“Be the Refuge”: Reflections on Karma & Gratitude, Suffering & Spiritual Friendship

M. Editor  |  June 14, 2017

Editor’s note: the following is text of the 2017 Commencement Address by IBS alum Chenxing Han, delivered during the graduation ceremony on Friday May, 19, 2017. We would very much like to thank Ms. Han for delivering the address and for graciously letting up publish it here. Gassho!

“Be the Refuge”: Reflections on Karma & Gratitude, Suffering & Spiritual Friendship
Commencement Address to the Graduating Class of 2017
Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, CA
May 19, 2017
Chenxing Han, MA (Class of 2014)

Good morning graduating students; members of the faculty, staff, and board of trustees; families and friends and other esteemed guests who have joined us today to celebrate this auspicious occasion. It is an honor—and, I admit, somewhat surreal—to be standing here three years after accepting my master’s diploma on this very stage. When I received Reverend Matsumoto’s invitation to be this year’s commencement speaker, I was surprised and humbled, as I can easily think of countless people who are far more qualified and credentialed to give this speech, many of whom are currently sitting in this room.

Tasked with delivering a message of insight and hope, reality and relevance, I did what any self-respecting scholar would do… I Googled “how to give a commencement speech.” I’ll spare you the details of how unhelpful this method was (it was about as effective as writing a term paper using only Wikipedia). Clearly, this occasion is a little different than speaking to thousands of 22-year-olds at Harvard. And, I am sorry to report, I am not J.K. Rowling.

One reason my digital inquiry came up short is that the Institute of Buddhist Studies is truly one-of-a-kind: it was groundbreaking in 1949 when it began educating Buddhist leaders, and remains pioneering 68 years later. This is not surprising, given our school’s roots in the Japanese American Jodo Shinshu community, a group whose contributions from the late 1800s, to WWII, to the civil rights era, to the present day, are integral to the fabric of American Buddhism. I hope today’s graduating students take a moment to celebrate their connection to this historically significant institution, even as we celebrate their achievements and look forward to their future contributions.

* * *

As some of you know, after earning my master’s, I completed a yearlong hospital chaplaincy residency here in the East Bay before spending a semester at Dharma Drum, a Buddhist institute in Taiwan. One of my favorite professors there asked me one day in her spiritual education class: have you ever thought about the yin yuan, all of the karmic causes and conditions, that make it possible for you to be here with us in this moment? I could ask the same question of all of you: what are the remarkable circumstances that enabled you to be here in this moment? Back on that autumn day at Dharma Drum, my first impulse was to start out with: well, first I was born in Shanghai, and then I immigrated to the US at the age of… Those of you who have had to submit CPE applications know how difficult it is to concisely give “a reasonably full account of your life.” But Prof. Gu was not, I think, looking for my life story. I’ve had a year and a half to ponder her question. If she asked me again today, I wouldn’t have a direct answer, but I might tell her this story from my year of clinical pastoral education at the hospital:

I had been assigned to the oncology unit at Alta Bates Summit in Oakland. However, as the only member of the spiritual care team who spoke Mandarin, I sometimes got referrals to other parts of the hospital. In the fall, one of my colleagues asked me to visit a Taiwanese American woman who was on the rehab unit recovering from surgery after an unexpected cancer diagnosis. Her daughter had to work during the day, and wondered if someone could check in on her nonreligious, limited English proficiency mom, whom I’ll call Mrs. J. So that autumn afternoon, I explained my role in the best colloquial Chinese I could muster, to which Mrs. J responded, I don’t want to talk about religion! I quickly assured her that we didn’t need to talk about religion, sui bian liao liao tian ye ke yi, we can just shoot the breeze. So began the first of many visits over several weeks until she was discharged from the hospital.  The chaplains in the audience today won’t be surprised to hear that she did eventually bring up spirituality in our conversations, and that her dignity and compassion in the midst of vulnerability and pain left a strong impression on me.

