Calming the Mind Among Bodies Laid Bare

By MICHAEL LUO, New York Times, April 29, 2006

New York, USA -- For centuries in Asia, Buddhist monks have meditated among the dead, contemplating the transience and preciousness of life. The practice typically takes place on charnel ground, among bodies decomposing and festering in the open air.

For obvious reasons, the practice has not made much headway among American Buddhists.

"We sanitize death a lot in the West," said Rande Brown, executive director of the Tricycle Foundation, a Buddhist organization.

But visiting the cadaver exhibit, "Bodies ... the Exhibition," upstairs from the Baby Gap at South Street Seaport several months ago, Ms. Brown, a Buddhist who once traveled to India to meditate among bodies awaiting cremation, had a brainstorm.

"It just quickly came to me," she said. "I called the Bodies exhibit and told them, 'I'd really like to do a meditation in your space.' "

So it was on Tuesday evening that about 180 people, spread out across the nervous system and muscular system galleries, settled on to prayer cushions and the bare carpet to meditate for a half-hour among bodies preserved in silicone.

The doors had opened about an hour earlier for people to take in the exhibit. Just after 6 p.m., a cluster of Buddhist monks, in saffron robes with shaved heads, came up the escalator. Among them was the Venerable Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, a diminutive 78-year-old monk from Sri Lanka who lives at a monastery in West Virginia but is visiting New York City. He is considered one of the most prominent Theravada Buddhist teachers in the West.

Ms. Brown rushed over to greet them, careful not to touch them and compromise their vows — the monks are typically not permitted to touch women or money. As she briefed them on the order of the evening's events, they told her they were worried about where they had parked. The Venerable Bhante Heenbunne Kondanna, chief administrator of the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara, a Sri Lankan temple, said he was afraid the lot would close before the event let out.

Ms. Brown said that there was probably nothing to worry about, and soon the monks were wandering reverently through the galleries.

The exhibit, which opened in November and drew criticism from some groups because of the Chinese government's record on human rights — all the bodies were imported from China — includes more than 20 preserved cadavers. They were dissected and arranged in varying poses, including one with a football tucked under his arm and a pair of bodies doing a high-five to illustrate human symmetry.

"You should see the next room," said one monk, urging his brethren ahead to the circulatory system gallery. "It really is extraordinary."

A volunteer nearby assured a different group of visitors about the origins of the bodies. "In most cases, it's an unclaimed body," she said.

A short while later, a disembodied voice intoned over the intercom: "Please make your way to the nervous and muscular galleries for meditation. Meditation will begin in 10 minutes."

Over the last decade, Buddhism has experienced something of a boom in the West among mostly white, middle-class converts who have flocked to meditation classes and spiritual retreat centers. Their version of the religion, however, has in many cases taken on a different look from that practiced in Asia.

Tuesday evening's event was decidedly Western. Other than the Sri Lankan monks and the Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, the spiritual leader of the New York Buddhist Church, the others in attendance were almost all white spiritual seekers. Many said beforehand that they had come having no idea what to expect but with a vague sense they were getting a rare and important opportunity.

Many managed to remain motionless throughout; some struggled mightily. A woman leaning against a wall, shifted restlessly. Another man got up halfway through to lie flat on his back.

Hector Cariño, 39, a human resources consultant from SoHo who began dabbling in Buddhism several years ago, sat still for the duration on a black cushion he had brought. Afterward, he said the experience had been profound. "I kept thinking about how complex our bodies are," he said. "In the same way, how frail."

For others, the skinless forms made little impression. Seated with her back against the wall in the next room, Kristin Speranza, 22, a publishing assistant at Tricycle who began to explore Buddhism only recently, said she had struggled to concentrate. "I kind of started to listen to the sound that was being made in the ceiling," she said, referring to the soft whir of the air-conditioner. "I really liked that sound. I got totally sucked into that sound and connected to it."

Because Tuesday, coincidentally, was also Holocaust Remembrance Day, Judy Seicho Fleischman, a Zen Buddhist priest at the Village Zendo in Manhattan and the coordinator of the New York chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, said she thought about that horrific event, which took the lives of her grandmother's family a half-century ago.

"I felt a healing within myself," said Ms. Fleischman, who also attends a Reform Jewish temple on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "It's a healing for my family for all those that died."

In the end, a bell rang, causing many to jump and bringing the meditation to a close. The group filed silently through the rest of the exhibit to listen to some talks by the monks who had been invited.

Michael Hershfield, 48, a Jewish software salesman who began exploring Buddhism at a meditation center in Chelsea about eight months ago, said he was impressed by the robed monks, describing them as "hard-core."

"I'm skeptical of robes and garb and things like that," he said, explaining that he had been drawn to Buddhism more for its psychological benefits than anything religious.

But watching the monks and listening to them speak, he said, made him wonder: "Am I doing Buddhism lite?"

By the end of the night, he had no answer.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
NORBU!
(Neural Omniscient Robotic-Being for Buddhist Understanding)



For Malaysians who wants to donate in MYR, please use the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB
Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.


Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.



For Malaysians who wants to donate in MYR, please use the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB
Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv. Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/norbuchatbot. Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team


Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv


TOP