Formerly Brahmavihara Cambodia AIDS Project

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(Keynote Speech prepared for OWBAW Awards Ceremony 2008)

by Beth Goldring
Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project
Phnom Penh

Venerable Bhikkhunis Rattanavali and Dr. Lee, Venerable Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, members of OWBAW, respected fellow awardees, honorable guests. It is a great honor to be present today and to be asked to address all of you. Thank you for it.

I have been asked today to speak a bit from my heart. My heart is very full with gratitude right now so I would like to speak a bit about this.

Samdech Maha Ghosananda, the Cambodian monk who founded and lead the dhammayietra (annual peace walk) until his death last year, had a favorite teaching in the villages where we stopped. He would take three glasses and arrange them into a tight triangle saying, as he arranged them that Truthfulness, Forbearance and Gratitude were the three pillars that held up the world. At this point he would balance a fourth glass on top of them. Remove any one of them, he would say, doing just that and watching the fourth glass fall, and the world topples. So my talk today will not by itself keep the world in place. But I hope to contribute a tiny bit to the process.

My first and greatest gratitude of course is to the Buddha and his teachings. And to Ananda, who allowed the Buddha to see the importance of including women in the Sangha. And to Maha Prajapati and the early nuns, who set us standards we can hope to emulate but never to meet. And to the wonderful men and women, ordained and lay, who continue to work so hard and so skillfully so that we as women can study and practice the Dhamma to the limits of our own abilities and not to limits set by others for us. OWBAW’s important work lies firmly within this great effort.  We are part of an ancient and great community of woman in the Buddhist tradition and everything we are enabled to learn is indebted to their great efforts.

Next, I feel a tremendous warm gratitude towards OWBAW, Bhikhhunis Rattanavali and Dr. Lee and all those responsible for my being here today.  We are taught not to be dependent on praise and blame as two of the eight worldly hindrances. But we are also taught that the respect of those themselves worthy of respect is of inestimable value. I am profoundly grateful that my poor efforts in Cambodia have brought me honor from honorable people.

And it has brought me into the company of people whose own efforts and work are greatly worthy of respect and admiration. I feel very shy when I look at the lists of awardees over the years and wonder, quite frankly, how someone thought to include me. I accept with great gratitude being a little sister in this fine company.

I feel great gratitude towards those who have been my formal teachers over all these years, both academically and in the Dhamma. To Samdech Maha Ghosananda, to Maurine Stuart Roshi, to Gil Fronsdal, to Alan Wallace, to Glynn DeBrocky and to the communities in the US, Thailand and Cambodia that have helped sustain and develop my practice. To Empty Hand Zen Center and its head, my Dhamma sister Susan Jion Postal, to Stillpoint Zen Center, to Insight Meditation Center Redwood City, to Wat Bhakhaokhongka and its head Ajahn Rimon who has always dealt kindly with my practice and has provided me with a true Dhamma home in Thailand. To Khun Yai Vannasanna whose many great kindnesses over the years have supported my retreat practice in Thailand and to Nen, her assistant, who takes care of me on retreat. To Sulak Sivaraksa who allowed me to work at the International Network of Engaged Buddhists during my first year in Asia. To Angie Boissovain, Misha Merrill, Enkyo O’Hara, and many other Dhamma sisters and friends for loving support.  And to Samdech Ching Porn, whose Vipassana center south of Phnom Penh is becoming a true Dhamma home for our project. I am afraid this list is becoming long and beg those not yet included to forgive me not continuing it. I owe debts of gratitude in many, many places.

But my deepest gratitude, in this context, must be to our project, my staff and our patients. I know it is common to think of these as owing rather than receiving gratitude so I would like to take some time with this point.

When I envisioned this project in 1999 and started it a year later there were two major driving forces. One was my deep discouragement after many years of human rights work with the lack of tangible benefit to people.  I was fortunate at the time to have been asked by the Asian Human Rights Forum to investigate two points: health care for the poor in Cambodia, about which I already knew a little; and how Buddhism could help the poor. These came together when I happened to chant for someone dying of AIDS. His mother said to me: “He has been so frightened. He believes he has AIDS because of his kamma and since we have no money for monks he is afraid that his next life will be even worse.” I thought that in the huge picture of AIDS in Cambodia this was one tiny place where perhaps intervention was possible. That people didn’t have to die in a fear that was not in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.

At that time in Cambodia people expected the AIDS epidemic to develop into a situation like Africa, with perhaps half the adult population dying, hundreds of thousands or orphans, and the complete collapse of social and economic structures. Lifesaving drugs were not then on the horizon for the poor. Everyone died. It seemed to me that helping with the fear of death would be of value.

Like many people of all religions I was inspired by stories of Mother Theresa and envisioned myself a kind of purveyor of compassion to the poor and destitute. I started, with my assistant and translator, visiting the sick in the National AIDS Hospital five days a week.

These visions of self (and that is of course what it was) do not stand up very well to the realities of sickness and death among the destitute, to the smells and filth and starvation and desperation and terror. My fantasies of teaching people to meditate quickly collapsed in the face of people’s exhaustion. My efforts to explain even such a simple thing as the Three Refuges foundered because I didn’t understand how to make things simple and accessible. Our lack of material support for people made our presence confusing. In that first year, perhaps the most important thing I did was sit on people’s beds and hug them and kiss them.

And I was exhausted all the time, too exhausted to cry mostly. If it had not been for Father Jim Noonan of Maryknoll, who has been my unofficial supervisor from the beginning, I would not have lasted three months. But I was determined that working with people was learnable and that I could learn it. “If it isn’t lifegiving for you,” he used to say, “it isn’t lifegiving for the patients.” I would answer: “Just because it is hard that doesn’t mean it isn’t lifegiving.” And he would agree.

Even then, the deeper part of me understood that the exhaustion came from my having too much self involved in the process and that learning how to lay down the self was an essential and deeply nourishing process for me. Without the concrete, every day facing of my limitations I would never have begun to see any of this. I would have continued to walk around believing myself compassionate because the limits of it had never been tested.

