Commencement Address Delivered at Lehigh University on May 19, 2014

On Keeping an Open Mind

President Alice Gast, Provost Patrick Farrell, Professor Lloyd Steffen, members of the graduating class, and their families and friends,

This is a proud moment for all of us who are assembled here. Many of us will receive our degrees, an achievement of which one may be justly proud; the families of many of those who receive the degrees are present here, who may be justly proud too of what their children have accomplished. There are many teachers present here who may be justly proud of what their students have achieved. And it is a proud moment for me that you have included me among you.

I would like to say something today about the need for keeping an open mind, as you embark on the wonderful journey of life. Of course the university incarnates the idea of an open mind. And when I congratulated you on your achievement and congratulated the families you come from, I did so with something in mind. You probably would not have become part of such an open-minded institution as a university, if the families you come from did not have an open mind--a mind open to the possibility of offering the best education to their children. But if you already have been exposed to such an open-minded atmosphere in the university and in your family, you must wonder what I could tell you more about keeping an open mind.

I too wondered about it myself as I sat down to put pen to paper. And what prompted me to persist with my desire to talk about the need for keeping an open mind was the fact that I stand at the end of the journey while you stand at the beginning of it. You are in your twenties and I am in my seventies. And yet I am still talking about the need for keeping an open mind, having been through a university myself and having taught there, after fifty years. Why?

Thereby hangs a simple tale, so simple as to sound trivial but let me recount it for you anyway. The first full-time teaching position I secured was in the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. This was in the 1970s. Once I was there, some of us started an informal association of like-minded people who met once a week to discuss questions of moral and spiritual interest. After some meetings we decided to become better acquainted with each other, by sharing our own moral and spiritual journeys. I noticed something about those accounts which was as strange as it was striking: that every narrator, in the course of his or her own life, had tended to move in a direction opposite to the one from which he or she had started. Those who believed in strict discipline had tended to become more lenient with the passage of time; and those who were lenient to begin with, increasingly felt the need for greater discipline; those who began as atheists had become more willing to entertain the idea of something transcendent; those who began as theists were raising questions about God's benevolence and justice. And so on. This tendency to move in the opposite direction made a deep impression on my mind which I filed for future reference.

Now we fast-forward to 2014, to the city of Barcelona where the Parliament of the World's Religions was meeting. There was a panel on spiritual biographies and autobiographies and by the time I got there, time was beginning to run out. A gentleman from South Africa was speaking about a group in South Africa which shared their spiritual autobiographies but before he could conclude, time ran out, and participants of the succeeding session rushed in. As he was preparing to leave I went up to him. "Please forgive me," I said. "But was it the case that everyone in your group had moved in a direction opposite to the one they started out from?" He looked at me as if he had seen a ghost. "Yes," he said, "but how did you know?" I murmured something about being part of a similar group, went out, and sat down quietly in a chair.

This had to be more than a coincidence and then it struck me: life is too complex to conform to any single model. So be committed to what you are doing, but keep an open mind. Make sure, however, that you are not so open-minded that the brain falls out. Everything goes but not everything arrives. Before you start going with the flow make sure where the flow is going. Nevertheless, have your views, have your opinions, but keep the mind open to new views and opinions. Once a journalist told Mahatma Gandhi: "But you were saying the opposite thing two weeks ago." "Well," replied Gandhi, "perhaps I learnt something in the meantime." The famous economist, John Maynard Keynes once said: "I change my opinion when confronted with new evidence. What, sir, do you do?"

After the Second World War, a Frenchman decided he would make sure that ten Germans would never be able to lift a weapon against a Frenchman. What did he do? He was so good to ten Germans that they could never raise a weapon against him. Keep an open mind.

A knight had a lovely horse which another knight coveted and tried every trick to get him to part with it, but failed. Finally, he disguised himself as a beggar and when the knight passed by, implored him to just once in his life give him the experience of riding a horse. Once he was on the horse he revealed who he was and began riding away. As he was doing so the rightful owner said to him: "Please don't tell anyone how you obtained this horse."
"Why?" said the other knight. "Because people will laugh at you?"
"No," he said. "Because people will stop trusting the poor." Keep an open mind.

