Beginner’s Mind: Anicca
Beginner’s Mind is a new series of thoughtful, insightful essays written by students who attended an experiential-learning-based course in Buddhist Economics at Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhdharma; all are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.
Each of us too will one day die, and our dead bodies will unite with the earth, and rebirth will take place miraculously or magically for those who wish to understand the interconnectedness of all things or the inter-being of all. (Sivaraksa 287).
The suttas claim that an implication of impermanence is that people should always be respected as capable of changing for the better: “Whatever a person is like on the surface, the depths of his mind are seen as ‘brightly shining’. . . . This depth-purity, known . . . as tathagatagarbha.” (Harvey 266) In a sense, it is a rebirth without death, built from and building paticcasamuppada (Pali: conditioned arising). Anicca (impermanence), the ignorance and realization of, is the start and the end.
There is no single determining cause that I believe to have put me in motion on this path. But I do remember the day I became aware. Not connected. Not yet. But aware.
I was wearing loose, flowing pants, a light blue shirt, and a pastel-pink headband that my grandma had bought me just for this trip. It was spring break and my mom had paid more than she could afford to so that I could go with my friends to Southeast Asia. It was our first day in Cambodia. We hadn’t even reached where we would be staying but we made a pit stop at an elementary school. I remember the stifling heat, the small, crowded classroom filled with wide-eyed children, the way the kids stared at me when I walked into the classroom because of my light blonde hair. We introduced ourselves and a young woman who had come from Japan to teach English translated for us. She told the children to point out Cambodia on the map; a little boy jumped up and did so. I barely recognized the map. It was the exact same world from a different point of view, highlighting Asia. This is the way the world must look to those who called it home. It hit me then that this little boy’s world was so completely different from mine, that it felt foreign, and yet it was technically the same planet. The realization filled me with disbelief; it was almost easier to not process it.
The children then stood up and sang a song for us, full of joy and life and bursting with excitement in this dirty little room filled with such light. Tears slid down my cheeks and I rushed to wipe them away. When I couldn’t hold the feeling in my body any longer, I walked out and left them singing in that room. I took a few deep breaths, centering myself, angry for feeling sad at that moment when they were singing their hearts out with no shoes on. Later, we played soccer together and I took a polaroid picture with a little girl. She seemed so in awe of it that I let her keep it.
I stood there, in the center of that field, and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe past my grief and wonder. I don’t know what it was—maybe it was the unfairness of the world; that I knew this school was all they had. Maybe it was the village I had seen the day before. Maybe it was the English teacher who had uprooted her life to teach here. Maybe it was my desire to help, to do anything I could to help them. Some of those kids didn’t have a home, didn’t know where their next meal was coming from and begged on the streets and sold trinkets to tourists. Maybe it was their joy for learning, a light I had not seen in many people who had so much more.
I stood there among dozens of children, shaking with great heaving sobs in the center of that field. A little girl came up to me, maybe four or five years old, and looked at me in the eyes and I knew she was asking what was wrong. Feeling sad for me, I cried harder. She took my hand to comfort me and her eyes lit up when she saw the bracelet I had. It was a gift from a friend, she said it was supposed to bring luck. Shaking, I gave it to her. I gave her friends all my rings when I saw how they looked at the bracelet. I took off my pink headband—it was my first time wearing it and I had thought it was already my favorite—I felt so silly all of a sudden for feeling attached to it, and put it on her. Then I ran to the bus because I couldn’t stand there anymore, because what was a bracelet going to fix? But it felt like the only thing I could offer. My classmates didn’t understand and I had no words to explain.
I tell you this because it all feels connected in some way. Like the loose thread of a string that ties us all together. It was the first time I saw it, that string, and I tripped over it because it was strung tighter around some of us. That day was a ripple in the water, a seed planted that has been growing ever since.
I chose this Buddhist Economics course because it felt right. It was not a strategic move; I should have been taking my pre-med requirements. It didn’t fit into my schedule. I was not sure what it entailed: how would I handle five courses because it was the only way I could take this class? What did Buddhist Economics even mean? Yet I didn't have to think twice. I had this feeling deep in me that I had to take this course, a feeling born that day in Cambodia. I began to see that it is absolutely necessary that we act very deliberately in our actions because they have an impact. And yet, this did not feel like a choice. It felt like fate.