And of course, it isn’t my compassion. It never is. It is the Buddha’s compassion operating through us to the extent that we are able to let it, the compassionate energy we call Bodhicitta in the Mahayana, the energy that is the foundation of the world.

Slowly these issues came into view. And over time many things happened. The project grew.  We learned Reiki and later Healing Touch, which allowed us to help people enter a meditative state without their making great efforts. My Khmer nun was able to do Khmer chanting so that people had familiar words. We moved from the National AIDS Hospital into coordination with several projects and saw people in their homes and in many hospitals and hospices. Antiretroviral medicines came to Cambodia and some people started living. We began to include social work in our activities, linking people to organizations that could help them with specific problems. We added other activities, like cleaning and chanting at the National AIDS Hospital mortuary, where we installed a Buddha. We began to systematize our own Dhamma training. In addition to daily meditation each staff member went on at least one ten-day Vipassana retreat each year. I began doing elementary Dhamma teaching one afternoon a week and we lengthened our meditation period to two hours on that day. We had someone skilled come twice a month for eight months to teach my staff traditional Khmer chanting. Recently we have begun going to the Vipassana Center south of Phnom Penh twice a month for meditation, Dhamma talks and questions. We just finished renovating the mortuary at Chea Chum Neas hospital and will clean and chant regularly there also, so that people have a clean, beautiful and peaceful place with the Buddha to finish their dying when they have stopped breathing.

We have also been able to include significant material aid in what we do, although we need to be careful that it doesn’t take patients’ attention away from the spiritual work that is our foundation. We do a certain amount of material aid secretly, operating through the social work department at the National AIDS Hospital and through other organizations. Some things, like providing transportation and food money for patients coming long distances for their medicines, we do openly. Our current staff is nine people, including me. I am the only foreigner.  This is our ninth year of work. I never dreamed we would be doing this for so long when we began.

Somewhere in about the third year I began to notice that things had become easier. I was not as exhausted all the time, did not fight against the work so hard. I began to feel moments of deep peace working with patients, moments when I could feel both the patient and myself being held in energies much larger than my own. It was an important sea change in both my life and the life of the project. By the fourth year I stopped wanting to close the project and began to see how we might continue.  Within another year I began to trust that when I was with a patient the energy that did not come from me personally would take over and do much better in the situation than I ever could.

My staff was also developing, some of them much more quickly than I. Most of them come to work with us already having deep experience with AIDS in their families and in themselves. Several of them were professional caregivers; we chose to hire them because we already knew the compassion they brought to people.

The point about gratitude here is that as things changed what I began to be aware of is how deeply indebted I am to this project, to our patients, to our staff and to those who support us. If I am learning anything about the Dhamma, to the limits of my own poor abilities, it is because I have had both the difficulties of the project to test myself against and the loving support of many people. Gil Fronsdal, my Vipassana teacher, is fond of telling me: “The project is your monastery.” What I understand him to mean is that the project gives me the opportunity to practice Dhamma freely and to study Dhamma through practice.

Now, as I begin to face old age and my own dying, the project gives me the chance once again to let go of self: to find a way for it to continue, if it can, without me. My staff has developed wonderfully and can do most things. This year I am working on their Master’s levels in Reiki so that they will be able to teach it. Next year I hope to be able to do a long retreat and, when I come back, find them well and happy.

There are so many paths to the Buddha’s teachings. So many paths to the heart of the world.  I have had amazing good luck in finding this work to do. And my deepest gratitude is reserved for my teachers, our patients.

But there is no distinction. The flow of gratitude reaches everything with the same depth and power.

In the Dhamma,

Beth Goldring



Dhamma and Social Action

(talk prepared for the Nun’s College, Korat Province, as part of OWBAW Ceremonies)
by Beth Goldring
Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project
Phnom Penh

Venerable Heads and Faculty of the College, Venerable Bhikkhunis Rattanavali and Dr. Lee, Venerable Bhikkhunis and Mae Chis of the College, Venerable Bhikkhunis and Bhikkhus, Fellow Awardees and Honored Guests. It is an enormous privilege to be asked to give a short Dhamma talk in this company.  There is so much rich and wonderful Dhamma study here. Thank you for allowing me to participate in it.

I have been asked to speak about Dhamma and Social Action.  There is a great deal that can be said on this topic and a great deal that has been said wisely and well. Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh speaks poignantly about the impossibility of remaining in an unbombed monastery when the world outside is being bombed. He grounds his understanding of Social Action within the Dhamma on emptiness, on the total interpenetration of all aspects of existence.  When one hand is injured, he asks, does the other hand simply watch, or demand something in exchange for healing it? If we understand we are all part of the same thing then compassionate action occurs spontaneously without even the need for reflection. In Zen we say: “ If I am hungry I eat. If you are hungry I feed you.” The understanding is that once we are grounded in emptiness there is no differentiation between these actions. Your hunger is my own.

We also speak in Zen of Kwan Yin Boddhisattva, known in her male form as Avalokiteshvara Boddhisattva, as having a thousand eyes and arms. Each arm has an eye. Wherever there is suffering she grows an eye to see it and an arm to reach out to it.

In Cambodia, Samdech Venerable Maha Ghosananda, through the annual peace walk and in his constant teaching provided an example of a Dhamma life lived as the manifestation of metta. Like the monk on the battlefield in the early Buddhist stories he brought radiant peace to the heart of suffering. He often cited the Dhammapadda verse: “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.”

One of your leading activist Thai monks, speaking of the rice banks he had founded, asked: “We eat the villagers’ rice. How can we not help them in their needs?”  Venerable Phra Paisan Visalo has combined living in the remote forest in the simplest possible way with profound scholarship and  efforts to save Songkla Lake, to bring peace to the conflict in the South of Thailand, and to promote peace throughout the world.  Venerable Alongkot established a hospice and healing center for AIDS early in the epidemic when people were dying and families were terrified to care for them. I began working on AIDS in 1995-6 with Venrable Sutape Chinawaro, who was looking into traditional medicines to alleviate suffering from the disease.  Many of the great 20th Century meditation teachers in the Thai tradition, including Venerables Buddhadhasa and  Payutto, have written and taught extensively on social action and compassionate response in the world.

