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Buddhist monastery: 'The whole experience is mind-bending'



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June 26, 2013 - Matt Milligan hopes one day to be a professor of Asian studies at a prestigious university such as Harvard or Princeton.

But his first teaching position will be far from the wealth and privilege of these schools on the East Coast of the United States. The 2003 Brandon High School graduate is traveling to the Far East in August to teach in a Buddhist monastery in India.

"My dream job would be teaching at a private university, Harvard or Princeton or Northwestern, to have financial security and live in a nice place, but this is a great first job for me," said Milligan. "If I can do well in this appointment in extreme conditions, it will show I can get a job done no matter what. This is a fantastic professional opportunity."

Milligan, who is currently working on his doctorate degree at the University of Texas, has accepted a position as an adjunct instructor with Antioch University and will teach "History of South Asian Buddhism" to about 30 students from universities across the United States in a study abroad program centered in a Buddhist monastery. He will also be a teaching assistant for one other course, "Buddhist Meditation Traditions."

The students will live and study in the monastery beginning Sept. 1. Courses last for nine weeks and then in November, they will embark on independent study projects, traveling in India and conducting their own research for three weeks. Milligan will also be an adviser to students on these projects, which could include research on traditional arts and crafts, Buddhist philosophy, pilgrimage locations, engagement between Buddhists and Hindus (the majority religion of India) and more.

While the professor role is new to Milligan, the experience of living and studying in a Buddhist monastery is not. He actually participated as a student in the same study abroad program through Antioch University in 2006, staying at the same monastery in Bodh Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar, known as one of the poorest and politically backwards states in all of India.

Bodh Gaya is one of the holiest spots in all of Buddhism, explained Milligan, as according to tradition, it is where Buddha reached enlightenment— full awakening— under a Bodhi tree. Bodh Gaya to Buddhists is equivalent to Jerusalem for Jews or Christians, or Mecca for Muslims, he adds. Every year, millions of pilgrims travel there to see 2,000-year-old monuments as well as a tree that is believed to be a descendant of the original tree Buddha sat beneath.

While living at the monastery, students and instructors alike will start their day early (before 6 a.m.) with yoga and meditation. Another meditative period takes place later in the day. Language classes are daily, and history, philosophy and culture classes each meet three times weekly. Tea is a daily occurence and meals are vegetarian. Students must live by the five basic Buddhist precepts— abstain from taking life; abstain from theft; abstain from sexual misconduct; abstain from lying; and abstain from in toxicants.

Students will be immersed in Buddhist culture and given a good idea of what it is like to live a monastic lifestyle in India. The program does not try to convert followers to the religion, but Milligan said it caters to students with sympathetic tendencies to Buddhism.

"Many tend to be vegetarians or live what you could call a hippie lifestyle," he said. "It's definitely a rigorous academic program...Students who attend this program tend to do fantastic things. They are expanding their world views toward business, politics, and life in general."

Milligan, who also spent four months in India in 2009 while conducting research for his master's thesis, is looking forward to being on the other side of the desk as an instructor, passing on advice, and getting to know students.

"I am now a seasoned, hardened veteran of living in India," he said. "What will be most eye-opening for students will be the conditions of living in India. Everything is very poor. As soon as you step off the airplane, you smell India, the pollution and trash, and it's 110 degrees, and there are literally a billion people around you. You can't prepare, you just have to do it."

The selection process for students is rigorous, he noted, because students must be able to adapt and not break down when met with the challenging conditions. Inevitably, he added, everyone struggles when they arrive. The experience, Milligan said, builds a sense of community as the students face that collective struggle— learning how to buy fruits at the market, get through illness, and studying together.

The experience for Milligan is much like an Indiana Jones movie adventure.

"It's a cliche because I study archaeology, but you don't know what's around the corner," he said. "You're going on an adventure in a foreign world— you know it will be tough, but you come out the other side of it... The whole experience is mind-bending."

Milligan will remain in India until at least February, doing research for his doctorate dissertation. He is most dreading the heat of India and most looking forward to teaching the students and developing his own teaching pedagogy.

"It's the first time I've had total control over a class and I think it will be fun," said Milligan, who married his wife, Amanda Boundy, last October. The couple hopes to meet up for a belated honeymoon in December.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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