Half a year later, another colleague at the Berkeley campus of Alta Bates mentioned that she had just met a patient who remembered meeting with a Chinese-speaking chaplain. I went straight from our CPE group didactic to the hospital—and there was Mrs. J. Her breathing was labored, but she asked how I was and urged me not to go home too late. That weekend, I had a particularly intense 24-hour on-call shift, my pager buzzing nonstop as I responded to a dozen consecutive calls at three different campuses. One was for an impending death at the Berkeley hospital. As you can probably guess, it turned out to be none other than Mrs. J.

What were the causes and conditions that made it possible for me to be there the day she drew her last breath? Some would say past life affinity, others would say God’s will, still others would say mere coincidence. But I think Mrs. J’s last words say it beautifully: Xiexie. Thank you.

One answer to Prof. Gu’s question is: I don’t know. But I am grateful.

* * *

In his translation of the Acintita Sutta, American Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu posits that “the [precise working out of the] results of kamma” are unconjecturable, bringing “madness and vexation” to those who attempt to get to the bottom of why something has happened. I’m reminded of a 1982 Sesame Street episode where Big Bird is grieving the death of Mr. Hooper, who ran the neighborhood store. Big Bird cries, “Well, I don’t understand! … why does it have to be this way?” To which his friend Gordon responds, “it has to be this way… because.” Big Bird asks, “Just because?” and Gordon replies, “Just because.” And Big Bird says, “Oh”—and then his friends engulf him in a giant hug—which I think we can all agree is an exemplary chaplaincy moment.

None of us got here without suffering and good fortune. Indeed, the two are often intertwined, as we see when Big Bird encounters compassion in the face of grief; or as we know from Siddhartha Gautama’s encounters with the heavenly messengers of old age, sickness, death, and a wandering ascetic. Reading several of the master’s theses from today’s graduating class, I am struck by the common theme of how healing and liberation happen not in spite of conflict, oppression, and suffering, but in the very midst of it. These theses remind us that the pain of impermanence is of a piece with the joy of interconnectedness; the sting of suffering is inseparable from the salve of interrelationship.

When I was asked to deliver a message of reality and hope for this occasion, I wondered if some might find these two to be at odds given the environmental and political instability that we are experiencing now at a national and global level. Can we face reality without sinking into despair? Can we speak of hope without masking painful truths? Once again, I don’t have a direct answer, but I do have a couple anecdotes.

(1) My master’s thesis highlighted the perspectives of young adult Asian American Buddhists from diverse backgrounds. During my in-person interviews, I asked these young adults to reflect on the idea that “Buddhas and bodhisattvas respond to our prayers.” One Japanese American Shin Buddhist gave an unexpected reason for why she agrees with this statement: all people can be Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and prayers don’t have to be silent—so any time you ask someone for help and receive it, a Buddha or bodhisattva has just responded to your prayer!

(2) There is a teambuilding exercise called “Pathway to Success” that I have participated in and led a number of times. It involves setting up an elaborate waist-level ropes course. Participants are blindfolded and their hands placed on the rope, with the objective of feeling their way to the exit of the course. They can raise their hands at any point to receive help from a volunteer. This exercise can go on for an extraordinarily long time, and it is an exercise in mounting frustration, because the course is circular—the rope is actually tied to itself to form a loop. (Maybe we should call the activity “Pathway out of Samsara”!) What always strikes me is how few of the blindfolded participants raise their hands to ask for help—which is, of course, the “pathway to success.” Even when a leader once misspoke and introduced the exercise as “Asking for Help,” people still clung stubbornly to the rope, refusing to believe that they couldn’t figure this out on their own.

By way of reflection on these two stories, allow me to cite Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translations again, this time an excerpt from Kisa Gotami’s poetry in the Therigatha:

Having admirable friends
has been praised by the Sage
with reference to the world.
Associating with an admirable friend
even a fool
becomes wise.
People of integrity
should be associated with.
In that way discernment grows.
Associating with people of integrity
one would be released from all suffering & stress…

And what might these admirable friends be like? These excerpts from the bhikkhuni Rohini’s poetry in the Therigatha offers us a glimpse:

Learned, maintaining the Dhamma,
noble, living the Dhamma,

Traveling far, mindful,
giving counsel unruffled,
they discern the end
of suffering:
That’s why I hold
contemplatives dear.

