Photograph by Sam Mowe

Buddhist Global Relief began as a call to action by the American monk Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi. Originally from New York, Bhikkhu Bodhi spent over 20 years in Sri Lanka, where he received monastic ordination in the Theravada school of Buddhism. He returned to the U.S. in 2002, and since 2007 has been living and teaching at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. In 2007, Ven. Bodhi wrote an essay for Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, “A Challenge to Buddhists,” that offered a searing critique of the contemporary Western Buddhist attitude toward global suffering. “I know we engage in lofty meditations on kindness and compassion and espouse beautiful ideals of love and peace,” he said, “But note that we pursue them largely as inward, subjective experiences geared toward personal transformation. Too seldom does this type of compassion roll up its sleeves and step into the field.”

The call was heard. After reading his essay, several of Ven. Bodhi’s students decided to form a Buddhist relief organization dedicated to the alleviation of the suffering that occurs every day on every continent. As the organization took shape, its board came to include a former director of CARE, the CEO of a crisis center in Florida, and professionals in the fields of graphics design, computer technology, law, and accounting. Buddhist Global Relief (BGR) has emerged as an all-volunteer organization with projects conceived and implemented by a team of people who regard compassionate service as an important aspect of their dharma practice.

Kim Behan was just the person to help with the formation of BGR. A software engineer for 28 years, she was already doing service work in her native Vietnam before making the decision to retire and devote herself full-time to BGR’s mission.

“This is a powerful practice,” Behan says. “It is the work of the heart, a labor of love. We don’t expect anything in return, and yet, in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve seen how things come back.”

Today Behan is BGR’s executive director, helping make Ven. Bodhi’s vision a reality, turning compassion into action. Working almost full time, entirely on a voluntary basis, she takes as her only compensation the deep satisfaction she receives from her work. “This work is confirmation that this is the right path,” Behan says. “Just to realize that there are so many people who don’t have food on the table. I can’t describe the feeling. One of the most important parts of Buddhism is the teaching of non-self. I used to struggle with non-self. But doing this work, I don’t even think about that. It’s brought to life the Buddha’s teaching.”

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