If You Want to Save a Culture, Save a Mother

In the remote region of Surmang, giving birth was a matter of life or death. Both mothers and children were at extreme risk. Located in the Yushu prefecture within the Qinghai province of China, this area has been among some of the places in the world with the highest maternal mortality and infant mortality rates. A mother was three times as likely to die as an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In 1987, Lee Weingrad, an American student of Trungpa Rinpoche, traveled to Tibet to visit his late teacher’s monastery.  Upon leaving Tibet, Lee said, “I thought I had reached the destination in my life. Years later I realized I had only arrived at the bus depot.”

He was distressed with the poverty he saw, with the harsh living conditions of the Tibetan Khampa nomads and farmers. When he heard the numbers of mothers and infants that were dying needlessly, he said yes to an adventure that has put the Buddhist teachings of compassion and reverence for life to the test of reality.

He returned to the US and not long after, packed his bags and moved permanently to China. There, he fell in love and married Wang Wenjing, a Tibetan scholar who had spent 4 years living in Lhasa.  He reflected on how he was going to undertake such a project with his background in teaching and sales rather than international development or aid. But he worked directly with his inspiration, and his passion was able to do its work. When asked how he could do such a project by a representative of UNICEF, he said, “did you ever see Field of Dreams? Kevin Costner’s character asked the same question. The ghost answered, ‘build the field and they will come.’”

Shortly after he arrived, he incorporated the Surmang Foundation. Since that time more than 150,000 people in the region have received lifesaving care.

In 1992, the Qinghai government agreed to let his group build a clinic, which would be completed over the next few years. They would eventually hire two resident physicians, who were local Tibetans themselves.  Lee and his team invited volunteer doctors to visit annually and often stay in nomadic tents after treating hundreds or thousands of patients over several months.  Visiting doctors from the West will often acknowledge that being there was a waters­hed moment in their life and career.

Among the beautiful and remote mountains, with forbidding snowy winters and fleeting summers, the villages are scattered and it can take hours to reach even with vehicles. Travel, even in emergencies, is impossible in the winter and in the rainy seasons. A corps of 40 midwives and traveling health care workers brought the health care to them, traveling to some of the more far reaching areas by foot.

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Lee’s deepest motivation was ensuring that no mothers die in childbirth. When a woman dies the effects are devastating and it touches everyone. The family is cratered. Grandparents especially bear so much grief for all. A mother’s death tears at the fabric of their small encampments and communities where women hold so much together.  

In Tibet, nomads have high status. Leading the traditional life of a nomad in a tent encampment, despite the harshness of the terrain, the sun, the winds or the icy temperatures of winter, few would trade it for city living.  Here they tend herds of sheep or yaks or horses. Some cultivate barley on small farms living in village dwellings. With a few exceptions all are devout Buddhists and children wake to incense and offerings being made each morning.  Afternoons are for prayer or making butter and cheese or sipping many small cups of tea.  The community is close and there is ample work for the young and old.

In the warmer summer months, they will set up high mountain camps, and as the seasons change, they will again move to areas better suited for animal grazing and nearer to safer, more accessible roads. They believe, in accordance with their Buddhist principles, that slaughtering one yak will feed them all winter, and is more compassionate than harvesting a whole field of crops. All the tiny beings also have a lifeforce: the plants, the worms, the insects, the fungi. Their animals are sacred, sentient, and life-giving. Life, in all forms, is precious.

Since the permanent clinic originally opened, patients have never been charged for services or medicine. In this area where the land and their way of life provides basic needs for food and clothing, but otherwise money is scarce and people may live on less than 50 cents a day.

In addition to assisting with births and well-baby visits, the clinic sees many other patients. The clinic can offer an ultrasound, set bones and pull teeth; they are often treating mild ailments; and even offer veterinary services when there is great need.

Expecting mothers will often receive a birth kit that includes basic items such as a clean sheet and a sterile razor for cutting the umbilical cord. This can make a world of a difference—often, the difference between life and death.

It has taken years of patient work by the clinic to get the women of the region onboard. But when they saw that their pregnant friends and family were no longer dying from pregnancy or childbirth, more and more trust was established for the clinic and the foundation.

After decades of the foundation providing aid, everyone at the clinic and the region agrees, “If you want to save a culture, save a mother.”

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Abbot of local monastery and Lee Weingrad.

