Stay up-to-date with DRBU's Newsletter
Deeply Listening to My Initial Intention: An Interview with Lisa Liang
Lisa Liang, born to Chinese immigrant parents in Southern California, came to CTTB at age 19. After graduating from the BA program at DRBU, she got accepted to two graduate schools, but chose to return to DRBU for the MA program. She loves Sanskrit and dreams of opening a coffee shop.
How are you doing at this moment?
Right now, I feel quite sentimental because this is our last week of the MA program and also our last week being at DRBU and CTTB. It makes me a little bit sad, because I've been here for about ten years. It feels like everything is coming together. And it's a very beautiful moment for me. I feel very happy. And also excited for what's coming next.
Ten years. Could you share with us more about your journey here?
Ten years felt like a long time, but actually, it felt very short. I came here when I was 19. So I was still a teenager. And now I'm almost in my 30s. It's been a journey, and there's lots of growing and maturing. And I am just reflecting back. It was a very difficult journey.
Could you share with us some of the difficulties that you experienced in your journey?
When I came here, my parents didn't approve of me studying here, or just working here, living here, and then deciding to stay here. Because at that time, I was at a university. I was studying biology. And my parents wanted me to continue onto that path. But when I came here as a volunteer, there was an immediate connection. I don't know how to describe it, but it feels like home here. And I decided, like just two weeks [after] I arrived, I wanted to tell my parents that I wanted to stay.
But at that time, my parents didn't approve. I didn't know what to do. So I just kept, I guess, bowing and praying that they would let me come here. And then after a while, there was a change in my parents. (pause) It's really hard to express this because it’s been a long time. As I recall back, all these emotions come with it.
After I did some praying and bowing, I talked to my mom again. And she said, no, I cannot. I have to return home. At that time, I didn't know what to do. I was really sad, really hurt. And then I just continued bowing and something came to mind, which was to invite my mom here and see what she thought. So that was what came to my heart, and I decided to call her and invite her to come visit CTTB. She came here and met with all my professors. At that time, the university wasn't accredited. So I was taking classes with Doug, with Barbara Waugh. I was taking classes with the community here. My mom met all my professors, and she talked to a few monastics, and something happened. My mom was able to let me stay here. So that happened, I was really happy. And that's when... it gave me a lot of faith in, I guess, in Buddhadharma.
Before that, what brought you to CTTB?
Yeah, I was going through an existential crisis when I was a teenager. I didn't feel like I wanted to follow the traditional path. The traditional path is like, you know, as a child of immigrant parents, the parents expect their kids to go to college, get a job, get married, and have kids. So that didn't fit... How do I say this? I didn't resonate with that path. And I wanted to explore. At that time, I didn't know anything about Buddhism. So I wanted to explore religion, and I didn't know if Christianity would be a good fit for me. I did attend a Baptist Temple at that time. And I quite enjoyed my time there, but something was still off. So I kind of read books on my own, and then I met a friend who introduced me to Buddhism. And we came together to CTTB as volunteers.
I was a volunteer for about a year or two, working at Jyun Khang [Vegetarian Restaurant in CTTB]. I was working about 30 hours [a week]. And I was also taking classes at DRBU.
At that time, there were some courses offered. Like Sanskrit, Chinese classics. I took them, but it didn't count. Because it was not officially accredited. So it was preparing me for the actual program when it launched in 2014. I officially started the BA program in 2014. And it took five years for me to finish the BA program, from 2014 to 2019. We had an extra year because DRBU was still going through the accreditation process.
What happened between your graduation from the BA and then coming back for the MA?
Yeah. Right after graduation, I traveled for three months. I went to Thailand, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia. So I went traveling. After returning back to the US from my travels, I mostly read and studied on my own. I was also trying to figure out which graduate program I wanted to study at. And oh, yeah, I was writing a lot of papers. And I submitted a few of them to some academic journals.
Are those the papers that you worked on when you studied in DRBU?
Yes, my senior thesis was one of them. And I also worked on some other paper topics in the Pāli tradition.
Did any of them get published?
Yes, one of them. It's about saṃvega and pasāda. And those are two Pāli terms. So saṃvega means a sense of urgency. And pasāda means serene confidence. I also had another co-author, Brianna [Morseth], and she was a DRBU alum. So we both worked on it together.
Wow, how wonderful. Could we share the link to the published paper?
Wonderful. You mentioned you got accepted to other graduate schools but you still decided to come back. Could you tell us more about that?
Yes. I got accepted to University of Hawaii and St. John's College. (pause) One of the things that I valued about DRBU was the practice component. And I felt those two schools, obviously, were more academic-focused. So a huge part of that for returning to DRBU is the practice and also for the community here.
