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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Mind Like Water: An Introduction to Exploring Buddhism

Dear students,

We write to you today to introduce one of the main themes of our semester along the Mekong, a theme we call “Mind Like Water.” While we will encounter communities along the Mekong who are Christian, Muslim, Animist, Atheist, or perhaps fall into the modern Western convention of pursuing capitalism and “development” with religious fervor, our main focus in comparative religion will be Buddhist practice and tradition.

Buddhism is easily misunderstood and mischaracterized. Most or all of you are products of the Western world, and you have most likely been raised with a Judeo-Christian worldview, whether or not you consider yourself to be religious. You probably don’t have to think twice to understand #YOLO. But, you’re about to step into societies where becoming a monk or a nun is a common occurrence, where offerings are made in temples, where bowing before golden statues carries deep and varied meaning, and where people may believe on fundamental levels that this life means something different than in the Western world, because it is just one in an infinite strings of lives, stretching out across existence since beginningless time. YOLO does not apply.

One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that Buddhist teachings are not an end in and of themselves. Even according to Buddhists, they are not ultimate truth. Instead, they outline a path to walk on the way to a goal: peace, understanding, happiness, and joy.

While our itinerary is not finalized yet, we may spend between 3 and 7 days in a Buddhist monastery, exploring the ideas of Buddhism and putting into practice the techniques of mindfulness and meditation. The Mekong semester offers a lot to you as a student, and not all of you are coming on this semester with Buddhism as a core focus. Since Buddhism and spirituality will play a central role in the semester, we hope that somewhere in your list of goals there is a spiritual goal. Now, some people have an allergic reaction to the word spiritual. So, let’s discuss it a little.

We could start by choosing two moments. Moment 1 will be a peaceful, happy moment where you feel contented. You could choose a moment from the past, or create this moment by sitting breathing deeply and mindfully for one minute, or by doing a longer meditation like this one.

As a contrast, choose for Moment 2 a moment from your recent past that involved anger or confusion or anxiety.

After our experience, you can ask yourself, what would life be like if my baseline way of being was more like Moment 1 or Moment 2? How would I react to those I love when they need my support? How would I respond when a beautiful bird flies overhead? In situations of conflict?

When we talk about spirituality in a Buddhist context, this will be the core essence. It’s not about prayer flags or beads, mantras or golden Buddha statues. It’s about asking ourselves how our beliefs (however conscious or unconscious), our habits, and our daily actions, speech, and thoughts affect who we are and the way we experience the world. Do our habits encourage us to become the person we aspire to be? How do we move through the world maintaining a path that makes us who we want to be inside a modern human existence that’s overflowing with media and advertisements, filled with an endless procession of thoughts, emotions, whims, hormones, hopes, and fears? If one minute of calm breathing can dramatically shift your state of mind, surely an hour spent watching youtube videos or waiting in line can have a much larger impact. How can you go as a river, to roll like water off the obstacles of the mind instead of crashing into them like a trainwreck?

One of the core teachings of Buddhism is that Buddhist teachings are not an end in and of themselves. Even according to Buddhists, they are not ultimate truth. Instead, they outline a path to walk on the way to a goal: peace, understanding, happiness, and joy. So, we tend not to focus on whether the teachings are true or not. Instead, we ask whether they work.

The Buddha taught that misunderstanding Buddhist teachings is like trying to catch a poisonous snake without experience—it could actually be dangerous and destructive for our lives, producing results that are the opposite of what we intend.

There are two ways to investigate Buddhist teachings. One is with the intellect, and the other is with your being. We could sit and ask questions about karma or about meditation for hours, but Buddhism is not about debating ideas. It is not even about being able to sit and meditate. It’s about being able to deal peacefully if you have a runny nose during the meditation. It’s about how you react when confronted by an angry person when you stand up from your sitting meditation. It’s about being able to smile, to enjoy a sunset without worrying about what other people think about you, and to be there for other people.

As we begin to explore Buddhism, there are many analogies we could make about the river and the mind. The mind is like a river: flowing peacefully, flowing turbulently. When the river and the mind are forceful or clouded by mud, you cannot see clearly. When they are more calm and begin to become clear, not only can you see through to the bottom, you can also see something more wonderful: the moon reflected on the surface. In the spirit of Zen, Jeff has written you a poem:

Moon and the Water

Moon reflecting in the Mekong.

The river is made of water.

Moon glowing behind the cloud.

The clouds are made of water.

Moon pulling tides onto the beach.

The sea is made of water.

Finger pointing at the moon.

We meet in Cambodia in a few short weeks. As you prepare for the journey, we encourage you to prepare for “Mind Like Water” in three simple ways:

1. Start sitting on the floor or siting cross-legged in a chair as much as you can. We sit on the floor a lot in Asia, especially if we stay in a monastery for a few days. Being distracted by discomfort or pain while sitting detracts a lot from the experience, so you’ll want to start practicing now to give your body time to adjust. If it feels really hard, there are even youtube videos to help you.

2. Try to understand your previously-held ideas about Buddhism in particular and Eastern religion in general. To really learn, we first need to start with a beginner’s mind. Many students come having experienced meditation, yoga, or other aspects of Eastern practices. Often, traditions like yoga have been changed and taught in a way that helps them to fit into the Western worldview rather than teaching in a way that helps students to understand something dramatically different from their own view. It’s nice to try and start fresh. In a teaching called Sutra On Knowing The Better Way To Catch A Snake, the Buddha taught that misunderstanding Buddhist teachings is like trying to catch a poisonous snake without experience—it could actually be dangerous and destructive for our lives, producing results that are the opposite of what we intend.

3. Prepare to wholeheartedly participate in spiritual activities that are new and different. Wholehearted participation might mean different things for different people. Students often come on Dragons semesters committed to their own religion, and have some confusion about how to experience other traditions while maintaining commitment to their own. If this is you, your own spiritual community should be a strong guide in preparing for your experience. Some students come intentionally seeking new spiritual traditions. Some students come skeptical or dismissive of spiritual traditions in general. Some students feel fear when participating in something that the rest of the group either accepts more than they do or rejects more than they do. For all of you, we encourage you to experience this portion of our semester as individuals within a supportive communities. In Buddhism, the term sangha—a spiritual community that lives in harmony and awareness— is used a lot. This is perhaps the closest explanation to our goal as a group exploring Mind Like Water: a community of individuals coming together to understand Buddhist tradition as a window into an entirely non-Western way of seeing the world. This awareness can help us understand ourselves, our own beliefs, the traditions we come from and how they affect the way we see the world, each other, and especially the Buddhist cultures we will be traveling through for three months.

Thanks for reading! Take a minute to breathe and smile.

Your instructors: Madeleine, Gai, and Jeff