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Young Voices: What One Word Can Do

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. 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.

Rhine Peng wrote this essay for the “Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard” class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts. Rhine is from Seattle, Washington and plans to study religion and philosophy in college.

What One Word Can Do

I didn’t think that visiting Chùa Tường Vân, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Lowell, Massachusetts, could challenge my assumptions about myself. That day began ordinarily enough—we started with a breathing exercise. Before that activity, Dr. Thắm Trần (PhD in education from UMass Lowell), the founder and director of the Tường Vân Buddhist Youth Association, let us know that all we had to do is to follow along and “enjoy.”


Although I did enjoy many of my real-life encounters with religion and philosophy, I had long held an expectation that my primary goal was to look for answers. Growing up without a religious upbringing, I felt in the beginning that exploring philosophy (and later religion) was not something I would choose for myself. After the passing of my grandfather, I found myself confronted with unanswerable questions about life, death, meaning, and more. And I felt that if I didn’t find the answers to all my questions, I wouldn’t be able to live my life in the “right” way or “make the most” out of life. I didn’t want to hold onto these “big questions”—it seemed more like they held on to me. I felt that much of my exploration happened because I wanted answers so much, and because I felt uncomfortable with uncertainty and not knowing. Now, as I learned more about religion and philosophy, both inside and outside the classroom, I began to realize that it isn’t always about finding the answer; that there isn’t always one single answer; and that answering my questions can take many forms.

Previously, most of my real-life encounters with religion happened after I gained some academic knowledge regarding those religions. Academic knowledge can be helpful, but I began to comprehend that learning is also experiencing, feeling, and reflecting—and doing all of these in community with other people. Almost all of these were missing when I first encountered some other religions. So, in this sense, the experiential and lived religion-centered approach of the Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard project seemed like a welcome change. 

But not coming pre-armed with knowledge gained from academic sources also proved challenging. I remember thinking, after a week or two, that I should be reading and analyzing sutras instead of visiting more temples. I liked the temple visits, but I was at least more comfortable visiting places of worship knowing something about them. But more than my comfort was the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to learn as much as I could—that is, to look for answers as much as I could—if I didn’t already have some academic knowledge. In short, although each temple was welcoming and encouraging, I felt unprepared and as if I was doing something wrong.

I later realized that, in many ways, not having the academic knowledge actually helped me to dive into these experiences because I did not carry additional layers of assumptions. Only now did I realize that previously, I had often given priority to what can be learned from books, articles, and other academic sources, thinking that they were more authoritative. But academic sources often cannot fully capture the messy, complex, and nuanced realities that are lived religion. Moreover, I realized that I found abstractions and universalizing more comfortable than the specifics. But there can be no abstract or universal without the specific—after all, “religion” is made up of the various and diverse lived religious experiences of individuals. I’m still dealing with the “big questions,” but I’m also seeing how those around me are grappling with these questions in everyday life. And in doing so, I’ve found a sense of community with people who may have very different beliefs and lived experiences than me. 

Often, I still find myself only wanting the answers, even as I begin to realize that when I try to answer my questions, I often end up with more questions. But I try to be kind to myself and understand that I can let go of only wanting the answers. So, when Dr. Trần said “enjoy,” I felt an invitation to be present and to let my curiosity, wonder, and awe guide me—to have fun, to be a kid again, and to rediscover and return to a more open, authentic, and vulnerable kind of exploration. Then I could begin to let go of my own expectations, assumptions, and judgements that were weighing me down. 

All that, I suppose, is what one word can do.

Dedicated to Dr. Thắm Trần.

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