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.
Loulou Sloss wrote this essay for her “Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard” class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts. Loulou is a student from New York City studying philosophy and film in college.
Finding Comfort in Not-Knowing
When we entered the main hall of Boston Buddha Vararam, a Thai temple in Bedford, Massachusetts, and walked up to the statue of the Buddha, everyone but me knew how to prostrate. I had never even heard that word before. Instead, I copied what they were doing in an attempt to blend in. It was at this moment I realized that learning through experience and immersion in a new religious culture was destined to be slightly uncomfortable.
Buddhist temples are places of both refuge and comfort for those who observe the teaching. One nun told us that people prostrate themselves in front of the Buddha to feel better. I imagined I would feel a similar ease, until I walked into this temple with my shoes on—not realizing that everyone else had already removed theirs.
I had tested positive for COVID-19 before returning to campus to embark on this new educational path. From my bedroom in New York City, I tried my hardest to keep up with the other members of our group. I knew all the students and our teachers beforehand, but their chemistry was lost on me. I was on an iPad being passed around the classroom, trying to stay focused and maintain my Wi-Fi connection. The group dynamic was established, the expectations for temple etiquette were clarified, and research into Buddhist history was conducted by my peers. I had missed all these facets of the first couple of days.
Within 12 hours of testing negative and returning to campus, I was en route to Boston Buddha Vararam and re-meeting everyone who had spent the past three days fused together. In the 25-minute car ride between our school and the temple, the other members of our group and our two teachers, Mr. Andy Housiaux and Ms. Chenxing Han, had attempted to sum up the past week’s experiences for me. I appreciated their efforts but remained utterly lost.
I feel like my entire high-school career has relied on the idea that if you don’t know something, you should feel uncomfortable and therefore learn about whatever it is in order to achieve comfort. Learning felt competitive, both between me and my classmates and between me and the teacher. Through working to be the best in the class, it was necessary by design to put others down.
Yet within the temples we visited, ignorance was accepted as long as it was accompanied by curiosity and an open mind. We realized quickly that asking questions that were merely vessels to slyly display our knowledge would result in one-word answers or frustrate the people who were graciously working to overcome the language barrier between us.
The competition was a collective fight against ignorance. The race among our group was not against each other because anyone’s shortcomings looked bad for our entire group. This common goal bonded us.
An act of kindness that particularly stood out to me was the intentional use of language by these members of the community that we could easily understand while providing information to us. This was commonly in the form of Christian vocabulary. One layperson referred to sutras as “a bible” and related the refuge found in visiting a temple and religious counseling to Catholic confession. I was appreciative of this effort and acknowledge that my prior education would not have given me the tools to understand the Buddhist jargon in its own context.
This purely selfless act of sharing information, food, and a safe space to ask questions is one that really touched me. I began to think about how I make others feel in spaces where I have control or when I am the provider of information.
Entering the sacred space of a group of people without any experience and barely any background information was terrifying. I was worried that our lack of knowledge would have been frustrating to those who offered to educate us. I soon realized that feigning knowledge would have been worse than openly and happily embracing the newness of this experience.
No matter how much I know about Buddhism now, which is much more than at the beginning of the term, I will forever associate it with the kindness that was shown to me in those first few days. It allowed me to learn not only about Buddhism but about my comfort level with the unknown in my experiences outside of the walls of any temple.