The Tibetan tradition, through the Dalai Lama but also through many others, has illuminated the combination of deep Dhamma knowledge and profound compassionate action. The capacity of Tibetan nuns, monks and even laypeople, to undergo the radical suffering imposed by the Chinese without descending into anger and hatred is an extraordinary example of Buddhist compassionate wisdom in practice.  Asked why he doesn’t hate the Chinese when they have taken his country and inflicted so much harm the Dalai Lama has said: “Why should I give them my mind?”

Most recently we have seen in Burma thousands of monks and nuns taking to the street in non-violent protest against the economic hardships. They have suffered and continue to suffer repercussions from this. “How can we stay in the monasteries when the people are starving?” the monks and nuns asked.

And someone recently reminded me of the story of the monks caring for the Buddha when he was dying. “Why aren’t you caring for others in the same way?” he asked. “When you care for them, you care for me.”

So when I address the question of Buddhist social action I speak from a tradition stretching back to the beginning and spanning all three major Buddhist traditions.

There is an important other side to this question, however. When we speak of social action grounded in the Dhamma it is essential that we have some understanding of the Dhamma.  It is essential that there be space for study, for retreat, for grounding. It is essential that there be formal practice and long years of persistent effort. Without colleges like this for nuns and monks, without places for long retreats, without meditation masters, without people of deep scholarly wisdom, without profound teachings for the laity in the many wats of the many countries, without all the many things that make up the formal study and practice of the Dhamma social action will lose its grounding and become simply another form of kamma in the world. Sometimes it will be skillful kamma, sometimes unskillful. But it will not be a form of Buddhist practice or an embodiment of the Dhamma. While it may alleviate suffering at the practical level its capacity for transformation will remain undeveloped. Without the chance formally to study the Dhamma we are unlikely to develop the capacity for non-hate fundamental to compassionate social action.

Even more importantly, preserving and living the tradition, especially but not only in the face of adversity, as has been done for many years in Burma, is itself a powerful form of social action. And the sweetness of a hidden life lived in meditative emptiness pervades all six realms.

So what may sometimes seem like two opposing tendencies within modern and even traditional Buddhism: meditation and study in profound retreat from worldly activities, and direct engagement in worldly suffering, seem to me really two sides of the same thing, two hands together in respect or, as one of our Sutras (The Identity of Relative and Absolute) says, “like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.”

I have been asked to speak about Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project in the context of Dhamma and social action. I hope people do not have large ideas about our work. We are a very small project, now in our ninth year, working with destitute AIDS patients in Phnom Penh Cambodia. The core of our work is chaplaincy: helping people know that the Buddha’s compassion is present for them, even and especially in the middle of their destitution and suffering.  When we started working in 2000 all of our patients faced death.  I hoped to help them face it without unnecessary terror. “The Buddha didn’t have to teach,” I used to say. “He taught because of our suffering.” So rather than being outside the Buddha’s compassion people were precisely in the center of it. I wanted people to understand that whatever kammic debts were involved in their disease and destitution, those debts were being paid and did not necessarily have to follow them into their next lives. And that while the Buddha never promised us that we would be exempt from sickness, old age, death and terrible happenings, he did promise us that it was possible to develop a peaceful and compassionate heart right in the middle of it.

As the Cambodian AIDS epidemic changed over time our work did also. We added Reiki very early on. Originally I thought we would teach people to meditate. But most people did not have the energy or genuine desire for that. We discovered that Reiki and later Healing Touch also could help people enter a meditative and restful state without their having to make great efforts. I began it and later my whole staff was trained in both skills. Our Khmer nun specializes in chanting. My whole staff later spent eight months learning traditional chanting  but initially she was the one who chanted for the dying and newly dead. Initially I also chanted, and sometimes still do, but since my chants were different they didn’t have the comfort of familiarity to people in the same way.

In 2002, we were asked to do something about the mortuary at the National AIDS hospital where we often worked. We installed a Buddha and still go every major precept day to clean and purify the space and chant. We have always chanted for the dying and newly dead and in memory of those who have died for the traditional 49 days after their deaths. For most of our patients this is the only formal ritual they receive.  Our precept day chanting includes all of those within that period, including giving them precepts as we take them ourselves. Recently we have completely renovated another mortuary south of Phnom Penh: purifying it, clearing away underbrush, rebuilding it, having a large meditating Buddha painted in the vestibule facing outwards and a Parinirvana Buddha canvas put in the inner room where bodies are kept, and putting plants around it. We also can now pay to have the bodies of the destitute in that hospital taken for cremation. The hospital had been burying them without ceremony behind the building for many years.

In 2003-4, as antiretroviral medicines became available to help people live longer we found ourselves intensively involved in social work, in helping people find organizations that could assist them in rebuilding their lives. Initially, this was very hard.  People had lost husbands, wives and children. They had become desperately sick and near death. They had expected to die. Re-establishing lives for themselves took a great deal of emotional and practical support and effort. Now, as people normally receive antiretroviral medicines before things have reached that point, we do less social work. But it remains a strong part of our practice.

Within the past few years we have also been able to involve ourselves in some material aid. We are cautious about this. Our project was not designed to be responsible for people’s food, money or medicines but rather to give emotional and spiritual support. So we normally work where a modicum of food, money and medicine is already available. But there are always things that fall between the cracks and needs that are not being met. They include everything from providing mosquito nets to hospitalized patients, giving family members a small amount of money for seven-day ceremonies, providing healing balm to all patients and soymilk to patients who can’t eat anything, providing transportation to slum dwellers relocated outside the city and unable to come to the city for their medicines, to providing a huge range of emergency services as we can. Our material support is designed to work in the interstices between other organizations. Much of it is given secretly. Many organizations provide material support. There is no other organization currently that does the chaplaincy work we do, especially the Reiki and Healing Touch. We are very cautious that the patients look to us primarily for chaplaincy rather than material support.

