Awakening the Student Within:
A Report on the MAPS 4 College Youth Seminar
by Rev. Peter Hata

Recently, MAPS 4 College contacted WCBT through our Living Dharma Website and invited us to participate in their 2012 Teen Summit Conference. MAPS is a non-profit organization dedicated to “helping students graduate from high school, succeed in college, and professionally.” MAPS is an acronym that stands for “Motivate to strive for excellence, Achieve to help the community, Personal commitment to transcend perceived limits, Speak the truth, change the world” (note the bodhisattva overtones). The event, which was titled “What Would Youth Do?” was held on March 24, 2012 at the Julia McNeil Senior Center in Baldwin Park, CA, which is less than two miles from West Covina Buddhist Temple.

Because of the proximity of this event to WCBT and the issue our temple has of being “hidden” within a Japanese community center—most temples and churches are visible from the street and have appropriate signage—I gave the invitation serious thought. Our unique strategic issue necessitates us going beyond the walls of the center and developing ties with the immediate and regional communities of which we are a part. We are fortunate in that regard to at least have a website and it was through our web presence that MAPS 4 College in turn reached out to us.

But it is also significant that Baldwin Park is a predominently Latino community (78%, according to the Los Angeles Times), so the idea of WCBT actually being invited to participate in that community was, to say the least, eye-opening. It never occurred to me that there could be interest for Buddhism in Baldwin Park and, in this respect, I found their invitation humbling—could it be that “they” are actually more open-minded than I am as a Buddhist?

But also, how can one not admire the youthful optimism and stated commitment of MAPS to young people? Remembering how some of our members have criticized WCBT for not addressing the issues of young people, this event sounded like something our temple should try to be involved in. Apparently, other organizations felt similarly, as their corporate sponsors include Kaiser Permanente, Legoland, Starbucks, AADAP (Asian-American Drug Abuse Program), and restaurant chains such as Cheesecake Factory, Elephant Bar, and Olive Garden. In addition, major support was provided by the City of Baldwin Park.

Above: MAPS 4 College participants listen to opening remarks by various Baldwin Park dignitaries

The pre-event communication was between myself and the event coordinator, Ms. Monica Waraich, an enthusiastic and gracious young lady, who went out of her way to make sure my presentation equipment requests were met. But more importantly, she reassured me that, even though we were a Buddhist organization and MAPS is of course a secular non-profit, MAPS felt that our universal message could benefit young people.

Besides my presentation and the various college counseling sessions, there were many other presentations as well, such as “Knowing the Importance of Food and Water Sustainability,” “The Gamble of Life” (i.e., making better life choices), “The Facts of Teen Suicide,” “The Rise and Power of Misused Words” (cyber-bullying, the rising use of profanity, etc.), and “21st Century Activism” (all about the “99 percent”). Great, highly relevant topics for youth, to be sure.

Above: Rev. Peter speaks to college-bound students at MAPS 4 College

My presentation was entitled, “Awakening the Student Within,” and essentially I structured it around the short trailer to the movie, The Buddha, the PBS-produced documentary narrated by Richard Gere. In my opinion, even though the trailer is only 5 minutes, it manages to introduce the three core teachings of Buddhism: the universal truth of impermanence, the Buddhist insight that our suffering is not impermanence-caused but self or ego-caused, and that the Buddha was a human being who was fully awake to these truths and, as a “perfect,” or humble, student and seeker, lived a dynamic, creative, and compassionate life.

Before showing the trailer, I gave the students a short introduction to Buddhism by illustrating these three truths with simple, everyday experiences. For example, regarding impermanence, the vast majority of the 50 or so kids in the room acknowledged they had experienced the death of a loved one—and of course, that they were aware of the recent untimely deaths of so many celebrities. Regardless of our religious affiliation, one thing we all share is that none of us wants to die. However, where Buddhism is a “radical” truth—and, I said, this is the second truth of Buddhism and the part that many people have difficulty accepting—is that it teaches that it is this ego or attachment-caused “resistance” to impermanence that actually causes our suffering, not impermanence itself. I think they all understood, at least intellectually, my example that getting angry while driving on the freeway at rush hour is ultimately not caused by all the other drivers or even those who cut in front of me, but by my own egocentric thoughts like, “Everything would be fine if only they would all just get out of my way.”

