Young Voices: finding solace in not-knowing

Young Voices is a special project by Buddhistdoor Global bringing together insightful essays written by high school students in the United States who have taken courses based on experiential learning rooted in Buddhist teaching. Inspired and running in parallel with BDGs Beginnerthe mind project for college students, Young Voices provides a platform for these students to share essays expressing their impressions and perspectives on their exposure to Buddhadharma and its relationship to their hopes, aspirations and expectations.

Loulou Sloss wrote this essay for his “Listening to Buddhists in Our Backyard” class at Phillips Andover, a high school in Massachusetts. Loulou is a student from New York who studies philosophy and cinema at university.

Find solace in not-knowing

When we entered the main hall of Boston Buddha Vararam, a Thai temple in Bedford, Massachusetts, and approached the Buddha statue, everyone but me knew how to bow. I had never even heard that word before. Instead, I copied what they were doing in an attempt to fit me in. It was then that I realized experiential learning and immersion in a new religious culture was destined to be slightly uncomfortable.

Buddhist temples are both places of refuge and comfort for those observing the teaching. A nun told us that people bow down to 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 had already taken theirs off.

I had tested positive for COVID-19 before returning to campus to embark on this new educational journey. From my room in New York, I did my best to keep up with the other members of our group. I knew all the students and our teachers before, but their chemistry escaped me. I was on an iPad passed through the classroom, trying to stay focused and maintain my Wi-Fi connection. Group dynamics were established, temple etiquette expectations were clarified, and research on the Buddhist history were conducted by my peers. I had missed all these facets of the first days.

Within 12 hours of testing negative and returning to campus, I was on my way to Boston Buddha Vararam and reunited with everyone who had spent the last three days fused. During the 25-minute drive from our school to the temple, the other members of our group and our two teachers, Mr. Andy Housiaux and Ms. Chenxing Han, tried to summarize the experiences of the past week for me. I appreciated their efforts, but I was left completely lost.

I feel like my whole high school career was based on the idea that if you don’t know something, you should feel bad about it and therefore learn anything in order to reach the comfort. The learning was competitive, both between me and my classmates and between me and the teacher. Working to be the best in class, it was necessary by design to put others down.

Yet in the temples we visited, ignorance was accepted as long as it was accompanied by curiosity and open-mindedness. We soon realized that asking questions that were just vessels to sneakily 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 within our group was not against each other because everyone’s faults seemed bad for our whole group. This common goal bound us.

One act of kindness that particularly stood out to me was the intentional use of language by these community members that we could easily understand while providing us with information. It was usually in the form of Christian vocabulary. A layman called the sutras a “bible” and linked the refuge found in temple visitation and religious counseling to the Catholic faith. I appreciated this effort and recognize that my previous training would not have given me the tools to understand 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 started thinking 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 with no experience and barely any background information was terrifying. I was concerned that our lack of knowledge had been frustrating to those who offered to educate us. I soon realized that faking knowledge would have been worse than openly and joyfully embracing the newness of this experience.

Whatever I know of Buddhism now, which is far more than at the beginning of term, I will forever associate with the kindness shown to me in those early days. It allowed me to learn not only about Buddhism, but my level of comfort with the unknown in my experiences outside the walls of any temple.

BDG Related Features

Buddhism and autonomy: learning to grow
Let go of expectations
Dana: the power of community learning
What to do with impermanence

Related BDG Projects

Beginnerthe mind

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