An Interview with Phoenix Winters (BA’23)
Did your parents really name you Phoenix?
I was not named Phoenix. No. And I'm going to go ahead and not say what my birth name is because it actually makes me pretty uncomfortable. But I will say that I was named after a Norse goddess. I've been going by Phoenix… I picked this name in 2017. So approaching five years. It took me a little time to get there to pick one. But eventually, I settled on Phoenix, and I think I'm gonna stick with Phoenix.
So you picked your name.
I picked my name, yes. Which some people might see as a really petulant and ungrateful thing. Like, your parents gave you your name, why would you ever get rid of it? But names carry weight, they carry burdens and implications, sometimes in certain communities. And, I mean, I'll just say it, they carry a gender implication. My birth name was very gendered, it was very feminine. I spent some time hunting for a really masculine sounding name. And for a while I actually went by Daniel, even though I didn't particularly like the name, just because I thought that no one could ever mistake Daniel for a girl. I was like, if I put Daniel on things, then people will know. Then I signed something with Daniel and a lady looked at it, and went, "Danielle." I said, okay, okay, I'm done. I'm done with trying to gender myself, I'm just gonna pick a totally neutral name. So I picked Phoenix. And that's actually been a pretty safe choice for me. Because whether it's safe for people to know I'm a guy or whether I have to be in the closet and pretend to be a girl to someone. Phoenix is a gender neutral name. So there's no expectations either way. And it carries a lot of meaning for me now, which it didn't have when I picked it. So I've grown… I'm gonna say the bad Buddhist thing—I've grown attached to it! Darn. [laugh]
So now you feel connected to the name "Phoenix."
Very much so. Very, very much so. You probably know that I've been through a couple of house fires. I picked Phoenix as my name about two months before the first one. Total coincidence. My birthday is in August, and that house fire happened in October. So it was around August, I said, "Hey, it's my birthday month, just letting people know I'm changing my name again. It's Phoenix now." Then a couple months later, our house burns. I was living with my boyfriend and his family at the time. His mother was the one driving us out of the property while everything was aflame. As we're driving out, she looks behind her shoulder at me and says, "We really need some of that Phoenix energy right now." [laugh] I said, "I'm working on it!" And well, we made it through, and I made it through the second house fire too. So you know, it's become a bit literal.
For the readers' sake, please tell us more about the myth of "phoenix rising up from the ashes."
I grew up in a Neopagan community, which is a whole branch of religion, but it's basically people trying to reconstruct dead religions from centuries ago that nobody really adheres to anymore. And not necessarily trying to reconstruct them perfectly, but trying to reawaken the old gods and the old traditions and mix them together and make them work for modern life. And ancient Greek culture is one such source that Neopagans often pull from. So I grew up with a lot of knowledge of ancient Greek myths and monsters in the like, and a phoenix, at least in Greek mythology, is an example of—not a monster so much as a mythical creature. I feel like Monster carries a negative connotation, although it had a more complex meaning in the old Greek. A phoenix isn't an aggressive creature. The myth behind a phoenix is that there's only one, and it's a sexless bird that reproduces alone. And it lives for a very, very long time. It lives for centuries, and when it is time for it to die, it builds a nest out of sweet smelling herbs and lays one egg in it. And then it sits on the egg and waits for the sun to rise. And when the sun rises, the light catches on the phoenix's beautiful metallic feathers and the whole bird bursts into flames. The warmth incubates the egg, and the parent’s warm ashes fall around the egg, and over time, the egg hatches, and the new phoenix is born. So it's a pretty straightforward metaphor for rebirth, for knowing when it's time for something to end and something new to happen. There's also an element of self-reliance in it to me. And also the fact that the bird is literally sexless. It's genderless. So that also lends to Phoenix, the name, being a genderless name, and it was used as a name in ancient Greece too. I was actually really excited when I was reading some of the Greek classics last year and it popped up in reference to, I think, Socrates. I think Socrates had a student named Phoenix and I was like, "Hey, look, it's me!" [laughs].
