A new face visited Keene State College to assist students in putting theory to practice during a meditation seminar. This is the first course ever offered at KSC that teaches Buddhist philosophy.
Samuel Hawkes, a communication professor who is teaching the course Buddhist Philosophy 290, explained the class will have guest Lama Gursam visit. Gursam is a yogi from Tibet. Each year he said he visits the Monadnock Mindfulness Practice Center in Keene, and conducts a meditation session while also giving talks about Buddhism. Hawkes said students were fond of the idea of having Gursam teach a class.
“I just happened to run into the Dean [of Arts and Humanities], Andrew Harris, and told him that I might be interested in teaching a course here [at KSC] if he was interested. It just happened that the head of the philosophy department was on sabbatical this spring and they needed somebody to sort of fill in. So here I am; I’m teaching a course called Buddhist Philosophy,” Hawkes said.
He continued, “He’s [Gursam] going to run the class and hopefully it’s going to be meditation for a while. They call it a guided meditation, where you sit there and he says ‘Okay now you think about this, now you think about this.’ And then he’ll stop and give us the Dharma talk — kind of a sermon — discourse on Buddhism.” A day later, students described their participation in the meditation class as a positive experience.
Chris Bernier, a student in the class explained students focused on breathing, and “He [Gursam] had this bell with him and a little mallet. He would ring it at intermittent times and after that he would place his finger over the bowl and it would make a constant ringing sound. It really calms the mind.”
Kim Abrams, another student, said after this class she’s really learned to notice what she says. She said it isn’t always easy, but she’s become more polite and now considers others’ feelings more.
Aside from the meditation in class, Hawkes said his final exam question for his Buddhist Philosophy 290 is, “What is Buddhism all about?” He explained Buddha had lived 2,500 years ago in what is now Nepal, but was then India.
Hawkes shared the story: “He was a prince, very rich. He lived up until he was 26-years-old in just the lap of luxury. He had everything you could possibly want; married, he had a son, he had everything but he wasn’t happy. He was dissatisfied. So he left his kingdom and went out into the woods. And there was a whole group of wandering people back then that they were called Sermanas…[and they] walked around and philosophized, and so he [Buddha] did that for a number of years.”
He became what is called an ascetic and he gave up all earthly pleasures,” according to Hawkes, such as the pleasure of eating.
Hawkes said Buddha nearly died of starvation until someone brought him back to health. “His mission was to free people from their delusions, and if you’re free from your delusions, you’re free from your suffering. All of us, according to Buddhism, are on a road to enlightenment,” Hawkes said.
He added when people become enlightened, they have accomplished three things. The first accomplishment is one must get rid of, “All greed, number one, all hatred, number two and all delusions in your life, so you see the world as it really is…delusions are the toughest one because you think you see the world the way it is right now — who sees it the ‘right’ way?” Hawkes asked. In addition, he mentioned the four noble truths, the first one being that people are going to suffer whether they like it or not. According to Hawkes, the reason there is so much suffering is because Buddha believed in reincarnation, which Hawkes described as being born into human form continuously until one becomes enlightened.
“The reason we are all here is to go to work on our enlightenment. That’s our mission. That’s what he said our mission was — that everything we think, plan and do contributes to what is defined as our karma, and our karma is like an energy state. It’s everything you ever will be. It just is, it’s there, it’s who you are,” Hawkes said.
Hawkes claimed when someone is enlightened, his or her karma is essentially gone. If someone is present, he said it is because they’ve created unwholesome karma in a past life. For examples that someone might have killed another person or stolen from another or done something terrible, according to Hawkes.
Hawkes urged people stay who they are in each lifetime unless adjustments are made. “This is where you make the adjustments, you can’t do it on the other side, you do it here…you got to give up your greed while you’re here, you got to get past your greed, got to get past your hatred. You’ve got to wake up and see the world and acknowledge it for what it is and how it is and deal with it accordingly,” Hawkes said.
He added, “If you didn’t have all kinds of bad karma, you wouldn’t be here in the first place…It’s an infinite number of chances. You keep coming back,” he said, “But karma catches up with you. If you do something bad you’re going to have bad things happen to you.”
Hawkes said the way out of suffering is to follow the “eightfold path.” Hawkes explained Samsāra is a cycle where people repeat actions and get stuck.
He continued, “Think outside the box, then you can start going down this eightfold path.” He explained the eightfold path contains what is called the “right” understanding of the world.
He said once one has reached this state, the next step is to look for the Buddha’s nature. “Buddha felt this very, very strongly — that everybody has what is called Buddha nature. Everybody has a beautiful core; a pure, diamond-like core that’s just all covered up with muck,” Hawkes explained.
Hawkes said once someone clears the “muck” off, they would shine and reveal the beautiful person inside. He added if someone doesn’t get out of the cycle of Samsāra, no one will see them shine.
Another piece of Buddhism besides the wisdom aspect, he further explained, is the ethical piece.
“The ethical piece is you got to have the right speech, right actions and right livelihood,” Hawkes said.
He explained to have the “right speech” is generally not to lie or say bad things to people. “Right action,” he explains, is essentially not to kill, steal or do things of harm, as well as right livelihood, which is to not pick livelihoods that do harm.
He stated people who practice Buddhism try to think about what they are doing, and strive to be aware of their surroundings as much as possible.
Hawkes mentioned a lot of mental discipline comes from long meditation practices.
Hawkes concluded in Buddhism there is karma, reincarnation and then there is enlightenment at the end of the journey.
Professor Hawkes Buddhism Philosophy class has never been offered before. He declared he had room for 25 and 29 students signed up.
In other action, students had additional comments after their meditation session in the Redfern Arts Center. While having lunch with the yogi at the Keene State College Zorn Dining Commons, students had a chance to reach out and ask questions of their own. For example, “We found out about Lama’s life a little bit and how he was a refugee. His parents moved away from Tibet in 1959 to North India,” Bernier commented.
Lama Gursam wore a traditional red yogi outfit. He further explained, “They came from a distant part of Tibet and walked all the way to India. The mountains, the mountains, the mountains, day and night, day and night. They walk only the nighttime. They can walk only the night time, cannot walk in the daytime. Chinese came and Tibet was using all this gun and stuff so they have to hide in the mountain in the daytime and then nighttime they can walk. Many months in the woods they had nothing. No food, food is not too bad, water is the worst one.”
Gursam mentioned right now he is living in Keene. His parents still live in Northern India and he doesn’t have a permanent home. He said he spends his life traveling as a yogi giving teachings.
“I go [to] places, different places and stay. Sometimes the group center has a place. Or [I] stay with friends at their house, depends,” Gursam said.
Kim Abrams is a student in the Buddhist Philosophy 290 class. She asked Gursam if he was married and he responded that it’s a long story but he is no longer married.
He noted he enjoyed living in a monastery. He expressed his experiences are life changing. “I learn how to enjoy myself. Don’t worry about the loneliness. That’s one of the most important things I learned in a three year retreat. It’s not easy for me living two months, three months, living by myself,” Gursam informed. He continued to say people can have happiness in two ways; temporary happiness and perfect happiness. He said it’s hard to reach perfect happiness and it depends on the individual level.
Gursam concluded the longest session of mediation he participated in lasted two to three hours. He added he prefers to mediate inside versus outside.
Bethany Ricciardi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org