Baccalaureate Address -- Don Swearer
Charles & Harriet Cox McDowell Professor of Religion
29 May, 2004
This weekend you and I share an important rite of passage, an ending of one phase of our lives and the beginning of another. Of course, you and I are at somewhat different places in our life journey. In conventional terms you're "graduating" from Swarthmore college and I'm "retiring;" nevertheless, each of us is experiencing a major transition and such transitions are inevitably filled with a mixture of feelings — regret and anticipation, sadness and joy, uncertainty and promise. Because all major life transitions — birth, adolescence, adulthood, elder years — are filled with conflicting feelings and challenges, the world's religions mark such passages with rituals and ceremonies. This weekend's events celebrate not only your graduation from the College but a leave taking from mother Swarthmore and commencement to a new chapter in your life, and my life as well.
In 1956 as a part of my college commencement exercises our senior class invited an alumnus, the actor Jimmy Stewart, as our senior banquet speaker. Stewart began his remarks with the wry comment, "This evening, I'm going to make a pitch for the movies." Taking my cue from Jimmy Stewart, this morning I want to make a pitch — not for the movies, although you might wish that I had — but for religion, not religion in an institutional or sectarian sense, but in the broad humanistic understanding that sees being religious as being truly and fully human.
I came to Swarthmore in 1970 to teach Asian and Comparative Religions with a special emphasis on Buddhism, so it's fitting that I would choose religion as the topic of my remarks this morning; and, as many of you know, Buddhism has profoundly influenced my life and shaped my professional career. The theme of religion has been an integral feature of a commencement baccalaureate, traditionally defined as "a religious service held at an educational institution usually on the Sunday before commencement." Beyond the appropriateness of speaking about religion at baccalaureate, however, there are other, more political reasons to choose this theme. Has there ever been a time comparable to our own with such unprecedented threats and challenges? The global menace of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, seemingly intractable problems of ethnic and religious violence, widespread degradation of the natural environment and bio-diversity loss, an ever growing gap between the rich and the poor, and a culture of amoral consumerism that sacrifices the long term common good for immediate material benefit.
In this global environment religion is regarded by many as irrelevant to these issues, or is cast in even more negative terms as a major cause for the spread of hatred and violence rather than contributing toward their solution. Conflicts in which religion plays a major role abound in many parts of the world — between Palestinian Muslims and the state of Israel, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Serbian Christians and Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka — and the list goes on and on. In the face of religious violence, tension, animosity, and conflict — ones that make headlines and those that do not — adherents of one religion blame the "other," and depict the other religion in the most negative and derogatory terms. Such defensively aggressive responses only serve to exacerbate inter-religious tensions. Instead of building bridges, walls are erected that prevent mutual understanding, and diminish the possibility of employing the resources embodied in all religions that can promote a peaceful, harmonious, and a just world.
My "pitch" this morning — that to be religious means to be more fully human — is intended to counterbalance today's world news headlines that so often demonize religion. I propose that when construed in the best sense, religious spirituality promotes healing and wholeness, a greater sensitivity to the nuances and textures of life, and a broader understanding of and compassion toward others.
Much of what I want to share with you this morning has been at the heart of my teaching. It reflects my own view of life as it has evolved through my study of several religious traditions, the process of teaching such courses as Religion and Human Experience, Religious Belief and Moral Action, Buddhist Social Ethics, and the opportunities given me and my family to live and study in Thailand and other Asian countries. For those of you who have studied with me, my comments this morning might be seen as a personal coda to a final lecture in the course. For those who were too busy doing chemistry, engineering, and economics to take a religion course, this baccalaureate talk will fill in a major gap in your Swarthmore education! My hope is that each of you in your own way will be challenged, provoked, possibly offended, or maybe even inspired by my remarks, because to be open to the religious view of life I have in mind demands a personal response. Humanistic learning requires personal involvement and commitment. It is this quality of learning that characterizes the best in a Swarthmore education.
