What do the Dalai Lama, Senator Bob Brown, nomads in Tibet, climate change, social justice and the health of former untouchables in India have in common? All these people and issues have been and are central to our charitable but secular NGO, Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight, or BODHI for short. Let me explain.
When I was young, my mother and I both suffered from asthma. This was in the 1950s, and treatment was not so good. Apparently, one day, I announced to my father that in the future I might find a cure for asthma in a cave. I’m not claiming that that is any evidence for reincarnation, but it is true that from a young age I tool an unusual interest in Buddhism. As well, perhaps because I was usually the smallest boy in the class, I also developed a strong empathy with the underdog.
Years passed and Whitlam was elected. Australia seemed a comparatively generous nation in a struggling world. I was proud to live in a country that proclaimed the right of the fair go, at least for non-Aboriginal Australians, and where most people (apart from Aboriginals) enjoyed reasonably good health and a long life expectancy.
In 1976 I met two Tibetan teachers who were followers of the Dalai Lama. I was especially struck by their emphasis on the importance of developing and practising loving-kindness to others, irrespective of race, nationality, or economic circumstances. Soon after I decided to study medicine, not so much to maintain or to improve the health of Australians, but to do what I could to contribute to improving the health of people in developing countries, where it seemed obvious that the greatest burden of ill health existed.
At medical school I had a wonderful Dean who encouraged my interest in international and global health. Prior to my final year I spent 10 months overseas, including electives in developing countries. In Nigeria I spent 3 months helping with and learning from the health work of different Christian missions. I didn’t really fit in, but it was clear that the quality of the care provided was far superior to that of the government sector. In Nepal I worked with a secular NGO working mainly to reduce the burden of tuberculosis. I didn’t quite fit in there either, and I started to wish I could offer my medical skills to a Buddhist-influenced organisation.
I visited India that year, and met the Dalai Lama and the secretary of health of the Tibetan government in exile. (By the way, I also met my future wife, Susan, in India at that time.) Impressed, I vowed to do what I could to improve the health of Tibetan refugees in India. But as listeners will appreciate, it is much easier to make vows than it is achieve them.
To make a long story short, Susan and I co-founded BODHI in 1989. The Dalai Lama agreed to become our founding patron. Three years later, during the Earth Summit, Bob Brown became our environmental adviser. In 2002, BODHI was finally granted tax-deductible status by the Australian government. In the 16 years BODHI has now existed we’ve supported health and education projects with Tibetan refugees in India. Our most ambitious project has been a micro-credit scheme with nomads in Tibet, which involves the lending and repayment in kind of ewes and nanny goats, to nomads whose herds were becoming critically small. We call this the “Revolving Sheep Bank”.
BODHI also supports health and education projects with Chakmas, an oppressed tribal minority who live in Bangladesh and North-east India. We support a health project in the slums of Pune, India, for the followers of Dr Ambedkar. Most of these people were once untouchables, and they still suffer enormous discrimination and stigmatisation, as do so many other minority and oppressed peoples, such as in West Papua. We’ve also just begun a train-the-trainer project with a deaf girl in Nepal.
I now work as an academic in global public health. I publish on how disease, poverty, discrimination and environmental scarcity combine to”lock-in” systemic disadvantage. And I’ve heard numerous experts and read many reports on Third World health and poverty. My experience with BODHI has informed my writing. It’s also made me sceptical of many of the conventional solutions proposed for poverty – but that’s another story.
We thank ABC RadioNational for permission to publish