We are many centuries and miles removed from Rohini’s time and place, yet here we are among learned and dear contemplatives, to whom we can go for counsel in times of suffering.

So you don’t really need me to provide a message of reality and hope—just look to our graduating class, who are students of the dharma, but also our dharma teachers and friends.

* * *

During my three years as a student here at IBS, I periodically read Carl Bielefeldt’s commencement address to the graduating class of 1994. One of my favorite insights from his speech is the reminder that students here have a “rare and precious chance to explore a rare and precious world.” We are blessed with a kaleidoscopic view of Buddhism here at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, where we learn about the Buddha in multiple forms, explore the dharma in all its capaciousness, and build warm and welcoming sangha together. Recognizing that meaning is always multivalent, we can interpret bhikkhuni Rohini’s poem to refer to venerable monastics who have long ago passed on, or we can admire the many contemplatives here today. Whether contemplation means saying the nembutsu or reciting the daimoku, investigating dharmas or “just sitting,” recommitting to bodhisattva vows or undertaking ngöndro practices, reflecting on impermanence or pondering the four immeasurables—there is room for all of us here.

People often ask what I learned from interviewing nearly a hundred young adult Asian American Buddhists for my MA research here at IBS. I can pare it down to four words: diversity, humility, respect, and resistance. First, I learned that Asian American Buddhists—and, by extension, American Buddhists—are an astonishingly diverse group of people. Recognizing this diversity, they are humble in their own limited viewpoints, and respectful of other’s viewpoints. With this respect comes the need for resistance—because the thriving of diverse peoples, practices, and beliefs is anything but guaranteed.

A story I heard on a recent podcast illustrates this point well. Manzanar was one of the ten internment camps where more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were unconstitutionally incarcerated during WWII. In 1992, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who had been interned at Manzanar, flew to Washington DC to testify before the US Senate subcommittee on Public Lands, National Parks, and Forests. She successfully appealed to have Manzanar designated as a National Historic Site. In her appeal, she argued: “democracy is a fragile concept only as good and strong as the people who practice it.” We might say the same for the dharma: that it is only as good and strong as the people who practice it.

In the words of the Angry Asian Buddhist, a blogger who writes about issues of race and representation in American Buddhism, we must be the refuge we wish to see in the world. To quote Prof. Bielefeldt again, “it is not just that we students of the dharma take refuge in the dharma; the dharma also takes refuge in us.” We may feel like inadequate refuges, but, as one of my interviewees put it, “Buddhists must be brave because they must stare into the abyss of themselves and come out humble and compassionate. We need public figures to do this.” As chaplains, we are trained in deep listening. But chaplains, of course, are much more than listeners—they, like Guanyin regarding the suffering of all beings, also advocate and act. As Martin Luther King reminds us, “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” I have no doubt that our graduates will embrace the many lessons they have learned in their years of study here as they go forth as deep listeners and courageous speakers in a world that very much needs both.

* * *

Let me conclude with a message directed to our graduates: Reflecting back on why my digital inquiry for “how to give a commencement speech” proved to be woefully inadequate, it occurs to me that a 0.71-second, 2,850,000-result Google search couldn’t possibly satisfy the burning questions and tenacious curiosities that led you to IBS. Those questions and curiosities have likely evolved during your time here. They have transformed through personal reflection, classroom debates, advisor meetings, formation groups, spiritual camaraderie, and the myriad opportunities this unique educational experience has afforded you. I hope these urgent questions and curiosities will continue to transform—in ways that startle and move you, unmask and renew you.

As you step forth into your post-graduation life, your learning continues, but now the curriculum design is entirely up to you. You must discern what needs to be done based on the causes and conditions of your life and the urgent needs of your broader communities. As you embark on the next steps of your journeys, my wish for you is this: May you be supported as you are today—surrounded by good friends and teachers in the Dharma, rejoicing together in your many laudable achievements, and dedicated to being a refuge for all who inhabit this precious and vulnerable world.


Thank you.