Author  DRBU Staff

Bachelor’s student Sehen Gamhewa, Class of ‘25, recently attended the Association for Core Texts and Courses’ (ACTC’s) Annual Conference for Undergraduate Students, hosted this year at American University in Washington, DC. The ACTC called for submissions relating to the question, “Does technology change human nature?” We sat down with Sehen to ask him about the conference.

What made you want to apply for the conference?

It seemed really cool. It was Great Books themed, and the premise was interesting, I was like, “That sounds really cool, I want to try it out.” With programs like that, I’ve gone to a couple before, different kinds, programs or camps that were meant to be a place where you exchange and learn things, and I always have a very good experience of interacting and learning something new, both with others and with myself, so I decided to give it a shot.

When you submitted your paper, did you think that you would get in?

I wasn’t 100% confident, but I was around 50% confident. I really tried, and I spent a lot of time working on it. I spent my whole winter break working on it. Not super intensively, but there was a fair amount of time dedicated throughout my winter break just kind of sitting with it, thinking about it and reflecting, and then spending time writing and editing. I called Doug once and I sort of checked on the concepts with him and he seemed to really approve of the message I was giving out. And then Franklyn and Meghan were kind of helping me with the finer tuning. So I felt like I had a pretty good supportive ground for the paper to happen, and that led to a pretty stable amount of confidence.

And what is your paper about?

It’s titled “Technology as a Transformation of Reality.” And the idea is that reality as people normally experience and perceive and think about it is already a transformation. It’s a technological transformation of our undivided experience of life. This is based on two texts. One, Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, and the other, the Lankavatara Sutra. Both of them are sort of pointing at the same thing: that fundamentally we experience, but then we condition the experience and start to relate to it and think of it as what we now understand to be life in a linear, progressive, ‘get born, grow old, and die’ sense. But that’s not actually what the true essence of life is, and that takes a lot of personal exploration to experience.

What were your impressions of the conference?

The conference was really nice. I don’t know, maybe I was in a really good mood. Or maybe the two years of meditating over here have changed me fundamentally. I can’t really tell, but I had a really good time. It was really refreshing to see a bunch of people my age that were just really nerdy and really excited about books and concepts and words. I started talking to people to sort of facilitate conversation. My aim wasn’t to get something out of them. My aim was kind of like, “Hey, let’s start a conversation so everyone feels like they belong and they’re connecting.” And just the people that showed up were quite fascinating. I think I was pretty much the only person that had an Eastern text reference. Everyone else was super Western—a lot of great stuff, a lot of more modern stuff. I had a guy come up after my presentation and ask me, “Hey, I’m really interested in some of these Eastern texts and the stuff you’re talking about. Can you give me recommendations?”

Would you do it again?

Yeah, totally. I mean, I loved it. It was so fun. It was really fresh energy. It was just people that were trying to explore and push the boundaries of what they were reading about, and wanted to be themselves but also wanted to connect with something bigger than themselves.

What advice would you give a DRBU student who wanted to go?

Be really confident in yourself, but also be really open to learning. Don’t look down on yourself, but also be open to learning more, connecting more, and experiencing something.

Bachelor’s student Bach Nguyen, Class of ‘26, also participated in a conference recently: the Dhammasākacchā International Level Students’ Conference, hosted by the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies at Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) in Pune, India. The conference called for papers on “Buddhist Literature: Prospects and Challenges.” We caught up with Bach, who presented his paper over Zoom, to hear about his experience.

What made you want to apply for the conference?

Lauren sent it out to the students. The organization of the conference is where she is right now. I wanted to join the conference firstly because I really like public speaking, and it was an amazing chance to have an opportunity to speak in front of a large audience, especially in an international setting like this conference. I want to improve my public speaking skills as well as connect with others. The career path I’m dedicating myself to is communications. Therefore, I feel it’s crucial and necessary to build my network now. To speak more and communicate more. Improve myself in both skills and experience. And I just like to speak to others. I did a lot of public speaking when I was back in Vietnam. I was a representative in public speaking for my high school class. I also joined some of the US Embassy public speaking workshops. I really like it. I really like communicating with people. I just wanted to immerse myself in this environment, this opportunity to reach outside to the world and learn more about what Buddhism looks like in India, what are others’ perspectives, as well as the setting of a professional conference.

What is the topic of your paper?

Universal compassion as illustrated in the Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. It’s about the tension between universal compassion and the reality of the world: cruelty, deception, people taking advantage of others. It’s really interesting. The way I see things, when I kind of raise up my attention, I will look at things really pessimistically. In the sense that the world is really cruel, really deceptive. I am a practical person. I always try to bring things to the sense of, “How can I apply this to my life?” I do stay in the realm of philosophy, but I will try to bring that to a practical sense.

How was the conference?

I practiced every day. I really prepared for it. I was aware of what I was saying and my hands—also really aware of varying my tone, and to pause and articulate my words. It went well, it went well. I ran over time a little bit. The Q&A went well. Professor Lauren Bausch was there. She is so skillful. She asked a question that let me complete my paper. I was talking about compassion, right? And at the end I quote the Lotus Sutra for the final thesis, which is using discernment to discern the conditions before practicing compassion. And she was like, “So Bach, why were you talking about the Lotus Sutra?” So I’m like, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much.” And I finished the paper, kind of answering the question by finishing the paper. That’s a skillful question, and my paper was just talking about the skillful means in discerning conditions.

Did you have fun? Would you do it again?

Yeah, it was really great. I really enjoy doing a presentation. I would definitely do it again. Maybe next time, along the process of my development, my improvement, and the time studying here, maybe my paper will get deeper in the sense of the essence and the meaning of it.

Would you recommend other students to join conferences?

Definitely. It’s an amazing chance. Just to get a taste of what a professional setting, a conference looks like. Just being in that space already gave me a lot of learning experience.

Do you have any advice for other students who would be interested in participating in a conference?

My first advice is to get your paper really close to the topics that they propose. I think for this conference one of the important things they really value is, how skillful are you in incorporating all of these texts, ideas, and doctrines, and mix them to create something really concrete, and presented in a way that is understandable as well. Also, be optimistic and open about any possibility and opportunity, because this is not the only conference. A small part of me was really eager to win the conference prize. I created this expectation of, “Oh, I have to have this, I have to have that.” But that is actually really dangerous. It’s just a mind of desire and greed, you know? So, join with a mind of being open to every single opportunity and accept whatever comes.