Last week my family and I attend an extraordinary event which happens on campus each year: the dismantling ceremony of the Mandala created by our students and their professor the Venerable Tenzin Yignyen.
A Tibetan monk ordained by the Dalai Lama, Tenzin teaches our students to create with colored sand an intricate and brilliant circle pattern symbolizing the cycle of life and death that each of us encounters.
During the dismantling ceremony Tenzin and his students destroy the beautiful mandala which they have taken months to create by sweeping the sand into a vase and then pouring it into Seneca Lake.
Tenzin teaches us that the dismantling ceremony reminds us of our physical impermanence here on Earth. He adds, kindly, that destroying the mandala is not designed to scare us, but instead, to remind us to use each and every moment wisely.
“Dismantle your external mandala of selfishness, jealousies and meanness,” Tenzin said. “And tend to your internal mandala of caring, patience and appreciation.”
Tenzin is a very wise man, and he inspired me to think more about this notion of an internal mandala and what we must do to find meaning in our lives. How do we decide what is really important? How do we find the courage to confront all of life’s challenges? What moves us to act with compassion and love and conviction?
One need only look to the bestseller lists that offer religious and secular advice on how to find true meaning in our lives. Everything from the book called “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren to the teachings of Jack Welch’s “Winning” and “Your Best Life Now” to the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” series. Something is happening in our culture that is pushing people from all walks of life and from every age group to find more meaning and lasting purpose to their lives.
This question of our purpose, our internal mandala was brought home to me once again when I read the very fine new book by Eric Liu called “Guiding Lights: The People Who Lead Us Toward Our Purpose in Life.” Mr. Liu recently visited our campus in April as part of the President’s Forum.
In his book, Liu chronicles his journey to find and write about great mentors and teachers to what common threads might exist among them.
In the end, he reaches a very simple but powerful conclusion: “We’re all teachers. Every day, in every setting and social role we play, we are teaching. Teaching is at the core of our humanity….It literally is what life is all about: passing it on.”
Liu challenges the reader to reflect on the most significant influences in their life. If he were at this Commencement, I suspect he would ask the graduates: if the names on your newly minted diplomas were not the names for your ancestors but for those who inspired you, what would your full name be on that diploma? He’d ask: “If you were to give your name not only to your children but to all those you have taught and influenced, who do you think you would find in this extended family?”
Tenzin and Eric Liu are asking somewhat similar and challenging questions of us. What is our purpose in life? Who are our guiding lights? How can we be guiding lights to others?
Liu argues that teaching “is all about becoming the voice in someone’s head. Whose voice do you carry with you? Who whispers to you like a conscience?”
Liu challenges us to ask ourselves: “Who will carry your voice? (For) every pulse, every gesture, we send out signals like the satellite above. Years from now, who in the world will receive your signal? And the legacy that matters most is not measured in steel or silver or bone or blood. It is measured in the voice we pass on.”
So I challenge our graduates: what will your internal mandala look like as a result of your time here at Hobart and William Smith? And what voices will you hear from your days here in Geneva? And how can you take these lessons and pass them on?
My hope is that you will leave us here in Geneva and you will continue to hear the voices of your faculty – professors such as Mary Gerhart, John Burns, Bill Atwell and Dan McGowan – who have dedicated their lives to teaching and being guiding lights to their students’ intellectual development. Voices that will always prod you to keep learning, asking questions, challenging assumptions.
I hope that you will hear the voices of your coaches who pushed you to strive for new levels of excellence and fitness. Voices like William Smith Athletic Director Susan Bassett who has been a strong and leading voice for women’s athletics on this campus and around the nation. A message reminding you of the importance of gender and equity in all aspects of our society and your responsibility as graduates of coordinate colleges to fight for those goals in our communities.
Or that you will reflect as you create your internal mandala on the message of Hobart and William Smith’s confidence in your abilities and the promise of your career. From the first vote of confidence from Director of Admissions Mara O’Laughlin when she admitted you -- to the vote of confidence by your faculty who voted your degrees on Friday to confer your degrees to the support of Deans Butler and DeMeis who signed your diplomas. We know you will make a difference in this society.
I hope you will take seriously the lessons you’ve learned outside the classroom as well. Lessons from those who administratively support this great place, prepare our food, keep these grounds so beautiful and literally clean up after all of us. I hope you will continue to hear the dignity and kindness of their voices over the course of your lifetime – from Betty and Anna’s support in Saga when you came in each day. Or literally the voice of the menu phone – Paul Zaroogian – whose own selfless dedication to these colleges and your welfare is a lesson well observed and considered for your internal mandala.
I hope you will remember the individuals we honor today:
Jane Ritter, Art deCordova – an alumna and alumus – whose life journey is one of giving back to their communities and these colleges in important ways.
And Ruth Freeman whose lifetime commitment to higher education we honor today.
I hope you will hear the eloquent voice of Dee Dee Myers and her lessons on life’s successes and failures.
And I would even hope that you might hear the voice of your college president urging your engagement in our community and our world. We need you. We need you to volunteer, to serve, to vote, to speak out.
You see – I believe you leave Hobart and William Smith Colleges today with an enormous responsibility. As college graduates from one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the nation, you become part of an elite statistic: only one percent of humanity receives a college education. Use it wisely. Create an internal mandala and a purpose driven life that you can be proud of. And pass on these important lessons as teachers: to your colleagues, your neighbors, your family, your spouse or partner.
And so now is really the time when we must say goodbye.
You came to us only four years ago – but in many ways our world and your life has changed so much – and you, in turn, have been transformed here.
On your first week of college, former President Clinton spoke from this platform and this podium about the interdependence of our world and the speed of change. A few days later, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from this same podium welcomed the Classes of 2005 to campus and accepted the Elizabeth Blackwell Award calling for greater US engagement in the world.
One week later, the events of September 11th changed our nation and our world forever. More than anything, I suspect, this event brought many students closer together in conversations, pain and fear. The Colleges lost three of its own that day in New York including Scott Rohner who had just walked across this stage four months earlier and accepted his Hobart degree.
Your time on this campus has been marked by healthy political debate, the election of 2004, the war in Iraq, military recruiting. You survived blackouts, ice storms, power outages, server shutdowns, and mud from construction. But you were also here to see the transformation of this campus with the construction of Stern Hall, the Salisbury Center at Trinity Hall, the Finger Lakes Institute, Bozzuto Boathouse and the two beautiful and popular new student residences on Emerson Hill and McCooey Field.
And, importantly, you were in Geneva when history was made and the curse was broken on something that has not happened since 1918: the Red Sox winning the World Series. Now there was some healthy political debate!
You’ve studied here and around the world and distinguished yourselves and the Colleges in academic conferences, athletic contests and community service.
In this past week – you have had the time to reflect upon and to celebrate your accomplishments, spend time with your faculty, your coaches, staff and friends.
And at the senior dinner and toast– you were able to Twist and Shout.
So you must take all of this with you – mindful of the many voices of the many good people here who are confident that you are prepared to serve and lead in this century.
I have used this opportunity here to tell other classes that when you drive out of Geneva and look into the mirror on the passenger side – it will read “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear”
So too for Hobart and William Smith.
We are closer than it might appear. Take all of these lessons, these voices, with you as you create your own internal mandala.
And “pass it on.”
Good luck. Thank you. And may God bless you all.
Valedictory Address, President Mark D. Gearan
May 15, 2005