If my comments this morning seem somewhat rambling it's because life as it's actually experienced is more of a ramble than a journey that follows a prescribed itinerary. Much of what happens in our lives tends to be serendipitous rather than neatly planned. The truth of this observation becomes clearer the longer we live. My own life is a case in point. After my B.A I went to Yale Divinity School but dropped out after a year largely in response to the death of my parents. Searching for alternatives I had the opportunity to teach at a school in Bangkok, Beruit , or Seoul. I chose Bangkok because it seemed to be the most exotic of the three options. I knew little about Buddhism and nothing about Thailand. Subsequently, an invitation to teach English on a Thai television channel led to an opportunity to join the faculty at one of the monastic universities and, as they say, the rest is history. In retrospect, my life didn't follow a grand life plan; rather, each juncture was a response to a serendipitous event. A religious view of life embraces not only the rational and orderly but the non-rational and disorderly — in history of religions language we say that religion embraces not only cosmos but also chaos. This is my first point: That a religious life is fundamentally holistic, an integrated and integrating way of being in the world. Here let me now briefly mention the other themes I'll be developing so that you'll be apprised of the structure — and there really is one! — that undergirds my sometimes imagistic and metaphorical comments.
In addition to the holistic and integrating nature of a religious view of life, religion exposes us to the paradox and mystery of life, mystery in the sense that our most profound and moving experiences are often of an incalculable, sometimes ineffable, nature. Their deepest significance can't be fully expressed, much like being in love can't be defined or completely spelled out, for if it could, would it really be love or a religious experience? A religious view of the world is rooted in paradox, the paradox of searching for a goal that's never an arrived-at-achievement. Rather, in the words of the Zen koan, it's like listening to the sound of one hand clapping. A religious life is a continuous journey, a journey in search of truth, to see things as they really are in their depth, breadth, dynamic and ever-changing complexity. The journey and the lessons learned along the way inevitably lead to a moral transformation. This is the final point I want to develop: A religious view of life demands an ethic of other — regard that moves us beyond mere self-interest to a striving for the common good.
Religions are grounded in alpha and omega worldviews. They begin with stories of the creation of the world and end with speculation about life after death. A religious view of life attempts to integrate all types of human experiences into a meaningful framework. Theories of origin are depicted in myth, metaphor, and symbol as in the nameless Tao from which flow the 10,000 created things. Moral evil is confronted through compelling narratives such as the story of Job in the Hebrew scriptures, or justified philosophically as in the doctrine of Karma in Hindu and Buddhist thought. The worlds' religions relate stories of prophets who speak the words of God, of enlightened monks, compassionate mothers, generous fathers, noble fools, and of Sage Kings who encompass the four quarters of the Universe through their virtue and power.
All classes of people are present in a community established in sacred time, a time often reenacted in history through ritual sacrifices, passover seders, and common meals of bread and wine. Not only are the lives of individuals and communities sanctified in a religious view of life but also the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and even non-sentient forms of life as well. The all-inclusiveness of a religious worldview sees the individual parts in terms of the whole, and relativizes the evils all of us experience to an essential good. While separation and alienation aren't foreign to a religious way of being in the world, ultimately they are overcome. No matter the circumstances, a religious view of life is one of hope, transformation, redemption, and overcoming separation:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground swell under it,
and spills the upper boulders in the Sun;
and makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
Our 21st century ears are more attuned to Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" than to the Vedic creation myth of Indra's ordering of the world by his victory over the cosmic serpent, Vrtra, or the story of the evolution of the universe from Hirayangarbha, the Golden Egg, floating on the cosmic ocean, or even the more familiar story of a Creator God who, in the words of the spiritual, has the whole wide world in God's hands. The symbols, while they vary in content, point to a common meaning — that the religious view of life is unitive and integrative. It unites all — divine, human, non-human, male, female, high and low — into a universal story, the whole world dancing in a cosmic harmony. Father Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan Roman Catholic priest and poet has captured a vision of this worldview:
The vastness of the universe which you contemplate in a star-lit night becomes even vaster when you look at yourself as part of this universe, and when you begin to realize that it is you who are this universe, contemplating itself, a universe which, in addition to its spatio-temporal dimensions, acquires a new dimension of even greater magnitude within your own self. We are the consciousness and the conscience of the cosmos.
The entire cosmos is in communion. The calcium in our bodies is the same calcium that we find in the sea, and both the calcium of our body and that of the sea derive from heaven, from the calcium that is contained in the stars that floats in the interstellar oceans and from which have sprung the stars. Actually, there are no interstellar and intergalactic empty spaces since the entire cosmos is one single material mass, more or less rarefied or condensed, and thus the entire cosmos forms one single body. The constitutive elements of the meteorites that have split off from distant stars are the same elements that are found in the planet, in our bodies and in the inter-stellar spaces. Thus we are made of the matter of the stars or, to say it more accurately, the entire cosmos is made of our own flesh.
