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Varun Soni

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Two Buddhist Truths for the Class of 2010

Posted: 06/02/10 02:15 PM ET

I was excited to be able to address Lafayette College's Class of 2010 on the topic of "Awakening the Buddha Within." This very well might be the first time in Lafayette's history that the Baccalaureate Sermon was rendered from a Buddhist perspective, so I was thankful for this unique opportunity.

The Baccalaureate Sermon has a long and proud tradition at Lafayette College. On June 16th, 1895, the Reverend Dr. John Balcom Shaw of the West End Presbyterian Church in New York delivered the Baccalaureate Sermon to graduating students there.

He asked the students, "Would you plan for yourselves a great career? Is it your desire to begin a noble life-work?" In order to do this, he advised the graduating students to: "Know Thyself!"

With such knowledge in your possession, you can go forth into the stern struggles and the dark uncertainties of the future bearing a staff that will stay with you, a light that will illuminate your way, a compass that will guide your steps, a governor that will regulate your speed, a dynamo that would generate for you the needed energy of aspiration and courage. Men and women, younger and older, seek above all things else a soul-searching, soul-settled, soul-centered, self-consciousness, and once you have secured it, see to it that it never grows dim or becomes impaired.

I found myself standing before the students of Lafayette College 115 years later with very much the same message of self-discovery and soul-searching as the Reverend Dr. Shaw. Throughout their time at college, students not only interrogate issues related to their academic course of study, but they also explore the ultimate questions in life: the questions of meaning, purpose, and identity that are at the heart of one's spiritual journey. And despite the profoundly joyous and positively transformative moments students have during their college years, they also experience moments of deep sadness, shared tragedy, and personal suffering.

I was reminded of my own college years, when I experienced personal suffering as I struggled to deal with the end of a romantic relationship and the death of a college friend. For me, both these experiences were painful in and of themselves, but they were compounded by a deep and enduring existential pain that arose from a firsthand experience of impermanence -- in this case the impermanence of love and the impermanence of life.

Before college my only real experience of suffering was being an L.A. Clippers fan in an L.A. Lakers town. That was painful and it continues to be -- I've been a Clippers fan for more than 20 years now, and as an attorney, I'd argue that being a Clippers fan violates the Eighth Amendment's constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Still, as painful as it was and continues to be to root for the Clippers, especially this last year, it could not compare to the existential suffering I first felt in college.

So my senior year in college, I began to identify with another man who struggled to understand his suffering, a prince named Siddhartha who lived 2,500 years ago. Like me, Siddhartha was born into an Indian household with high parental expectations, and like me, he lived a life of privilege until experiencing suffering as a young adult. Upon witnessing for the first time the ravages of sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha vowed to find the root cause of suffering and to move beyond it. He embarked on a spiritual journey that started with him renouncing his throne and ended with him achieving enlightenment under a tree in a small village in India. From there on out, he was known as the Buddha, which in Sanskrit means the one who has awakened.

Just like Siddhartha, I was looking for answers I couldn't find in a classroom, and I needed to learn in a way I never had before. So inspired by his example, less than one week after I graduated from college, I set off on a 16-month spiritual odyssey across the globe. During that time, I immersed myself in the Buddhist world -- I visited Buddhist shrines in Japan, I celebrated the Buddhist New Year in Tibet, I traveled with Buddhist monks in Thailand, I meditated with Buddhist teachers in Sri Lanka, I did field research on Buddhist communities in the Himalayas of Nepal, I explored Buddhist archeological sites in Indonesia and Cambodia, and I lived in a Buddhist monastery in the same small Indian village where Buddha attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago.

At the end of my globetrotting, I came to the startling realization that no matter how far I had traveled and how much I had seen, my real journey was a pilgrimage inward, deep inside myself to find myself. Years later, my mentor at Harvard echoed a similar sentiment -- his whole life he wanted to become an astronaut and go where no man had gone before, but he dropped out of the US Air Force Academy when he realized that he could leave this planet but he could never leave his own mind, and that the real adventure was the lifelong journey to find himself.

