the main character was inspiring. Then, after leaving a REL 342g class, I was able to look at the movie through an entirely different lens. I saw a culture being appropriated and turned into entertainment that belittled it and equated it to being on the level of magic and superheroes. It saddened me to realize this about a movie I had enjoyed so much, but I find it unacceptable to take a legitimate way of life and bring it to Hollywood for the purposes of making a quick buck. I might have come to a different conclusion about the movie if there had been a sliver of respect shown toward Himalayan Buddhism and the monastery, but that was not the case. Greater awareness needs to be taken in characterizing other cultures and religions. It is a practice that goes on in Hollywood and even in the field of education. The practice of mindfulness in schools sometimes falls under the same category as Dr. Strange—an idea and a practice that has been adopted from an Eastern religion without the spiritual origins receiving any credit. More of us as academics need to sound the alarm to the cultural violations taking place under our noses.
If not for REL 342g, then I would not have been able to clearly discern the wrongs of Dr. Strange. My horizons have been opened, allowing me to see different works of art and literature in a different light. If I were to take REL 342g and synthesize it into a single word, the word would be “horizons.” I think of horizons as being far off. Something toward which one must extend the one’s sight in order to perceive it. I think that Buddhism has extended my vision and enabled me to see farther. I can see different situations through a lens that I might otherwise have been unable to see through. I am excited to see where the wisdom of Buddhism will take me next.