My second point is that a religious view of life encompasses profound and extraordinary experiences of an incalculable nature. A religious perspective is rooted in paradox, the paradox of searching for something that upon being found is continually rediscovered. This state of being, this reality, this Zen-like goal beyond all goals, becomes in the Biblical image, the "Pearl of Great Price," a quality of life in relationship to which the worth of all else is measured. It is, then, the very ground of worth or the center of value, as the Hindu Chandogya Upanishad ecstatically exclaims —
From the unreal lead me to the Real!
From darkness lead me to light!
From death lead me to immortality!
Some of the greatest religious figures throughout the history of humankind speak to this experience. One of the most famous is Siddhartha Gautama called the Buddha, The Awakened One. As the early Buddhist legends have it, Siddhartha was born a prince, the son of the ruler of the Shakya clan of northern India. As befits a prince he was surrounded by all that royal wealth could provide, including palaces for each of India's three seasons. He knew no unhappiness, no suffering. But one day, while riding in his chariot through his pleasure gardens, Siddhartha happened upon an old man, and then on subsequent days, a person who was wasting away from illness, and finally a corpse. These experiences shocked him. Did life promise nothing more than old age, illness, and death? On a fourth day he chanced upon a mendicant clad in saffron robes. Siddhartha's charioteer informed the prince that this unfamiliar figure was a wandering truth seeker, one who had embarked on a religious quest looking for a deeper truth to life not limited by ordinary expectations defined by princely pleasures or suffering and old age. Siddhartha then embarked on his own vision quest, one lasting six years according to Buddhist tradition, culminating in his enlightenment which gave him the title, the Buddha, the Enlightened or Awakened One.
What was the Buddha's experience? In a word, Nirvana, and the path to its attainment. Nirvana denotes an extraordinary, transformative experience and the achievement of a depth of understanding that challenges conventional ways of seeing and being in the world. To the degree that such experiences change us, we become redefined. We don't fit as easily as we once did into our pre-Nirvana life. This kind of risk is discomforting and confounding . Dorothy Soelle, the Dutch theologian makes this point from a liberation perspective:
We are afraid of the kind of experiences that challenge our sense of security. We are afraid to allow the petty bourgeois individual we were and are to be shaken and disturbed by such experiences. And that is precisely what religion does...
While it may be problematical to say that any of you became "buddhas" at Swarthmore College, your own stories do, in fact, bear some resemblance to Siddhartha's story. I think it's fair to see the Buddha legend as a classic rite-of-passage story. Whatever else Swarthmore might have been for you, it was a rite of passage. Of course, your experience didn't precisely parallel the experience of the Buddha. Unlike Prince Siddhartha there probably wasn't a dramatic, threshold experience that brought you to Swarthmore. Furthermore, I expect that most of you don't feel that you gained here an understanding of the nature of world that's going to revolutionize it! Yet, I'll wager that the great majority of you did experience moments of small enlightenments while you were here; that during your years at Swarthmore you experienced "ah, so" moments of holistic awareness and understanding. In retrospect you may have been unable to pinpoint their precise origin — perhaps insight achieved as a result of hard work and too few hours of sleep — but regardless of the causes most of you have been challenged during your Swarthmore years and changed in ways sufficiently unsettling that fitting into the "real world" beyond Swarthmore may prove to be difficult.
You may be startled or think me irresponsible when I say that I hope you don't "fit in." From the religious view of life that I'm "pitching" this morning, I hope that Swarthmore has challenged you in such a way that you don't just blithely bid us a fond adieu and go forth into the workaday world to fit in. Thomas Merton, the noted Trappist monk, makes a similar although more mystically eloquent observation in his poem, "The Fall:"
There is no where in you a paradise that is no place and
There you do not enter except without a story.
To enter there is to become unnameable.
Whoever is there is homeless for he has no door and no
identity with which to go out and to come in.
Who would dare to go nameless in[to] ... [the] universe?
Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in it.
They bear with them in the center of nowhere the
unborn flower of nothing.
A religious view of life involves an integrity and honesty that comes from seeing everything, especially oneself, with utter clarity. I'm sure you've experienced those occasions when you were caught off-guard by a close friend's particularly perceptive remark about who you are so that you were brought up short and saw yourself in an entirely new light. A façade you'd been hiding behind was torn away; a role you'd been playing was exposed.