Please visit www.surmang.org

 

Emma Szymanski

A Saint Named Bob

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There are saints who walk among us and we don’t even know them. Perhaps they choose their anonymity, working without the fanfare and distraction that prominence and fame can bring. They are often disguised, hidden as ordinary persons, working quietly in places of need. Every tradition has them. Here I will tell you about one of the lesser-known saints, a former Jesuit monk named Bob who had spent the last 37 years of his life in Cambodia.

Bob ended up in Cambodia on a whim and a bet, made whilst sharing a cold beer with a fellow Jesuit brother.  They had been watching a news report on the refugee camps in Cambodia. Under the cruel regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s almost a third of Cambodia’s people were killed or died, and camps were now burgeoning with the traumatized survivors of the darkest period in Cambodian history. These two young monks, who were also trained as health care workers, looked at one another and one said to the other, “Wanna bet we can be there within a week?”

The rest of the story I heard from Bob himself. In order to meet him, we were told, we had to send a hand-written letter to a post office box in Bangkok. Bob had no phone, and he didn’t use a computer. He lived in Cambodia but would walk to Thailand to fetch his mail, which meant that our letter might not reach him for months. He used the money he saved on bus or train fare to buy soap for prisoners in Phnom Penh’s prisons where he sometimes served as a translator. Our desire and curiosity to meet him intensified.

Bob worked in the refugee camps for years among starved and weakened survivors of torture and forced labor. Over years he tended to thousands who had TB, mysterious fevers and infections, all made worse by the heat and moisture of a tropical jungle and a people who were hungry and full of sorrow. Many had lost limbs from the land mines that lay buried in fields throughout the country. He worked himself to exhaustion, and even got the shit kicked out of him by Thai soldiers on Valentine’s Day, he chuckled once.

Bob eventually left the despair of those camps and decided to stay on in Cambodia to come to know the people of this land better. He moved in with a family of rice farmers. He lived as they did, planting rice, barefoot in the water paddies, sleeping on straw mats, eating simply and very little. “Not an easy life,” he told me.

A year later, Bob met one of Cambodia’s great Buddhist monks, Maha Ghosananda. A deep friendship of mutual respect developed and they came up with a tender-hearted idea. They would lead a walk for peace throughout the countryside announcing to villagers that peace had finally come. These walks, often attracting hundreds or even thousands, began to take place annually. Healing was needed, and bearing witness to the suffering of a people can help them to heal.

Years later, his monk’s cloak and Jesuit way of life long faded away, he was left only with the grief and love that burns away any outer identification, the experiences in life that melt away the last remnants of pride or self-centeredness. He is humble. He also loves to laugh and has a sharp wit and a wild, kind sense of humor. In a recent letter, he wrote that he needed funds for some monks to put a roof on their library. He added a PS: “Bank robbers welcome, we can be discreet”!

He still hangs out with the Buddhist monks, volunteering at a monastic university in a northern province. He teaches them English, but mostly he does the cleaning. The school can’t afford a janitor, he says.

Bob is no longer interested in religion. He wears a t-shirt, simple cotton pants, and the flip-flops, a size too small, of a wandering ascetic. The Sufi poetry of Rumi is what he reads, or he sits in silence, which is his preferred mode of communicating. There is something about his eyes. So much has been stripped away, that only the empty space in his big heart is present, making room for a mystical love to move freely to where it is needed.

His tall and slender frame, fair skinned and hair burnt blond by the Cambodian sun, can still be seen walking along the roads of Cambodia. He carries a simple bag with all his possessions slung over his bony shoulders. Now in his sixties, he sometimes accepts a ride. He told me a truck picked him up one day.  The overjoyed driver was close to tears. “Remember me? You gave me some soap when I was a kid back in the camps.” 

 By Marianne Marstrand. Originally published by Creator at WeWork

(Some of you have asked how to send a contribution to Bob for him to pass on to people in need in Cambodia  – if you wish to do that please write us at info@gpiw.org. Very little goes a long way there.)

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Dispelling the Myth of Iran

by Dena Merriam

Group at the Imam Mosque - with new friends
Contemplative Alliance delegates visit Imam mosque in Isfahan – Dena Merriam, Sister Joan Chittister, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, and Swami Atmarupananda and Rev. Richard Cizik (back row)

 

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Dena Merriam and Swami Atmarupananda speaking with friends in the gardens of Kashan

Some months ago I received an invitation to bring a delegation of American religious leaders to meet with theologians in Qom, Iran for a dialogue on the theme of human unity. A group of us from the inter-spiritual organization known as the Contemplative Alliance spent the first week of June in Iran, visiting Isfahan, Qom, and Tehran. What we found was a revelation to all of us.

