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Buddhist Center focuses on direct aid for tsunami survivors

By Maureen Walsh, Weymouth News Correspondent, January 12, 2005

Massachusett, USA -- Ten hours after the first reports aired of the devastating tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, the Pho-Hien Center in Braintree received a message from a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka: "Please ask someone at the American center to help us. Everything is gone."

The Venerable Master Thich Thien Hue, the center's founder, was not surprised to get an appeal for help so swiftly from half-a-world away.

"People respect America. America is a wonderful, promised land. When something happens, they knock on America's door," he said. "They think of who in America is able to extend their voice to everyone."

While the Red Cross and UNICEF and other relief organizations grapple with the large scale needs of the entire region, the Pho-Hien Center is working to supply direct aid to survivors seeking help through the Sudharmarama Buddhist Monastery in southern Sri Lanka.

The Venerable Dr. Pollamure Sorata Thero, one of two Sri Lankan monks studying at Pho-Hien, returned to his stricken homeland this week to assess the needs first-hand. The confirmed death toll in that island nation now exceeds 30,860 with another 4,000 people missing and one million left homeless.

"We are waiting to hear the doctor's plan. He knows his country. He knows his own temple," said Master Hue. "We are small. We cannot do something huge, but little by little, based on the connection to this center through the doctor, we can go directly to the organizations. These people live there all their lives. They know what to do."

Buddhist temples are providing shelter and assistance for victims without distinction, said Master Hue. "There is no religion, no ethnicity, no race. We have to do whatever we can to serve living beings with compassion, love and kindness."

The Venerable Kirama Dhammanandu of Sri Lanka has remained at Pho-Hien to support the nearly 5,000 members of the Sri Lankan Buddhist community in Massachusetts and to coordinate the aid effort with Master Hue and other Buddhist leaders in New England.

The monks in Sri Lanka talk to people in the victim areas about where they can go for food, medicine, clothes and other physical needs, but they are also addressing mental and spiritual needs, said the Ven. Dhammanandu.

"The biggest problem they are facing is how to put the family together. Many are missing. The dead are the second largest to Indonesia," he said. "Already the family systems are gone. It is most important to bring the mind back to normal through the monks or someone trained."

"Mentally, one can't put into a single word how great the suffering is," said the Venerable Bhikkhu Pannaloka, a Nepalese monk who speaks Thai and is also working on Boston area support and relief efforts. "We can make direct injections, right away. We have direct contact. We know where the wound is, where to apply the medicine directly."

Although Buddhism teaches that nothing is permanent, that the circle of both human life and the natural world includes periods of destruction leading to renewal, the monks said Buddhist principles also stress the need to relieve suffering and help those in want.

"Human beings should have food, clothes, hospital treatment. Those who are physically affected, we must support medically and materially," said the Ven. Pannaloka. "Because of the loss of relatives, many are affected psychologically, and this is very difficult. The monks counsel them and apply the teachings of Buddha to heal the mental wound, the
sorrow."

Master Hue said ten Tibetan monks joined with the Pho-Hien community Jan. 2 for a memorial service for the tsunami victims and about $3,000 has been raised within the temple community so far. Many Buddhists in America are supporting family members in their homelands, he said, but their additional contributions are being combined to help the many others in need.

"We have sent an urgent notice to the Buddhist community in the New England area for a memorial service here in the next few weeks and to organize a disaster treasury," he said.

"Our ability is so small, but when we act together in all elements, we become one voice."

Pho-Hien is the largest Buddhist Center in New England, but it is only three years old and still not well-known within the local community, said Master Hue. The temple is open to all, not only Buddhists, and the prayers and support of its neighbors of all beliefs are welcome.

"Come, keep your religion. Come, keep to your own way," he said. "We are happy to do in this town whatever we can do to keep peace, to make good relations, to give support."

The Pho-Hien Center is located at 155 Quincy Avenue (Route 53) in Braintree at the site of the former Resthaven Nursing Home. Master Hue can be reached there at 781-848-7519.

Contributions can also be sent to the Sri Lanka Tsunami Fund, c/o the Ven. Kirama Dhammanandu; 75 Thornton Street; Revere, MA 02151. He can be reached by cell phone at 781-420-6831.

"On the day of the disaster, my mother passed away in Vietnam. She was 85 years old," said Master Hue. "I could not go. I must focus on this. I must be here for the Buddhist community."

"Mom was lucky," he said. "There are 156,000 dead in the disaster. Families are gone.

There is nothing left. Mom still had the family with her. She had the monks to say prayers at her burial."

"We ask if someone reads this with compassion, and they understand and want to do something, they contact us."

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