Loving Kindness for 2017?

A highlight of my recent trip to Sri Lanka to attend the Developing EM conference in Colombo included a visit to the Ayya Khema meditation centre to visiting Bhikkuni Kusum a spiritual teacher of wisdom and kindness.

Bhikkuni Kusuma is an amazing lady. She grandmotherly figure in her late 80’s who has lead an increadibly rich lay life as a scientist, wife and mother of 6. She later took to the robes to become a leading figure in reviving the female Buddhist order in Sri Lanka.

One of the many intriguing stories she talks about life includes her experience as a university science teacher, when she undertook a masters degree in molecular biology many years ago in USA. She is said to have earnestly enquiries from her then supervisors “what I am leaning about is quite amazing, but I am really searching for the answers to the deeper questions in life like ‘why are we born?’, ‘why do we die?'”. To this her supervisors replied “i’m sorry, but science has yet to discover all that”. It was from here that she changed tack in here career and focus her efforts in a field that was dedicated to the complentation of all such entities. Upon returning to Sri Lanka she embarked upon her first PhD in Buddhist philosophy at the Sri Jayawardenapura university in Colombo.

She initially completed a masters thesis investigating aspects of Vipassana (insight meditation), and later completed a PhD on the Dasasil Mattha (Ten Precepts Buddhist nun movement) in Sri Lanka. However, due to the civil instability in Sri Lanka at the time  she submitted her first thesis there were problems with first PhD being awarded, so she embarked on a second PhD (tho only person I know who has done such a thing, perhaps a testimony to her patience and determination as middle aged woman who also had a family of her own). Here she went on to study the female Buddhist order in Sri Lanka, and she investigate why the order seemed to have dissipated, eventually fuelling the difficult journey leading to its resurgence.

At the end of this period of study she herself ordained as a female Buddhist clergy-woman, otherwise know as Nun or “Bhikkuni”. When I asked her why she became a monk she emphatically, and affectionately exclaims, “I had to! They told me I must”, referring to the moral obligation of knowing all the trouble that Bhikkuni’s had faced in establishing equal footing of an order for females.

Apparently she had discussed this with her family at the time who she is still in touch with and taken to the robes in her 60’s, over 20 years ago. Since then she has become a humble leader in gently promoting the sharing of whatever wisdom she can disseminate through years of contempative meditation, and the writing of several books about the application of Buddhist philosophy and wisdom in everyday life.
http://www.bhikkhunikusuma.info/

An autobiography that was written at the request of her daughter and chief disciple, outlining her insightful path from scientist and family woman to religious clergy and leader. The book is called “Braving the unknown summit”, and this details the incredible journey further, explaining the great challenges that were faced in re-establishing the female Buddhist order in Sri Lanka. It also covers on a more personal not the impact of several tradgeies she faced whilst working, doing research and having responsibilities as a family woman, which included illness and death of her mother and the premature deaths of one of her daughters in her 20’s and her eldest son in his 40’s, who both died from cancer.

Meeting Bhikkuni Kusuma (2006-10)
I was very fortunate to have met Bhikkuni Kusuma during my 4 years of living in Sri Lanka, as she is actually a relation (my fathers first cousin). This was a very special situation for me because one of my aspirations in returning to Sri Lanka after a life of growing up abroad, was reconnecting with my extended family, and also learning more about meditation and spirituality. Meeting Bhikkuni Kusuma seemed to incredible offer both.

I remember when I fist met her she fondly recounts looking after my father and his older brother, her small younger cousins, proudly taking them by the hand in order to sit some school entrance examination many years ago. I wanted to learn from her about Buddhism, and had some trepidation about following the correct respectful rituals in order to engage with a senior clergy woman. However, upon Meeting Bhikkuni Kusuma I realized that beyond the surface  appearance of a woman in saffron robes, whatever distinction this may have had at the time, lay a kind hearted human being who was as easy going as ever.

It was like meeting a kind wise old aunt, or grandmother, who readily shared insight and wisdom, as well as the occasional mischievous smile that made me feel quite at ease, and lucky at the same time.
Those days I learned many points of wisdom through candid discussions with Bhikkuni (some of which I have audio recorded and video recorded) that helped me through challenging times in my life when I returned to Australasia and had to face writing up a PhD thesis whilst undergoing specials training in emergency medicine (which I am still completing). I am forever grateful for the the kindness and enthusiasm that Bhikkuni Kusuma displayed whilst teaching so much about the insights that meditation offered, including principles outlined in the Dhamma (the experiential teaching of the Buddha).

