From the Ivory Tower to the Buddhist Hall


Albert Tang

On the day of the refuges, the incense in the meditation hall lingered in the air. The ritual instruments emitted sounds that echoed elegantly through the space. The new initiates in black robes, having made the Four Great Vows, knelt with utmost sincerity to request the precepts. With eyes closed and minds focused, we immersed ourselves in visualization, feeling the earth moved with our devotion, as it released auspicious rainbow clouds that spread across the sky. Our Dharma joy was like a clear spring in the mountains, babbling continuously…

Looking back, if time could rewind two years, I never would have imagined myself entering the Buddhist path. That year, freshly graduated with a Master’s in Philosophy, I took for granted the direction of my future, not feeling in need of any guidance. “After my graduation, I can continue straight on to a Ph.D., enter the academic circle, and devote myself to the philosophical research that intrigues me most, thus making a lifelong contribution to humanity’s edifice of knowledge.” Even though I was aware of the scarce academic positions in philosophy and the fierce competition, resembling a throng battling to cross a single-log bridge, I stubbornly believed that I was destined to break through, as if this path was paved just for me. Thus, with my heart set on the world’s top Ph.D. programs, I lived my life in the mentality of “keep to my books, no heed of worldly affairs,” never feeling the need for a backup career plan. Each morning, upon opening my eyes, I would dive into study and research, with every moment, even meals and baths, spent pondering philosophical topics. It was as if I were dangling in midair, with my hands alternately climbing the lofty branches, heedless of how slender they were. One day, the branch finally broke; due to various reasons during the pandemic, my doctoral applications fell through. The life path I was so sure of was abruptly cut off, and I plummeted from that high branch. In despair, it felt like landing in a turbulent abyss, surrounded by jagged rocks, with mist swirling around; I desperately clung to a passing driftwood raft, navigating through the rocky shoals…

Yet, as the saying goes, “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  By a fortunate twist of fate, I encountered the guiding light of my life—the Buddha’s teachings. One day, I saw my wife listening to a Dharma talk by a monk on YouTube. She had started exploring Buddhism partly out of curiosity and partly to understand and protect her mother, a devout Buddhist, from superstition. Despite my low spirits at the time, I found myself drawn in and sat down to listen. This was my first encounter with Shifu’s Dharma talk, an introduction to the “Heart Sutra.” Shifu’s delivery was different from any Dharma talks I had heard before; it was vivid, simple to understand, often drawing from life to aid comprehension. Perhaps because my intellect favored logical reasoning, at that time, I was only interested in meditation, thinking that this practice was already scientifically validated. With this mindset, I had little interest in other Buddhist teachings. However, the logical clarity of Shifu’s teachings piqued my interest, and I continued to listen, moving from the “Heart Sutra” to “Applied Yogacara” and beyond.

I gradually realized that even the most advanced scientific discussions on meditation barely scratch the surface; the deep states of meditative absorption possible for the human mind have not been fully explored by science. Besides meditation, Buddhism contains many precious wisdoms such as “impermanence,” “emptiness,” “the Middle Way,” and so on. All of these are the true wisdoms which can genuinely help solve life’s various sufferings.

Buddhism also helped me see that logic and reasoning cannot solve all problems, especially when we face mental afflictions. Overthinking often adds to the distress and exacerbates the issue itself. For instance, if a person’s troubles stem from an inability to feel grateful for various aspects of life, and they address these troubles solely through rational thought, they certainly won’t be able to cultivate a grateful heart to resolve the issue. One day, this insight dawned on me: “The pain I felt from failing to secure a Ph.D. position was not due to external circumstances but because my heart did not understand impermanence, nor was it grateful for the good conditions I encountered amidst life’s unpredictability.” As the Buddhist scriptures say, “To be born human is as rare as dirt on your fingernail, while losing it is as common as earth on the ground.” Being born into this world, alive as a human, is already a tremendous blessing. Every day on Earth, countless people face war, disaster, illness, and other unexpected misfortune, yet I wake up day after day. Many endure hunger in remote and impoverished areas, yet I’m fortunate to live comfortably. On top of that, I’ve received quality education and support from my parents and spouse, allowing me to follow my academic passions—truly a reason for gratitude. With this understanding, the melancholy from my academic setbacks gradually lessened. Now, looking back at my happy times inside the ivory towers, I no longer see them as days painfully lost but as joyful moments gracefully gifted.

I’ve come to appreciate the Buddhist wisdom of “seeking not from the outside,” and I marvel at its power to dissolve suffering. Yet, this episode is just the tip of the iceberg among the many possible pains in life. Therefore, I have made a vow to delve deeper into the study of Buddhism in search of an ultimate way to liberate myself and all sentient beings from suffering.

Fortunately, my wife also harbored a deep interest in Buddhism and benefited greatly from it. By mutually encouraging each other, we attended group practices at the Guanyin Temple(International Buddhist Society), continually immersing ourselves in the nurturing influence of the Dharma. Gradually, the thought of taking refuges took root in our minds. A serendipitous series of events, along with the encouragement from Ven. Shanle, led us to take this important step more swiftly.

Looking back, I am grateful for the setback in my PhD application. I originally thought this failure was a major misfortune in my life, but it turned out to be an aiding condition in my spiritual journey. The universities I applied to were all outside of British Columbia, and had everything gone as planned, I would have been studying in the United States, likely missing the opportunity to connect with the Guanyin Temple. “A blessing in disguise,” as the saying goes. I am thankful for this incredible turn of events that has allowed me to see the light of the Dharma. I hope to use this illuminating beacon as a guide, to comprehend wisdom and cultivate virtues. On the path of a Bodhisattva, I aspire to convert all encountered adversities and fortunes into the bricks and mortar for building a spiritual home, and into nourishment that benefits all sentient beings.

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