Our current caseload is 200-250 patients. We see them in the hospitals, the hospices, their homes and the clinics where they receive their medicines. We try to see everyone at least once in two weeks but focus much more intensely on those who are more ill and dying.  In the hospitals and hospices we see people at least twice a week, daily or more if they are dying. We give Precepts and do Reiki and Healing Touch practices for those close to death to help them make a smooth transition. We often accompany people to their cremation, especially if we have known them well or if they have no family. In the resettlement sites outside Phnom Penh, where we distribute transportation money, we also make sure patients are registered and have access to medical treatment. We visit those patients when they are hospitalized, as we do all our patients.

To support our work and develop our practice we meditate and chant daily. This helps us have the strength to bring a truly meditative mind to the patients. Wednesdays we study the Dhamma more formally: We do longer meditation, practice chanting and have Dhamma talks, which I often give, covering the basics: the Precepts, the Paramitas, and the Four Noble Truths. Currently we are reading the Dhammapada together. On alternate Wednesdays we got to Samdech Ching Porn’s Vipassana center. We meditate and he gives us a Dhamma talk and responds to questions. Samdech Ching Porn is a layperson who was a close friend of Samdech Maha Ghosananda and has studied Dhamma for many, many years. All of us go on retreat at least once a year. My staff normally goes on Goyenka retreat in Battambang in the north of Cambodia. When possible, some or all of my staff participate in the yearly Dhammayietra (peace walk). My own retreat practice normally includes annual April retreat at Wat Bakhaokhongka south of Korat and a two-week retreat in the US each September. I had a month-long retreat in the US in 2006 and am hoping to spend March 2009-10, the year I am 65, on retreat also. Dhamma study is an integral part of our work.

My staff is eight people plus myself. I am the only foreigner. As our experience builds they become more and more capable of directing and operating the project as well as doing the direct work with patients. This is healthy growth and we look forward to the time when the organization can run without me and develop itself in ways I can’t begin to imagine.

Now, finally, I come to the real topic of my talk today: How can it be that social action is a part of Dhamma practice, not only in a formal sense, but at the depths?  It is one thing to understand in principle that is can be true. But what is the actual experience of trying to put this into practice? 

I hope you will not object to my speaking frankly about my difficulties in learning to embody Dhamma practice in social action. My own experience, over time, has included huge problems: grief, anger and despair, which as we know are the three traditional barriers to compassion; confusion, frustration and loss of hope and energy. Often, especially in the first years, I was at the point of closing the project, feeling helpless to continue and overwhelmed by what we had taken on.

What kept me going during that time was the support of my friends and teachers, about which I will say more in a moment, and the response of my staff and our patients. However bad we were, nobody else was trying to do our job. I took heart from the fact that with all our mistakes and failings we were better than nothing. Our sincere efforts carried real weight with those we intended to help. There were Christian missionaries in the hospitals, some of them fine but others more involved in proselytizing than in helping. But the patients are overwhelmingly Buddhist. I felt that the last thing one needed to hear when dying was that the beliefs on which one had based one’s life were wrong. If we were to be of genuine spiritual service to people that service had to be accessible to them as they were, in the middle of their own helplessness and despair.  My staff, originally my assistant and our Khmer nun, were deeply committed to our work and gave their whole hearts to it. I was often ashamed of my own weakness in the face of their commitment. And the patients responded with love and gratitude to our efforts. They understood and appreciated the compassionate energy behind our confusion.

And I was stubborn. I knew that if I closed the project I would never again have this kind of opportunity to learn what could be learned in it. And I was determined that the work was learnable, even for me in my ignorance, arrogance and despair.

My teachers helped beyond anything I could begin to acknowledge. Gil Fronsdal used to say to me: “I wouldn’t keep you in Cambodia a moment longer than I thought it was good for you. But, you know, it is your monastery.” Father Jim Noonan of Maryknoll, who has been my unofficial supervisor since before I started the project and with whom we coordinate intensively, would say: “If it isn’t lifegiving to you it isn’t going to be lifegiving to the patients.” And I would say: “Just because it is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t lifegiving.” And he would agree. His insistence on the need for it to be lifegiving for us helped me see my day-to-day difficulty as being part of a process and not as a final experience of the practice. Other teachers went out of their way to help me. Venerable Pema Chodron sent me tapes of tonglen when I was just envisioning the work. Venerable Tenzin Palmo was a constant resource. Alan Wallace supported and sustained me. Gyatrul Rinpoche was willing to see me and chide me gently and warmly on my huge ambitiousness. Sensei Enkyo O’Hara encouraged me. Senseis Angie Boissovain, Misha Merrill and Susan Postal heard my confusion and responded with compassion, warmth and patience. Ajahn Rimon always welcomed my practice at Wat Bkhakhokhongka; Phra Paisan Visalo gave teachings to both me and my assistant early in the process. I have spoken of this in the formal speeches. What I want to emphasize here is that my own strength would never have carried me through the initial years without their generosity and the generosity of others.

Meditation, as well as study, has been fundamental in working through these difficulties. My own root tradition is Japanese Zen Buddhism and that has been the grounding for my formal meditation practice. In Thailand in 1995 I began also working in the awareness of motion techniques of Luong Pho Teean Jittasubho and remain deeply grateful to this practice and tradition. In 1999, when initiating this project I began working in the Tibetan Lojong tradition, which is their practice level designed systematically for the extension of compassion. This study was essential to my being able to envision and initiate our work with the project.

But in the first years or our work I began to sense a deep imbalance in my meditation practices, something lacking in their grounding. I found that the Vipassana meditation of Sayadaw Mahasi helped to address this problem. My recovery time from individual traumatic events became shorter. Slowly I began to become more at ease with the work.  Even my anger, which I have been working on consciously for a long time, began to diminish.

At moments I began to begin to feel a deep sense of peace. Especially when doing Reiki I began to experience the sensation of both the patient and I being held in a field of compassionate energy that had no boundaries.  My experience of ritual and chanting became infused with energy.

