“You will never be the same again after her class,” say the former students of Ms. Laureen Velasco when asked about their experience in her class.
What is it about Laureen that makes a lot of people question or change their beliefs? What is it about her that makes her a favorite even among the pool of students who have flunked her class?
We interviewed the iconic professor, not just to ask her these questions, but to talk about her profession, her spirituality, and her view on death. It takes an open mind to fully grasp what she is saying – in Laureen’s words, the willingness to be “corrupted.”
Once a college drop-out
“I was a college drop-out. I stopped studying [for a while] because my dad wouldn’t pay for my tuition fee because I became a Born Again Christian and my parents were devout Catholics. It was sort of [like] I was being punished for converting to a different religion.”
However, Laureen did not compromise because according to her, “When it comes to your faith, it must be a personal decision.”
She went back to school with the help of a friend’s dad from a fellowship group. “My dad found it insulting that somebody else was paying for my tuition fee, so he said, ‘Go back, I’ll pay for your tuition fee,’” she laughs as she recounts. “But my dad and I became good friends after.”
How did she end up teaching Philosophy?
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think of becoming a Philosophy professor!”
While she was taking up Communication Arts here in De La Salle University, she also took up 27 extra units in Philosophy, over and above the 12 units required. “They were not audit courses. I took all the exams. I fulfilled the requirements. I had grades, so I earned the units, but I don’t have the diploma.”
Laureen originally wanted to become a film maker, but when she started doing production work, she was not happy with the job. “[It was] very exhausting,” she shares.
“When I resigned from my production work, I got a call from La Salle. Dr. Quito was offering me a teaching job.” She was surprised because she didn’t even have a degree in Philosophy. “But then they took into consideration the units. After that, I had to finish my Masters.”
When asked why she pursued philosophy, she replies, “I just fell in love with it, serendipitously. And when I started teaching, I fell in love with it more and enjoyed it.
“[Maybe] it’s the way of the universe.”
“I think I found my niche, my rightful place under the sun – to corrupt the minds of the youth!” She laughingly adds her signature phrase which actually refers to her eye-opening and challenging lectures on freedom, responsibility, God, and morality.
On Zen Buddhism
Only when she got a grant to go to Wasada University in Japan did Laureen discover Zen Buddhism.
“I fell in love with the philosophy because of its simplicity, and yet it’s so full of wisdom and matter-of-factly statements. [It] sounds esoteric and yet so practical. It’s very honest, very sincere, no bullshit. I like that kind of philosophy. It’s like putting a mirror in your face so that you see who you are.”
“It enriched me; to not to be short-sighted, to not be imprisoned by diplomas and degrees.”
She emphasizes the spirit of detachment that one can find in Zen Buddhism, the detachment not just from material things, but also from beliefs and ideas. She adds, “You can’t even be attached to Zen. If you’re attached to Zen then that’s not Zen.”
One of the many things she learned in Zen Buddhism is the openness to life. “Why close the door to anything?”
But how is Zen Buddhism different from Buddhism?
“They say Zen Buddhism is the pinnacle of Buddhism. It contradicts a lot of Buddhist doctrines and dogmas.” She emphasizes that the doctrines, the dogmas, and the intellectual teachings can get in the way, but Zen Buddhism will say “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill it.”
Spirituality, not religion
Laureen is a friend of Ms. Millete Zamora of the Marketing Department, who is a devout Roman Catholic. Millete was a Philosophy major in La Salle and they have been friends since college. “Baliktad nga kami eh. I took up Comm Arts but I was the one who pursued Philosophy, and she was the Philosophy major but she went to Marketing and Communications.”
At noontime, they sometimes eat their lunch together and talk about ideas.
“One time, we talked about God and Millete was saying, ‘…but you are an atheist!’ And I said, no, I am not an atheist. I never said I was. How can I deny that there is no God? I find it arrogant to just deny that there is none when I have no proof that there is none.
‘’I’d like to think that there is, but not limited to how people have described this God to be.”
She says she likes the way Joseph Campbell put it: “…seeing God in the different mythologies, the many masks of eternity, and the many expressions of God in different cultures and in different religions.
“When you look at the peripherals, there seems to be a lot of differences, but when you get down to the bottom, its compassion, its love, its honesty. It’s a combination of many things.”
In this sense, she is not an atheist. So does this mean that she is the opposite?
“At this point, I am not into any of that formality or institutionalized thing,” she explains while agreeing with the existential theist Soren Kierkegaard’s words, “God is not a Sunday affair. Christianity is not the same as Church-ianity.
“And I perfectly understand where he is coming from,” she passionately says. “…That big, awesome, mysterious energy from the universe. Some say it’s the Holy Spirit guiding you, some say it’s the Buddha getting awakened in you. Whatever you call it. That is what I am open to. But I’m not a theist in a sense that I am not into the doctrines and the dogmas.”
Laureen was Catholic until she was nineteen, a Born Again Christian for half a decade, and in her early 30s, she got exposed to Eastern spirituality. She regards this transition as an evolution of her consciousness.
“My spirituality can be described as eclectic and syncretic, as a result of my exposure to various forms of spirituality which I find more embracing, more mature, and less exclusive.”
To her, labels are not important. Character and values are what matters.
“I don’t really care about people’s religious affiliations. I have friends who are devout Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Shintoists, Agnostics, Atheists, Pagans, Muslims, etc. I am most concerned with how people live rather than what they only profess to believe. People can have common values despite some peripheral differences.”
The end of consciousness
Laureen does not seem to be bothered by the idea of afterlife. And if there’s really a heaven, she would rather have it here. She says, “Japan is my heaven on earth!”
Is she afraid of dying?
“I think death is a beautiful thing. It is scary when people are holding on to so many things, as in material things. But when you understand what it is, there is nothing to be scared about.
“We are afraid of the dissolution, the annihilation. The way Buddhism puts it, the ego is afraid to disappear. But I feel that it’s a beautiful thing. Its peaceful, it’s calm. And death is not just death in physical form, to die [metaphorically] on a daily basis, so you also resurrect on a daily basis. The metaphorical, poetic death…”
She ends with a Zen story on the topic. “A monk asked the Zen master, ‘Master, where do we go after we die?’ and the Zen master said, ‘I don’t know.’ The monk said, ‘but you are the master, how could you not know?
And the Zen Master replied, ‘because I’m not dead yet.’”
“And so I would have the same,” says Laureen.