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

Dr. Doudou Diene: 1 Minute Advice for Today’s Youth from GPIW & Contemplative Alliance

Dr. Doudou Diene is an intellectual, and a man of deep spiritual wisdom and full of life’s experiences. He was the former UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance from 2002—2008 allowing him to travel to many parts of the world to witness first hand injustice, suffering and at the same time the power and beauty of those who promote healing and unity. Here he delivers a short and powerful message when asked what would he like to say to young people at this moment in time.

The Deeper Significance of Standing Rock

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“We are not protesters, we are protectors of the water.”

“Prayer is more powerful than any man-made law…Mother earth is calling out to all of us who can pray.” ~ Water protector at Standing Rock

In the last few days the country received the news that the Obama administration has put a stop to the construction of the Dakota pipeline, and will seek alternative routes that do not invade the sacred Sioux lands or threaten their water supply. Many see this as a victory for the tribes who stood their ground.  A victory it is, but a victory of far greater significance than the rerouting of a pipeline. Far more was taking place at Standing Rock than what appeared to be the story.  What follows are excerpts from a report by John Briggs, who along with other members of the Contemplative Alliance visited Standing Rock.

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Robert Toth, John Briggs, and Tiokasin Ghosthorse traveled October 5-11 to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Since the spring of 2016 members of over 300 tribes from the US and around the world have come to Standing Rock as “Water Protectors” to stop a crude oil pipeline slated to run beneath the Missouri River immediately upstream of several Sioux reservations. The travelers represented the Contemplative Alliance, an inter-spiritual movement based on the premise that inner spiritual work can change the course of things and significantly impact the external world. This belief was in clear evidence at Standing Rock where for many months thousands engaged in prayer, meditation and sacred ceremonies around the clock in order to protect the sacred lands and waterways.  Indeed it was this prayer energy and Mother Earth’s response that led to the successful retreat of the Dakota pipeline.

The Lakota word for “white man” is Wasi’chu (Wa SHE choo). Wasi’chu means literally, “takes too much.” Early in our visit to Standing Rock, our colleague, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, tells us the Wasi’chu story. He says that at a time when the Europeans arrived, a starving immigrant showed up in a Lakota camp. Nutrient rich tallow fat from the sacred buffalo was drying on racks in the sun. Without asking, the man seized and consumed all the tallow that he saw hanging there. Tiokasin tells us, “He didn’t leave any for anyone else. The Lakota had never observed that behavior before.” So the Lakota word for “white man” describes this takes-too-much behavior and attitude–a manifestation of his thought process–not his skin color. The term Wasi’chu applies to any non-native.

The “takes too much” behavior of the Wasi’chu encapsulates metaphorically what the Standing Rock movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is about. As the indigenous peoples of North America come together and pray–creating an historic movement to prevent Wasi’chu’s latest desecration of nature–they illuminate a profound difference between the everyday holistic consciousness that has guided indigenous peoples since Paleolithic times, and the everyday aggressively anthropocentric (human-centered) consciousness that has led to our contemporary world. The visit to Standing Rock that Bob, Tiokasin, and myself made for five days in early October 2016, provided us with an unsettling glimpse into the mirror that the first peoples have been holding up to us since first contact. That mirror provided an enlightening perspective on how indigenous peoples view our Wasi’chu consciousness.

Native Peoples understand, with an anguish that we don’t feel, that the Wasi’chu form of human-centered, or anthropocentric, consciousness has conjured up idea-things such as profit, ownership, domination, salvation, information, knowledge, the mainstream media (with its limited attention span), and the vast empire of science and technology. Wasi’chu consciousness has commoditized nature, leading to the oil extraction technology and corporate profit dogmas that drive the Dakota Access Pipeline to the brink of completing $ 3.8 billion line intended to carry toxic shale sands crude oil underneath the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock reservation.

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We learn from Tiokasin that in the Lakota’s earth-mind way of thinking (and experiencing), water is a living being. Beings, Tiokasin says, “are not objective or subjective,” whether the Lakota are talking about the beings we call animals, plants, rocks, or water. Mother Earth is not made of things but of beings. The being of water is the First Consciousness of Mother Earth. This First Consciousness means “the awareness of the movement that sustains life.” Water provides a “shining mirror to the universe, its transparency offers a model and a path to creation.” Water, Mni, he says can be translated as “that which carries the feeling between you and me” –and the “you” and “me”–and the “you” and “me” are not just humans: trees, sky, wind. Mni also translates as “mother’s milk” or a “mother’s breast.” This is earth-mind thinking. The Lakota are calling attention to water in a way that makes you feel water as you and as your connection to Mother Earth.

For many of the first peoples drawn to Standing Rock, the central issue is not the environment as an organic assemblage of objects, as it is something profoundly spiritual.

For many of the first peoples drawn to Standing Rock, the central issue is not the environment as an organic assemblage of objects, as it is something profoundly spiritual, an issue of human consciousness and purpose in the mystery of life, an issue of solidarity with one’s relatives: the water, the buffalo, the hawks, the grass, the wind, the hills and the countless beings that cohabit the earth along with the individual, collective and ancestral spirits of the human tribe, the last tribe of beings to appear on this earth, and still the most ignorant.

