Buddhist ideas in two great speeches

The past two entries of this blog are my English-to-Thai translations of two of this year’s best commencement speeches: Steve Jobs’ speech at Stanford and David Foster Wallace’s speech at Kenyon. Wallace’s speech is by far the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). They are not easy to translate; I can only hope I did a semi-decent job of preserving the eloquence for Thai readers 🙂

In addition to being very well-written and insightful, to me these speeches are interesting in their evocation of essential Buddhist concepts, although the speakers did not directly put them in those terms. Steve Jobs spent the last third of his speech talking about how one should be prepared to die, how we should not waste time “living someone else’s life” because our time on Earth is limited. This concept of Moranassati (i.e. “mindfulness about death”) is one of the core teachings of Buddhism. Similarly, Wallace concentrated most of his speech on the important kind of “mindfulness” (what Buddhism calls sati): in his words, the “…awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.” Also, his idea of selfishness being the “default setting” for most people – something we should all adjust – is essentially the same as the Buddhist idea that the misguided concept of “self,” i.e. atta, lies at the root of all suffering.

I think it’s also quite neat that Jobs’ optimism and Wallace’s caution are fitting counterpoints – sort of two pieces of wise advice about life that together deliver a powerful message: we should always strive to do what we love (Jobs), while at the same time being mindful of our biases and “default settings” (Wallace).