This in turn leads me to focus more deeply on the fundamentals. On studying, practicing and finding genuine refuge in the Precepts, on becoming proactive in the Paramitas and in finding the path laid out for me in the Four Noble Truths. I began to understand the role of safety in the Buddha’s teachings, how our genuine safety is grounded not in preventing harm from being done us or in blocking out the world, but in learning how not to do harm ourselves so that even terrible events did not have to undermine our serenity and happiness. I began to see that the path from suffering to liberation necessarily led through happiness and that happiness genuinely could be found in the midst of anything, however seemingly terrible.  In my practice with the patients I began to feel deep peace and comfort, to experience for myself the reality of the Buddha’s compassion. Gratitude began to be a constant companion.

Alan Wallace has a wonderful definition of merit. He speaks of it as spiritual strength that is built up by doing good. That strength is what allows us to make spiritual leaps when our practice is ripe for them, to see more deeply and to realize in our lives what we see. Working with patients and with my own many failures I slowly began to understand that things can change. They can change profoundly right in the middle of terrible situations. While we will always experience the results of both our skillful and unskillful kamma our responses do not have to be frozen into early patterns. Nor do we need to wait for future lives for transformation. Like Angulima or Milarepa or many lesser practitioners we can be brought immediately out of the hell realms by our encounter with the Buddha’s teachings. We can find, moment to moment, our way to happiness and freedom.

For me personally, the deep encounter with my weakness and failures has been crucial in beginning to see and live the difference between hearing the teachings on compassion and learning to live them. I experience work in the project and the merit that accrues from it helping me clear away the obstacles that prevent me from understanding and living the teachings.  I am still very much a beginner in this. I suspect it is the work of lifetimes. But I do feel truly at the beginning of this path. 

My debt to the project for this opportunity is boundless. I remain deeply grateful for the teachings, for our project and for everything that provides me with this precious opportunity to study.

Thank you for your kindness in listening.

In the Dhamma,

Beth Goldring


Working Without Intention:
AIDS, Death and Dying among the Cambodian Destitute
by Beth Goldring
Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project
Phnom Penh

Sok is lying on the floor in the tuberculosis hospital dying of AIDS. She is partly outside her mosquito net. Her face has taken on the alienated, impersonal quality people sometimes get when death is approaching. Her skin has open sores but she is beyond paying attention to them. Lok Yay, the Cambodian nun who works with me, simply pulls on her gloves and begins massaging Sok, making soothing sounds. Ramo, my assistant, and I go into the next room to do Reiki with another patient. By the time we come back Sok has returned to herself. She is sitting up, held by Lok Yay, who is also feeding her a little rice porridge. Sok is very weak but she is once again a specific, recognizable human person.

The next day Ramo and I take Sok's little daughter, who also has AIDS and lives in a group home for children, for a final visit with her mother. Sok is lying in her bed and Lok Yay has shaved her head. Srey Tout, who is only three, is terrified. I sit next to Sok on the bed.  Srey Tout, on my lap, sits so that she doesn't have to see this person she is too terrified to know. We visit quietly. Slowly Srey Tout begins to give tiny glances to this person in the bed.  Slowly she recognizes this person as her mother who loves her. Eventually she allows Sok to give her some hard candies and to kiss her. Sok is radiant, even in the face of her impending death. She dies within days.

Recently I received a set of wonderful letters about the death of a Thai woman practitioner, written by a fellow practitioner and friend who accompanied her dying.  A Thai monk who translates Sogyal Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama into Thai also assisted. What was breathtaking was the ongoing intimacy between her spiritual practice and her dying.  Her ability to incorporate her dying, with its pain and difficulties, into her practice seemed seamless.  I was and remain in awe of it.

Our work, while it does not lack inspiration, is not like this. In writing this paper I am increasingly forced to realize how little of our actual experience with death and dying in Cambodia conforms to the patterns normal for discussions of death and dying and Buddhist teachings. This worries me because I would like to make a bridge between the conditions we work under and the conditions normally taken for granted in the West.

Ordinary Cambodians have seen more death and dying than most Westerners can easily imagine. Most of it has taken place under terrible conditions: war, torture, brutality, starvation, lack of the most elementary medical care. I know of no adult over 30 who has not watched at least one family member starve to death or die from lack of elementary medical treatment during the Khmer Rouge period( 1975-79). Recently there are also mob killings of people suspected of stealing motorcycles (one of which took place in a wat with monks looking on) and arbitrary killings because of drunkenness or in the course of theft. There are also routine suicides and regular killing of rape victims, many of them tiny children. A look at the biweekly Police Blotter in the Phnom Penh Post gives the picture of a society in which death is routine and trivial. Deaths from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS, an increasing infant mortality rate, a terrible maternal mortality rate and routine child deaths from malnutrition, diarrheal diseases and fevers broaden but hardly complete the picture.

Buddhist teaching in Cambodia has not recovered from the legacy of war and genocide. The clergy were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge and politically controlled during the Vietnamese period (1979-91).  With some stunning exceptions, the reconstruction of Buddhist teachings has lacked skilled and knowledgeable teachers. This handful of skilled teachers are called upon to do everything from reconstructing the teaching of Pali through operating rice banks to conducting anti-smoking campaigns. While the level of knowledge is to some degree being reconstructed and there are monks and achars and nuns to chant and perform ceremonies the deeper knowledge of what the tradition means takes a far longer time to develop. One such stunning exception to these problems is the annual dhammayietra (peace walk) in which the commitment of monks, nuns, achars and laypeople to dhamma and to peace in Cambodia is palpable in every step they take.