We arrive at Standing Rock to observe, experience, and acknowledge the earth-mind spirit, if we can find it, in addition to offering our support to the practical effort to stop the pipeline.

The brief meeting with Starkey [Lakota elder] alerts us to a truth that will become abundantly clear as the week wears on: What the first peoples bring to this moment in history is a spiritual awareness of the earth that indigenous cultures (including about 500 extant tribes in the US alone) have kept vibrantly alive for 10,000-20,000 years and that has no parallel in the consciousness of the dominant anthropocentric society. The earth-mind is a spirituality of reciprocity and obligation to the natural world in all its manifestations–a spirituality of intimate, holistic relationship with other beings. Mitakuye Oyasin [literally, “my relatives you all are”] is the central expression of this spirituality: we are all related, all beings, animate and inanimate, are related.

Our speculation is that when early humans roamed the world, maybe even when they were still evolving, they naturally possessed the anthropocentric mode of consciousness that allowed them to invite new technology and navigate their terrain by engaging it as objects. At the same time, their holistic earth-mind mode of consciousness kept them in touch with all their relations, with the understanding that the Buffalo they chased and killed was not actually an object; it was a being, a spirit, a relationship, a gift for their own existence so that they could enjoy the blessings of life.

Standing Rock seems to be a proving ground for a process that some here term the “de-colonization” of Native people’s consciousness. Simply put, de-colonization means scraping away the anthropocentric thinking encrusted on the earth-mind by the forced education of generations of Native Americans; many were removed from their parents’ homes, forbidden to use their native language, restricted or forbidden to engage in their religious ceremonies, propagandized into the anthropocentric ideas of ownership, economic advancement (the American Dream, or as Starkey might put it, the American Illusion) and conditioned to the American ideals of ambition, evaluation, and status, and the supreme importance of the self and ego. All of that overlay obscures the earth-mind and leaves people born into Native cultures with sicknesses difficult to heal.

Simply put, de-colonization means scraping away the anthropocentric thinking encrusted on the earth-mind by the forced education of generations of Native Americans.

One level of de-colonization seems to involve resetting the relationships among the tribes, a coming together over the deep roots of Indigenous spirituality.

“When you have peace with Earth, she is the ultimate consciousness. She is the first consciousness. She is the sanity. She is the intelligence…Why aren’t we asking her, can we go to war? Why aren’t we asking her, can I build here? Why aren’t we asking her, can I take your water? We are not doing that because we’re assuming that that one god said this was built for you.” ~ Tiokasin Ghosthorse

 From the Native perspective, Standing Rock is a spiritual action, Mitakuye Oyasin, not a political action. Because for the first peoples, spirituality means relating with the earth, our anthropocentric, human-centered consciousness doesn’t provide us with the language that can adequately describe it, we should probably first accept that the Indigenous peoples simply think and feel differently than we Wasi’chu do about what we rather blandly call the environment.

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Flags from the more than 300 tribes that joined in actions at Standing Rock

Prayer

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the woman who started the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline by allowing land she owns to become the site of the Sacred Stones camp, said “the camps that have grown up near Cannon Ball, North Dakota are about “healing and empowerment of the people. I see song and dance and sharing and families and children. So much more is happening there than what we we’re allowed [to see] with the press right now.” “Did you see where I live? Oh, my god, it is so beautiful. I mean every day the buffalo are out there. The eagles are out there. I love my river.”

“Every breath in our body is a prayer. You are a prayer answered by our ancestors.” ~ Woman water protector at Standing Rock.

Linda Black Elk (Catawba Nation) is an ethnobotanist, restoration ecologist and instructor at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation. She has been present at the movement since its start on April 1, 2016 on Ladonna’s property.  “Over and over, people come to the camp and then they leave camp and they say to me that they miss it. My soul wants to be there. Because it’s so positive. I think a big part of it is unity.  “We are seeing the tribes—and not just the native people, our allies—coming together. It’s just so beautiful to witness. Because we are the peaceful revolution. We are working to heal all these past wounds of mother earth, also of ourselves, our souls.  She says, “The other day there were folks from a country near southern Africa and they were playing their drums. It’s not just Lakota drums, it’s drums from all over the world that are coming and singing and praying for the planet. This is the center of the universe right now.”

 Prayer — ceremony and ritual — is communitarian. When there is a disturbance in the balance, when Earth is traumatized and grieving, her Spirit calls out to all beings to pray with her, and those who pray hear her and come, bringing their spirit to the place of her pain. Their presence is their prayer and the connection of their spirit to the spirit of the place, and all who are present there makes it difficult to leave it until balance is restored. That is the calling of the Natives gathered at Standing Rock. The prayerful response at Standing Rock confronts the destructive spirit driving the construction of the pipeline to bring it back into balance. Until the spiritual balance is restored, the physical destruction continues.

When we hear Indigenous people say that they are standing at Standing Rock “to protect the water” we think of their heroic action as one opposing the modern day consumer culture and protecting a fundamental environmental resource. But the truth is they are protecting something more fundamental than that. They are protecting the spirit of earth, which includes the human spirit. They’re doing their job as humans.

This is the deeper significance of what has been taking place at Standing Rock.

This report comprises extracts from a full report by John Briggs.

All photos courtesy of John Briggs

 

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)

 

In the gardens of Kashan
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.