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What do Buddhists do in the Community?

Miffi Maxmillion, April 2000

The CPMT meeting presented just some of the community projects of FPMT- a manifestation of Dharma in Action. Here is a sampling from Astralia and around the world:

Prison Work in Canada

We all know what a chaplain is, (just think of MASH) it's pastoral care. Ven. Anne McNeil works in Canadian prisons as a chaplain, giving last rites, grief counselling, and leading meditation, especially tong len. The inmates love meditation because they are able to go into another mental reality and leave the prison. Some prisoners transcribe for LYWA and some are doing the Masters Program. "They are the ideal students" Ani-la Anne says, "in two weeks they read the book three or four times!" Her dream is to have a three month Vajrasattva retreat in Prison.

Years ago Ani-la Anne worked as a private investigator for the IRS, and she put a lot of people away. She's not bragging, but she was very busy! In just over two years she went to court 50 times. She saw that the justice system needed a lot of compassion. As the arresting officer she spent about two hours with them, and her heart she was already wanting to follow these people through the system.

One day, in a grocery store, some years later, she noticed a man. He asked "Buddhist?" and she replied, yes. "Monk?" and she corrected, nun! He explained that he was a Benedictine monk, pulled off his black beret and scarf and revealed his clerical collar. He asked if she was interested in working in prisons, to which she replied "I might." So now Ani-la Anne is under contract to the Canadian Federal government as a ‘Tibetan Buddhist nun'.

Anne told us "One guy wanted to take ordination and wear robes, so he lobbied the jail for about a year. One day I visited and the whole prison was locked down except for this man, who appeared before me in robes. When I first met him he asked me if I knew (!) Mahakala. I said that yes, I did. He then asked if I would you like to see his tattoo, and reached over and took off his shirt. And there is a huge Mahakala tattooed on his back (at least I think it was Mahakala, I wasn't going to get too close and check it!)"

Elder Hostels in America

Land of Medicine Buddha is a host centre for the Elder Hostel organisation. Kendall Magnussen, beaming and enthusiastic, told us about this American based endeavour. The Elder Hostel host sites hold courses for people 55 years and over. Most are held on campus' around the US in summer when they are traditionally closed. There are 2,500 hosting sites around the world.

Instead of saying goodbye to life, the Elder Hostel courses are designed for the retirement years, embracing life as one gets older. They offer subjects in painting, feng shui, transforming problems, and massage. Land of Medicine Buddha also introduced topics talking about aging, death and dying, . "Many of the participants say it has been one of the most significant events of their life" Kendall says, "and I think it is due to the candid approach to life of a Buddhist organisation and the hospitality of the staff."

Rinpoche added "It is making their life more meaningful by just going there. Land of Medicine Buddha, with 100,000 prayer wheels, and the Medicine Buddha temple can become a Disneyland for purification of negativity and accumulation of merits! Public service focus is very important, it brings connections with Dharma."

Universal Education

Ven. Connie Miller gave us some background on children's education within the FPMT. There are several schools and projects in the FPMT:Tara Day care and Tara Redwood School in America. In India there is the Alice Project, serving the poorest of the poor and the homeless. Nowadays, more affluent families send their children there, because the children from the Alice school are better educated. They also have literacy programs for adults and one specifically aimed at educating little girls, which is more than revolutionary in India! There are annual summer camps in Italy and Spain, aimed not just at children but at whole families, where the parents are not allowed to just dump their kids.

But what is Universal Education? Rinpoche explained how to present it to non-Buddhists: "UE is to make a person kinder, more compassionate, to have peace and happiness in the life, so they can cause peace and happiness to all living beings. It is to educate a person to have the precious human qualities of patience, love, compassion and to take universal responsibility (with joy, not as a burden). To fill up the life of the person's heart with joy and happiness, so the person will not give harm, but give happiness."

As to the methods, any religion can do this. Rinpoche continued "UE is without fear of religion, without those difficulties. It is a method that anybody can accept. Not presented from just one faith. It is something that could be spread extensively in the world if it is well done. And ultimately it can be a bridge to Buddhism and the path to enlightenment."

"Children in schools carry knives, there is much violence. So once a week or once a month, a special education program could talk about the need to have compassion and the benefits of a good heart. A simple presentation; if you harm others, the result is harm -explaining dependant arising. Even once a month, even if most don't change, definitely some will change.