It is impossible, however, that the increasing and uncontrolled corruption that stains every level of Cambodian society has left Buddhism untouched. Too often the wats lack even the most elementary discipline; too often the monks, mostly young boys, are taught simply that people should give them things; too often they are encouraged to study English and computer and not dharma. The nuns are old women. Since they receive little if any support from the wats (normally they have to build their own cottages to live in and may or may not receive food) they largely come from families able to support them. Many wats have no nuns at all and no space or welcome for them. The nuns tend to congregate in wats where there is dharma training for them. There they are respected for the sincerity of their practice but they are  not sought out for their wisdom. The Association of Nuns and Laywomen in Cambodia works to provide encouragement, support and training but it is the only active institution working on their behalf.  The achars (older men who keep five precepts and run ceremonies as well as the temporal affairs of the wats) are a mixed group. Some of them have studied dharma for a long time; others tend to concentrate almost exclusively on the material side of the work.

I am not saying things this critical of the current situation in Cambodian Buddhism lightly. The situation is all too understandable given Cambodia's history of massive and ongoing trauma. Often I am astounded by the Cambodian capacity for recovery in the face of it; for the kindness and compassion we find in desperate situations.  I doubt I would have even one-thousandth of the grace under stress we are routinely privileged to witness.  But without at least some background in the realities of current Cambodian Buddhism the problems the dying face are unintelligible. I know of one monk who sits with dying people. He works in a project which is mixed Christian and Buddhist and which has a home care project, a hospice and programs for orphans.  I have heard of other monks who visit the sick. I have heard of, but not seen, one wat where the destitute dying are accepted and where orphans are taken care of.

Our patients don't ask the monks to come and chant because they have nothing to give them and are ashamed. Our patients believe that their destitution and AIDS are the result of their karma. They believe that their poverty, suffering and disease place them outside the Buddha's concern and care. They know of no other way to overcome this problem except by giving things to monks. They believe that because they have nothing to give the monks their next lives will be even worse. It is easy for them to hate and fear death; they have seen too much of its ugliest face. It is especially easy for them to die in terror, rage or simple alienated, exhausted indifference.

When I began this project my intention was to help people die peacefully, confident in the Buddha's boundless compassion. That is still true. Every bit of our work is directed towards helping people realize that the Buddha's compassion is already fully present--right in the middle of their suffering.

What has changed enormously in the past five years is my sense of what this intention entails. What is striking me most powerfully recently is the need for us to let go of every other intention beyond seeing clearly and  accepting completely the person: just as they are right in the middle of their suffering. It means using all the tools we can bring to bear on the situation: chanting, meditation, ceremonies (including ghost ceremonies), Reiki, massage, amritta, candles, incense, small Buddha statues, pictures, whatever practical assistance we can offer and whatever compassion our own training and practice allow us to embody. But, paradoxically, it means using those tools without any idea of accomplishing anything with them.

It is late Friday evening. Bunna is dying in her house.  She is a woman of intelligence and fortitude and has refused to go to the hospice or hospital. This afternoon she was restless and upset. She also had uncontrolled diarrhea, which shamed her since she had no strength to change her clothing or clean it. Chey Lang, who has just received her Reiki II initiation, came with Veasna, my second translator. They cleaned everything, cooked some rice porridge and fed her as much as she could eat. Chey Lang did Reiki and  they left her resting in her mosquito net with the things she needed easily at hand. Meanwhile I had called her home care supervisor, who said they would pay for someone to care for her if we could find the person. 

Ramo and I have come back and have asked Ka, who is normally practical, warm and energetic, to be the caregiver. Ka agreed. But when she arrived she was badly out of control emotionally because of her own problems. Her organization (different from Bunna's) had just cut housing subsidies and the people caring for Ka's children had sent them back. She had nothing to feed them. Although Ka wants the job for financial reasons she is in no emotional state to do it. She becomes hysterical about the house not being safe; about whether her own antiretroviral medication might be stolen; about where she will sleep since her mosquito net is too big for the available space; about anything and everything. She does not interact with Bunna, who, meanwhile, is withdrawing further and further into herself. I tell Ka that we have other people for the job but she insists she wants it, calms down a bit and goes to get her things. While we are waiting another woman comes in, ostensibly to see about Bunna but actually to scream about her own problems and situation. Bunna by this time is practically in a fetal position; her eyes are withdrawn, shadowed and hollow and her mouth is a rictus. I feel that she is willing to die immediately, just to get away from the hysteria surrounding her. I leave Ramo to deal with the other woman and get back into the mosquito net with Bunna. I start to do Reiki, very gently and simply. Slowly she turns over onto her back. I move the pillows behind her, raising her head to help with her lung congestion. She is too weak to cough up matter from a lying down position.

The visitor leaves and Ka comes back to tell us her son has disappeared and that she can't stay with Bunna because she has to go find him. Ramo deals with her gently but we are both enormously relieved. We call Lok Yay's assistant and ask him to bring another woman we know, Heng, who is gentle and kind. I do not expect Bunna to live even the half hour that it will take them to arrive. 

I have been studying about giving Reiki attunements to the dying and it strikes me that there could hardly be a better time to start. So I do what I can, holding in my mind no intention or simply the intention that Bunna go as peacefully as is possible. Focussing on the attunement process I am not watching her face closely. When I look back at her she is peaceful and present and I feel an enormous gratitude.

Heng arrives and immediately gets under the mosquito net with her cheerful, peaceful presence. We make the necessary arrangements quickly and without fuss. Bunna is concerned that I am there very late in the evening and must be tired. It is characteristic of her to be concerned about me as soon as she is reasonably conscious again. 

That was  February 27. Bunna went into the hospital March 3, was eating successfully, even corn on the cob, several days later and began antiretrovirals March 10. Perhaps she will make it.

My sense of things right now is that it is necessary to let go of all intentions, even, at one level, the intention of helping someone find peacefulness. My sense is that the more we are able to do this, the more we are able to let people be who they are, to have their own lives and deaths and not the ones we might wish for them, the more effective the work will be at the deeper levels. This does not mean withholding our skills, capacities, knowledge and/or most powerful efforts. Rather it means using them as fully as we possibly can, moment to moment. But it also means using them unconditionally, letting go of all ideas about what should happen or how it should happen.