What's the difference between your experience here before and then coming back for the MA program? Anything different inwardly and externally?
Yes, that's a good question. When I was in the BA program, it was heavily focused on liberal arts. So there were four primary strands and one of the strands was Buddhist Classics. Initially, I came to CTTB because I was interested in Buddhism. But in the BA program, we had to take other classes unrelated to Buddhist philosophy. So we had to take Indian classics, Chinese classics, science, music, mathematics, rhetoric and writing class, and capstone... So initially, I was only interested in Buddhism. That was my primary focus of why I wanted to be here. So given that, I didn't really enjoy it. I didn't take the program wholeheartedly. And so part of that is, I guess, because I also struggled in the other topics like mathematics and science, and at that time, I wasn't emotionally stable. So I guess I was less mature, you can say that. So, instead of looking directly at, you know, my pain or at the difficulty, like why was I resisting being in this class? Or why was I resisting all these emotions that were rising? So instead of looking directly at it, I kind of ran away from them. So in my talk on Sunday, I mentioned that I wanted to leave many times because I didn't want to face the struggles that I was going through.
Despite all the difficulties you had during the BA program, you stayed until you finished the program. What kept you here?
For me, it's deeply listening to my initial intention of wanting to be here in the first place. I reminded myself of my initial resolve or an initial intention. When you stay here in this community for quite some time, you forget about your initial resolve and you get used to this place, you get used to the people, and all of a sudden, you're caught up in all these stimulants. And everything just felt very comfortable. So then I myself lost sight of that. It wore off. In a way, I just kind of fell into my desires because, you know, you're always trying to be stimulated.
So what kept me here was just listening to myself, listening to my heart, and also being grateful for my teachers and the monastics, and this precious opportunity to study in this environment. So just reminding myself to always have this gratitude and that was what kept me here. It was being grateful.
After you returned for the MA program, did you notice anything different?
Give me a moment. Let me think. (pause) I felt like I've been more mellow in terms of not reacting so quickly. And I'm able to catch my thoughts and just look at the positive side, positive aspects of things and even look at the positive qualities of people. There's something that is very spacious and open. That's always in the background. And then I remember when I was in the BA program, I was like, always, constantly moving. So I wasn’t aware of what I was saying or what I was doing. And I was always moving very quickly. But when I came back, I noticed that I'm able to pause more and reflect. And I'm able to look at things more broadly, instead of looking at things in a very narrow and limited way. So I'm able to look at it from a bird's eye view, if that makes sense.
Did you also encounter challenges during the two years?
So the first year, we were all on Zoom. And it was a bit difficult because I had to discipline myself. I had to find ways to encourage myself to read the texts. Because you know, if I'm reading on my own, it can be really dry. And then when I come to class, I'm just looking at a screen. And even though I'm discussing the text with my cohort, something felt off. So I just had to find ways to make the text more alive. Being on Zoom and not living in a community can be depressing, and lonely. And obviously, because of COVID.
Another challenge was how to live and work with people who were different from you, who have different personalities... but it's not as difficult for me anymore, because I'm more capable of appreciating their differences. But initially, it was hard.
When your cohort came together as a group, did you feel more connected to them? How do you feel about your cohort?
Oh, I love my cohort! I wish we had an extra year together. But I do feel like we have a lot of affinities together. Each one of my cohort members is very smart, bright, and kind. And we all genuinely care for each other. So I appreciate that a lot, and we all support each other on this path.
Could you share with us some of your highlights in the last two years at DRBU?
Or if you leave the community for a while, what would you remember mostly?
Mostly, it's my friends here. So it's the little things. It's, you know, someone asking you how your day is, going on walks in the woods in the back of the dorm. So, that's really nice. We appreciated the trees, the deer, the turkeys, and the squirrels. So I'll miss the nature here a lot. I'll miss the laughter at lunchtime. I’ll also miss my professors. I feel like all of them care about us and they want us to succeed and see us happy. What else? Oh! I'll miss working in the kitchen. I really enjoyed working alongside my cohort and also other students from different cohorts. And I'll miss the farm, working with Jin Rou Shih and Heng Liang Shih. And the delicious lunch. Yeah. And also my dorm mates. There's more! There's a lot more!
You said you'll miss the laughter at lunchtime. Could you tell us more about what makes lunch memorable?
Oh, I wasn't expecting that question. I have window duty, so usually I would get lunch, and I would do my duty. So I don't always have lunch in the courtyard. But when I do have lunch there, it's really nice to see everyone having conversations. Sometimes I would go into the woods to have lunch and I would just hear people laughing. It's just a very relaxing and chill time for the whole community to get together.