The Ayya Khema Mediation Centre 2017

During my current visit to Sri Lanka, it was a high priority to visit the Ayya Khema Meditation Centre where Bhikkuni Kusuma now resides and teachers meditation and Buddhism to people who both live locally and around the world. I came there with my fiancé who isn’t a Buddhist and didn’t grown up with a background of eastern religions, and my little brother who lives quite a modern New Zealand lifestyle, including working and playing, and enjoying life when we can- much like myself and my older brother.

Both of them had not really stayed in a Sri Lankan meditation centre like this, but I believe our short but impactful overnight stay was also a highlight for them too.


We were also fortunate to meet other people who were interested in learning wisdom from Bhikkuni, including a lovely couple from Hungary who had been living in London for many years, one of whom plans to release some of the recorded discussions on an internet website (a link to which I endeavour to share! Thanks Ferenc).

Coming here after attending an amazing medical conference in Colombo was a fitting follow on to a finely pitched conference that explored the science of Emergency medicine, but also delved into many broader topics that address the philosophical issues of humanity in health care. For me this visit to the meditation picked up where the medical conference discussion left off. We addressed many philosophical topics through discussions with Bhikkuni Kusuma over those two days at Ayya Khema, following the week-long medical conference, about the “awareness of the true nature of life”, and the journey onwards in order to understand both the source of human conflict and suffering and the alleviation of suffering.

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Loving Kindness for 2017
Finally, I will share one of the rough edits of a video clip I recorded at the end of our stay at the Ayya Khema meditation centre where Bhikkuni Kusuma wanted to teach me a useful meditative practice of extending a wish for loving Kindness to encompass all living beings. This is my New Years wish for 2017, and would like to share it with anyone who feels the benefit from knowing such practices exist and are improving the lives of many around the world. I certainly have felt the bendit of this Metta (loving kindness) meditation in the past and hope to bring the practice back into my life this year.

Bhikkuni Kusum was adamant that I share her teachings with as many people who are interested as possible, and was very happy to use whatever mediums (eg, video, blog, audio) as I saw fit. I am very grateful for this and thus will share the following You Tube recording. I hope you find it of interest. Feel free to leave comments as you so desire.

I have detailed the Pali words from this version of the Metta Sutta below, along with their  translated meanings (which the video also outlines).

Metta Sutta: Radiating kindness without limit:-



uddham – above

adho ca – below

tiriyañca – across

asambhādam – without pain and suffering

averam – no anger/hatred

asapattam – no enmity (no enemies)

sabbe sattā – may all living beings

bhavantu – be

sukhitattām – well and happy

Dear Venerable Bhikkuni Kusuma – Thank you for your patient effort in teaching me a small about of wisdom in your kind and compassionate ways.

I will cherish he words and the sentiment of this verse, and hopefully share the inspiration I have gained from you and the Bhuddist teachings I have learned through you.

A wish for 2017! 

May all beings be well

May all being be happy

Best wishes for 2017!!!

1-1-2017

Believe in Yourself!

This is the message that came from the words that better describes the song that I just recorded. that I originally called “study jam”. As I pushed record on my computer I entered the words “study jam” because that was exactly what it was – some random chords and sounds that needed to be released quickly before heading to the office on a beautiful sunday to do some work.

Today I need to re-analyse data that collected in 2008 to try an answer a question related to understand what drives doctors to make clincial decisions. I never dreamed that I would still be doing this in March 2013.I am afraid of doing this data analysis which is why I needed to start with some inspiration.

Research and writing can be a lonely world, but I believe it is rewarding in the end. One of the reasons it’s so lonely is that I feel that very few people can understand what you’re talking about half the time, but still I try to explain. The reason I feel fear is that analysing data is not straightforward, and it usually take far longer than one imagines. I am also afraid becuase if what comes out of this analysis changes my findings, then i have to re-think the problem again and write about it in a different way (ie. “back to the drawing board”, yet again!)

“Why am I doing this?” is the question that comes to mind a hundred times over, but it’s already been answered a thousand times back. I had a dream in 2008, when working in the rural hospitals of Sri Lanka, of making a difference to the systems medical education in low resource settings. The research I was involved with opened so many doors, in my mind, mainly to do with understanding how making a change could be possible. However, not long after I had the vision, came a realisation that it would take a lot of time and committment and perserverance to make it all happen. These were all things that frightend the life out of me at the time, but I ignored it with enthusiam and a belief that it would be a breeze. Only much later when facing many road blocks I had to face the reality that writing up my research findings was going to be harder than I had hoped for.

Whilst I don’t expect many to understand the details of what I’m writing about, there is one concept my struggle, and occasional loneliness illustrates:-

“it is not easy for anyone to understand (and therefore judge) anyone elses struggles, no matter how trivial or signigficant they seem on the surface.”

