Virginia Woolf’s UC San Diego Graduation Speech

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And so here, at the end, at graduation, at the time when my education comes to a screeching halt in its tracks, I suppose its only fitting that I start with the beginning. This is to be a speech about education, so the program says, specifically about my own. Speak to the audience, my advisor said, after much beseechment on my part; speak to the audience and tell them the truth of it; impart wisdom to the young college hopefuls out there in the audience, and stir up old memories for the mothers and fathers of the young college hopefuls out there. Ah, I said, no problem, and it wasn’t until I was already out the door when I finally thought about it, and by then it was too late for my advisor had retired for the day. But since it was only early afternoon, so I decided to stroll around the campus I’ve been tied to for the last five years and let my mind turn over the task in front of me, examine it from all sides, like a child turns over a rock in order to see what creatures he can find underneath. Or perhaps, I thought idly, oddly, languidly, perhaps I ought to let the task in front of me turn over my mind and see what happened.

For starters, I must apologize because you see I never really learned how to talk. For when I arrived at college I quickly learned that education isn’t about talking, although most every professor assured the hushed multitudes of wide-eyed freshmen that offices are great places for talking, all one had to do was show up at room 1671 on the fourth floor of Engineering complex I (not II!) between the hours of eight and nine on Friday mornings. I marveled at the ease in which I could have a conversation with a real, educated, college professor; why it seemed so simple. However in the midst of pondering how much Mr. Engineering must have donated in order to have not one, but two complexes named after him, I had missed the part where the professor had said to make sure and ask questions to the teaching assistant first and then bother him if it still weren’t clear. And so it went, and while other classes did indeed encourage speaking – in fact some mandated it in which points were proffered for pearls of wisdom such as restatements of last week’s lectures, or thoughts clever enough to be so broad and sweeping such that they could not possibly be wrong for they didn’t really say anything in the first place. At first I must confess I was very intimidated by all the smart people around me; I mean these people talked so much and it was quickly obvious that the more one talked, the more intelligence one had; and all I had were dull and tangent thoughts that did not restate, that did not simplify, that did not make the professor sigh with relief when a hand was finally raised to puncture the silence of the desperately broad question asked a good dozen seconds ago. But the talking was the important part, and so it was necessary each class period to come up with something to say; anything, and like wise politicians we went around the room and offered our hoarded responses, each person contributing a brick that together made a fine floor. I think the class was Creative Writing, and of course structured so to maximize the creativity and to maximize the writing.

But all that is really here nor there, and so I tried to pull my errant musings back to the topic of education. If I should sit and think of all my classes and what I had learned, and what I had been tested on, and what had changed my life, and what hadn’t, why it should take volumes upon volumes; although oddly enough I couldn’t really think of anything right now. One could really ponder all day, sitting in ponderous, resplendent repose like Rodan’s statue, thinking of great big issues well suited for that famous thinking pose, issues such as the nature of truth and beauty, justice and peace; philosophies of life could swirl in one’s head, the ills and wills of society, the trials and travails of historical peoples, poverty, all the flaws in the world today and how to fix them – one could really sit and ponder all day, but then one should not get one’s homework sets done and never learn how to recite in essay form chapters from great books, never learn how to repeat by rote memorization the study guide of the professor, never learn how to plug in different numbers into the same mathematical and physics models that approximate reality with such resolution and firmness one should think they were gods in their own right. And then one would have to drop out, and that would be disastrous for one’s education – imagine it; having no set structure, no boundaries with which to bump into in order to console oneself that there is a limit, that one won’t fall into the bottomless pit; it wouldn’t do at all really, having the time free to pursue knowledge as it comes, to be able to investigate every thought that pops into one’s head, such as why soda is cheaper than water, why gasoline in America is half as expensive as it is in Britain, why institutions seem to stifle creativity and original thought instead of cultivating them. No, such expansive freedom wouldn’t do at all, one needs a safety rope to follow, as frayed and worn as it may be from the many who have climbed it before, at least it has been proven that it safely goes in a direction. No, no, give me the Bernoulli effect of fluid dynamics any day of the week, because that’s real, tangible, substantial. Why Bernoulli’s all around you, a professor loved to say, it’s in your shower, on your streets, in your oceans and lakes; and it was thanks to god this solid piece of physics was there because think about it, if those other issues mentioned above, say corporate liability and greed for instance, if those issues had the same kind of proximity to our lives than Bernoulli why, why its not even imaginable what should happen. No, no, no the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that that had to have been what Rodan’s statue was thinking – I’m almost positive it was Bernoulli.