The Zen Buddhist tradition is particularly famous for the use of stories that point to this kind of self-confrontation, prompting honest self-understanding and humility — a virtue that, unfortunately, seems to be in short supply these days. The story goes like this:
Nan-In, a Japanese master during the Meji Era received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-In served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It's overfull. No more will go in."
"Like this cup," Nan-In said, "You are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
Did Swarthmore teach you how to empty your cup or are you still so "full of your own opinions and speculations" that the capacity for honest, critical self-scrutiny and humility has alluded you? The story of Nan-In from the Zen tradition illustrates the difficulty of overcoming this kind of self-deception. At times we can't see the person for our various personae, or we live in terms of a projected self rather than the self we really are. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk who worked tirelessly for a peaceful settlement to the Vietnam War, tells a story about the importance of being fully aware of oneself in the present, here and now.
One winter evening his friend, Jim Forest, of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was visiting him. After the evening meal and before sitting down for tea, Jim asked if he might not wash the dishes in Nhat Hanh's stead. "Go ahead," Nhat Hanh replied, "but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them. There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash them in order to have clean dishes, and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea waiting for us and hurry to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we're not washing the dishes to wash the dishes. We're not alive during the time we're washing the dishes. In fact, we're completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea, or to learn with any kind of personal authenticity, or to see anything at all the way it really is. [This is called focused awareness. Being fully in the present.]
A marvelous story about the great Japanese Zen Master, Hakuin Zenji, titled, "Is That So," exemplifies the connection between this kind of contextual self-awareness, authentic moral virtue, and other — regarding compassion:
The Zen Master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived nearby. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was pregnant. This made her parents angry. She wouldn't confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last she named Hakuin as the father of the child. In great anger the parents went and accused the Master. "Is that so?" was all he would say. After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin to raise. By this time he had lost his reputation but that didn't trouble him, and he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed. A year later the child's mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth — that the real father was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back. Hakuin smiled and when handing over the child to them all he said was, "Is that so?"
The story illustrates my final point, that a religious view of life inevitably involves an ethic of compassion, love, and other — regarding justice. Why didn't the Zen Master, Hakuin, defend himself against the charges brought before him? He knew they were false, indeed ludicrous, but he acted out of compassion for the girl and then, later, the child.
From a religious view of life, to be wise is to act for the common good, on behalf of the well-being not only of one's self but of others. Buddhism isn't unique in holding this view. Gandhi was not merely a patriot acting to free India from the British Raj. He was a devout Hindu whose strategy of nonviolent resistance was rooted in the deeply ingrained religious concept of Dharma, or just order, the personal realization of Satya or truth, and the moral principle of selfless action on behalf of a perceived common good. The dedication of Martin Luther King Jr. to the cause of justice and equality in America wasn't simply the protest of a leader of an oppressed minority, but a universal vision inspired by his deep Christian conviction:
I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries people have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. What is the summum bonum of life? It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As the Gospel of John says, "God is Love." He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their tired bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered people have torn down, other-centered people can build up. I still believe that one day humankind will bow before the Altars of God and be crowned triumphant over violence and war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and each shall sit under one's own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that we shall overcome.
In the light of events in the Middle East, in particular, Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech rings even truer today that it did forty years ago. He inspires us to believe with him that one day love will triumph over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent, redemptive goodwill will rule the land, and to dedicate our lives toward the realization of this goal — utopian though it may seem.
At the beginning of my remarks I said that I intended to make a pitch for religion, or more precisely, a religious view of life. That's true. But in another sense, I've been sharing with you my thoughts about an educational process that I hope began for you in a serious way while you've been at Swarthmore, a process measured not by credit hours or academic honors. I hope you've begun the process of formulating a holistic, integrating worldview and a style of life that is both self-fulfilling and other-regarding, an understanding of yourself and the world you inhabit where you may not always be comfortable in a conventional sense, but where, nevertheless, you're not a stranger. I hope that the values of simplicity, non-violence, peace, love, and justice that are part of Swarthmore's Quaker heritage have permeated your own philosophy. I hope that your experience here has helped you to appreciate that, although many meaningful experiences are found outside the classroom, the classroom does, indeed, enrich your appreciation and enlarge your understanding of them. Finally, I hope that Swarthmore has instilled in you a moral sense and that you have learned here that the life of the mind and the life of active service dedicated to the common good can be your life.
Now, my friends, it's your turn to write the syllabus.