So at the time that I picked it, like I said, I hadn't been through the fires yet. So it wasn't for that reason. It was more of an abstract sense of wanting, wanting a sexless name, wanting a non-Christian name, because Daniel is Christian. And I was tired of having a Christian name, and of wanting something to hold on to as a sense of who I was. Because I was like, 19? 20? I might have been 20. I was pretty young when I picked the name. At that age, you don't know who you are, you don't know anything about who you are. And I was okay with that to some degree. I've got a whole lifetime ahead of me, I'll figure out who I am. But I wanted something to hold on to. And I was like, Okay, well, no matter no matter how many times a phoenix burns, it always comes back. So if I'm Phoenix, and that means whatever happens to me, I'll come back from it. I won't just die. There will always be the next cycle.
Given how you named yourself, I'm curious to know your relationship to death.
I'm glad you asked! [laugh] I am very comfortable with the concept of death. And I do think about death a lot. I was introduced to death at an extremely young age. My older brother, who was about three years older than me—he was five when he died. I was two years old. So when I was learning how to talk and walk, my brother died. It was an accident. He drowned. It was nobody's fault. It just kind of happened. But obviously, it was extremely tragic, massively, massively impacted my parents. And for me, it meant that I had to learn what death was at a really young age, because my parents didn't want to lie to me. And I was talking, I was intelligent enough to understand that my brother hadn't been home in a long time. Where was he? I don't remember this time in my life, I'm basing this off of my parents' stories. But I think at one point, I actually asked when he was going to wake up, which is pretty dark. So my parents had to explain to me what death was in a very gentle and kind way. From what they've told me, they used things like dead bugs and dead flowers to show me what death was, and that it's an ending; it's over; it means that the thing that was alive isn't really there anymore, so on and so forth. And so, having known what death was at such a young age, I didn't know it at the time, but I think that it impacted the way I saw the world, a lot, in a very particular way. When I tell people that I lost a brother, then they'll often express their sympathies towards that. They'll be like, "I'm sorry that your brother, this person you cared about, is dead." And yes, I did love my brother. I was sad that he was gone. I do mourn in the relationship we never got to have. But we never really got to have it. I was two. I was cognizant of very, very little at that age. And you know, it was less of a loss of an existing relationship and more of a loss of an opportunity for a relationship. I could have had a brother, and I didn't really. It's different for my parents, of course. They had a son for five years and then lost him. And that's a huge deal. But I often feel that they deserve more of that, like,"I'm sorry for this person you lost" sympathy than I do. Because to me, it's more of a loss of an opportunity than a relationship. But what did really impact me was the intimate, immediate understanding and knowledge of what death was, and that it can touch anyone at any time, including you, including people you deeply care about. Which is probably why I'm really drawn to morbid topics, and artwork, and fashion and music and philosophical discussions and books. I was always a bit of a creepy kid. And it only got worse, one could say, as I became a teenager. And then by the time I got here, I remember, on my first day here, [the comment by] my cohort mate who's way more experienced with Buddhism than I am. I commented on this interest of mine in death and philosophy around death, and how religions handled death. And he was like, "Oh, well, you're in the right place. Buddhism is known as the most depressing religion in the East." I was like, "Really! Okay." I don't know if I'd agree with him. But I'd agree that Buddhism thinks about these sorts of things a lot. And for that, I appreciate the education I'm getting here on those matters.
Do you feel the education here has given you further insights on death?