There is, of course, nothing new in this. It is classic Buddhist teaching and teaching that Zen, in particular, emphasizes strongly.  Cambodia is an easy place to learn about the limitations of efforts. But it is also a wonderful place to learn about the power of what works through us when we let go of ideas. We are enormously privileged to be able to work here.

published in the German Buddhist Association magazine, Spring 2004.

Some Problems of Human Rights Work in a Buddhist Setting
by Beth Goldring
Brahmavihara/Cambodia AIDS Project
Phnom Penh

 "So my understanding is that the suffering [of the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge] was created by someone of the big people. There were many people killed, many children orphaned, and they separated husband and wife. The suffering was because the leaders created it....
 "Everyone has both suffering and happiness in their heart and the two of them stay together. So everyone has to accept it. According to my understanding people seem like grass. The people are like grass because the grass accepts everything: rain, sun, cars driving over it, storms. It accepts all seasons. The grass accepts all. So I think people are like the small grass.
 "If we want to build a house we have to take a big log out of the forest and move it over the grass. If we compare this to the suffering of the common people: If the leaders need power to do something and the people get injured and killed that is separate. This is since long ago up until now... This is why we compare people to grass. The grass accepts all suffering and the people accept all suffering."
[Ieng Sonnary, the speaker, is the personal assistant and cleaner for Maha Ghosananda in Phnom Penh.]

This paper is about two problems in human rights work from a Buddhist practitioner's perspective, one structural and one experiential. The structural conflict concerns the use of judicial and legal mechanisms to achieve human rights; I believe this acts as a barrier to successful human rights work in Buddhist environments. The experiential problem concerns the way in which much of standard human rights practice acts as a barrier to the development of compassion in the practitioner. Although these are far from the only problems, I believe they are important and illustrative. My own experience of these conflicts comes from almost twenty years as a human rights worker and even longer as a Zen practitioner.

In America we pay a lot of attention to personal problems; we spend months or years examining why a relationship has not worked, why our career path hasn't given us what we wanted, etc. But we tend not to give the same attention to problems at the international political level. With regard to human rights we export assumptions, strategies and practices based deeply in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and fail to examine why they don't work. If we are actually to be of compassionate assistance in real suffering we must move beyond the idea that because we have good intentions we already know what is best.

I would like to make four preliminary points:

1. Human rights are not about a specific form of government. The human rights conventions, declarations, etc. are an attempt to define and realize what human beings should be able to expect under any and all forms of government;

2. The deeper social visions of human rights and Buddhism are compatible. Both envision societies in which people are fed, educated and live in harmony with themselves, each other and the environment; in which they have access to meaningful work, health care, sustaining family life, and freedom of religious practice; in which they are free from abuse at all levels, from sexual trafficking to torture;

3. The structures through which Buddhism and human rights attempt to achieve these visions are deeply different. The Buddhist social vision is one of a hierarchical society purified at the top by adherence to the dharma, one in which the purity at the top is the primary agent of morality, ethics, and social harmony. Multiparty democracy,  separation of powers, managed competition among factions, and the Rule of Law, while not altogether incompatible with this vision, are not part of it;

4. These social visions have not been realized in practice by either the human rights movement or existing Buddhist societies (as in existing Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and other societies).

I came to Southeast Asia in 1995 and Cambodia in 1996 expecting that living in a Buddhist environment would provide deep support for the integration of human rights work and spiritual practice. I found this not to be the case. Initially I blamed this on human rights work having been imported into Cambodia as part of an international agenda focusing on voter education and civil and political rights, without consultation as to what was important to the Cambodians themselves. While there was certainly political conflict, it seemed very far from people's most pressing concerns, from the social disintegration, disease and destitution everywhere apparent. 

Moreover, Cambodia had been undergoing massive, internationally-managed political reform, especially since 1991 when the Paris Peace Accords were signed. While all this had significant effect, it nonetheless left the same leadership at the top and most centers of power untouched. While some people, including those in government, have learned to speak the language of human rights, that language has made no significant connection to either their behavior or their beliefs. The concept of human rights has also failed to touch the hearts or empower the actions of the Cambodian people.

To be fair, human rights work in Cambodia is also developing away from its restricted beginnings into a larger agenda more appropriate for the country, especially in such areas as land reform, the right to health, the prevention of domestic violence, and the protection of workers and children. It is also addressing such essential political and civil issues as legalized impunity, the independence of the judiciary, and the effects of endemic corruption on legal processes. There has also been massive reform in education, health, and development, some of which has been both well intentioned and effective.

But in the years I have lived here I have seen no lessening of destitution; rather an increasing gap between rich and poor. Trafficking in drugs and prostitution continues to increase. Many of the 85% of Cambodians who are farmers are losing their land. De-mining activities intended to provide poor farmers with land instead provide land for investment and for friends of high government officials; usurious interest on loans (10%/month); high health care costs; and land grabs for purposes of commercial agriculture, deforestation, and casino building deprive people of what little land they possess. AIDS has begun to overwhelm what little had been achieved in health reform and further to decimate the adult population of the county..

Over time, I have come to believe that the problem for human rights in Cambodia is deeper than endemic corruption, neo-colonialism, and the importation of Western values; that the failure of human rights work to reach the hearts of the Cambodian people is neither accidental nor intended but but a matter of deeper structural conflict. I have come to believe that there is a lack of deeper resonance between the strategies of human rights work and the way in which at least Cambodian people understand reality,

I believe this failure happens primarily because international human rights work has taken legal process and the adjudication of claims as its fundamental organizing principle. Within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition this is completely meaningful. God is a judge. To envision human law aspiring to the perfection of God's law is to attempt to bring human society into alignment with God's purpose. This model for human rights work—defined rights, competing claims, articulation and adjudication of claims, appeal and resolution within a judicial framework—is so deeply set within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic ontology that it is difficult even to imagine an alternative.

