Monday, October 13, 2014

Discovering Buddhism in Bangladesh

Stav Zotalis 

Stav and her father.
My journey to Buddhism has been a surprising one. I was born into a Greek Orthodox migrant family 48 years ago. Although I was born in Sydney, Australia, it felt like living in a Greek village. I spoke Greek at home, most of my friends were Greek, I attended Greek school (after regular English school) , went to Greek Orthodox Sunday school, did Greek dancing, ate Greek food, had Greek dreams (marriage to a Greek professional, 2 children, well-paid job and a two-storey house in a respectable suburb). The Greek Orthodox priest played a central role in my life, although his influence was more moral and social than spiritual. He christened me, set up the Greek school that I went to, and was there for important events such as Christmas, Easter, my two sisters’ weddings to Greek professionals, and, very sadly, at the burial of my beloved father when I was 29.

The love and support my father gave me is one of the greatest treasures I have received during this lifetime. He was an extraordinary man. He was born into poverty and deprivation in 1939, which was exacerbated when his father was murdered in 1946, by men from his village and after witnessing the rape of his eldest daughter, my dad’s 19-year-old sister. My father didn’t demonstrate the bitterness and rage that often results from a tragedy like this. He was a gentle, generous, simple, good-humored and wonderful man. In fact, he had a lot of the great qualities of the Buddha – phenomenal love and generosity. He also believed in karma, right speech, right action, and embodied kindness and love.

He adored and loved me unconditionally, just as I was. He wasn’t waiting for me to find the right husband or the highly paid job. He just told me to be happy. I drove his taxi during my 20s while I was between jobs and travels, and he was so proud of me. While I was highly anxious about whether I would ever find a job that I was happy with – up to that point, I had worked for a merchant bank and chartered accounting firms in audit and insolvency work, that is, winding up companies and declaring individuals bankrupt – he just told me to chill out and enjoy traveling while I had the energy.

My father also influenced my choice of livelihood – aid work. When I was a child, he told me stories of his childhood, when he was constantly hungry, and I was shocked to learn that a large number of people in the 1980s were still hungry. Why aren’t we all outraged, I remember thinking, that more than a billion people are hungry? I got distracted and experimented with different careers, but a year before my dad died, I rediscovered my passion, went back to university to study international development, and landed a job with the Australian government’s aid agency for nine years. In 2006, I followed my former partner to Bangladesh and got a job with an international NGO working on emergencies and development. For four and a half years, I lived in a country where I was surrounded by hungry people – 50% of the children in Bangladesh are malnourished. I struggled to make sense of this and wondered: Is it their karma that has led them to such deprivation and suffering?

One of the unexpected treasures of moving to Bangladesh was discovering Buddhism. Who would have thought that would be possible in a predominantly Muslim country? A small group of us met every Saturday to meditate and explore Buddhism. We had the privilege of retreats in Dhaka led by wonderful teachers from Kopan Monastery and it was in Dhaka that I met Bhiksuni Karma Lekshe Tsomo, whose practice and way of living Buddhist values have been a huge source of inspiration for me.

Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, with Stav and other community members in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Living in Bangladesh gave me great opportunities to practice Buddhism, from the drive to my office, which could take from 12 minutes to 1.5 hours and required great patience at times, to the countless people who entered my office every day. In my job as assistant country director of a large international NGO, I oversaw a team of more than 500 people who were working on emergencies and development. As my wise spiritual friend Laura reminded me on our regular morning walks, I needed to ensure that I followed the maxim to “do no harm.” The inequities around me were huge and the privileges I had, as a “wealthy” white woman, were immense. With the privileges, I feel, come responsibility – the responsibility to practice generosity, patience, empathy and loving kindness.

I really don’t know how I could cope without my spiritual practice. The Buddhist teachings about attachment, delusion, and how we create our own suffering make so much sense to me. Our group in Dhaka followed the writings of Jack Cornfield, Pema Chodron, and other great teachers. The Dharma has been a huge treasure for me in managing everyday life and major life events. Jack Cornfield’s CD on forgiveness helped me during a relationship breakup in Dhaka. A ten-day retreat at Kopan Monastery helped me make peace with my mother, find acceptance, and avoid the suffering born of delusion about how our relationship should be. The Dharma continues to help me deal with suffering, unreasonable systems, and the illogical and often unfair practices that I experience. The life of an ex-pat, which I have been living for the last decade, is an experience of constant change – making new friends, saying goodbye, moving from home to home, and many separations. Understanding impermanence, practicing non-attachment, and letting go instead of grasping are hugely beneficial.

Meditation Room, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I once told Lekshe that I would like to run an organization based on Buddhist values and I got an opportunity to do that when I moved to Cambodia in 2010 to take up the role of country director of an international development organization. I am fortunate that the core values of my organization are respect, integrity, commitment, and excellence. These values influence both the development work that we do and the working environment I try to create for all my staff members.

I am inspired by what Lekshe wrote in the essay entitled, Women as Leaders in Buddhism, “From a Buddhist perspective, the qualities valued in an exemplary leader are none other than the qualities valued in an exemplary person. For example, one trains in the six perfections: generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom. Generosity means being generous with one’s time, energy, and resources, which demonstrates one’s own commitment and inspires others to be equally committed. Ethical conduct means being truthful in speech and honest in one’s actions – accounting, for example – which inspires trust and encourages others to be truthful and honest, also. Patience means refraining from anger and aggression, even when provoked, which creates a peaceful, pleasant environment where people can work together in harmony. Joyful effort means diligence and perseverance, working with one’s full energy, which inspires others to also do their best. Concentration means keeping one’s attention fully on the task at hand and being mindful of one’s thoughts, words, and actions. Wisdom means understanding and insight, which nurtures clear perception and skillful means in responding to complex situations in ways that are consistent with Buddhist values" [1].

 The sentence that really speaks to me is, “A person who is not limited by self-interest, but instead acts out of genuine concern for all, naturally gains the respect of others and becomes recognized as a good leader" [2]. What I found inspiring is that training in mindfulness gives one more focus and energy and the ability to work more effectively.

Dharma Community in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

When I moved to Cambodia, a predominantly Buddhist country, almost four years ago, I was confident I would find a Dharma community. Wat Lanka is a wonderful place to sit in silence, but what I found extremely useful with my sitting group in Dhaka was the conversation and sharing after the silent meditation. When Lekshe visited me in Phnom Penh in August 2011, she kindly offered to do a half-day teaching in my home. Since I was new in Phnom Penh, I wasn’t sure how much interest there would be. To my surprise, 45 people showed up for Lekshe’s teaching. Since then, we have met weekly in my home. Anywhere from 5-25 people turn up for the Sunday sittings and we have over 250 people on our mailing list. We are very fortunate to have Reverend Beth Goldring as our regular Dharma teacher and we have been privileged to have other teachers from around the world visit our group, too.

I could not have imagined that my journey in life would bring me to where I am today. Practicing the Dharma helps me in my life mission to make others breathe more easily. It also helps me find inner freedom – those glimpses of equanimity and inner spaciousness that are pure magic. The Dharma and the Sangha are truly among my greatest treasures!

[1] Karma Lekshe Tsomo, “Women as Leaders in Buddhism.” Gender and Women's Leadership: A Reference Handbook (vol. 2), ed. Karen O’Connor (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2010), p. 483. 
[2] Ibid., p. 484. 
Images provided by Stav Zotalis.

Stav Zotalis, Care International Cambodia Country Director  


Stav has 15 years international development experience working for CARE and AusAID leading development and emergency programs and 5 years private finance sector experience.

A native of Sydney, Australia, Stav has a Master's degree in International Relations and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

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