To some degree, yeah. Like I said, I grew up in a Neopagan community. It meant that I knew a fair bit about Western, for lack of a better word, religion. I really didn't know anything about Eastern religion. So I came here because I heard, "Oh, they teach about Buddhism; they teach about Hinduism. That's cool. I don't know anything about that stuff. I want to broaden my horizons.” It has made me think about death in a lot of ways that I didn't before, which I really appreciate. It's one of those endless topics that you could just devote your whole lifetime to thinking about and studying, and you'll never reach the end. For example, last year, was it last year? No, it was the end of my first year. Time gets blurry in pandemic time. At the end of my first year, my second strand paper was an examination of death, using Zhuangzi, tied to the pandemic, because the pandemic had just started. And we were just seeing the massive amounts of deaths that were happening. The numbers were just coming in... It's especially bad if you're really old or sick, but anybody could die. And if you do, it's a really horrible, uncomfortable death. It got me thinking about the act of dying more than I'd ever really thought about it. Because I thought about death, about what happens afterward, about what happens when you lose someone or or what might happen to you after it happens to you, but the act of actually knowing you are going to die. And knowing it in a slow sense, you know, you're not dying this minute, but you're pretty sick, and you might die within the week. I hadn't really thought about that before. And so my paper wasn't just about that. It also dealt with the grief of losing loved ones and responses to mass death and that kind of thing. But I did end up thinking about and writing about dying and how to process that. And I won't pretend like I came to some grand conclusion because I didn't. I think a lot of it I ended up kind of admitting to myself that, maybe I'm not scared of death, but I think I am scared of dying. Especially in that way. I'm a relatively healthy person. But there have been a couple of circumstances where I've been bedridden and really sick. I had strep throat once really, really badly, couldn't leave my bed but also couldn't sleep. I was coughing too hard to sleep. And that was utter misery. And I've also had chronic migraines since I was a child, and if they're unmedicated, they are so bad that absolutely any sensory input feels like torture, and I just end up lying in the dark, curled up like a fetus holding my ears and whimpering because it's just too much pain. And it's like, wow, you know, like that strep throat lasted maybe three days in its worst condition. And my migraines, yeah, they're terrible, but I have medication for them now. And even if I don't, they last maybe five to seven hours tops, you know. Both of those experiences are terrible and painful, but they end. And I know they're going to end. To be in a state that is uncomfortable with the knowledge of, "it's not really ever going to get better. I'm just going to die at some point," that's a really big thing. And I didn't realize it was a fear I really had until I had to write that paper. And I sort of appreciate that I discovered it, because fear is another thing that I try not to shy away from. I think that "it scares me, therefore I avoid it" is not the healthiest way to approach some things, especially existential fears, like the fear of death and dying. So I'd say that's one thing in terms of my education here, and my philosophical relationship to death is that... It's because I'm here that I wrote that paper. And I think that paper had a big impact on me as a person. So did the Zhaungzi that I wrote on. I mean, I have a piece of it tattooed on my arm. So there you go.
A tattoo of Zhuangzi's name?
Not his name. [shows the tattoo]
"Wu yong zhi yong" (無用之用）
Yeah! This wasn't one of the stories that I pulled from for my essay. But this is from the story of the rich man and the tree. He sees a big twisted tree and says, "Oh, it's useless.” It can never be useful for anything because he can't make good lumber out of it. And then that night, he dreams that the tree speaks to him in the form of an old man and it says, "If I had been useful, do you think I would have lived this long?" "Wu yong zhi yong," the usefulness of uselessness. That was one of the more uplifting sentiments I got from reading the Zhuangzi. Because at the time, I didn't really know why it spoke to me so much. I just liked that so much, I wanted it as a tattoo. And it stayed in my head for a year. My general rule is, if I want a tattoo for a year, then it's a good tattoo design. Having gotten it, every time people see it, and every time I explain it to people, they have a new understanding of it that I didn't have before. And it's wonderful! Because I can never regret getting this tattoo because I introduced the philosophical concept to somebody else. It takes them somewhere. And I learned from them. It's wonderful. I mean, I showed this to Sanju, who hadn't read the Zhuangzi, and her immediate first thought was liberal arts degree because a lot of people outside of the profession see it as a useless degree and think that people shouldn't study it. And it's like, yeah, yeah, you're right, people did tell me that this degree would be useless. And I shouldn't go here. And yet I'm here, and I'm getting a lot of utility out of it. Like, there you go! "Wu yong zhi yong!"
What's your new understanding, or your layered understanding, of "wu yong zhi yong" now?