The purpose I carry with me now, in part due to this class, had been lost somewhere in between the school work, the stress, and the pressure I put on myself. Always an eye on the future, the goal, without looking too closely at the why. In part, I had lost sight of my cetana (volition). I was too focused on completing the infinite checklist of things I had to do to achieve success, to make a profit, to be validated in the eyes of others. I started to hate pre-med, the endless work, the way I had to fight each day to push my body, my mind, my spirit to keep working. Without even knowing it, I was succumbing to lobha, dosa, moha (attachment, aversion, ignorance). I’m not even sure which one I held on to more tightly, for lack of anything else to hold on to.
Something ugly was brewing; I projected a lot of feelings into the world that were really a reflection of my inner turmoil. I felt so lost. I resented my friends that went to state schools because I felt they had it easier than me. I was angry at Williams for what it demanded of me, at my peers who I felt had easier paths, and at the injustice in the world. I silently blamed my family for the path I had chosen. After all, one of the reasons I wanted to be a doctor was for them, another because my dad had died from cancer, another for my beautiful community and their representation, and with all the space those reasons took up, where did that leave space for me? I wanted to quit, to walk away. Maybe take an economics class, get an easy job—one that paid really, really well and did not require this sacrifice.
After all, I’ve never been one to choose the “middle way.” I was an all-or-nothing person, and right then and there I no longer wanted to be a “good” person. I wanted it easy. Those are some of the worst thoughts I have ever had, my secret desires: to throw the weight of the world on the ground, to leave it for others to carry and never look back.
I see now that the world is a very broken place. The people in it, aimlessly wandering its beautiful surface. Most cling to what they can, the material, the superficial “I buy, therefore I am.” Seeking “self” through aspects of life to which they can assign a value: houses, cars, luxury items, a closet full of clothes one could never possibly wear. The physical beauty that will fade, that has been socially constructed. Masks and carefully crafted public images that conceal true identities. In most ways, it’s an easier life; artificial and vacant inside, only seeing the surface, only caring for self. Never satisfied. In a perpetual state of dukkha that they create for themselves. How can someone be happy with what they have built when their foundations are hollow? That which is built from feeble materials cannot stand.
This class has taught me much. I could sit here and talk about all the terms and philosophies that mean the most to me: anatta and tanha (non-self and craving), the story of the blind men and the elephant, Dhammacakkappavattana (Setting in motion of the wheel of the Dhamma). I could attempt to unravel their threads, explain how when I read about this, it seemed like the answer to a question I had been asking for years. Dissect subterranean trends and global systematicity at work. Discuss structural violence and the commodification of all sorts of things and people that were never meant for that. Argue that the creation and propagation of a culture of greed falls into the hands of no one and everyone all at once. That it is spread by a few but cultivated in the hearts of many. That if greed was not festering in the mind already, it would have had no place from which to grow. But what holds the most value of anything that I learned in this class (though learn is a strangely detached term)—the most important thing that I felt in this class is hope. Buddhism offers redemption through action, through cetana, by choosing the right path and following it even when it becomes hard.