But again my thoughts were off track, and I did my best to bend them towards more meaningful directions. I have learned all questions have answers, and all questions have quick answers, and all questions have quick, easily attainable answers that once found end the question; and so I focused my best effort towards the question in front of me, because it bothered me that it hadn’t ended yet, that it was sticking around; questions aren’t supposed to do that. Inspiration struck as I looked up and spotted the library, its unique form a comforting view in the midst of my scattered wonderings and wanderings. When I had first seen it, I had thought it appeared like a Rubix cube, standing on one corner; but that was when I was a stupid freshman. Now of course I can see that it has history, and indeed the man who paid a lot of money for it has his statue on the top of it. However it represented salvation for me, the lifesaver for those drowning at sea – for what better place to answer questions than at a library?

However it was not meant to be, for the day had extended almost into dusk now, and the library was closed early since it was a Saturday, and of course no one (especially students who really just need expensive textbooks for the pursuit of the knowledge most necessary for them) can study in a library past five o’clock on a Saturday. It was amusing, I thought, thinking of the time before I was in college and was simply one of the millions of uneducated clamoring to get in the hallowed halls of academia in order to learn, in order to learn and in order to use that learning for the benefit of society and human race – for isn’t that why everyone wanted a college education? And it was somewhere along the way that I was able to do it, to get past the hordes on the outside beating against the walls of academia, those that crashed against its gates like waves against the cliffs a few hundred yards away. During one of those high tides, I stepped over, stepped past, stepped on a few of the horde and on their backs lifted myself over the gates, I pushed off and made it onto the ark, where I imagined finding two of every type of intellectual, of finding white sails to billow out with the breeze of my studious exertion, of finding philosophical mysteries embedded in the very sap holding the planks of the institution together; however it was only to find a closed library at five o’clock on a Saturday, and a talking tree in a forest.

Fortunately though the food court was still open, and its cheerily lit signs, bright menus, spotless counters made the restaurants look as if they were the newest entities on campus, which they may very well could have been. As I ate I reassured myself that these thoughts, while not new to me, were only temporary, and should soon die out to the murky recesses of my mind. That worn and frayed rope always got me past these moments, and I concluded that in the end it simply meant that I had failed my education, and wasn’t fit for giving this speech.

Note – this was written in 2005, the year I graduated college from UC San Diego and is written in the literary style of author Virginia Woolf.

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Asura-sutra

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Thus I have heard: at one time the Lord was staying at Rajagrha, and the great wheel-turning righteous emperor of the law, Ilamkili, who had all thirty-two special marks of a Great Man and was a great Dharmic king wielding the seven treasures and whose greatness and gracious acts established the security of his realm and extended his kingdom to where the horizon met the land and caused the rain to fall for the prosperity of everyone, came to see the Blessed One with a troubled spirit.

The great wheel-turning righteous monarch, followed by his 1,000 sons and attendants, approached the Blessed One with an immense plate of food offerings; containing both hard and soft choices from the finest food he could find. After circling the Blessed One three times with his right side facing the Lord, the great wheel-turning righteous monarch sat down.

“Lord Buddha,” Ilamkili said, “I have a troubled spirit. I have studied your teachings, and the Dharma, and the four Aryan truths, and the law of Karma. I have studied them to try and attain enlightenment. I was born with the thirty-two special marks on my body, and I have known since I was released from the womb I would either become a fully enlightened Buddha or a great wheel-turning emperor. I now rule an empire that stretches to where the horizon meets the land, and my greatness and gracious acts cause the rain to fall for the prosperity of everyone. And now I wonder; and I ask you Blessed One, there are questions I have that I cannot answer, and I hope you can.”

The Blessed One, who had attained spiritual perfection, he who was mighty with the ten Powers of the Tathagata, the Well-Farer, he whose senses were turned inwards, the Knower of the Worlds, the Teacher of gods and humans, he who had achieved nirodha, who had learned the karmic nature of every single being from their past lives, sat and looked at the great wheel-turning emperor and said nothing.

“Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor, “then tell me this: I have learned the path to enlightenment is through the cessation of desire; however isn’t the act of cessation of desire to attain enlightenment a desirous act in itself?”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, then tell me this: I have studied the four Noble Truths and according to samudaya; desire, or the thirst for further existence, is the cause of suffering. If this is true why have not all the ascetics achieved enlightenment? They have conquered sensation and perception, and live without desire yet they have not attained Nirvana.”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, then tell me this: I have learned of anatman; how there is no self, simply the five skandhas that lead to desire and the illusion of atman. If there is no stable, permanent self what is it in people that desires enlightenment?”

After this question from Ilamkili the Lord shifted in his position, but gave no response. “Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor, “then tell me this: I have observed different sanghas and sects, and have learned that there are differences in each. For instance why do the Vajrayana say spiritual attainment can be gained in one lifetime? Or what about the Sanvastivadin, who say everything exists? Why do the Theravada have 311 rules for nuns while the Mahasanghika have over 500 rules for nuns? Why do these all walk different paths toward the cessation of suffering? Which is the correct one?”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, I will ask then: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who is the Teacher of gods and humans, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me, can you tell me how to resolve these questions that hinder me so that I can gain spiritual attainment? Shall I give up my entire kingdom and take up the begger’s bowl and monk’s robes? If so, which sect shall I follow to achieve enlightenment?”

