Becoming a Student of Dharma
A Talk given by Florence Seah on November 8, 2016
Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Venerable Master Hua, Dharma Masters, and all good-knowing advisors, good evening. My name is Florence Seah. I am a graduate student at the Dharma Realm Buddhist University (DRBU). Tonight, I would like to share my stories and learning experience at DRBU.
When I was growing up, I had no interest in learning and studying. When I came across things I didn’t know, I would close my mind and shut down. Because I was very rebellious growing up, many times, my parents wanted to send me to juvenile youth rehabilitation center.
In July 2014, my parents and I came from Malaysia to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas to join Venerable Master Hua’s Nirvana ceremony. That weekend, I had a lingering question. I kept asking myself, what should I do next? What kind of job and skills should I acquire? At the end of the ceremony, three people came up to me and asked, “Florence, when are you coming to DRBU?” At that time, because of my husband’s job, we had been living in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arabs of Emirates. I had contracting jobs from time to time. The idea of coming to DRBU was pretty intriguing.
I thought, if I started DRBU in August, I would really need to hurry up with my application since the semester would start in less than one month. When I returned to Abu Dhabi, I sat down and had a discussion with my husband. I asked him what I should do. He said, “Go ahead and apply. When you get accepted at DRBU, we can talk about it.” In less than four weeks, all my transcripts and recommendation letters went very smoothly. I was able to get a very last-minute air ticket using my frequent flyer miles.
Right in the midst of preparing for DRBU, I received a very special phone call. This was a phone call from the sheikha palace. Sheikha in Arabic means a queen in a royal family. The sheikha palace had called me for a job interview. They were looking for a personal travel assistant for the sheikha. And the job requires researching, scouting and traveling to exotic locations for potential holiday destinations for sheikha four times a year. I was debating if I should go to the interview. In the end, I went to the interview and was offered the job the same day. Well, I was thinking, “This is so strange! Why did this job offer come around this time, right when I am applying to DRBU. And the job offer is very attractive. Besides the privilege and prestige of working with the royal family, there will be many an exclusive access.” Right in the middle of all of this, an internal voice spoke to me, “Florence, while it may be privileged to work for the sheikha, you are not going to get all your life-long questions answered. You need to go to DRBU.” Ok then. I went to the palace and carefully turn down the job offer. The palace management staff was pretty offended. They told me, “Florence, people hardly ever turn down any job offer from the palace except you. What is your reason?” I told them, “I am going to school in the City of 10,000 Buddhas (CTTB).”
Even though I had been going to Avatamsaka Vihara, a DRBA branch temple in Maryland, since 2006, and took refuge and precepts at the CTTB, I had no idea about cultivation and Buddhism. I had no idea what it meant to be a Buddhist and what Buddhism was about. Reflecting on my time studying at the DRBU, I found my first year to be quite significant. There are two reasons for that.
First was adjusting to the schedule and the community. Twelve years ago, I graduated from college. It had been a very long time since I packed away my backpack and notebook, not to mention living with other adults besides my spouse. When I arrived at DRBU, I was told that the dormitory is the best accommodation inside CTTB where I got to enjoy my own room. Over the first year, I learned to share common space, bathroom, shower with fourteen adults that I had not met before.
Second is the learning attitude and the in-class experience. There is one experience that I still remember clearly. The very first day in the Sixth Patriarch class, as soon as I opened the sutra, my heart started vibrating. The vibration went on for about a year. Even though I had completed a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree, I found the sutra text pretty difficult to understand. Our daily class discussions involved seminar-style shared inquires and cohort-learning model. We need to come to class well-prepared with our assigned readings and be ready to actively participate in class discussions. Some days, the class discussions turned out like a beautiful music orchestral. Some days, it was very intense like a pressure cooker. The empirical and linear side of me would listen closely to grasp for evidence, proof, consistency, and the right and wrong in the discussions. This often led to challenging and sometimes disagreeing and debating with each other. Some days, I would leave class in a gridlock and confused, unable to find a resolution to my inquires. As I progressed into the second year of the program, I started to realize I needed a new learning approach, especially in studying Buddha Dharma and sutra. Just like in the Shurangama Sutra, in the first instruction of practice, Shakyamuni Buddha told Ananda to use an unconditioned mind, a calm mind, a humble mind free from any preconceived notions, a mind that tolerates differences and inconsistency, a mind that is free from grasping, and a mind that benefit others. These guidelines suddenly put me at ease and helped me put a new learning attitude in perspective.
As I reflect back on the last year spent in DRBU and Ukiah, I realized that the vibration I felt was to shake off my judgments, attachments, preconceived notions, and especially my super ego—this big “I” that I have created and used all these times. The place where the “I’ was created is the same place that get offended, violated and afflicted. It is when all the dusts got shaken off that I may have a chance to learn again. I am so glad to be in this program. This is probably the best decision I have ever made in my life.
Before I conclude my talk, does anyone want to guess what does it mean to love learning?
In LunYu, Confucius was free of four things: Free from opinion, free from prejudice, free from stubbornness, and free from ego. Confucius asked Duke Ai, ”Which of your disciples love learning?” Confucius replied, “There was Yan Hui who loved to learn. He did not take out his anger on somebody else. He never made the same mistake twice.” Unfortunately, his lifespan was short and he died. Now, there is no such student like him. I have not yet heard of anyone who loves to learn. Thank you.