When you hear of an act of violence being committed and are about to condemn it, think of what Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Violence is the voice of the unheard." Keep an open mind.

"Return evil with that which is better." In which religious text does this statement appear twice? The New Testament? The Torah? The Bhagavadgita? It appears twice in the Qur'an. Keep an open mind.

Who do you think is mentioned more often in the Qur'an: Muhammad or Moses? Moses is mentioned more often in the Qur'an than Muhammad. Keep an open mind.

And while we are on the subject of returning evil with good, what would you think a sage like Confucius would say about this? This is what he said: "If you return evil with good what will you return good with? So return good with good and evil with justice." Keep an open mind.

Confucius was mentioned earlier. And how successful was he in his own lifetime? He considered himself such a failure that he died depressed in 479 BCE. But after his death for over two thousand years, from 130 BCE until 1905, his teachings profoundly shaped the way a quarter of the population of the world lived and was governed. Keep an open mind.

The Hindus call their foundational scriptures the Vedas. The word means knowledge--spiritual knowledge. The word is a cognate of the English word video--visual knowledge. Vedas and video? Keep an open mind.

What do you think is the most potent drug discovered or invented by humanity? Rudyard Kipling said it was "words." Keep an open mind.

When you hear of someone being executed think of what the English reformer John Bradford said as a member of a crowd which was watching someone being hanged: "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." Keep an open mind.

There was a Zen master who decided to publish all the Buddhist texts. He began to collect donations and thanked everyone who helped, no matter how small the amount. By the end of ten years he had collected enough to commence his work when Japan was ravaged by a flood.
He spent the entire amount in helping the victims and started again. When he once again had enough funds, an epidemic broke out and once again Tetsugen, for that was his name, spent the entire amount helping the victims.
Then he started raising funds a third time and was finally able to fulfill his dream.
The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen published three editions of the Buddhist texts: two invisible and one visible. And the invisible ones are greater than the visible ones. Keep an open mind.

Two Zen monks set out on a trip to the village from their monastery, one an elder and the other a novice. They had to cross a shallow stream on their way, which they did as they went their way in the morning. By the time they returned in the afternoon, it had rained upstream so the water level of the rivulet had risen, but it was still fordable by then. When they arrived at it they saw a young girl standing on the bank, wondering if she would make it across or not. The senior monk noticed her predicament, lifted her up, carried her across the stream, deposited her on the bank, and the monks resumed their journey.
At nighttime the novice said to the senior monk: "You should not have done that."
"Done what?" asked the elder monk.
The novice explained, "You should not have carried the young woman across the stream because according to the rules of the order, a monk is not supposed to touch a woman."
"What!" exclaimed the senior monk. "I left her on the bank in the afternoon and you are still carrying her?" Keep an open mind.

When you set out to save the world, or more modestly, to change it, think of what Mahatma Gandhi said: Be the change you want to see in the world. Keep an open mind.

We live in democratic times and want the frontiers of democracy to expand further. But what is so great about democracy? Yes, "it is the government of the people, by the people, for the people." This statement applauds democracy with a flourish, but highly commendable as it is, it is a rhetorical flourish. Some claim that democracies don't go to war with one another, but the jury is still out on this one. Democracy has brought political equality but economic equality still eludes it. So what has it really achieved? What it has really achieved is this: it has solved the problem of the transfer of power. Let us just think of all the blood shed in the wars of succession prior to democracy and we will realise how great this simple achievement is. Keep an open mind.

When railways were first introduced, everyone knew that it would change the way we lived. But no one foresaw the rise of suburbia. Keep an open mind.

For if you keep an open mind you would have achieved the goal of all education: to convert an empty mind into an open mind.

Thank you.

Arvind Sharma