"For example in Colombia, there is unbelievable violence. You don't know when you are going to get killed. Killing people all the time. Relatives, friends, you never know who will get killed. How to help countries in the long run? Special education in schools is very important. In the long term it can cause the practice of kindness and compassion, and in the near future bring the country more peace. It is not only important to teach children at school, but at home the parents can teach these things to the children. With school and parent together, the children can be really helped. So we can see how important UE is."

Hospices in Australia

Although there are not many dying Buddhists in Australia, Alex Moore of Cittamani and Karuna Hospices, explained the genesis of the Hospice Service in Australia. "A number of people had an interest in the area of death and dying. We were aware of the importance of the state of a person's mind at the time of death and wanted to be there and have a positive affect on their mind then. At that time the available services were not very good, because of society's fear of death and dying, the compulsion to hide it away. Over the nine years the hospice service has been running it has cared for over eight hundred people."

"It is an opportunity to put into practice the teachings of compassion, to be out there doing something concrete" Alex says. Although the hospice has paid staff (nurses and counsellors), most of the care is provided by volunteers. And astonishingly, some have been with the service for all those nine years. The volunteers are the backbone of the service, providing the patient care in the home, cleaning equipment, working in the office, and fundraising.

"What we look for is warm hearted people" Hilary explains, "people who are able to show it; people who like people. They come because they want to provide service. They are not necessarily Buddhist, but have a genuine commitment to work with compassion for others. Not putting their own needs first, but the needs of the person they are caring for."

On the personal benefits Alex says "Often I label these people ‘stranger', but when I go into their homes with the thought of benefit, it creates such a difference that is very rewarding. We see a change in them which is very encouraging. There is a joy in relating to people in this way, however superficial or short a time, not as friend, enemy or stranger, but with compassion."

Buddhist Psychology

Vajrapani Centre in America is in the process of integrating Tibetan Buddhist principles and Western psychology. They asked Karuna Cayton, a psychotherapist and long time Buddhist student to lead meetings about once a month. The staff and residents met regularly for over 3 years, exploring their values and rather lumpy history and with each other.

They kept on going through the tedium (it takes more than a year to change the habits of our mind!) learnt to listen, learnt to let others finish, and not react when someone screams at you across the table. They always tried to apply the lam rim and Dharma to any problem or issue. "There is something culturally about Westerners," Amy Miller explained "that we need to develop self esteem and self respect as well as integrate the lam rim."

What I found fascinating was that the whole community made a commitment to virtuous speech. Instead of gossiping, people learnt to express themselves. Geshe Michael Roach advised them that the rough road, with which Vajrapani has such a problem, is due to harsh speech. And amazingly, after three years of hard psychological work and a commitment to virtuous speech, the County put $300,000 into fixing the road!

Bendigo's Great Stupa

Ian Green reported on progress on The Great Stupa in Bendigo. "This is our great stupa, the Stupa of Universal Compassion, and part of Lama Yeshe's vision. We have been working on it since 1981. Inside the stupa will be a three storey gompa to seat 450 people. But at the moment the site is a big football field in the middle of the bush!"

Ian explained how the stupa is just a building unless it has the core, the relics of holy lamas. So they have made lots of requests, collected many holy objects, and recorded all of it, as it has to last 1000 years! The gompa will have over seventy shrine rooms and be decorated with frescos, there will be 100,000 stupas outside and 100,000 prayer wheels. Rinpoche also requested that there be a ‘button' that people (hurried tourists) can press to make all 100,000 turn at once! Everyone laughed except for Ian, and a few other serious people thinking about the power drain, and who somehow suspected this was not a joke.

Rinpoche elaborated on the benefits of building stupas. "The other way to liberate the sentient beings from the lower realms is to actualise the holy objects. Liberate them from defilements and bring them to enlightenment without words - you liberate sentient beings without talking. By seeing, going around, touching, remembering, insects, birds, even by hearing the stories, you bring them to enlightenment. That is the essential purpose. Even dreaming about a statue of the Buddha plants the seed for enlightenment.

"The actual one is teaching and meditation, but for that people need to create a lot of merit to have realisations. The immediate benefit is that whenever death happens, we have a good rebirth. The most urgent thing is become enlightened. But we can't actualise that at the moment because we have to actualise the whole path. So meanwhile, people can go site-seeing as a pleasure. Going around the stupa just one time purifies their mind and causes them to have a good rebirth, meet the Dharma and then gradually to reach enlightenment. So, teaching without words, by making holy objects, in silence, without words, to liberate from samsara."

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