A Letter Regarding the Earthquake in Nepal from Shastri Amy Conway

Dear San Francisco Shambhala Sangha,

As you have probably heard by now, yesterday a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal killing more than 2,500 people with other deaths in India and Tibet. Aftershocks today have also been devastating. The people of Nepal have seen their world literally crumble (including many ancient Buddhist temples and stupas). They are pulling loved ones from the rubble and are forced to stay outdoors in makeshift shelters without electricity or heat in the very cold temperatures. Food and water are uncertainties.

As I contemplated this situation this morning, there was a pain in my heart and tears in my eyes. As we sit here in our comfortable lives, is there anything we can do to help these people? If we had just had “the big one” and we were buried under the fallen walls of our apartment building or office, or we were watching our loved ones’ bodies being recovered, what could possibly provide solace or help?

When disasters occur, we can feel helpless, horrified, sad. Though it may seem paradoxical or frivolous, sitting down on our meditation seat and practicing—even for a few minutes—is very important at times like these. Meditation practice is the cornerstone for us to be stable enough to abide with the feelings that arise in us while also having empathy and compassion for all involved. Our practice grounds us in this present moment where we are safe and awake. Feeling the solidity of our body and breath allows us to keep our nervous system in a resilient zone. We can tune in to what is actually happening – inside us and outside us. We become aware if we start to spiral into panic or become numb. By being attuned to our internal experience and taking care of our own hearts, minds, and bodies with gentleness, we can stay present to the suffering outside while not becoming traumatized ourselves. From this place of strength and openness, we rouse the deep intention to help. Then nonreactive compassionate action can arise.

Most of us cannot actually go help on the ground in Nepal. Fortunately, the Tibetan Buddhist lineage has given us many practices that we can do to help those who are suffering. I will outline four of them here.

First, we can hold the people of Nepal in our hearts as we practice meditation and dedicate the benefits of our practice to them.

Second, as I was writing this, a letter came out from Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche saying that it would be helpful to recite the Seven Line Supplication to Padmakara and the Shambhala protector chants. I have typed out the supplication text below. (The letter from Rinpoche is here.)

Third, we can recite the heart sutra, which you can find here.

And fourth, we can engage in the practice of tonglen which is one of the most powerful and helpful practices I’ve ever done. Tonglen means “sending and taking”. It is a practice that dissolves the seemingly apparent boundaries between ourselves and others and through the power of our imagination, we aspire to take away the pain of others by breathing it in. We then send out goodness, help, healing, relief to them as we breathe out. It may sound counterintuitive or scary to take in the bad and send out the good, but please just drop that thought and give it a try. If you have not received tonglen instruction before, I recommend that you read this well done article by Shastri Ethan Nichtern.

Usually before starting tonglen, it is good to do a few minutes of sitting practice to stabilize the mind. Then start by doing tonglen for 2-3 minutes. Then take a break, see how you are doing, and either return to sitting or start tonglen again.

Tonglen enables our beautiful wish to help others to travel straight from our hearts to the the amazing people of Nepal.  How does that work? I’m not sure, but I think it is because we are already connected to them. This practice is just making that interrelatedness more obvious. I find myself sending peace and spiritual awakening to those who are buried in the rubble, water and hugs to the survivors, and strength and resilience to the aid workers and all those who are pulling people from the rubble. May they find strength in focusing on who lived and by comforting one another. May they all feel that the world is praying for them.

Some people ask,”Does tonglen really work?” I’m sorry that I do not have the answer to that question. What I do know is that there is much more going on in our world than we can see with our eyes. And that I want to be connected to the people of Nepal right now and this practice allows that connection. I also know that several years ago when a friend’s baby was born with a severe heart defect, I asked the sangha to do tonglen for her and the baby. Many many people wrote to me to express their good wishes saying they were doing tonglen. Later, my friend told me how much those prayers meant to her. She is not Buddhist, but she said she could feel that there was strength being sent to them during that difficult time.

In closing, on a more nuts and bolts relative level, we may also consider supporting the relief efforts by donating financially to organizations that are helping on the ground in Nepal. If you do make a donation, take a moment to wish with your whole being that this donation will help every single being who needs help. It is said that we can greatly increase the merit and benefit of such acts of generosity by expanding the intention behind them exponentially. No matter the dollar amount, the offering can carry with it massively beneficial intentions.

This CNN article explains which organizations are responding and how to donate to each. Note: This CNN website has graphic images of the suffering. Please be wise about whether you want to expose yourself to these images. I believe there is a balance between keeping the people of Nepal in our heart and mind while also ensuring that the images of destruction do not cause us secondary trauma. This is something we all must be aware of as aspiring bodhisattva warriors. It is much harder for a traumatized warrior to help others. So we must be honest with ourselves about our capacity to handle horror.

Shastri Amy ConwayI thank you all for being brave enough to open your hearts to the human predicament. May we realize that we are all in this together and send the people of Nepal all the love and healing we can possibly muster.

Shastri Amy


The Seven Line Supplication to Padmakara
HUM In the northwest land of Uddiyana,
on a blooming lotus flower,
You have attained supreme wondrous siddhi.

You are renowned as Padmakara,
Surrounded by your retinue of many dakinis.
We practice following your example,
Please approach and grant your blessing.

Guru Padma Siddhi Hum