Maybe tell us more about your plan or intention after DRBU?
Oh, yes! I want to take a break before I start working. I intend to participate in a two-month online certificate program in Buddhist philosophy by Tibet House, and this program is modeled after Nalanda University in India. I'm looking forward to it. I'm not sure if they actually have the program in India, but I just heard about it through a friend who's also going to participate with me. And then after the program, I will start working. I don't have a specific job in mind right now. But I'm open to whatever comes whenever. Yeah, I'm just gonna let things arise on their own. I have no expectations for... Just let things pop up, and anything and everything is possible.
That prompted two questions. First, after studying at DRBU for these years, what subject interests you the most?
Sanskrit! When you asked that question, Sanskrit just came to mind. I didn't enjoy Sanskrit in the beginning. But as time went on, you know, I put in all this effort, I started to really, really enjoy learning this language, because I was able to read the sutras in its original language. So when we read a sutra, we're reading someone else's translation of it. So when I'm reading, in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking about what the original word was for this. And why the author chose to translate this word in this particular way. So sometimes when I read a sutra, it doesn't make sense to me. I want to explore it further. In order to gain an understanding, I feel like I need to know the original texts. So yeah, I feel Sanskrit just opens up a lot of doors and it is a difficult language, but I do enjoy the challenge.
What's the other subject that you are interested in?
Yeah. I have a few from this semester. But I'll just name one. The Avataṃsaka class. It just makes me feel so joyful when I read the sutra because each time I read it, there were so many layers on top of layers that I couldn’t even comprehend what it was saying. I had to put myself in a different universe. In a way, it was really expanding my mind. It reminded me that there's so much out there that I'm not able to perceive or even understand. And then it reminded me to just let go of all my understanding, all of my knowledge that I have learned and carried with me. So just suspend that for a moment and open yourself to this new world.
This leads to the next question: Will your interested subjects influence your decision or your intention in exploring your livelihood?
I have a passion for coffee. And I do intend to open a business, a coffee shop. But not at this moment. So that's, I guess, a dream of mine. And I just want to take baby steps to reach that dream.
That's interesting. You are really interested in Sanskrit and Avatamsaka and you want to open a coffee shop! How do you connect them? There must be some connection there.
(laugh) I don't know what to say. Maybe there is a connection. I don't see it. I don't see the connection yet, right now. Maybe... I think as I drink coffee while studying Sanskrit. I need a lot of coffee to study Sanskrit. Maybe that's the connection.
Maybe you can tell us why you want to open a coffee shop. There must be something about a coffee shop that really feeds you. What is that?
Okay, I just like having a really good cup of coffee. You're able to slow down and just reflect. Like I said, you know, I'm fueled by coffee. I feel energized; coffee energizes me. And then similarly, when I study Sanskrit, it also gives me that same, not the same energy, but that sort of, you know, excitement to just carry out your day. It's just a very good feeling when I have a cup of coffee, and I guess that's the connection: Having a good cup of coffee and studying Sanskrit... that's what makes me happy.
You said coffee energizes you and also slows you down. Could you say more about how these two go together?
Well, in terms of non-duality. (laugh) I guess, when you're drinking coffee, you're... For me, I have to take in all the flavor, the smell, the taste, and the texture of the cup... And also just making coffee! There's a coffee ritual that I have, which is to grind beans, make water... It's just a very slow process, a very enjoyable process. And then it feels really rewarding when all of that work involves making a coffee and you're able to enjoy it. I think Sanskrit is similar to that. It takes a lot of effort and that slow process of learning a new language…you're able to enjoy it when you're able to read the sūtra in Sanskrit. It's just a very, very energizing feeling.
It sounds like when you do your coffee ritual, you're naturally mindful, and it brings you joy! I can’t help envisioning a Sanskrit seminar being hosted in a coffee shop. (laugh) It brought a lot of joy when listening to you. The last question: What are you grateful for?
My family, my friends. [I'm] grateful for nature, trees, a blue sky, clean water, food on the table, a roof over my head. I'm grateful for the support from this community. Oh, there are so many things. There's a lot to be grateful for. Just being in this body and breathing in fresh air. One of the things that I've been practicing is just being grateful every day for just this very moment. Like this now that's here, and this present moment. I guess just this present moment is enough.
Lisa Liang and Brianna K. Morseth. Aesthetic Emotions: The Existential and Soteriological Value of Saṃvega/Pasāda in Early Buddhism. Journal of Buddhist Ethics. ISSN 1076-9005. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics. Volume 28, 2021