Oh, I've got a lot of bits and pieces to it. There's a bit of an anti-capitalist sentiment in it for me, because I grew up here in America, in late-stage capitalism. I have a bit of that baked into the American semi-Christianized work ethic of like, you need to work as hard as possible all the time, you need to be working full hours, or it's not enough, you know. Like, if you waste company time, then that's bad. You need to grovel at your boss's feet if you want a raise or any special treatment, how dare you take days off because you're sick or whatever, you know, yada, yada. I try not to, but growing up in a culture [like] that, [it] ends up in your soul, a little bit. So to some degree, there's a bit of permission to be useless, permission that I don't have to be useful to the capitalist machine, which is literally destroying our planet.
There's that side of it that Sanju pointed out to me. There's a level of not letting other people use me up, which was kind of what I got from the very first time I read the story. The story is about a tree, but the tree talks as an old man, which led me to think about the actual old men that I know—and old women too—and what seems to have prolonged their happiness, the ones that are happy at least. And it seems to be a lot of the time it was people who didn't allow themselves to be used up by others, who took care of their own and were kind and all that, but didn't become doormats. Didn't enslave themselves to a family or to a religion or to some other force that could, you know, wear them out before their time. And also, a lot of them just ended up not caring so much about literal littler things, like caring what people think about them, about how they dress, or about how they speak, or how they choose to live their lives, you know, a little bit of the “people are going to judge me, who cares” kind of attitude, because that wears you out, too! If you spend all of your time worrying about what other people think about you, especially because the fact is not a lot of other people think too hard about you. Like, I've got an anxiety disorder. And I was talking to somebody once about it. And I said, “It's so hard for me; I'm constantly worried about other people, what other people think about how I look and how I act and what I say like it's a constant weight on my mind, I don't even know how I'm supposed to live like this.” And they said, "You know, I mean this in a good way, but you're not that big a deal." I'm just like, "Right! You're right! I'm not that big a deal." So it's like I'm a little useless. And that's okay.
The usefulness of being useless… So those are just a few facets of it. And I know, I'm only going to discover more, as time goes on, and I look forward to it. That's a good thing about a really good classic or a really good moral is that, sure, you can read it once and say, "Oh, I know what this is about." But then you can also think about it for the next ten years and realize every single year that, oh, nope, there's another meaning. Another one. And another one.
"Wu Yong Zhi Yong" seems to be an ongoing inquiry for the true meaning of life.
Exactly. What does it mean to be useful? What does it mean to be useless? What actually is the usefulness of uselessness? What does any of that mean, on a personal level? On a community level? On a species level? You can constantly keep asking questions about it.
Wonderful. So how do you feel about your existence now?
How do I feel about my existence now? I think in some ways, I'm a lot more at ease with my own existence than I was. Still have some issues, of course, but who doesn't? And some of that is absolutely DRBU. Some of it is other things, but some of it definitely is DRBU. [pause] I mean, part of it is my anxiety disorder. I think that between DRBU and some therapy that I've been doing, I feel like I have better tools with how to manage it now, a better grasp of myself in relation to other people. Because one part about going here, and especially about studying the Buddhist classics, is that there's so much discussion of the scale of things, interactions and relationships between people. And whether you're looking at that on the grand scale of millennia, millennia of reincarnations, or just at the scope of an entire lifetime, it makes you realize both how much power and how little power something like a single social exchange can have. And putting all of that into perspective can be wonderful for social anxiety. Like, I got interviewed during my first year here, and there's some videos of it up on YouTube, and you might not be able to tell if you don't know me very well, but I can tell from watching those videos that I am extremely anxious the whole time. I'm smiling and laughing and joking, but I can hear the tremor in my voice, I can see the way my hands are shaking. I'm fussing with my hair constantly. I was really nervous that day to be in front of that camera answering those questions. And part of that was my anxiety being triggered. And right now, during this interview, I really don't feel that. I mean, maybe part of that is because we're not in front of a camera. But I also know that you're going to show this to other people and I'm aware that other people will see this, and yet I'm okay with it. And I'm not paranoid that I'll say the wrong thing or that you're personally judging me for my answers or something like that. And it's partially because I can put this interaction I'm having into the broader perspective of the week, the year of my life, and not worry about it so much. It doesn't feel so life-and-death now. Even if I start to feel a little bit of an anxiety response, I can say, "It's okay. Don't worry.” Anxiety forms partially a protective response to warn you that if you do something wrong, then other people might hurt you, or something like that. And I was bullied as a kid. So that's part of where it comes from. But it's like, okay, you know, I appreciate that it's there, and that it's trying to warn me, but I really know that I don't need to be warned right now. It's okay. It can calm down. And that's on the more therapeutic side of things, learning to treat things like your anxiety or your trauma as like a piece of you and be gentle with it as you should be with any part of yourself. How did you frame it? My existence?
