I find however that many students in China seem more sophisticated than I was at their age. They are not shy about pulling out a smartphone in the middle of a classroom debate in order to back up the facts to their side of the argument. They seem to be putting their technological gizmos to good use and today’s technology is progressing education in leaps and bounds.
Religion comes up quite often in my classes and it’s always a hot button issue. At the beginning of each semester, a new student will ask what my religious beliefs are. I always tell them that I was born and raised Roman Catholic. Several students will then bless themselves to evoke a laugh either from me or their fellow students.
I tell my students that I am no longer a practicing Catholic but I’m always open and honest about my spirituality. I was surprised at first about how knowledgeable they are about the current problems facing the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. They always bring up the decline of the Church's influence in the world or the sex abuse crises in the Church.
Students always ask me if I’m an atheist and my response is usually - Life and god are one and the same for me and that I can't separate my life from the life of others.
A young female student said, “so you are a Buddhist.”
I told her I don’t have religious beliefs and I tried to the best of my ability to explain that we are simply sharing god's life. I experience my existence and the existence of all things as the subtle altruistic outreach of god’s love. I went on to say that I have a deeply intuitive awareness of my spirituality and the spirituality that is within others
“But that is religion,” a male student said with frustration in his voice.
I don’t believe in religion I told the class once again. I cannot contain god in religious beliefs, buildings, creeds, dogmas, or religious institutions because god transcends all religions. The love that is within us cannot be contained in our beliefs or faith in what God ought to be in our lives. God is the eternal sustenance that sustains us and all things. God is the essence of our eternal love which transcends all human beliefs and faith.
“How can you say that when there are such atrocities throughout the world? If what you believe were to be true then we would all be living in paradise,” another male student said.
Many of those atrocities were committed in the name of religion, I said. It all comes down to beliefs and free will. Evil is the result of a perversion of the human will. We are all free to think and do as we please but for every action, there is a reaction. The consequences of those actions whether they are good or bad will always come back to us.
I may not be a religious person, but I am spiritual by nature. I told the class, my spirituality is what I experience with each second, minute, and day. I try my best to explain that my spirituality is not something I believe in or have faith in. It’s something I experience and come to know within me. It’s simply life itself because I experience it as a living being. We are not set apart from god because god is the intimate and eternal life that is within us and around us.
Questions and debates on whether there is an afterlife always come up in my class as well. I always tell my students that I’m not an expert on death but rather an apprentice in life. With each second, minute, and day I am learning how to live. I like to think of humanity as our significant other. We may come into the world as separate human beings, but humanity is never truly apart from us. When we reach out and touch others, we touch a part of the humanity that is within us. When we open ourselves up to love others, we, in turn, allow ourselves to be loved. When we care for others, we allow ourselves to be cared for. We are not just human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. We need others in order to learn and grow not only in knowledge but in greater self-awareness.
“America is a Christian Nation,” a male student said, “so I’m sure many people in America don’t think like you.”
When it comes to the reality of life, I said - there are only two opposing views. One view is - there are no miracles in life and the other view is - life is a miracle. It is within these two opposing views that I have chosen to live my life. We are the hands of god -- one hand is used to build a better life for ourselves and the other hand is used to build a better life for others. I do not seek to be understood by words alone because I believe it is best to teach by example.
“In China, many don’t believe in Religion,” a female student said, “but many believe in Karma. When you do good - goodness is returned to you.”
I have experienced that in my own life, I said. A truly spiritual person does not seek conformity from others by imposing their will or beliefs on others. A person with a deep spiritual understanding will bring about positive change in the world by becoming the change that they would like to see in others.
“That is an idealistic way of thinking,” another female student said, “but there are so many problems in the world.”
If the world has become a dark place then it is our responsibility to become the light so that others can see more clearly, I said. Positive change cannot come about by forcing or imposing our way of life on others but rather it is achieved by living our life as we would want others to live their life; in doing so others will embrace and emulate our way of life.
“Religion in America has a tendency to impose their ways on to others,” a male student said, “the slaughter of the American Indians, your previous wars in Vietnam, Korea, and now your wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Isn’t that an example of a Religious Nation imposing its will and beliefs on other Nations?”
Yes, I can see many of America’s mistakes throughout history, I said. That is why it is best to live your individual lives as genuinely and authentically as possible. We are all spiritual by nature and by nature we are all uniquely endowed with extraordinary gifts and talents. The more self-aware we become the more aware we become of all we have to offer. We must also learn from History so that past atrocities’ will not be repeated.
“Average is a dominant gene trait,” a female student said jokingly, “the problems of the world are caused by average people’s short-sightedness. The world’s spiritual problems will always be beyond your pay grade no matter how far the value of the U.S. dollar drops.” That statement got a huge laugh from the class.
She then asked me, “Where do you find your inspiration?”
My inspiration comes mostly from my quiet-time and the interaction from my students, I said. The thought of knowing I am where I’m supposed to be and doing what I’m doing can be an inspiration as well.
I like to remind people that when the mind draws a blank to the world’s riddles it turns to the soul for answers for the soul knows what the mind seeks. Some people may call that intuition. I suppose my intuition and the gift of the imagination are my greatest abilities in expressing to others my perspective on life.
Every semester I tell my students when it comes to life what we learn in the classroom will not define our lives. But rather how well we live our lives in communion with others, will, in the end, define our true character and our true worth.
My students are brighter and more informed than I was at their age and that is a good thing. Today’s Z generation has vast amounts of knowledge at their fingertips, especially, with their smartphones and various other gizmos. The questions they ask in class also reflect their curiosity about the deeper dimensions to life, their future, their nation’s future, and the future of the world and that is certainly a good thing.
- Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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