But  these assumptions have no place in Buddhist cosmology. God is not a judge. Law is not the visible reflection of divine social ordering. Even though Buddha was a practical social reformer, especially with regard to such issues as Brahmanism and the religious status of women, the Buddha’s vision of social harmony is not one of setting structural limits on the exercise of absolute power; it is one of purifying the use of power, including absolute power, so that it operates for the good. The monitor is the Wheel of Dharma, revealing the ruler’s purity of intention and goodness; it is not the legislature and Supreme Court acting as checks and balances. Karma is a natural law, like the laws of physics, and does not require adjudication to punish offenders far more effectively than any court system. While courts and legal systems of course exist, they do not have the same imaginative or ontological force that they have within Judeo-Christian-Islamic societies.

This failure of the judicial structure to link with deeper understandings of reality profoundly limits the effectiveness of current human rights strategies, at least within Cambodia. In Cambodia law is no match for power and people do not envision legal reform as a way to fix this. If they cannot find a powerful person to intervene they take matters into their own hands (mobs routinely beat to death motorcycle thieves; in one case involving monks the wat defended the practice). Or they remain powerless: "The grass accepts all."

Certainly the Cambodian people's understanding of power and powerlessness has been profoundly conditioned by their traumatic experience over the past 30 years. But this does not explain why the vision of human rights fails to bring hope to the situation as it does other places, why it fails to empower the deeper levels of people's imaginations. 

I believe that one important reason for this failure is the human rights movement's unthinking use of the legal/judicial framework, the narrowness of its strategic vision. To be effective in Buddhist contexts, human rights work needs fundamental strategic broadening.  It must leave the palace (and temple) of justice and enter the forest, the unknown, complex reality where the potential for genuinely enlightened action dwells.

Such strategic broadening can only come from people deeply grounded in both the aspirations of human rights and their own cultural traditions. This work is happening. Thich Nhat Hanh, Maha Ghosananda and the Dalai Lama are three powerful examples of the embodiment of human rights aspirations within the Buddhist traditions in Asia. Less visible are the many women engaged in the same or related efforts. Such creative work will not only help to provide a genuine link between Buddhist and human rights visions of society but will also deeply enrich the strategic practice of human rights workers everywhere.

This first problem, that of the strategic narrowness of the legal/judicial framework, primarily harms the effectiveness of human rights work within a Buddhist context. The second problem, obstacles created by the work to the development of compassion,  primarily harms human rights workers themselves. As religious activists, we see activism as a powerful vehicle for spiritual development. But when we fail to pay enough attention to aspects of our work that act as impediments, the work drains rather than strengthens us. In Buddhist terms, we succumb to such "near enemies" of compassion as grief and despair.

I would like to insert a few caveats here. Of course there are many compassionate people doing human rights work. And, of course, many people go into human rights work because of compassion. Moreover, "burnout" is hardly a problem restricted to either Buddhists or human rights workers. But my concern in this section is with human rights work as spiritual practice. Traditional human rights work can be a formidable obstacle to the development of genuine compassion.

Within human rights work, documentation is a particularly problematic area, since it focuses precisely at the moment of atrocity. We decontextualize traumatic events from the lives of the persons undergoing it, with their histories, beliefs, understandings and processes, and recontextualize it within the human rights framework. We look at events, for example, the torture of a child, in isolation and also in relation to 1) the definition of torture within the international sphere and 2) other instances of torture within the same or other political/social contexts. We compare cases and look at patterns. It is essential that we do this, so that the work is not partisan or biased. It is also crucial to obtaining a larger understanding of the violations themselves. Inevitably our comparisons affect everything from the sympathy we experience towards victims to the allocation of such resources as time, money, effort and media focus. Less dramatic or older events are overwhelmed. Sustained effort becomes difficult. The international community becomes "compassion fatigued" and resources needed for continued effort disappear. Human rights workers ourselves often move from country to country, to where the work feels most pressing, or where there are resources to sustain us.

I am not suggesting that this is either wrong in terms of human rights work or a personal moral failing on the part of the workers. This form of documentation is an effective set of strategies for understanding and dealing with massive human rights violations. But we no longer see human beings, only the traumatic events which have mis-shapen them. This emotionally static fixing on trauma comes at a deep cost to compassion. Under normal circumstances, this fixing would move either into compassion or cruelty, depending on our emotional/spiritual makeup. Frozen into itself by the demands of our work, it is an easy path to grief and despair: to cynicism, burnout, exhaustion, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other ills. We become inured to the various horrors and then drained by them. The compassion that leads us to the work becomes vulnerable within it.

In order for compassion to develop properly, we are required to understand suffering as both real and empty. We must see into and through the specific suffering we are faced with to the universal compassion and emptiness behind it. In this way we bring redress and action within the larger realm of bodhichitta, of compassionate emptiness. We dissolve both the suffering and the self and are nourished rather than drained.

Within the contexts of injustice, atrocity, and people's own anger, rage, frustration, helplessness, agony, suffering and despair, finding ways to use the work as a genuine vehicle for practice is not an easy task. Although our specific strategies will vary, certain principles are clear. We need to ground ourselves in the larger context of both our own lives and the lives we touch. Community support is of tremendous importance, as is having rest and beauty in our lives. Having time and space for extended formal practice is crucial. The more deeply we are grounded in emptiness and compassion the more strength we will have available for sustained effort. We also have powerful traditional tools: mindfulness practice, metta and tonglen among them.

Much of current human rights work could benefit from a strong infusion of genuine compassion. As Jigme Tenpe Nyima's text on Transforming Adversity and Felicity into the Spiritual Path reminds us: "the meaning of not being afflicted not that one averts the arising...or prevents their occurrence in the future. Rather, it means that these things are not able to arise as obstacles to following the spiritual path." Spiritually transforming the difficulties posed by human rights work enriches the work as well as strengthening our practice. How can we do this? Where are the arms and eyes of Kanzeon/Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, here and now?

published in Turning Wheel, Journal of the
Buddhist Peace Fellowship, USA, Summer, 2001


The four Brahmavihara (dwelling places of the Brahma or boundless virtues) are lovingkindness, compassion, shared joyousness and equanimity.
All photographs, except where otherwise noted, Bennett Stevens 2005/2006. Used with gratitude.