To hint at the third Buddhist truth that the view of events our ego provides is not in fact, “real,” and that we are asleep to the greater reality beyond the ego, I asked if any of them had experienced “losing themselves” while listening to their favorite music. Not surprisingly, all the teens nodded. Buddhism of course says that this experience shows that “we” are only that which we are currently experiencing in the moment. The experience itself is in fact, the true reality, while the ego is ultimately an illusion. That statement seemed to result in many shocked young faces. To help clarify what the ego “is,” I used the example of the ongoing inner chatter of our ego-mind. “Right now,” I observed, “I’m sharing with you these timeless teachings, but I bet many of you are thinking to yourself, ‘Gee, I wonder what they have here for lunch?,’ ‘Hmmm…how much more homework do I have this weekend?’ or, ‘Is this guy ever going to end?’” Of course, the polite, “nervous” laughter heard throughout the room showed me I’m not the riveting speaker I thought I was! In any case, I clarified that the point is not to “get rid of” the ego, since it reminds us to lock our car when we park it or to try to eat more healthfully. Rather, it is to receive the insight that the constant, often dualistic, judgments provided by our ego should be questioned. I think this honest self-awareness is the starting point of the lifestyle of the student and seeker.

After showing the trailer, I discussed one of its most powerful scenes. This occurs when psychiatrist Dr. Mark Epstein (Thoughts Without a Thinker) movingly illustrates this third key teaching of Buddhism, that the ultimate goal is to transcend the ego and see impermanence from the awakened view of a buddha:

What [the Buddha] actually said was that life is blissful. There’s joy everywhere only we’re closed off to it. His teachings were actually about opening up the joyful or blissful nature of reality, but the bliss and the joy is in the transitoriness. Do you see this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. But when the wind blows and the glass falls off the shelf and breaks or if my elbow hits it and it falls to the ground I say, “of course.” But when I know that the glass is already broken every minute with it is precious.

I pointed out to the students that the “glass” referred to in the film is really a metaphor for our lives, and I said, “Even though you are all still very young, your glass is ‘already broken’—because of the truth of impermanence, we know that we all will become old, get ill, and ultimately die.” And therefore, “Your life and all life that supports you is precious and should not be wasted. Awakening to this teaching is what it means to ‘awaken the student within.’”

Though the message of Buddhism seems negative, as my time came to an end, there were signs that some students might have been able to appreciate its ultimate positive benefit. For example, some thanked me while others seemed to be deep in thought. As they were leaving the classroom, I wished them all good luck. I sincerely hope they can carry with them the seed of the Dharma, and that it might guide them and help them lead dynamic, creative, and compassionate lives.

Above: Ms. Monica Waraich poses with Rev. Peter at MAPS 4 College

Subject: Thanks
From: Monica Waraich
To: The Living Dharma Website
Hi Reverend Peter,
On Behalf of MAPS 4 College and the City of Baldwin Park, we wanted to thank you for taking your time this Saturday to spend with our students! Also, regarding your concern that some people might have taken exception to the inclusion of a Buddhist presentation since it was the only such organization, there was not one complaint about any of the workshops except that they wished they were longer! All the reviews were very positive. The students enjoyed learning something new. They really liked your video. We had an awesome turnout and this event was made a success by people like you!
Thank you so much for participating, motivating, informing, and educating the future adults of our world. Let’s hope we made a difference!
Monica Waraich
Special Event Coordinator
Baldwin Park, CA

Watch the PBS Trailer: The Buddha