Actually, it could be how you feel about yourself now.
It's a little hard to say. I'm more confident than I used to be. But in a sort of a relaxed way. I used to be confident in a really kind of spiny, aggressive way, especially as a teenager. You've probably noticed that I wear a lot of black and I dress a little unusually. Alternative. Nowadays, I just do that because I genuinely like it, and it makes me feel good. But when I was a kid, it was very much a defense mechanism. I wanted to be scary. It was a bit of the brightly colored viper, you know. And that's not real confidence. It's a distraction. It's an illusion, maybe if they think I'm scary, because I wear spiked chokers and black lipstick, then they won't notice that I'm actually really terrified that they're gonna bully me, you know.
I have a lot less of that now. Because I feel like I know myself better. This program is so good for getting you to get to know yourself. When I was on my first day here, they passed around a microphone and asked everybody to say why they were here. And I didn't have a planned answer. I didn't know I was going to be asked that. When the microphone got to me, I just said, "I am here to figure out who I want to be and how I'm going to get there." And then everybody actually paused and was like, "Oh, that's a really good answer." And I was like, "It is?" But it became true. I feel like I know myself a lot better now; I feel like I have a much better sense of what I want to do with my life. And I feel like I'm starting to formulate a track of how to get there. And that feels so good to have that sense of... Stability is the wrong word. Because part of what I pride myself in is my flexibility and adaptability. So it's more like confidence.
To use a Buddhist term, nondual, stability and flexibility are nondual. Because if you don't have a stable ground, you cannot be flexible somehow.
Yeah, that's true.
Something centers you so that you can be free.
Centered! That's another great word for it. I feel a lot more centered. Not perfectly, but a lot more than I was before I came here. Yeah.
Every morning when you wake up, what's your feeling tone?
What's my feeling tone every morning when I wake up? Well, I'm someone who loves sleep. I love beds. I love pillows. I love blankets. I love being comfortable. So usually, when I wake up, it's due to my alarm and usually my feeling is: No!!!! Because I would like to go back to sleep, and sometimes I do, and then I miss out on yoga with Quinn. And then I feel bad. Because we're supposed to do that every morning.
But are you still glad to wake up?
I'm glad to wake up. And I'm glad to have to feel like I have things that I'm going to do that feel worthwhile. I mean, on top of the anxiety, I've also suffered a fair bit of depression in my life. Depression does this thing where it just saps your willpower to do anything. It doesn't matter how fun or important or interesting the activity is, you just don't want to do it. It's not stimulating anymore. I remember what that was like to spend six hours of the day laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and just wondering if there was anything worth doing in life ever. Because nothing was interesting. Now it's like, okay, I don't want to be awake at six necessarily, because my beds are really comfy. But I get to go do yoga with Quinn, and then I get to go have breakfast. And then I have Buddhist classics today! And we're reading the Shurangama. I really like the Shurangama. That's going to be fun. So by the time I'm actually awake, I feel… I really want to find a good word for it. But I'm not finding one. "Driven" feels a little too aggressive.
Contentment, maybe. Contentment, but not like a settled contentment, like a contentment where I'm aware of where I am and what I need to do. And I'm good with that. Like, "Okay, this is what my day is going to look like. Excellent. Let's do it." That kind of feeling.
That's a pretty good feeling.
It's a pretty good feeling. It's a really good feeling, if I'm being honest.
I'm sure a lot of people, especially during the pandemic, wish to have that kind of feeling.