This is why I try to maintain a deep respect for “all” human being because the chances are that I don’t fully know or understand their struggle. I believe the common suffering is the thing that binds as all, and it is something that we can embrace. Buddhist philosophy suggests that the struggle is common, and perhaps solution can be shared by all.

But what about the conditions – aren’t some people put in far more tricky situations?

Perhaps? Perhaps not? I the only thing I know is that I don’t know.

Again, I don’t profess to know about anyone else, after all i’m just getting to know myself!

I believe that the conditions of one’s external reality (ie what’s going on in your life) can really shape and affect our inner world, but only as much as we let it. It’s hard to change the external world quickly (or at all), but what we can do is change our “realtionship with that reality” at any given time through our “attitude”. Holding an attitude of hope, positivity, and friendliness, allows us to see pick up wth most import data points in the experience soup that hits our face on a daily basis.

This morning when I went out surfing the rough seas, with 4 friends, it looked like madness, but we did it with an open mind, and the result was amazing. We didn’t catch the best waves of our life, but we all had a fun time, and learned something. Ultimately isn’t this a valuable thing – this is my definition (at the moment) of what life is about – to learn something and try and have some fun in the process, and even better to share it with some others!

I hope you have a good Sunday whereever you are, no matter what the conditions.

My song has provided me with enough fun and inspiration to allow me to go and face the fears of the analysis in the office.

Adios Amigos!

ps I hope you enjoy the song!

Bish_and_boyz-sufing

(Photography courtesy of Kester Boardman)

ANU Research Fest 2010 – Going beyond the Endpoints!

Last week was the Australian National University’s research festival week. The ‘Research fest’, as it is know to ANU’ers, is like an orientation week for research students (MPhil and PhD candidates) where research and teaching life is celebrated. In addition to seminars on “thesis writing” for new students and “strategies for completion” for more advanced students, the University holds a series of social and creative activities including competitions for a research note, presentation of a thesis, acting in skits or presenting a short film clip.
The creative part of university life is something I was loved in my undergraduate years, but unfortunately in the four years that I have been enrolled at ANU for my PhD, I have never been able to attend this Research festival because of the demands of my fieldwork in Sri Lanka. This year was no exception, but this time it was because I am back in New Zealand writing up my thesis, and I am presently on quite a tight schedule to complete this! However, I did enter two competitions ‘on-line’ despite the mounting pressures.

Research Note

For the “Research Note” competition I wrote a Poem synopsis about my research experience that was titled “Going ‘beyond’ the endpoints!”. This is about an aspect of research that I discovered along the way and is something that I feel strongly about (ie. that life is more about the journey than the destination).

Going “beyond” the Endpoints!

Beyond the endpoints are the bits that are not seen,

The thoughts and emotions that lie behind the PhD’s sheen,

And whilst they will not appear in the final binding,

They are the reminders of how the road was so very winding.

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Research is more about the journey than its destination,

It is to respect the ‘process’ as well as the final creation,

And the process lies within the changes we experience in “ourself”,

Which sometimes speaks more than that book up on the shelf.

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My story is long, but I’ll try and keep it short,

It won’t be like some kind of scientific report!

For this is about a journey of mind and soul,

How this process has helped me feel whole.

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I collected data in the depths of Sri Lanka,

Amongst my very own first culture,

Where beautiful rivers flow, and green paddy fields glow,

With coconut trees that surround, where wild elephants can easily be found.

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I studied suicidal poisoning and its medical cure,

In villagers who drank pesticides when they felt desperate and insecure.

Some would say it was a cry for help,

Either way, they did not do well.

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We tried to understand how to ease the terrible prognosis,

By studying a portable machine that could help in treatment and diagnosis,

But whilst collecting this data, an additional vision was to develop,

Another study – “training doctors in resuscitation”- was soon to envelope.

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Whilst in Sri Lanka my mind expanded more than I would have believed,

Working with different cultures and systems into which I’d soon be weaved.

And with this I began to see my thesis as more than a mere ‘cog in a wheel’,

For perhaps, it may bring about change in the world, in a way that is real.

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Film Clip

I also put together a 5 minute short film (see below) which is a story along the same theme titled :-
“Beyond the Endpoints – sights, sounds and emotions of the international journey of research”.

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I didn’t want to let the movie get in the way of my thesis write-up, because I know that whilst film making and photography are a real passion of mine, they are also a huge consumer of time. However, to overcome this challenge I had a plan of waiting until the day before the film clip deadline before I started to put something together, and in the end I managed to come up with an entry! Nevertheless, it was still an incredibly difficult task for sentimental reasons.
All I could think about when creating this film clip was, “there are just so many people to honour and thank for this incredible journey”, “where do I begin?”.
I also kept thinking to myself “this isn’t ‘my’ project, it belongs to everyone who helped me along the way”, and it really is, including the patients we were trying to help. For without the help of everyone involved in this research I would not have been able to have carried it out, and I wouldn’t have been able to have learnt as much as I did during those years.

