What started out as a summer volunteer project and a journey to Thailand to learn about Buddhism may lead to a career choice for University of Pennsylvania student James An.
An, a senior studying management and religious studies, became interested in exploring Buddhism after taking two courses, Introduction to Buddhism and Living Deliberately: Monk, Saints and the Contemplative Life, both taught by Justin McDaniel, professor of religious studies in the School of Arts & Sciences at Penn.
“I wanted to go to a country like Thailand where Buddhism is ‘alive’ and see things with my own eyes,” says An, who went to middle school and high school in Vancouver, B.C., but is originally from Gwangmyeong, South Korea.
Through www.idealist.org, he found a volunteer project that gave him an opportunity to teach English to novice monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
An taught young Buddhist monks who are the equivalent in age to United States 7th to 12th graders. They were so eager to learn more that An began staying after the class to hold an optional listening and speaking class.
It was difficult for him to have conversations with the students because they speak just a bit of English, and he doesn’t speak Thai.
“I was very impressed with their love for learning and improvement with vocabulary in particular,” says An. “They memorized ‘How are you? I am fine, thank you, and you?’ Later on during the summer, they would respond saying things such as ‘I am sleepy’ or ‘I am happy.’ It’s a seemingly modest improvement, but it was wonderful to really see this happen.”
In addition to his job teaching during the day, twice a week after he was finished teaching the young novice monks, he spent several hours in the evening as an English instructor for monks at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University.
Despite the long hours, An says it was a gratifying experience.
Before arriving in Thailand, he had wondered if his image of Buddhist monks as quiet, disciplined and isolated was accurate. And he was curious about how they spent their days. Were their entire days spent meditating?
What he learned surprised him.
“My family is not religious, and I did not have a religious upbringing, so my view of Buddhism is from the outside,” says An. “I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they use phones, go on Facebook, talk a lot, enjoy ice cream and snacks, although they do have 227 or so precepts to follow.”
Since returning from Thailand, An has begun to consider an academic career.
“This experience made me realize that I love teaching and that devoting a significant part of my life to do so would be pretty exciting,” says An.
“A few professors at Penn have profoundly impacted my life, and I want to be able to give back in a similar way while engaging in a topic I am passionate about.”