Yeah. I didn't have it nearly so much during my year online. I mean, I know that everybody was doing the best they could with the year online, and I'm glad that I stuck around with it. But yeah, the online classes felt a lot less like this kind of nice contentment and a lot more like, "Oh, God, I've got to pretend to be a functional human being for four hours out of the day again because I have classes. Okay, thank goodness! Classes are over.” Close the laptop. Go... I'm just going to be honest. I'm not Buddhist, so I don't hold the precepts. I would go drink. There was a fair bit of like: “It's Friday. Classes are over. I can get drunk”. Which is not the best way to cope. But, you know, everybody was doing what they had to do in those days, right?
What did you miss when DRBU was online?
I'm gonna put this in full perspective for the sake of the readers. The pandemic year was extra hard on me because almost as soon as that school year had started, which was my second year here, my second house fire happened. So I was dealing with school online, everything that the pandemic entails, and my house just burned down. So it was sort of an extra layer of everything going wrong. I missed the dorms. They're really good at making the dorms feel like home here, and I missed that. Because I was basically just bunking in my friend's extra bedroom, and it didn't feel like mine. My friend was lovely, she was exactly who I needed at the time. And I'm very, very grateful to her. But it was still the sensation of sleeping in the back of someone's car, like “This isn't my place.” I missed being able to see my classmates face to face. I missed being able to cross people in the hallways. I didn't get to meet a lot of the new people that year because I was not in a place where I could take on any extracurricular activities or responsibilities. So I wasn't logging online for anything except for classes. I wasn't going to extra lectures. I wasn't attending online parties or meetings. I didn't even know what people were doing.
So yeah, I missed the social aspect. I just missed the environment. This is a beautiful campus, and beautiful in a way that other beautiful college campuses aren't. Because I've been to a few. There is something very nice about a wonderfully manicured, upper class, perfectly maintained college campus. I do appreciate those. But, I mean, like I said, I grew up in the Californian Neopagan hippie community. I'm used to being out in the woods, being on the edge of the forest, having animals running around places, the buildings being a little less state of the art and a little more old but cared for. I really missed the campus. I need to go on more walks here.
What feeds you when you take a walk?
Good question. I've been going on walks and hikes pretty much my whole life. I grew up on 40 acres of wooded property, so hikes and walks in nature were my childhood. And so there's a nostalgic element to it for me of feeling like I'm a kid again. There's a sense of... Escapism is the wrong word. Returning, maybe. Because escapism implies that I'm leaving a place that I should be to go somewhere else. As much as I love academia, school, and all that, highly structured life like this is not natural to human beings, if you ask me. We're animals. Animals don't do this except for us. So getting to go on a walk, going back to nature, is going back for me to the animal side of myself and the part of me that does not need stimulating conversation or complicated books or artistic endeavors or delicious food or alcohol or music or anything. It's like no. I really just need warm sunshine and soft grass and to see a couple of birds fight it out and just exist in the world as it is as I am. There's absolutely an element of returning to nature and that for me I find, to use your word, very grounding, which is why I need to do it more, probably. Yeah. [pause] It's not to use a loaded word. For me, there's an element of homecoming to it for me. You'll know how big that word is for me since you heard my whole thing during CEI (Contemplative Exercises Immersion), right? About going home.
Yes, could you share your CEI reflections again?