At these words his thousand sons and many attendants let out piteous moans of anguish; for Ilamkili had calmed the chaos of heaven with his Dharmic rule and had expanded his kingdom and power with his many generous acts, and none of his attendants wanted to see him leave. However, the Blessed One gave the same response to this question as all the previous; he sat and looked at Ilamkili and said nothing

“Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor with great reluctance, for he did not want to leave his prosperous kingdom; nor his people who loved him, and who he loved in return. “I will ask a second time: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me. Shall I give up my kingdom? Will that begin the path to true enlightenment?”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor, with even greater reluctance than before, said “Very well. I will clearly ask: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me. How can I achieve enlightenment? Tell me what I must do to attain Nirvana.”

At these words the Lord spoke, for Ilamkili had finally revealed to himself the truth of his desire. The Blessed One looked at the righteous wheel-turning monarch and at a glance saw all of the emperor’s past lives and deeds, and saw that the emperor had more lives ahead of him to atone for his past actions. “Great cakravartin, powerful wheel-turning emperor listen to me,” said the Buddha. “You have more to learn; you ask why ascetics have not attained Nirvana since they have conquered desire, and I tell you this: it is true, ascetics have conquered their desire in the physical world, however they have not walked the Middle Way, which is distant from their own extreme. They have not realized the four Noble Truths fully. They have not realized they suffer because they desire; which is due to ignorance.

“It is true; the want to cease desire is desirous itself. However you have more to learn; there are different levels of desire and the desire of cessation is the highest there is. It is the raft, it is the path to eliminating Grasping, the way to halt Becoming.

“It is true, there is no such thing as self; only sunyata, emptiness. However you have more to learn; it is the karmic law of the universe that pushes individuals towards enlightenment. You have not truly seen pratitya-samutpada, that nothing has essential being, everything is only in existance in relation to everything else. Everything is conditioned by previous lives; it is the necessity of atoning for one’s past actions and attaining balance that brings one up from hell to heaven, and the understanding of the nature of Karma and the four Noble Truths that push them outside of the wheel of life to Nirvana.

“It is true; there are many different sects with their own understanding of the path to cessation. However you have much to learn; for each walks their own path, and has their own road from their past lives to their future lives. No matter the number of rules for nuns, nor the time of spiritual attainment; no matter how one views the world there is birth, there is ageing, and there is dying. There is no way such that if you ask a monk how to live according to the Dharma and atone for past lives every single one will say ‘This is the one and only way’ – there is no universal practice. But no matter who you ask the four Noble Truths are the same; no matter how many rules govern a life there is suffering, and there is its cessation. No monk will tell you of one path all can travel, however any monk will tell you the four Noble Truths are the beacon lighting all paths, no matter how different the direction of the paths are.

“Great cakravartin, powerful wheel-turning emperor listen to me,” said the Buddha. “It is true, you have more to learn. Your power exceeds the earth, you can stop the sun and bring forth rain, however you cannot attain enlightenment in this life. Your great and noble deeds from this life and your previous ones have given you your immense powers; however before this life, before your previous life of a generous merchant, before your previous previous life as an ascetic, stretching back innumerable lifetimes ago, a misdeed haunts you. Far back, centuries ago, before your great city was even built as a servant you maliciously slaughtered your master and ran away. It is this deed as a slave so long ago that shackles you today, great emperor. Ilamkili, in this life you are like a unmattavidyadhara, a mad scientist, wanting to concoct a powerful potion but you want to skip the steps in between of mixing lesser elements to create the final product. You desire enlightenment and Nirvana, but you cling hard to the five skandhas and the idea of self. You block yourself from achieving Bodhi; your body is solid in this life from your belief in its permanence. You do not remember your previous lives but your merit, your punya, has made you very powerful. However it is not for the purpose of making you a Buddha, it is for the purpose of atoning for your previous life. You have seen the four Noble Truths, but have not developed them through practice nor fully realized them in a manner so that you cannot learn more about them. You have yet to escape bhavacakra, the wheel of life; your great cycle, your mahakalpa, is close but has not yet completed a full revolution. You, great wheel-turning righteous monarch, have turned the Wheel of Dharma once, but not thrice. It is not your time for cessation, to ascend to Nirupadisesa-Nirvana – you are needed to be a Dharmic king and calm chaos in the heavens and do good for your people.”

Thus spoke the Lord, and Ilamkili rejoiced, and returned to his kingdom where he performed many great deeds until the time of his death.

Note – this was written in 2004.