I have learned that being kind, living with compassion, and embracing the suffering of others as if it were my own is infinitely harder. The right path is not an easy path. It requires sacrifice, and mindfulness, and treading through it with sure, deliberate steps. It offers no visible gratification, it cannot be bought, and at times it is not a happy journey. But that’s the thing: life isn’t about being happy. Being happy is fleeting; it slips through your fingers like sand and leaves you craving more. “When a happy feeling passes, it often leads to mental pain due to change, and even while it is occurring, the wise recognize it as subtly painful in the sense of being a limited, conditioned, imperfect state, one which is not truly satisfactory.” (Harvey 54)
When we choose the difficult path, what we walk toward is meaning. Only then could I understand why I could never relieve myself of the weight I carried. It gave me purpose, it was my compass, and yet I also learned that I did not have to carry it all by myself. The interconnectedness that flows through all beings means that we all help to carry the weight of the world together. Right now, I have found a small community of people who understand this. In our class I learn from them. At Williams we stand united. Across the world, there are pockets of good people, working in business, in healthcare, in environmental studies, as vendors and contractors, as moms and diplomats. There are people who understand and feel the connection between us all. Who fight for those who can’t. This semester, gradually and then all at once, I felt that connection.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment because a realization like this requires many monumental moments. I remember small moments, those that come from deep sadness and realization—not for one’s self but for the world in which we live. It was a Saturday night and I had stayed in to do my reading. I had trouble giving the book my full focus because it was my friend’s birthday and I was missing his party. I felt guilty for not spending the night alongside him, but I felt even guiltier for thinking about a party when I was learning about such widespread destruction and larger dynamics. I was stopped short when I read “tannery industries frequently consist of clusters of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that concentrate in marginal sections of urban areas to gain access to, among other things, large pools of unskilled laborers willing to take on dirty, toxic work that in many cultures is stigmatized.” (Sassen 170)
When I read that sentence, I cried, the book shaking in my hands. I held it to my chest and I wondered why everyone in the entire world wasn’t crying about this. Why didn’t they feel their heart breaking right then and there? I have hope that one day people will read sentences like that, truthful and unjust and that clearly convey the cruel exploitation of the oppressed, and feel connected with them. Feel it as if they are being pushed to the systematic edge, seen as less than human. Feel it as it is happening to their family because, in the ways that count, it is. I do not mean it in a cold way; there need be no more pain brought into this world. I mean it so that they know, so that it fills them with purpose and not self.
It sometimes seems like a battle that cannot be won, because the ability to change lies in oneself and because the roots are infinitely harder to reach than the flower. We cannot reach the roots of others because they grow so deeply that only they can do so. But we can offer water, we can offer light, we can lend a hand when they falter, we can watch them grow.
I once asked Prof. Bernie Rhie what anatta meant. He knew I understood things more clearly as metaphors so he told me that we feel as if we are the weather. We say, “I am angry,” and it is like we are the rain. We claim, “I am happy,” and it is like when it shines. But we are not. The weather changes, it is unpredictable. What we desired and believed and “were” a year ago seems now like a distant thought. A storm that has been weathered and forgotten. We, the professor told me, are the sky, through which these feelings pass.
I asked him on another occasion how the cessation of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) was possible, I thought it meant not feeling. Prof. Rhie told me that to him, it was not a rejection of all the bad in the world and the feelings they bring, but an embracing. He said that one must learn to take the good and the bad and hold them closely, without resentment, without fear in one’s heart. That they are two sides of the same coin, that once you learn to embrace them both wholeheartedly, without restraint, you become a mountain. Immovable. Solid. Grounded.
Where do we go from here? We move forward. With meaning. With hope. With wisdom. With mindfulness. With compassion. We move together. Walking the same path while walking very different paths. One foot in front of the other. With baby steps and great leaps, we move intentionally. We continue to make the choice every day to carry the weight. To share it.
I have very limited time in this world, thus I will live it with meaning. I will carry what I felt in this course with me; I will practice it. I will not forget the string that ties me to that day in Cambodia, to that little girl. I will pull on it when I forget, unravel a memory truer than any object, feel it and hold it closely. A tie that cannot be broken. A connection stretching lifetimes back and, maybe, thousands of lives into the future.
Without you, I could not be me. You and I inter-are, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it. In each of us, there are also non-human elements. We are the sun, the moon, the earth, the river, the ocean, the trees, and everything else. (Sivaraksa 287)
Cinthya Maldonado wrote this essay for her course on Buddhist Economics at Williams College. She is a member of the class of 2023, and is studying psychology and neuroscience. She is Cuban-Mexican and depending on the day she is pre-med. She spends her free time reading good books and contemplating the meaning of life.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. 2006. “A Buddhist Response to Globalization,” in Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place edited by Melvin McLeod. Boston: Wisdom Publications: pp 284–90.
Harvey, Peter. 2013. An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.