Sure. I'll give a little bit of context. So our last CEI was a bowing CEI. We did in-place bowing. And we also did three-steps-one-bow, where we walked in circles, taking three steps and bowing after every third step. There was a series of things we were supposed to recite in our heads during this bowing. I tried to initially, but the sort of script I've been given ended up fading away. And I actually don't remember most of it now, because what it got replaced with very early on in the first day was just the three phrases: "Thank you; I'm sorry; I'm coming home." I am a person who sort of struggles to feel at home these days. Partially because of the fires, I mean, losing houses twice will give you a very ephemeral sense of a physical home. Because it's like, "Oh, it could go up at any time." Right? And the second one was my childhood home. It was that house out in the middle of the woods. So it's like, "Wow, even my childhood doesn't stay, even that can just vanish." I expressed this feeling to other people, and they've given me their own answers for what they consider to be home. And they'd say things like, "Oh, you know, home can be other people, your partners, your friends” or they’d say, "Your school is still there. And you're going back to it. Can you consider your school a type of home?” Or “How about your body? How about yourself?” That kind of thing. And none of it was helping. It was like an ache that I felt. And hearing those suggestions often made me feel like the people I was talking to didn't even understand what I was saying. It's like, if you understood what I was trying to express to you, you would know that none of those are the right answer. But, of course, no one can read my mind, nor can know me as well as I know me. So it was really bizarre to have that feeling of "Thank you; I'm sorry; I'm coming home" rise in me during that CEI. I don't have a solid realization for what any of the statements mean, who exactly I was thanking, who exactly I was apologizing to, what exactly I was coming home to. But it certainly did things to my mind, to myself, to my soul, or my spirit, if you want to go there. In some ways, it kind of settled the ache of homesickness a little bit because it was like, okay, maybe I still don't know where home is, but something in me knows I'm going there. Something in me has come up with that phrase, "I'm coming home." And that, you know, words like those arise in you because things like, whatever you want to call it, your subconscious, your true mind, your guardian angel, whatever your preferred format of understanding is, something in you knows that to be true, and that's why it's coming up, right? So, I don't know where home is. But something in me knows that I'm coming home. So that's good! I'm on the right track. And being on the right track feels great!
DRBU is a university where students not only study in class, but also do community work through their service scholarships. How do you feel about the 13 hours a week of community work?
I love the service scholarship programs so much. One of my biggest fears starting college was going into debt. Actually, an old teacher of mine whom I respected very much once said to my whole class, "If you've never listened to anything else that I teach you ever, listen to this: 'Don't go into student debt!'" I said, "Yes, sir!" I took that seriously. So hearing that there was a college that would allow me to work off some of my tuition, it was like, "How perfect!" I won't go into debt. And in turn, I can satisfy that little part of myself that doesn't just want to take and take, not give anything in return. This school is going to take care of me; I can take care of this school in return. That's awesome!
I see it as a teaching experience, especially for younger students. There is an unfortunate lack of like... In American cultures especially, young people aren't often taught to be responsible for themselves. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way. It's just like we're not taught to clean up after ourselves [or] to do our chores. My parents are better at it than some, but I know people my own age who don't know how to work a washing machine because they were just never taught. So having the students do janitorial work, do gardening work, or work on the farm that kind of thing, I think, is really great at both teaching the hands-on skills and understanding the importance of upkeep and of... if you're living in a community space, how that can affect that kind of things so on and so forth. And on top of it all, I think that the service scholarship has led me down my career path because most of the work that I do is in the library. I work as a librarian here. I love it! It's so fulfilling! It's so wonderful! It's the perfect balance, intellectually engaging while not being overly taxing. It's excellent! And I'm actually planning on getting a master's in Library Science once I get my BA here because I want to become a librarian or an archivist. So I never would have even thought to go down that path If I hadn't had to work for a service scholarship and they asked me, "Do you want to try the library?” So it's like, thank you, DRBU, for opening this entire side of myself that I didn't know I had, entirely because "Hey, we need someone to scan the books. Can you do it for us?" So yeah! I love the service scholarship. I think it's an excellent element of life here.
You also do recycling as part of your service scholarship. Some people don't want to do recycling work sorting through things. How do you feel about it?
My background might have helped me a little bit here because I've never been afraid of second-hand things. I've never been afraid of dirt or used things. I've always been taught that if there's still use in something, get use out of it. And also, the house that I grew up in, we didn't have a garbage bin. We had to pack out all of our own trash to the city dump. We were also off the grid, no electricity. We had a generator. Of course, we had to manage our own trash and recycling. To me, not having to is a luxury that I'm not used to. So I don't mind it so much. And the recycling center is also where people dump perfectly useful things that are just kind of up for grabs. So if you need a new trash can or sometimes people leave books there, baskets, pottery, mugs, vases, paper, like clothes sometimes. Or they think it's broken, and it's really not. That happens sometimes. Or whatever. So it's like, yeah, I take care of the community's trash and sort through the recycling, but also, I get freebies out of it.
