When my mother suddenly became ill, I rushed to her side at the hospital in Kandy, the pre-colonial capital of Sri Lanka, where she was being operated on. It was a close call, but thanks to the excellent skills and care of Dr. Harischandra, the country’s leading kidney surgeon, my mother’s life was saved. During that trip, when I spent most of my time in the public hospital, my eyes were opened to a spectrum of human pain, suffering, compassion, and generosity in a more compelling way than during all my previous visits home.
An endless stream of patients and families pour into the kidney unit of the Kandy hospital every day. It is the only hospital in the country that provides free kidney dialysis and transplants; thus, the vast majority of the patients who come there are poor—so poor that many may forego procedures and medications that require payment. The dialysis patients have to come in several times a week. Too weak to travel alone, they come with family members. Frequently, after dialysis, some patients and their loved ones sleep together on the hospital floors, as there are not enough beds.
In some countries, selling human organs is a lucrative business. It is reported that in India and Egypt, a poor person can sell a kidney for $10,000 to $15,000. In Sri Lanka, sale of kidneys is officially banned. In order to deter buying and selling, kidney donations are accepted only from relatives and members of the clergy. In Sri Lanka, there is high demand; the prevalence of kidney disease in rural agricultural regions has lead many health officials to suspect a link to the use of certain pesticides already banned in the West. Thus, patients can wait years for a kidney, and many die in great pain before one becomes available.
In response, many Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have come forward to donate their kidneys. More than fifty monks have donated kidneys in the Kandy hospital alone over the last five years, about twenty-five percent of all donations in that period. These monks are young and healthy males in the prime of their lives. Like most of the Buddhist clergy in the country, they come from relatively poor villages. Yet, as monks, they have received the traditional Buddhist training in the cultivation of nonattachment, compassion, and generosity.
I had the good fortune to speak with a number of these donor monks in my mother’s hospital ward. From our conversations, I learned that the monks themselves go in search of the needy, responding to newspaper ads calling for kidney donors. They choose to undergo the extensive tests and painful surgery without expecting fame or fortune in return.
Max Weber, the German sociologist, wrote that Buddhism is an “other worldly” religion with little relevance to the modern world. The late Pope John Paul II wrote that Buddhism was too concerned with suffering and the negative aspects of life, and contemporary sociologists and anthropologists have frequently presented Sri Lankan monks as ethno-religious fundamentalists, opposed to reconciliation with the secessionist minority Tamils. Even new Buddhists in the West often depict themselves as progressive practitioners as opposed to the ritualistic and dogmatic Asian Buddhists. What is frequently overlooked, however, in these Western reflections on Buddhism in Asia, is the deep acculturation of Buddhist values in the daily lives of the people—and among the community of monks in particular. In fact, the compassionate and selfless acts of the kidney donor monks in Sri Lanka have become so commonplace that they are now taken for granted, scarcely making the news.
One night, toward the end of her stay in the hospital, my mother’s ward was transformed into a spiritual abode. A young monk was awaiting kidney removal surgery the next morning, and several monks from his temple arrived to chant pirith, or traditional Buddhist blessings. Sitting on chairs covered with white cloth, the monks chanted sutras melodiously; the patients listened, lying on their beds while the hospital staff and patients’ families lay on the floor.
After the chanting, a white thread was cut into small pieces and bound around our wrists, a symbol of our human connection and the protection that comes from living by the dharma.
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