Young Voices is a special project from Buddhistdoor Global collecting insightful essays written by high school students in the US who have attended experiential-learning-based courses rooted in the Buddhist teaching. Inspired by and running in parallel with BDG’s Beginner’s Mind project for college students, Young Voices offers a platform for these students to share essays expressing their impressions and perspectives on their exposure to the Buddhadharma and its relationship with their hopes, aspirations, and expectations.
Melissa Damasceno wrote this essay for her “Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard” class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts. Melissa is from Houston, Texas, and is currently on a gap year. She plans to study philosophy and comparative literature in college.
Buddhism and Self-Reliance: Learning For Growth
Prior to this spring, my knowledge of Buddhism was restricted to the brief unit I had quickly memorized before taking an AP World History exam. Sure, I knew the basic biography of Siddhartha Gautama and the global impact of the Four Noble Truths, but my knowledge of how Buddhism has manifested in contemporary society, especially in the United States, was practically non-existent.
I grew up practicing an inconsistent blend of Christianity, Catholicism, and Brazilian Spiritism, none of which ever brought me reassurance. As I grew older, I slowly distanced myself from any organized religion, uncomfortable with the shame and guilt thrown onto individuals who “lost sight” of their path. Why devote time to practicing faith if my entire life was decided by someone I could not see, hear, or feel? Why would three Lord’s Prayers remedy my mistakes? How could someone have the authority to tell me that I lived my life incorrectly, and why was God the one to decide what made me a “good” or “bad” person?
I projected these experiences onto other systems of spirituality and wondered how anyone could find comfort in religion if its core foundations were based on the all-consuming fear of a higher power. I thought the same of Buddhism: the Five Precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path were merely ways of “pleasing” a higher entity to avoid facing punishment, whether in this life or the next.
My perspective changed the moment we stepped into our first Buddhist temple and spoke with the youth group coordinator about how people have changed and benefited from being part of this community. My original understanding of Buddhism was challenged; it was not about doing what the Buddha wants in order to avoid punishment, but instead about learning from him, and using these teachings to drive inner growth. I was able to see it for all its colors, beliefs, and practices that extend beyond a dialectic of fear and comfort. Throughout the temple visits, what struck me most was the principle of self-reliance—learning from within instead of relying on religious figures to carve out a path for you.
Life can be incredibly simple, and you possess the power to uncomplicate it. This was my main takeaway from our first visit to Chùa Tường Vân, a Vietnamese temple in Lowell, Massachusetts. After guiding us through a short meditation, the resident monk, Thay Thích Tâm Hỷ, spent time detailing how most of our problems are solvable and how we have the agency to remove sources of stress in our lives. He spoke of the importance of finding comfort within ourselves and how meditation should be a way for us to escape from external stressors and return to stability, all located within.
At the American Wisdom Association, a Chinese temple in Billerica, Massachusetts, Venerable Manzhong explained how following the Buddhist teachings and becoming familiar with the Dharma doesn’t serve to “please” the Buddha or any higher power. From her, I learned that the Buddha is not simply regarded as an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good spiritual being who can inflict pain on anyone, but is instead viewed as a teacher who guides us down a peaceful path toward personal fulfillment and meaningful connections with the world.
The nun explained how the self is impermanent and how people aren’t tied to past versions of themselves—we are constantly evolving. Every decision we make is a step toward the person we’ll be tomorrow, or the person we’ll be in another life. Weaving in principles of impermanence, she reassured us of our ability to rely on ourselves to solve our own problems, instead of begging others to figure it out for us. This ranged from wisdom on navigating long-term romantic relationships to the role that the Buddha plays in helping us arrive at clarity. “You do not pray to the Buddha to step in and save you from your troubles; you pray for the strength and wisdom to do it alone.” Everything you need to find peace and simplicity is already there. You just have to look for it and, more importantly, trust it.
Hearing these reflections, I was wholly challenged in how I believed people found meaning in systems of faith, mainly because I had never arrived at this level of comfort and security. I grew up being told that God would solve my problems for me and that following his words and demands was the way to ensure these solutions would come to fruition. Ignoring him wasn’t an option. In Buddhism, it is the opposite: you hold the power to change for the better, and this change isn’t for the Buddha but for you.
Conceptualizing this core belief has ultimately shifted the way I view faith at large. I finally understand how people find refuge in spirituality, and I have been able to detach myself from the punitive and fear-inducing manifestation of Catholicism that I grew up with—a revelation I would not have come to by reading chapters in a textbook. I now see Buddhism for its multifacetedness, and I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of how people find refuge and seek growth in a spiritual community.