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Looking for the East in the West and Finding Myself Instead

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Beginner’s Mind is a special project from Buddhistdoor Global 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.

As a student interested in religion, I was academically exposed to deep thought-provoking work on religions of the West. But I truly felt the lack of studying Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and the like. Perhaps it’s because of my Hindu background, but I wanted to know what the academic world had to say about these ancient traditions. I came into the Buddhist Material Culture (BuMaC) class hoping to learn two things: 

(1) What are the central tenets of Buddhism and how are they interpreted and practiced today?

(2) What is it that makes this religion different from Hinduism? 

I learned the answers to these questions and found more than I bargained for in also learning about New Materialism and affect theory.

Naturally, the readings from Harvey and Keown were exciting, as they taught me exactly what I came to learn: Buddhist fundamentals. I think that it’s rather difficult to have one text that details the vast breadth of any religious practice or thought. I enjoyed reading Keown and Harvey because they boldly set out to do just that. I became attuned to their style of writing and was easily able to grasp the basics of Buddhism. 

That was until week six, when the course material took a material turn. As if her name wasn’t enough of a harbinger, Hazard’s article introducing New Materialism threw me for a loop. I struggled to reconcile my preconceived notion of the inferiority of material compared with spiritual experience. How could one say that prayer beads or joss sticks play a significant role in religion? Aren’t they merely stepping-stones to the supreme experience of the truth? Isn’t the whole point of this human experience to transcend the material world and attain a state beyond? I was scared of what lay on the other side of those questions. I became defensive and took a nihilistic stance, asking: “What is the point of all this?” in my weekly discussion posts for the class. The previous week we had read the Kālāma Sutta, and I was convinced that it didn’t matter what academics had to say on New Materialism. My own thoughts and, more importantly, my experiences are just as significant.

My difficulties didn’t stop there. I felt a similar sentiment reading Schaefer in week 10. He opened with the idea of animal religion and I lost it; I cleared my schedule that day to read and re-read what he was saying to see whether or not I agreed.

Allowing these thoughts and theories to percolate helped me. With New Materialism, I figured that even if I couldn’t “move away from anthropocentrism” totally, I could at least consider the “material effects.” (Hazard 2013, 60 & 65) I could not completely dissolve the distinctions I made between material and man, but it became interesting to think about what their effects were. I began to think along the lines of Sure we may be on a journey out of the material world, but don’t these material forms influence us? New Materialism became a game I played: am I using my phone because it’s on my table winking at me (the LEDs flash when I receive a new message)? Were my clothes living their own life by using me as a vehicle?! Over time, these questions took a religious turn. I began to think about the affect that sound had on people’s mental states; the specific ways in which mantras and other chants work. 

Although I couldn’t explore affect theory much further given our limited class time, it too began to find its place within my beliefs, mainly because I felt that even if these questions didn’t line up with my beliefs, they were still interesting thought experiments through which I could learn more about my religious experience. Specifically, I began thinking about agency and the role that choice has to play in religion—a thought I heretofore hadn’t had. My perspective became one centered on curiosity rather than confirmation; a sentiment Hazard seems to have captured perfectly when she writes: “Ultimately, I am more interested in seeing what ideas can do, than I am in defending one last scrap of turf.” (Hazard 2019, 2) What started as a journey to academically understand religions of the East became a willingness to apply foreign ideas and concepts to personal experience, even if they didn’t align with my experiences and beliefs. 

Of course, I learned about the central Buddhist tenets, how they differ from Hinduism, and new theories such as New Materialism and the like, but I still seemed to fall short of my initial purpose. I wanted to explore how Buddhism is practiced in the present—a desire that was partially fulfilled by the experiential portion of the class. More than meditating on my own, I wanted to learn meditation from a practitioner, and maybe even meditate in a group. This kind of firsthand learning will offer me a more serious experience with religious practices. 

With a little more remaining on my journey at Williams, I’ll seek to learn more about these practices, and specifically about how they are believed to work. Unpacking these foreign (to me) beliefs with curiosity rather than close-mindedness is something I have learned and will attempt to continue. 

Finally, I think that the idea of mettā sums up my experience in the Buddhist Material Culture class. Learning to be comfortable with the limits of my knowledge enables me to accept and, sometimes, embrace new ideas. Similarly, in practicing mettā, one starts with non-narcissistic self-love and then grows to love and accept others. Looking forward to an accepting journey ahead.

Mukund Nair wrote this essay for his Buddhist Material Culture course at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He will graduate in 2022 with a major in Religious Studies, and a concentration in Public Health and Neuroscience. Interested in education reform and the medical sciences, Nair also enjoys building strong personal relationships with others. He is currently exploring postgraduate opportunities that align with his varied interests.

References

Harvey, Peter. 2013. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practice. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 

Hazard, Sonia. “The Material Turn in the Study of Religion,” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4 (2013): 58–78. 

———. “Two Ways of Thinking About New Materialism,” Material Religion 15.5 (2019): 629–31. 

Keown, Damien. 2000. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Schaefer, Donovan O. 2015. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press. 

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