Ultimately, my experiences with Buddhism taught me to see two worlds -- the external world of name and form, and the internal world of thought and feeling. Over and over again, I saw that I couldn't always control the actions of others or the events that occur in the physical world. But I could control my perception and reaction to that world -- I could be proactive in how I constructed my own reality and mitigated my own suffering -- and I could explore my internal world through introspection, reflection, and soul-searching.

According to Buddhism, we all have within us the potential for awakening, and our very essence is that of Buddha-nature. Indeed, we are already enlightened beings, in mind and spirit, and now we just have to realize it. Awakening the Buddha within is possible through the realization of two fundamental truths -- the truth of impermanence and the truth of interconnectedness.

The truth of impermanence recognizes that we are all transitory, and that the physical world will come and go. We are alive for a fleeting moment, and tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. Accepting the truth of impermanence can be disorienting and depressing, but the Buddha cautioned against seeing impermanence as nihilism. Instead, impermanence is liberating, as it enables us to evolve, to be innovative and creative, and to embrace change. Impermanence empowers us to transcend our own mental barriers and challenge our own entrenched conceptions of self.

But most importantly, impermanence teaches us to embrace the one thing that always exists -- the present moment. When the past existed, it was as the present, and when the future comes, it will come as the present. All that exists is the present moment, and to find a link to the eternal, we must be present and grounded in each moment. It's easy to get caught up in thoughts of the past and plans for the future, especially on your Commencement day, but take time for yourself today and feel connected to the present moment. Take a deep breath, let the internal noise and mental chatter subside, and go to that place beyond thoughts and words.

The truth of impermanence encourages us to be mindful and present in each moment, and such mindfulness is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy and meditation. As the famous Zen Koan playfully reminds us:

The Zen master advised his students: "When you eat, just eat. When you read the newspaper, just read the newspaper. Don't do anything other than what you are doing." One day his student saw him reading the newspaper while he was eating. The student asked him if this did not contradict his teaching. The master replied: "When you eat and read the newspaper, just eat and read the newspaper."

Whereas the truth of impermanence is uniquely Buddhist, the truth of interconnectedness is at the heart of all the world's great religious and spiritual traditions. Interconnectedness is the foundation for ethical action and charitable giving, it is the belief that we are indeed each other's keeper, it is the aspiration to see self as other, and it is the realization that no one is free while others are oppressed. Interconnectedness is not only prophetic; it's also pragmatic. It's not only spiritual but also scientific. It's not only the golden rule; it's also the butterfly effect. The truth of interconnectedness is that we are all deeply connected, in miracle and mystery, to this universe, to this community, and to each other.

Interconnectedness refers not only to the connections amongst people, but also to the relationship between thoughts and actions. For Buddhists, this connection is called karma. I recently saw a bumper sticker in L.A. that said "My karma ran over your dogma" -- but karma is more than just a catchphrase. Karma is the foundational Indian philosophical doctrine which can literally be thought of as cause and effect, as a metaphysical caveat to Newton's Third Law of Motion -- for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. Karma is planting a seed and watching it grow; it is the notion that no one can escape the consequences of his or her own actions. Over time, you will see how the major choices you make in your life will be dramatically oriented and impacted by the experiences you have now. And the seeds you plant now will blossom over the course of your lives, and what you do in the years ahead will likewise shape how the rest of your life's narrative unfolds.

May you let these two truths -- the truth of impermanence and the truth of interconnectedness -- guide you on your path to self-realization. As you progress on your path and find your place in the world, may you aspire to be mindful, grateful, and joyful at each moment in your life. As you live the next chapter of your life's adventure, may you take what you have learned and create a new world of hope and possibility. And may you be inspired by the words of the great Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action -
Into that heaven of freedom, let us awake.

The millennial generation is the most multicultural, multifaith, and multidisciplinary generation in American history. Millennials are technologically savvy, intellectually curious, spiritually evolved, globally connected, and wise beyond your years. You are innovative and creative, positive about the future, ready to tell new stories, and prepared to solve new problems. As you walk your path with passion and purpose, as you find your place and way in the world, may you embrace the words of the great American theologian Howard Thurman, who said, "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive."

This is adapted from my Baccalaureate Sermon to Lafayette College's Class of 2010, delivered on May 22, 2010.