Dean David Schaberg, UCLA colleagues, parents, loved ones, but most especially, all of you graduates in UCLA’s Humanities class of 2022:
It is an honor for me to have this opportunity to formally congratulate all of you on your hard work in completing your degrees in Humanities. What a tough few years you have endured. As we in the academy flailed to find the best way to help you keep learning amid the worst health crisis of the last hundred years, you not only survived, but even managed to flourish. You pivoted to remote instruction on literally a moment’s notice and made the best of what we know was a profoundly challenging time. All of us in this auditorium are immensely proud of you. We are also so glad to finally be able to fête you in person, in this iconic building of the UCLA campus and the home of my own Humanities department of Asian Languages and Cultures.
Actually, you and I have more affinities than you might imagine. Like you, I also am graduating from UCLA this year, but with my retirement pension rather than my degree. But unlike most of you, who’ve finished in four or five years, it’s taken me a bit longer, 36 years, in fact.
This is the second commencement address I’ve delivered. My first was as one of you, when I was the valedictorian speaker at my departmental commencement at UC Berkeley many decades ago. I’ve been in the UC system as long as most of your parents have been alive. I grew up in Palos Verdes, where I was first exposed to Buddhism through the novel Siddhartha, Herman Hesse’s creative retelling of the Buddha’s life, and through a couple of lessons on the religion in a history course. After high school, I was determined to study Buddhism more intensively and applied to the only UC campus that had a Department of Religious Studies back then: UC Santa Barbara. I started studying both Chinese and Sanskrit in my freshman year, and took every course on Buddhism that they offered (which weren’t that many back in those days). My practical-minded father pleaded, “Can’t you at least take a couple of courses on business so you’ll be able to find a job?” After a year, to their dismay, I decided to leave school and travel to Asia to enter a monastery. My relatives in Ohio were appalled, sure I was joining a cult. I ended up spending seven years in Asia as a Buddhist monk: one year in Thailand, one year with Chinese monks in Hong Kong, and five years in Korean Zen monasteries. After I returned to the US for a visit, still as a monk, I was staying at a Zen Center in Berkeley, when a professor there invited me to sit in on some of his seminars on Buddhism. I finally acknowledged to myself that I was a much better scholar than meditator, and decided to re-enroll at UC Berkeley, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student. (One of my professors never used my name: at first he always called me “monk,” and later “ex-monk.”) After finishing my PhD, I taught for one year as an apostate at Stanford, and then returned to the UC system to start as an assistant professor here at UCLA. And here we are, nearly four decades later.
Typically in these addresses, your speaker would be citing the paragons of Western civilization—Aeschylus, Socrates, Shakespeare. I’ll be going in a different direction. Because of my background as someone who has spent his entire life studying the East—and especially given the fact that UCLA is the premier university in the city that is the gateway to the Pacific Rim—I will be looking not back to Europe, but ahead to Asia.
One of the stories that most impressed me about Buddhism when I was about your age is that of the Buddha’s encounter with the Kalamas. The Kalamas were a people who lived at the crossroads of two major trade routes in India, so there was a constant flow of traders, travelers, and religious teachers coming through their town. These preachers were always criticizing and attacking one another. The Kalamas had received so many conflicting accounts about what an authentic religious life entailed that they were utterly confused about what to believe. One day, the Buddha arrived in town and the townspeople were so impressed with his demeanor that they decided to ask him to resolve their doubts. But the Buddha rebuffed them: “Kalamas,” he says, “Do not go upon what you have learned; nor upon tradition; nor upon popular opinion; nor upon what is in the sacred scriptures; nor on another’s charisma; nor on faith; nor on what your teacher has taught you. Instead, Kalamas, when you yourselves have confirmed, ‘These things are bad, these things are blamable, these things lead to harm and ill’—those things you should abandon.”
What the Buddha is telling them here is this—don’t simply accept what you are told, no matter how venerable the source. Rather, we must learn to rely on ourselves, on our own observations and insights, to discover what works and what doesn’t. This self-reliance builds the faculty that the Buddhists call “seeing things as they are” (yathabhutajnanadarshana) by applying “systematic attention” (yoniso-manaskara) to examine our world. You might know it better as critical thinking, the crucial skill that Humanities students learn more than any other.
I learned on a personal level about the centrality of self-reliance and “seeing things as they are” when I trained with one of the most renowned meditation masters in Thailand, the eminent monk Mahaboowa. I had just ordained as a monk. I was only nineteen, but keen to learn; and, like the Kalamas, I just wanted someone I trusted to tell me how to practice. Mahaboowa was quite the eccentric Zen-master type. After the morning meal, he used to hide behind a rock wall, using a slingshot to shoot at the dogs that came around looking for handouts. He said this was his way of teaching them mindfulness, since being mindful would be their best chance of a better rebirth in their next lifetimes.
