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Young Voices: The “Happy Birthday” Song

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. 

Alice Fan wrote this essay in connection to the “Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard” class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts.

The “Happy Birthday” Song

Please sing the following aloud to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” preferably with an audience!

Build your merit. Guard your mind.
Always be kind. Strive to reach
All those in need. Make your speech
Match those who teach the true path.

Alright, I get it: the tone of these lyrics doesn’t quite match that of the “Happy Birthday” song!

But when I followed my own instructions in the final hours of our four-day residential Buddhist retreat, titled “Story and Song: Learning and Living with Buddhist Chant,” at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in central Massachusetts, I found myself giggling, with tears welling up in my eyes, as my vocal chords croaked out the words. My voice was waking slowly from its 11-hour slumber in noble silence, a meditative practice challenging individuals to look inward by refraining from speaking and vocalizing.

As I sang and cried and giggled, I reflected on my spontaneous decision to attend this retreat as a high school senior who’d only studied Buddhism for a few weeks in a virtual school class during my sophomore year and hadn’t touched on it since. Never had I been inside a religious temple. Never had I chanted for spiritual intent—a sharp discomfort that was further complicated by our chanting in different languages, including Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. (Never had I heard of these languages before arriving at BCBS!) Never had I practiced such a simple task, chanting, for more than four hours each day. Never had I felt so out of place and so hyper-aware of my own social location: my youthfulness, my non-Buddhist and non-religious identity, and my visibly Asian American skin.

What was I doing among so many strange, eccentric individuals across vastly different generations, praying to the Buddha in a random building away from civilization in a language that most of us didn’t understand? I felt uncomfortable even putting my hands together in the Buddhist prayer position.

As the retreat went on, however, I was astounded by the acts of kindness from my fellow quirky, supposedly-wacky retreatants; one of the first of these moments came when Jeri, an older woman, reached into my compost to take out my paper napkin at the end of our first meal at BCBS, which was a big embarrassment. Not only because I was already holding up the dishwasher line, but also because I spend a lot of my time on sustainability efforts—I had believed that I should know what needed be sorted into the compost and what should go into the trash. Another small moment came when Jasmine, the seven-year-old daughter of a BCBS staff member, gifted me the drawing below during one evening session.

Image courtesy of the author

These small moments—which often did not take place inside the Dharma Hall, the most religious space, but instead during meals and other downtime—forced me to reconcile my own preconceived notions of Buddhism with its reality. While I did find a group of intensely religious and spirited individuals at BCBS, I also found generous, hilarious, and humble people, who were there to learn and to further explore their identities as Buddhists, as Asian Americans, and even as young people.

This realization came with a newfound awareness of the perspective and experience that I brought to the retreat. As an American who is not even accustomed to occupying Christian religious spaces, such as a church, living and learning in such a seemingly hyper-religious space made me feel out of place. This discomfort was compounded by the fact that Buddhism is an Asian religion, and that my Asian American-ness and profound lack of Buddhist knowledge was made abundantly clear in my awkward, frequent glances toward other retreatants as we practiced Buddhist rituals. Furthermore, as a young introvert, I tend to remain quiet in new environments and to become more vulnerable as I become more comfortable with my peers. This intensive retreat challenged me to share my perspectives and vulnerabilities with a group of older strangers within the span of just a few days.

At the very end of the course, we were asked to share a phrase that resonated with us the most to any tune we wanted. After days of mostly keeping quiet and absorbing the new experiences that the retreat brought, I wanted to present something that truly felt like me; something that encapsulated what I had learned and that embraced the several aspects of my social location that had silenced me in the beginning.

Jeri and Jasmine strove to reach me at a time when I needed security, appreciation, and confidence. They were unapologetically kind to a person they had never met. They guarded their minds and did not judge me when I made a mistake. They followed the true (“middle”) path by speaking and acting with genuine, wholesome intention. They built their meritand taught me how to pay it forward and build my own.

With this in mind, on our final day of the Buddhist retreat, I sang to highlight my youth (adequately exaggerated by the silly “Happy Birthday” tune), my non-Buddhist spirituality (made clear by my selected passage, which was simple and avoided much mention of Buddhist tradition), and my Asian American identity (accepted through my unabashed singing in English). 

So, to pay it forward, I invite you to follow these instructions again. Please sing aloud to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” preferably with an audience:

Build your merit. Guard your mind.
Always be kind. Strive to reach
All those in need. Make your speech
Match those who teach the true path.


A 17-year-old, non-Buddhist, Asian American student.

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Finding Comfort in Not-Knowing
Buddhism and Self-Reliance: Learning For Growth
Unraveling from Expectations

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