My first mission with Tzu Chi was to Haiti in February 2010 after the great earthquake that took the lives of an estimated 300,000 or more people. I witnessed such incredible suffering, not merely due to the aftereffects of the earthquake, the many lives taken, the families tragically affected, but also due to the severe and long term poverty of the entire country affecting the region for centuries. Although my heart was filled with the joys of building global connections and offering service, I had many questions.
After returning to my comfortable and privileged existence in the United States, I wondered: How can I use my brief and precious human life in order to most effectively benefit other sentient beings. As an acupuncturist, I have the opportunity to serve people every day, to touch them with healing intention and medicine, inspiring them to live their lives more in balance and perhaps to expand their capacity to make their lives more meaningful through developing altruism in their hearts. However, unless one is very spiritually advanced, the rhythms of daily life can often become routine and mundane. One can easily sink into spiritual laziness within the confines of all too familiar surroundings.
I have always sought out solitude in my life. I like to practice meditation and contemplate the deepest wisdom teachings of Buddha. However, service work, such as the opportunity to participate in medical outreach with Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) challenges me to put meditation practice into action, to be part of a team, with all the personal sacrifices, the interpersonal and logistical challenges that demands.
I joined the medical outreach mission to Mexico City in November 2019, nearly 10 years after my first TIMA mission for that very reason. The wisdom teachings of Buddha say that all things and everyone is connected in this world. If one sentient being is suffering, everyone is affected. Also, if one sentient being experiences happiness and relief from suffering, everyone is affected.
This is the deep meaning of Buddhist wisdom contained in phrases such as “big love”, “one world”, “great compassion”, and so forth. Everyone wants to be part of that circle of enlightened awareness – generosity, ethical discipline, patience, joyful effort, clear focus, and awakened mind.
Yes, there are problems with the non-profit model that from one point of view merely tweaks suffering at the fringes of the status quo, sprinkling charity into a bottomless pit of need, rather than addressing issues like poverty, systemic inequities inherent to capitalism, the history of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy…at their root. It also may legitimize wealth inequality by allowing a billionaire donor class to claim credit for donating money to their pet projects, heavily influencing public policy, circumventing a more equitable distribution of funds and democratic governance.
However, it’s also easy to critique a problem and use that as an excuse to do nothing. We need to do both I believe – take advantage of existing opportunities to offer genuine support to people while also working to create policy changes bring greater equity at the local, regional, and global level.
One of my patients at my clinic in Seattle, a Native American woman, read the sign on my door notifying patients that I would be gone on medical mission. After the acupuncture treatment, when she offered payment for the treatment, she donated extra money and said, “this is to support your journey to Mexico to help others.” Then she gave me a handful of polished and translucent volcanic stones, black in color, and told me – “these are called Apache tears. They are sacred in native tradition and can be used to purify rivers, lakes, and for personal protection and healing. Please take these to Mexico and use them.”
The day before my trip, another client, a man originally from Mexico told me after his treatment that he would like to drive me the airport in the morning. At first, I told him, it´s okay, I can walk 10 minutes to the train and then be at the airport very quickly. Besides, you would need to pick me up at 5:00 a.m. I told him “no need to worry about me”. But then I realized that he wanted to be part of the circle of great love. So I said okay and accepted his generous offer.
On our second day in Mexico City, we had a day of team building, spending time with each other in order to facilitate more effective outreach in the days to follow. We took a one-hour boat ride around the shore of Lake Tequesquitengo, near Jojutla. I dropped five of the sacred stones into the lake, at intervals, silently praying that the water of the lake may always be clean and pure, and that the people living around the lake may always know the spiritual happiness of living in pure ethical discipline, with compassionate, loving hearts, and understanding of our essential interconnectedness.
The next two days of team outreach were amazing outcomes of coordinated teamwork. Arriving in Mexico City, I felt completely fulfilled, empty of any personal ego wish. I only thought about resting my tired body so that tomorrow, I would have the opportunity to serve another community on the outskirts of the city.
In the morning, I awoke tired and feeling like I might be coming down with a cold. One of my acupuncture doctor teammates, gave me some elderberry with zinc to tonify my immune system. I wanted to reciprocate and remembered that I had more of the sacred stones. I gave her one and she realized that the stone had the perfect shape and smooth texture to use as a massage device to stimulate the acupuncture points.
We practiced massaging points on our hands and by the time I reached the stadium where the medical outreach was to be held, I was already feeling better. Later in the day, one of my patients was a girl of perhaps three or four years of age. Her mother wanted to see if acupuncture would help her daughter´s asthma. But when the little girl, sitting on her mother’s lap, understood that she would have needles stuck in her, large tear drops immediately began to run down her face.
Then I remembered the Apache tears, so I immediately told her, “no agujas” (aguja is the Spanish Word for needle). I went to my bag to get my last stone – I had placed all the others in the water, or given them away. I massaged one of the acupuncture points for Lung disease with the stone and her sadness began to shift to her natural child like state of happiness and open mind.
After a few minutes of this stone treatment, with the help of a translator, I told the mother about the history of the stone and how to use it to massage the Lung point to benefit her daughter’s acupuncture. I then gave her my last stone to keep and use for healing. She was delighted and so was I. Giving is the easiest and quickest way to experience happiness. After I had left to help the next patient, the girl´s older brother, a boy of maybe 6 years old, came over and asked if he could have a stone too. I told him that I would happily give him one if I had any more, but that was my last one. “Please practice sharing with your sister”, I told him.