DRBU’s general rules are guided by the Five Precepts. What's your take on that?
I haven't taken the Five Precepts. The Five Precepts have influenced the school rules, which is interesting to me. It was a part of it that I went back and forth on signing up. I'm not someone who avoids meat or alcohol in my everyday life, but I have no moral qualms with giving those things up when I'm in a community that doesn't want to see me consuming them. I'm not going to be like, "You're disrespecting my freedom by telling me that I can't eat steak in front of you!” or something. No. Be nice. The “No Killing” rule is one that I don't really think about too hard. I'm not a vicious person who's inclined to kill animals anyway. I'll swat a mosquito if I'm not on campus. But being on campus, it's not so hard to think, "Alright. I'm not supposed to hit the fly. Just open the window and let it go.” Actually, during my first year, no one in the dorm wanted to deal with the spider. There were spiders in the dorm. So I ended up being the one to take bugs out. They’d say, "Get Phoenix! He is not bothered by bugs."
So the priority here is to protect life.
Yes! Yes! So the "No Kill" rule is "Do not kill anything on campus,” whether that be hunters aren't allowed on the property; people aren't allowed to come and shoot deer here; right down to, if you see a fly, you are not supposed to swat it. It's a whole scale of things. I know for some people that's like a deeply spiritual thing about respecting life and all that. I carry a little more of... I don't know if there's an official term for it. I carry the view of, "I am aware that I'm an animal, and I'm aware of where I am on the animal food chain.” I don't feel bad about acting like the animal I am. I don't feel that a tiger should feel bad for eating an antelope. And I don't feel bad as a human for stepping on an ant. I just don't. But, abiding by the rules for the sake of the community is not hard for me. It's not something that I'm bothered by that I complain about. It does mean that I have observed some really interesting social interactions and relationships that other people have towards life and animals. So it's an interesting opportunity to learn about how other people live.
I think that's kind of what it comes down to when it comes to the rules being informed by the Five Precepts as someone who does not take the precepts myself. To someone who does, I'm sure it's a very reassuring sort of safe space because it's like, "Okay, I can be sure that everyone here is abiding by the same rules I do.” I think that's a really good thing. I think people who have lifestyles like that should have spaces where they can be accommodated. As someone who's kind of an outsider to the lifestyle, for me, it's a learning opportunity. For four years, I'm going to live how these people live and see how that affects me and how it makes me feel; listen to their reasons for it; understand how their community works. And that's a wonderful learning opportunity. I think that there's a lot of misunderstandings and lots of learning happens when people from different backgrounds in different cultures intermingle without actually learning from each other. If an American goes to a foreign country, but spends their whole time seeking out American restaurants, like McDonald’s, and never eating the foreign food, it's like, you might as well just stay in America, you didn't learn anything. You know? To me, it is a little like staying in a foreign country, acknowledging like this is how they do things here. So when in Rome.
Last question: What are you grateful for?
I'm grateful for a lot of things. Related to school or in life in general?
Life in general.
I'm grateful to my friends for sticking with me through some positively terrible times in my life; I'm grateful to the various medical professionals who see to my needs and listen to my problems and help me understand my mind and my body better than I did before. I'm grateful to Master Hua and his disciples for starting this place.
I'm so grateful to my cohort. I love my cohort so much. I love my classmates. I think that if you can get a good cohort dynamic going here, it will be one of the most rewarding aspects of being in school here. So I'm grateful to all of them, both the ones that are still here and the ones that chose to leave us. I'm grateful to my teachers. I've got a lot to be grateful for. I'm a fortunate person. I've faced a lot of misfortune in my life, but I've also gotten a lot to be grateful for. And I'm really really grateful for that. [laughs] I'm grateful for this interview!
It’s inspiring and moving to hear you who lost two houses saying how fortunate you are. Thank you!