Gratitude

I guess really wanted to write this blog entry in honour of these people. Rather than publish a long list of names of people whom I feel indebted to for helping me get even this far, I thought a better approach is to bring back the poem I wrote not too long ago called “An Ode to my friends”  (see below). Please have a read of this Poem, it’s a favourite of mine because it seems to achieve the difficult task of expressing the magnitude of appreciation I have towards so many people who have helped and supported me through these incredible years.

I guess there is really one group of people, apart from my family and friends, who I really want to thank at this stage, even before I’ve finished writing up my thesis, and that is the “SACTRC crew”. The South Asian Clinical Toxicology Research Collaboration (www.sactrc.org) is the research collaboration between the Australian National University and University of Peradeniya (funded by the Wellcome Trust/NHMRC (GR071669), who provided my academic base and was the “lifeline” and the vision behind my work.
In addition to this I am really grateful for my two supervisors Professors Andrew Dawson and Nick Buckley, because without them none of this would be possible. Beyond this I have to thank “all” those people in Sri Lanka, and of course my family and friends, but the list really is too long, which is why I have left it to my poem to do the work J

Ode to my friends

This is an ode to my friends,

Those beautiful people who are like precious gems.

The ones who help me stay on track,

Who keep me together when I want to crack.

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They are always ready to comfort me,

To give me sight when I just can’t see,

And give me might when I feel like a flea,

Yes these are my friends,

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And if you think that I’m not talking about you

Well then – think again!

For when it comes to friends, each and every one counts, I truly believe this!

For we are all at different stages of different journeys.

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And it is the togetherness and interaction itself,

That creates the movement,

That is necessary and bodes well for improvement,

And the sanctity of ‘what is’.

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They say friends will come,

And friends will go,

But this doesn’t matter,

If our acquaintance is more than chatter!

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For whether it is now, in the past, or perhaps in the future,

There will be a bend,

And I will see you beyond that my dear friend,

For, after all, there is no beginning and no end.

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It is just an ever-growing flow,

Of love, energy. and much much more,

That lies here and also beyond this shore,

This is what we must grow!

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And knead it like freshly made dough,

And bake a beautiful loaf of humankind,

One love, one world, and together – one mind!

With this, we leave all our troubles behind..

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Thank you for your friendship.

The competition

I haven’t yet heard the results of the competition from last week, but for me it was not about winning, but rather about ‘participating’ in something that struck a chord with me, and provided another dimension to this work that has been a huge part of my life over the recent years.
Interestingly, both these competition entries have helped me in the daunting psychological task of ‘writing up’. One of the hardest things in writing up the thesis is dealing with the situation of feeling like there is ‘too much’ information to put into a logical linear format. I found the situation with the competition entries to be similar in that there appeared to be too much emotion, too many memories, and too much experience to be able to string together a concise videographic or poetic story. It was a daunting task… but I did it!
Similarly with regards to my current thesis write-up, it is daunting but I “AM” doing it, which feels good.
To me these competition entries were an example of the beauty and power that exists when ‘the arts’ are in support of ‘the sciences’, and where one of these two disciplines can help carry out the tasks of the other.
[Ed Note – in the end the Film ended up winning third prize in it’s category]

Feedback

As always I would love to hear you feedback on the poems or the film clip. Regarding the film clip, I have been very selective and I do not think there is any footage that would breach confidentiality, or cause any embarrassment to anyone – even the elephants and monkeys who have been captured, (but please let me know if there are any concerns, and I will take note and action). Also, I want to make it clear (for the purposes of my own research integrity) that I have not included any of the study data from the actual studies that I conducted.
On the contrary, what I tried to do was present an overview of the four years that I had in Sri Lanka, and I think many of my Sri Lankan friends and colleagues will enjoy seeing this, even though by no means is this a comprehensive account. Hopefully, will be much  more to come after I have finished this write up.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing your feedback.
Photos
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Finally I have included a few photos of Sri Lanka below. I literally took thousands of photos in Sri Lanka during the past 4 years, and I plan to present these in some way of form after completing my PhD. However, for the moment I just to put together about 60 photos from the first half of the journey (most of these pics are of the early SACTRC days, a lot of them social pics, in honour of these people who made my stay there so nice.) This collection of pictures is by no means comprehensive, as there are so many other pictures that I would like to include, but for the moment perhaps this is something.
This is the motto I am using to get through the write up of my thesis chapters, when I feel like I don’t know where to begin because there is just so much i want to write about – and the answer that works for me is is “Sharing ‘something’ is better than sharing nothing”.

 

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