I had been to Iran only once before, in 2001, to attend a conference on religion and the environment organized by the United Nations in collaboration with the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. At that time, I encountered much revolutionary and anti-American sentiment, and I expected to find the same on this visit. But despite the rhetoric we hear through the media and from some in its government, the Iranian people, like the rest of the world, have moved on.

Americans need to know the new Iran.

When deciding which religious leaders to include in this delegation to Qom, I chose to show the new religious face of America, as our country has also changed greatly. We had among us a prominent evangelical leader, the president of the oldest Protestant seminary in the country, a renowned Benedictine nun, a Zen Buddhist priest, and two American swamis. The Iranian theologians were very surprised, and I believe pleased, to see this diversity.

Our invitation had come from the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom. This university is the only place in Iran where seminary students can study Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sufiism, and the history of mysticism. Unknown to many people in the West, there is growing interest in Iran in these subjects. They, like the America of some decades ago, are experiencing what officials are calling “the eastern cultural invasion.”

With the spread of the Internet, it is impossible now to limit people’s spiritual quest. The mixing of spiritual approaches is a growing reality that cannot be stamped out, and it is a positive trend as it is helping to connect cultures and to cultivate a deeper understanding of human unity. America provides one of the best examples of how to embrace this new reality. The integration of multiple spiritual traditions is perhaps our greatest strength.

Our visit to Iran began in Isfahan. As we walked the streets in our religious garb, the swamis in orange robes, the Zen priest in Buddhist attire, we attracted much attention — all positive. So many wanted to know where we were from, and when we said America, a smile would cross their face.

“Welcome,” they would inevitably say and sometimes add, “We love Americans.”

There was great curiosity about us in Qom as this is a city of seminaries and we were a most unusual crew. After an hour discussion with one of the most senior Grand Ayatollahs, we finally reached the University of Religions and Denominations. There we met theologians eager for dialogue with Americans and interested to know more of the Eastern or Dharmic religions, which is a new area of study for them.

America’s swamis and Buddhist teachers have been in training for 40-plus years, as it was then that the wisdom of the East seriously took root in American soil. But for the Iranians, these traditions are a new arrival. It is a challenge for them to integrate these theologies with their own Shia Islamic tradition.

We addressed the issue of whether human unity was truly possible. We all agreed that not only is it possible, it is our natural state. We are one human family; all religions emerge from the One, and we are all aspiring to rejoin that single Source of all. Our dialogue contained great depth. Again and again we affirmed that the religions must deepen their exchange, so that true appreciation, spiritual affection, and friendship will arise.

Finally we arrived in Tehran, a beautiful, dynamic, and elegant city, more akin to the capitals of Europe than the Middle East. Sitting in fashionable coffee shops, eating at a top notch vegetarian restaurant, we could have been in Soho, New York. Our group could not get over how different the city was from what Americans imagine.

Do our politicians know of the new Iran?

For sure, there are policies of the Iranian government with which we don’t agree. There are reactionary and unfriendly elements there like everywhere else. But Iran is a country of young people, and they look and act just like the young people in our country. They are part of an awakening global consciousness.

As we traveled through Iran and were so warmly received, I could not help but wonder how much our politicians know about this new Iran, a country that today hosts many European and Chinese tourists — especially the Chinese, who are heading there in droves to buy up Iranian goods while the rest of us debate how to proceed. With or without America, this new Iran has already entered the global community, and business people are lining up, hungrily eyeing the market.

We can hold on to the myth, the memories of the Iran of 30 years, or even a decade, ago, or we can move on as they have already done. Iranians are welcoming Americans. They want engagement. It would be worse than folly to miss this opportunity, which has the potential to shift in a positive way the dynamic of the whole region. Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran is a pillar of stability in an endangered region, and we should appreciate rather than seek to undermine the stability it offers.

Before voting on whether to increase or be rid of sanctions, it should be mandatory for every member of Congress to visit the new Iran, or they risk voting on false information, as was the case with Iraq a decade ago. The failure to support this new agreement will lead to greater instability and the possibility of expanded war, something neither the American nor the Iranian people want.

There is no other sane position than to support the agreement that has been negotiated with such great care and consideration of all possible options. This will begin a new chapter not only for Iran but for America as well.

This article was originally published on Faith Street’s   OnFaith blog.