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

Growing Trees to Grow People

In a world becoming increasingly engrossed in technology and consumption, it is essential to bring people out of isolation and instead back to community. The living Earth sustains its inhabitants, including humans, who can still become grounded in place and regain inherent, vital connections despite certain obstacles of the modern age.

Situated among the bush growth of the Koreelah Forest, the community at Peace Valley center their work around such goals. They envision their site as an opportunity for place-making and regenerative, healing work between people, other beings of nature, and the land.IMG_1756Peace Valley was established to address a growing need for natural spaces of solace and reflection for urban dwellers. Joy Foley, the founder, began the Australian bush retreat at Bindarrabi Community, a developing ecovillage on a piece of their common land. After several phases of building, expanding, and fortifying their structures, Peace Valley now functions as a camp and event center. It continues to host volunteers and guests who engage in practices of simple living and shared activities such as meditation, gardening, walks, and swimming.

By putting the idea of “gift economy” into practice, no one is excluded on a financial basis from enjoying the Peace Valley bush retreat area. Among the restorative permaculture onsite, Peace Valley is also working to set up an edible grove of native Australian trees, as they believe in “growing trees to grow people.” The indigenous tree and plant propagation of flora such as hoop pine, silky oak, and acacia seed is one of several efforts to maintain indigenous biodiversity in the region, in addition to removing invasive plant species.IMG_1700Foley recalls the “deep calling to reforest, revegetate, reconnect, and simply be in love with nature, with life, and with the earth” that “strengthened in me.”

It is vital to promote access to the natural world, especially for those who are the furthest removed from it. In particular, as young people grow up more and more enclosed in artificial and technological surroundings, we must find ways to overcome the distance from our shared home and its abundance of gifts and wonder. The ability to receive the gifts that nature, as well as others, in our innermost selves, all have to offer, is what sustains life and gives so much purpose.australiapeace valley logo

Emma Szymanski

Whales and Peace

by Elizabeth Asch

Elizabeth Asch is an artist and animal communicator who has been working with Earth’s ancient species—the whales, elephants, and horses, among others in the animal kingdom—studied with the highly regarded animal communicator, Anna Breytenbach. According to Breytenbach, human and animal communication is not only possible, but also ought to be encouraged as a method of reestablishing the bonds between humanity and other living beings. If people would approach animals to confer with them from a position of respect and mutual acknowledgement as beings who share in this state of existence and in this place (Earth) as a home, perhaps we could reconnect, mend, and cooperate in the fundamental ties between all diverse life.

Below, Elizabeth Asch shares a written reflection from an expedition to the waters of the Caribbean island of Dominica where she swam with the largest mammals in the worldwhales.

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Picture a battered, 30’ motorboat on a vast, flat sea, hot sun and blue sky overhead.  Several miles distant is the small Caribbean island of Dominica, whose mountains hold the only visible clouds at their peaks.  Motor turned off, all six men aboard hold one hand up to shade their eyes while scanning the horizon for the white spouts of water which signal a surfacing whale.  Not knowing if I will recognize such a plume, never having seen one in person anyhow, I instead use my internal body radar; while tuning in to my instincts, I slowly turn my body to see if I can feel a pull in any particular direction.  A feeling in the pit of my gut tells me to stop and I too raise my hand to my eyes to see, and sure enough there it is.  Two of the men see it too and, pointing arm extended, shout “Blow!”

 

Today is Day 3 of our nine-day expedition.  I am accompanying three researchers whose life mission is to decode the clicking language of dolphins and whales.   These three passionate men travel the world to record and film sperm whales, or as they are known in French cachalots, the largest of the hunting whales.  The size of a city bus, or even a double-bus, the cachalot swims from the surface down to eight thousand foot depth.  I learned to free dive in order to take this trip and the deepest I have gone is a mere 65 feet.

 

Before leaving I offered to write an article telling what the cachalots have to say about peace for my friends at GPIW.  The last couple of days though, I have just been getting to know the whales and their beautiful home.  Until this trip, elephants were the largest animal I have played with and I remain impressed by their size and the vastness of the landscape in which they live.  The endless, blue ocean home of the cachalot is a whole new world for me and I’m still adapting.

 

I connect with a large male I call Bruno.  One good place to start a conversation with a fellow predator mammal is eating, so he has been showing me food and hunting.  He shows me a nearby ledge in a cold, mostly dark part of the ocean where giant squid and other large fish hang out.  While one or two sperm whales churn the water with their powerful tails, others swim along and scoop out the animals to eat.  Still others swim open-mouthed, and in fact at one point while I am in the water swimming about thirty feet down, Bruno silently appears directly behind me.  I can feel some Presence and although I believe I am alone in the water with my human friends, when that body radar tells me to look back all I see at first are big, white things which turn out to be the teeth in his open jaw.  I laugh aloud because I know this is the whale who has been explaining cachalot hunting to me, and here he is to demonstrate.  I am certain he isn’t planning to eat me, he’s just showing me how it’s done.  After I notice he dives as silently as he appeared.

 

When I ask Bruno about peace he shows me more scenes of living in the water.  When I ask other whales, they show me the same thing.  I think maybe they are dodging the question, or maybe I didn’t ask it clearly – – he thinks we are still on the mundane.

 

I ask about war and they show me scenes of individual whales fighting, like Moby Dick.  This is warfare maybe but not war.  They say they don’t make war.  They did something like it millions of years ago in their evolution, but they don’t do it anymore.  As a species they have forgiven us for driving them close to extinction back when whale oil was humans’ main fuel, although there are always some humans who find ways to provoke some individual whales and get killed for it.  But retribution as a species?  Not their concern.

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Finding no answer from the whales about peace I ask the elephants.  They seem to sidestep the question too.  Elephants and whales are the largest mammals of their two elements, land and water, and some people say the most evolved.  Perhaps they just don’t know about peace, perhaps it is so natural to them that they can’t address how it is done.  They both seem to evade and avoid us humans as best they can, and especially when we aim to make war with them.  In response to my query, my elephant friends show themselves out on the savannah like they are every day, aware of each other’s presence, and grazing, grazing, grazing and dozing, enjoying the beauty and bounty of their home.

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I ask birds, insects, and fish, and any wild animals I can think of, and still no answer.  Can it be that, as folks always tell me, “You ascribe too much intelligence to the animals.  They don’t think like we do.  They don’t have the mental capacity” for big questions?  I am intrigued.  I know this isn’t true, and yet all I get in response is the feeling inside of how it feels to be one of their kind, living in awareness of the other ones nearby, and in their beautiful homes.  Over and over, in the water, in the sky, on the land, underground, my only answer is scenes of life, of family, of just being.

 

Finally I ask my horse friend.  Ginger has been my guide for thirteen years.  I tell her my dilemma.  About how I arrogantly offered to write about whales and peace, and how I am completely stuck.  No whale nor any other species has answered my question, “How do you keep peace, what can my people do to find peace?”  I show her the responses I have and she laughs at me.

AC Ginger sleeping

“You have your answer.  That is peace,” Ginger tells me.  Peace comes from within and only from within.  It comes from each and every one of us, at every moment.  Look for the awareness of peace within yourselves, and feel it in those around you.  From there it spreads and spreads and spreads.  First you feel it in yourself.  Then you feel it in those closest to you and you begin to feel it in other the individuals from other species who are also nearby.  Inner peace for yourself connects you to all humans.  Then feeling it in other species connects you and your species to your fellow beings, and to the planet.  This is how it spreads and spreads.

 

Find the silence within.  Connect with the peace in others.  Moment by moment by moment, now and now and now.

Nkarsis Photo