August 4, 2016

How Can I Find a Way to Help Others? A Tibetan Buddhist’s Answer

Recently, I was chatting with a friend about Buddhism, compassion, and the like. She asked a question I've heard before and once asked myself: 
How can I find a way to help others?​

​I had an immediate flashback to the memorable day I spent during my last visit to Nepal touring a beggars’ encampment with my friend James Hopkins. That trip came in March 2012, when I had returned to Kathmandu for the wedding of Nimesh and Bhawana, my current housemates (and the parents of the current love of my life, their four-month-old daughter Nivah).

I had known James back in Washington when he was the stockbroker for a good friend of mine. But he wasn't the stereotypical stockbroker. He and his girlfriend lived on a houseboat docked along the Potomac River waterfront. They became interested in Buddhism and made several trips to India and Nepal. Eventually, James decided to retire early (very early, at age 43).

He moved to Kathmandu to study Buddhism at the monastery associated with Bodhnath, one of the few places left in the world where Tibetan Buddhism is openly practiced and studied.

A major tenet of Buddhism is a desire to free all human beings from suffering. James asked one of the lamas, “What exactly can I do?” The lama answered, “Just go outside and help the first person you see.”

A short walk from Bodhnath is an encampment where hundreds of Indian beggars live in tents. The men and children go out on the streets of Kathmandu to beg during the day, while the women stay home sewing quilts from scraps of cloth. James thought some of the quilts looked attractive.

He came up with the idea for a project that would empower the women and help educate the children. The quilts are sold to Westerners, including James’s friends. When I bought mine, they were $170 each. That price enabled one child from the begging camp to go to school. It also covered the cost of school supplies, a backpack, school uniforms, and two pairs of shoes.

Touring the camp ​with James was a terrific experience, which I recapped in a blog post four years ago. Here are a few highlights.

 Here's James outside the tent encampment:

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 Smiling kids greeted us everywhere we went:

 This special tent had just been built for the best quilt makers:

As we left the camp, we were greeted by Bimala, a good friend and project leader.

​Here's a brief video about the project created by the Conscious Action Network, which supports people all over the world who, like James, are "making a difference.”

Here's the Quilts for Kids Nepal website, where you are welcome to make a contribution. 

The site's recent news section carried an interesting story. During Nepal's 2015 earthquake crisis, dozens of beggar camp families offered home-cooked meals and shelter (in their bamboo-and-plastic-sheet homes) to home-owning Nepali neighbors who needed temporary shelter after the quake.

James recently reported that the project now sponsors the education of 58 children.

This blurb appears on the website:
Ours is truly a global community - stitched together with threads of compassion, kindness and creativity. At times like this it's good to have family. "Many Threads, One Love"... our motto has never been more true.

My Reflections​
As I've grown older… and older and older, I've felt an increasing desire to help others while I still have the opportunity.

When I retired over 20 years ago, I decided to continue supporting organized charities… just fewer of them. I’ve used Charity Watch, which rates these organizations and flags those that spend too much of my donated dollars on fundraising solicitations and slick magazines. Retirees typically increase their charitable donations. I haven't.

Instead, I’ve significantly increased my giving to help people I know or organizations whose programs I personally support or that benefit me.

When I give to people I know, all the money goes to the intended recipients… people who have shown that they are working to survive as best they can.

The lama gave good advice… to James and all of us interested in helping others. When a desire to help others simply becomes part of who we are, opportunities present themselves all the time. Here’s a recent personal example: the inspiring story of an Uber driver created a new opportunity for me to help someone. His story also brought a new friend into my life.

Helping other people during my retirement has been a win-win proposition, with very few exceptions. In many cases, I think I gained more than the recipients.

My post-retirement life has been enjoyable and rewarding. A big part of that pleasure has come from the satisfaction I've felt and the friendships I've made helping others.

Trite but true: By helping others, I help myself.

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