Breaking Down Habits of Self-Censorship

By: Win, MTS ‘22  

Editor’s Note: Win is a second-year MTS student focusing on Buddhist Studies. He is originally from Myanmar and a first-generation college student in the United States. In this post, he reflects on his journey to graduate study at HDS – from shaking off the effects of the censorship of the education system in Myanmar to finding a home in the Buddhist community here and paying forward the encouragement he received when applying to graduate school.  

My parents went to college in Myanmar during the turbulent years of the 8888 Uprising. By that point, the country had been under an oppressive socialist government for three decades. Public intellectual life was suppressed by rampant censorship, and the education system was in rapid deterioration. When I started college in the United States, I was similar to a first-generation student, receiving no guidance from my parents about how to navigate the system or transform myself into the researcher of vernacular Buddhist literature in pre-modern Myanmar that I wanted to be.    

As an undergrad, I majored in philosophy and rhetoric and minored in Southeast Asian studies. For three years after graduation, I worked part-time as a library assistant and a freelance translator. When I applied to master’s programs, I ultimately enrolled in a religious studies program, the MTS at HDS, instead of an Asian Studies program because I wanted to learn about concepts and methodologies in a religious context. HDS is one of the very few places in the United States that regularly offers classes on Theravada Buddhism and its classical language, Pali.     

Photo Courtesy of Win

As a student at HDS, I’ve made progress in pursuing my research interests, thanks to the mentorship of my advisor Prof. Charles Hallisey and classes offered at HDS and in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. However, I’m still in the process of undoing the long-term effects of having gone through my formative childhood and teenage years under the outdated education system of Myanmar.  

For prospective students coming from educational systems like mine, I’d emphasize that merely completing the assigned readings and course requirements isn’t enough. Good grades aren’t enough. It is important to form personal opinions about the readings and share them in class discussions. I also constantly have to remind myself that professors at Harvard are experts of certain topics and are right in front of me to take my questions; I don’t need to fear being reported to intelligence officers or being censored by bureaucrats of a military government. I don’t need to fear being rebuked for asking teachers questions or allegedly lacking the pedagogical equivalent of filial piety.  

Old habits of self-censorship and solipsistic scholarship are hard to break. But I’ve been inspired by the down-to-earth and open-minded professors here who treat students’ questions and comments with due respect. I also love the pluralistic nature of my classes. For example, in the class on the Pali Canon with Prof. Hallisey, we read about similar issues of canonicity and scriptural interpretation in other traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  

What I also like about HDS is the size of the program’s cohorts, which makes it possible for me to meet people with different backgrounds and interests. For example, before coming to HDS, I wasn’t aware of JuBus (Jewish Buddhists) or Black Buddhists. Thanks to the vibrant student life at HDS, I discovered the Harvard Buddhist Community, which provided me with companionship and spiritual refuge during my first year on Zoom. This year, Community Tea has also been helpful in terms of making new friends, nurturing friendships, and exchanging experiences as well as what we learn in classes.  

At HDS, we are in a community of peers who are growing in discernment together. It is only through collaboration and sharing that we can find our way and make the best out of the program, whether it is finding out which classes to take or what resources are available at Harvard.  

I heard about HDS through a chance encounter with a post-doc at my undergrad institution who was a graduate of HDS. He kindly helped me with my application, and, in his honor and other incarnations of unconditional kindness, I wrote this blog post to continue the virtuous cycle of helping others.  

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