Venerable Abbot, Dharma Masters, honored guests and honored students, thank you for inviting me to share this graduation ceremony with you.
There’s a story going around these days about a Navy admiral who was on the bridge of his ship when he noticed a blip on the radar screen indicating a possible navigational hazard. He ordered the following message sent: “Underway your direction; suggest altering your course 15 degrees starboard to avoid a collision.” Promptly came the reply. “Suggest altering YOUR course.” The admiral sent a more direct message back: “On official mission; alter your course by 15 degrees.” Again came the reply: “Not possible. Alter your course.” Finally in exasperation the admiral sent: “This is the commanding admiral of the USS Enterprise. I order that you identify yourself and alter your course immediately.” Within an instant came the quick response: “This is Seaman Willard Johnson, on duty at the Point Conception Light House. Alter your course or run aground. Your call.”
You see, the lighthouse marked a barrier. We might imagine ourselves to be powerful or influential enough to get beyond it or around it, but in fact there are barriers that create significant challenges to us every day. People can make themselves into barriers sometimes, just by getting in everybody’s way.
This evening we are honoring your achievements as students in an event that we call a commencement, which seems odd to us since as seniors you have been imagining that you are at the end, not the beginning, of something. I’m told that the philosopher Plato once gave us categories to classify freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors the following way: “A freshman knows not, but knows not that he knows not; a sophomore knows not, but knows that he knows not; a junior knows but knows not that he knows; but a senior knows and knows that he knows.” So here I stand before a group of students who have just completed being seniors—they know that they know. And it becomes my sad duty to remind you that in three short months you will all become freshmen again.
It is in imagining that we have mastered knowledge that we take our first steps toward becoming “barriers” in this world. There is no person more difficult to be around than one who believes that knowledge is power, and that their own particular brand of knowledge is the most powerful of all. We become “barriers” when we choose deliberately to close our minds, and to close our hearts to others. So at this crucial time of transition, as many of you prepare to leave the shelter of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and begin your life journey outside these protective walls, I urge you to keep both your mind and your heart open, lest you form a barrier within yourself to the highest nature of which you are capable, and thus become a barrier to others in this world.
There’s another story I’d like to tell you this evening. It is about a man named Joseph B. Strauss and his dream of building a bridge. It was not an ordinary bridge that Strauss was commissioned to build, but he was prepared for the challenge, having designed nearly 400 previous bridges in his professional career. He never doubted his ability; he never questioned his knowledge. In 1921, he presented his estimates of the cost at $27 million dollars, and although it was 11 years later that the actual construction began, the contracts for construction totaled just under $24 million dollars. What delayed the project for those eleven years was the work of barrier builders: It can’t be done! It’s a foolish dream. There’s a depression going on, and there will never be the money. The War Department will never approve because the bridge will interfere with the strategic shipping lanes into port. There are always people who would rather be barrier builders than bridge builders. But the project continued. The conditions were extremely adverse, so Strauss became a fanatic on safety. He practically invented the hard hat, and insisted that each worker wear glare-free goggles. He erected a safety net under the span of construction that saved the lives of 19 men who became known as the “Halfway to Hell Club.” For the first five years, there was only one fatality, but on February 17, 1937 ten men lost their lives when a scaffolding broke loose and tore through the safety net. On May 27, 1937, almost exactly 60 years ago, the Golden Gate Bridge was completed from San Francisco to the Marin County headlands, linking the North Coast to the City.
Now, I happen to think it takes a very special kind of person to build a bridge. It takes one who understands the risks and the costs, and is willing to bear them. Less than 150 years ago, there were enormous barriers between China and the West, enforced by prohibitions against teaching either the Chinese language or its rich literature to Occidental people. The barriers were on both sides. In the California Gold Fields, Chinese laborers were viewed as less than human, and were treated as animals or property, but never as human beings. Political and social events throughout this century have served more to keep barriers in place between East and West than to improve understanding between us. The Venerable Master Hua, founder of this City and the schools from which you are graduating, was an exemplary builder of bridges, not barriers. Master Hua was a bridge builder with an open mind and an open heart whose commitment to build understanding of the Buddhist tradition among Western people was more powerful than the vision of Joseph B. Strauss, who only wanted to link two counties together with a magnificent single span suspension cable bridge. Imagine what it will take to complete the bridge between two cultures!
Tonight I want you to see that there are two options ahead as we approach the twenty-first century and you take your place in the leadership of your generation. You must choose to become a builder of bridges or a builder of barriers. I assure you that the barriers are easier, because it takes such a small portion of the mind to imagine reasons why something is impossible to achieve. It takes such a small portion of the heart to reject those whose culture, religion, or values seem so foreign to us; it is so easy to imagine the rest of the world outside of our comfort zone to be populated by hopeless barbarians assailing our very secure walls.
How much more difficult it is to become a builder of bridges. It will make several demands on you, and it is a risky business. First, it will demand that you cultivate the mind by placing it under the discipline of the finest teachers you can find to hone your skills and knowledge into the basis of useful work. Your education has only commenced, and it will continue throughout your lifetime if you are to become a builder of bridges. It will require you to become proficient in science and technology, the arts and humanities; it will attend to the inner person as well as the public person ready to make a living and compete as an economic free agent of the 21st century. So begin with the mind, but always attend to the heart as well, for your education must focus on character as much as on conduct; on the things of value as much as on the things of worth.
Because of the unique foundation you have attained here, each of you is uniquely qualified to build a bridge of understanding, primarily between East and West, but more simply among all people whose differences might easily become barriers.
I had the opportunity in the summer of 1995 to attend the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, one event of which was a conference at UC Berkeley on the work being done to formulate a Global Ethics statement, based on mutual respect among the diverse religious traditions of the world. The work of the Institute for World Religions in Berkeley, as one significant dimension of the Dharma Realm Buddhist University, is a wonderful example of the potential for bridge building within the community of which you have become so vital a part by being here as students.
Some of you will continue your work within the Buddhist community, and I urge you to pursue your highest goal as those have who have gone before you. I think of several of my own students who have taken advanced placement courses with me at Mendocino College and have continued their education to the graduate level at Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and other distinguished universities throughout the US, Canada, and the world. These are bridge builders.
Over the next several years, as your character continues to be formed by your experiences and the discipline you bring to interpret those experiences based upon the foundation you have received here, you must choose to become a builder of barriers or a builder of bridges. It is my deepest hope and expectation that you each may become a builder of bridges. Congratulations on your accomplishments, and best wishes to you on this occasion.