Nonprofit organizations in the heart of Silicon Valley often marvel at the irony of not having websites to promote their work. Enter Nipun Mehta, a twenty-four-year-old former Sun Microsystems computer programmer who organized a network of over 350 well-meaning techies to create free websites for nonprofits on weekends and in their spare time. Mehta’s organization, CharityFocus, appears to be meeting its stated goal of introducing the pleasures of dana—the Buddhist practice of giving—to hundreds of computer professionals. Mehta says ChariryFocus is “an experiment in the joy of giving without any expectation of material gain.” Beneficiaries of CharityFocus include Sustainable Business Alliance, India Literacy Project, and California School for the Blind. CharityFocus has its own projects, including “Ask a Monk” (www.askamonk.org), a service for online seekers who have questions related to their problems in practice. Nipun, who sits every Tuesday at the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, recently left his job at Sun to devote himself full time to ChariryFocus. He recently traveled ro the heart of India’s hi-tech beltway in Bangalore to help set up Tibetan Tech Training, an organization that brings technology education to exiled Tibetans.

Nell Newman learned to fish and garden with her dad, Paul Newman, and became deeply involved with the sport of falconry at a young age. But when she was eleven, she learned that peregrine falcons were facing extinction from the use of DDT. Nell is now using her time and her father’s good name to change the face of chemical-based food production, one pretzel at a time. Nell is head of Newman’s Own Organics, which she started in 1993 with longtime family friend Peter Meehan. Her idea was to make money for activism by forming a profitable organic food company. “Corporate farming is unsustainable,” she explains. “Soil is depleted, crops and fields are sprayed with poisons, workers are made sick by chemicals, and the government subsidizes it.” Organic farming helps reduce use of pesticides and herbicides, and generates an income stream for nonprofits that fight for the environment. Soon after starting the business, Nell did a few meditation retreats, at Valleciros, New Mexico, and at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. A vipassana practitioner, Nell is also an avid surfer; she considers surfing “meditation in action.” With respect to social action, her style is not ro preach but to set an 100 percent organically grown, that people already like—pretzels, chocolate, chips, and cookies. Paul Newman donates 100 percent of his after-tax profits to charities and has already given more than $100 million to over 150 ecological and humanitarian organizations, including the Organic Farming Research Foundation, Predatory Bird Research Group, Habitat for Humanity, and Rainforest Action Network.

Gary Cohen © Gary Cohen
Gary Cohen © Gary Cohen

Gary Cohen‘s vipassana practice taught him how big a turning of the wheel would be required, and how much patience would be needed, to awaken people to the extent of exposure to chemical toxins that people suffer around the world. Cohen is a tireless campaigner for the right to be healthy and free from pesticides and unsafe medical practices, such as the use of mercury, PVC, and medical waste incineration, without compromising safety or care. He served as director of the National Toxics Campaign and the Military Toxics Project, and now is the co-leader of Health Care Without Harm. Cohen sees his job as “Buddhist work,” reminding people about the interbeing, or the inherent interconnectedness, of their inner and outer ecologies. “We suffer an incredible disconnect between the saturation of toxic chemical inputs in our environment and our personal health.” “What is cancer)” Cohen asks. “It’s what happens when a cell mutates and grows so aggressively that it cannibalizes other cells in uncontrolled growth. It is a mirror of the uncontrolled growth of our global consumer economy that is literally consuming everything in its path.” Cohen coauthored the book Fighting Toxics (Island Press, 1990), which provides a detailed guide to combating toxins in local communities, from toxic waste storage sites and incinerators to factories near children’s playgrounds and schools, where they are exposed to asbestos, pesticides, and medical waste incineration. Raised in the postholocaust generation of East Coast American Jews, Gary has expanded the Jewish reminder “never forget” to apply also to the amazing tendency of some corporations to objectify human beings to such an extent that they are rendered expendable. One of the many examples he points to is that Dupont sold CFC products for a full ten years after it became known that they destroy the ozone layer and result in people getting skin cancer. Another is the reminder that “Union Carbide assessed the costs of their accident in India at about sixty-six cents a share.”

“For a while I forgot that I’m incarcerated,” said Martin, 17, from East Los Angeles, whose felony trial is set to begin later this summer. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to a church.” Martin has been enjoying a meditation demonstration from “the motorcycle monk” Carl Kohlhoff, an American ordained in a Vietnamese order who has taken to preaching the dharma to incarcerated
teens in the California prison system. Carl, also known by his dharma name, Rev. Kusala, studied with the late Ven. H. Ratanasara at the College of Buddhist Studies in Los Angeles throughout the 1980s and took his novice vows in 1994. Carl is the Buddhist chaplain for the University Religious Conference at UCLA and Director of the University Buddhist Association website. He was featured in several Los Angeles Timesarticles and in a report on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer about his work in Juvenile Hall. Known for often arriving on a motorcycle and beginning his lectures on meditation with a lesson on blues harmonica, Carl recently accepted a full-time position as the first Buddhist ride-along volunteer police chaplain for California’s Garden Grove Police Department. He keeps a laminated picture of Kuan-yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion, in the side pocket of his bulletproof vest.

About the nature of his work over the past ten years at Zen Hospice Center in San Francisco, ex-government worker Louis Vega says: “I bring people their food, I change their diapers, and I watch them die.” The people receiving his care for his first six years were all dying from AIDS. Then the new protease inhibitor class of drugs turned AIDS from a fatal affliction into a manageable disease. “It was nice to see two men I cared for recover enough to walk Out of the hospice rather than be carried out,” remembers Louis. Now attending mostly to older people and victims of cancer, Louis feels his work connects him in a profound way to all of humanity. “Sad at times, when people die, but never depressing,” Louis remarks as he explains how caring for his
dying father awakened in him the deep satisfaction he feels from being with people as they face the end. He was already a student of Lama Lodre at Karma Kagyu when he received a letter from Zen Hospice Center asking for volunteers. Jumping at the chance to put his practice of compassion and impermanence to work in a practical way, Louis started working as a caregiver and never stopped. Residents of the hospice are cheered by Louis’ wry wit when he bids them goodnight. “Maybe I’ll see you next week, or maybe I won’t,” says Louis. “I could get hit by a car tomorrow.”

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