After my first week at his monastery, during which I had been left pretty much alone, I finally asked him for an audience and said that I’d been waiting for him to teach me how to meditate. His response was telling and my first real lesson in how to live Buddhism, rather than just study Buddhism. “How can you expect me,” he asked, “to know what will work for you? I grew up in the forests of northern Thailand; you grew up in an American city. Our experiences couldn’t be more different. You can’t expect anyone else to tell you how to practice. You just need to observe yourself, be mindful of what works and what doesn’t, and find your own way.” It was a hard lesson in the self-reliance that is required to “see things as they are,” and I wasn’t able to really take advantage of it until years later. But it was a lesson I took to heart.
“Seeing things as they are” ultimately means recognizing that everything in this world is in constant flux, governed by causal processes that can be observed and understood. The Buddhist technical term for this constant flux is “impermanence” (anityata), a concept that has suggested to some that Buddhism is pessimistic and its practitioners lugubrious. Not so: the fact of impermanence actually means that there are an infinite number of possibilities laid out before us, and it is up to us, and no one else, to find our own path forward.
One of the most poignant expressions of this idea of impermanence is a Japanese proverb I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve gotten older: a’u wa wakare no hajime (逢うは別れの始め): “Meeting is the beginning of parting.” You graduates have probably had only a fleeting sense of this in your lives, but I assure you your parents and family feel it keenly: they welcomed you into the world, only to see you depart for kindergarten, then grade school, then college. Today they watch you graduate and depart to lead your own lives and perhaps eventually start your own families. The faculty met you when you entered UCLA, and we too now watch you depart to explore your own paths.
But one interesting facet of this constant flux we face in our lives is this: if all things are impermanent, then so too are we ourselves. Long before the West developed the modern discipline of psychology, Buddhists already recognized that our sense of self is a constructed fiction, built from the habits—the causes and conditions—that we put in place throughout our lives.
When the US Secretary of Education visited a Los Angeles school this spring, I was intrigued by a motivational poster I saw behind him on the wall of the classroom:
Watch your thoughts, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
I looked this up on Google—what the Koreans call Professor Gu—and found it variously attributed to Laozi, Mahatma Gandhi, and even Margaret Thatcher. I don’t know who deserves credit for the aphorism, but the sentiment is straight from Buddhism. You will all have heard of the Indian concept of karma, which quite literally just means “action” and includes its corollary, the “fruition” or “result” that derives from those actions. In the Buddhist interpretation, karma is defined as “mental intention” (cetana), that is, “thought,” for “based on what you intend in the mind, you act with body and speech.” So, what we think with our minds creates our identity, what the poster called our destiny.
Rather than the popular phrase “we are what we eat,” Buddhism would say, “We are what we think.” This relates to what the Buddhists mean when they say there is no self or soul (anatman): we have no fixed identity because we are constantly under construction, year by year, day by day, really moment by moment. The Buddhists would have it, then, that if you can dream it, you can be it. You just need to “see things as they are”—that is, to recognize and put into place the causes and conditions that are necessary to make that dream a reality.
More than anyone else in this university, it is you Humanities graduates who are the dreamers. You certainly don’t major in comparative literature, or art history, or philosophy, or especially Buddhist Studies for the money, but because you’re on your own personal quest. You may not know yet where your dreams may take you. But Humanities students have one big advantage over other graduates: you know you have options. In a world where, economists tell us, you are likely to have 12 different jobs in the course of your lifetimes, you Humanities graduates are in the best position to be able to continuously reinvent yourselves. My father was an engineer and marketer, and when he was asked how his son became a Buddhist monk and scholar, he would always say, “He sure didn’t get it from me, but he did a lot better than if he had followed my advice.” So, if your father questions your choices, please feel free to invoke my example and tell him: “Well, at least I’m not going off to become a monk!” (Unless you are, of course, in which case, as the Koreans say, Sŏngbul hasipsio 成佛 하십시오 :“Please become an Awakened One, a Buddha”!)
Because you know you have an array of options before you, you have the wisdom and the courage not necessarily to make the safe choice or take the most direct path. You instead can embark on a true quest to find real meaning in your lives, a quest to “see things as they are” and construct your own best versions of yourselves.
As you leave us at UCLA on your next great adventure, we are all excited to see where your dreams will take you. We will be watching. So, parents, loved ones, friends—as they start out on their next quest, please join all of us at UCLA in congratulating your Humanities graduates in the class of 2022!
Address delivered at the UCLA Humanities I and II Commencements, Royce Hall, June 11, 2022
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