Knoe College News: Knox College student Sean Dowdy (photo) credits “feeling more focused” this term to the way he spent the last term: meditating with monks in a Buddhist monastery.
Dowdy, a junior from Morrisonville, Ill., recently returned from Bodh Gaya, India, where he spent three months in the Buddhist Studies program.
“I feel more focused since I’ve returned,” he said. “I think this experience has helped me overcome bad mental and emotional habits. It was an intense education.”
For the first three weeks of the program, Dowdy and a group of other American college students lived in a Buddhist monastery.
“We lived our days as if we were monks,” he said. “We got up at 4:30 a.m. and meditated for one hour, and then we’d have a silent breakfast.”
For Dowdy, this was a stark contrast from his life at Knox.
“The earliest I get up is six a.m., and that’s only when I have homework to do,” he said. “Otherwise I sleep in until right before class. And I never take time to eat breakfast.”
Students were expected to follow the monastery’s social and moral laws, which included “preserving all life, being celibate, avoiding intoxicants, and refraining from stealing,” he said.
“Vowing to preserve all life meant more than just being vegetarian,” Dowdy said. “It even included not swatting the mosquitoes that were bothering you constantly.”
A junior Anthropology-Sociology major, Dowdy enrolled in the program to study the cultural and historical aspects of Buddhism, which he first became interested in as a high school student.
“It’s one of the most peacefully-spread religions in the world,” he said. “I come from a background of staunch Irish Catholics, and my mother is a lay nun. But she encouraged me because she is interested in world religion. This program was a great way for me to study in another culture, but it was also a personal pilgrimage to see what I believed in.”
In India, Dowdy learned different types of meditation from a Japanese monk, as well as Nepalese and Burmese masters.
“In meditation, you’re striving toward mental and spiritual development,” he said. “Buddhism teaches you to seek true, unselfish compassion for others through meditation.”
Dowdy also took classes focusing on philosophical concepts related to meditation, as well as language instruction in Tibetan and Hindi. He also studied Buddhist philosophy and the history of Indian Buddhism.
“There are multiple variations of Buddhisms, like Zen Buddhism in Japan or Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, and each one is interpreted differently by different cultures,” he said. “It’s a very diverse and international religion. But there are basic similarities, such as a focus on compassion, and belief that all life is suffering.”
Nancy Eberhardt, Professor of Anthropology/Sociology at Knox, said Dowdy benefited from learning about Buddhism outside a classroom setting.
“Sean is an exceptional student, and already knew a great deal about Buddhism before he went,” she said. “But I know this experience has broadened his knowledge and deepened his commitment to studying the role of Buddhism in people’s every day lives. It introduced Sean to Buddhism as it is actually lived, with many opportunities to talk with practicing Buddhists from all walks of life. That’s an indispensable part of learning about any religion.”
Dowdy also traveled extensively while in India, visiting Dehli and Calcutta, among other places. In Darjeeling, in West Bengal, he saw the Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism—giving a religious talk to a large crowd.
“We received a blessing from him,” Dowdy said. “We shook his hand and he presented us with a white scarf.”
After leaving the monastery, Dowdy conducted anthropological and sociological field research in Lachung, a northern village near the Tibetan border.
“It’s small and isolated, and there are no phones there,” Dowdy said. “It’s spread out in a valley in the heart of the Himalayas, and when you look up, you see these awesome snow-capped precipices. It’s beautiful.”
For his research project, Dowdy interviewed heads of the village and spent time with its residents in order to study its unique form of government. “It’s a communitarian Buddhist government, where all decisions have to be made by each household,” he said.
Dowdy lived with a Tibetan family and with a translator in the village.
“Everyone was wonderful to me there,” he said. “I’d love to go back.”
After graduating from Knox, Dowdy hopes to return to India and work for a non-governmental organization in humanitarian aid.
“I see myself as more of a ‘world citizen’ now,” he said. “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It was a widening of my lenses. And I feel like I know so much more about the Indian students at Knox and their culture now. It’s given me a much more open way of looking at the world.”