Buddhist traditionKelsang Oden (centre) was instrumental in bringing Kadampa Buddhism to Barbados. (Picture by Rawle Culbard.)
By Natasha Beckles | Sun, May 08, 2011 - 10:00 AM
It is not often that one encounters a Buddhist in Barbados.
So it is expected that many would be intrigued when they see Kelsang Oden out and about in her maroon and yellow robes.
Oden, a Barbadian, is the resident teacher at the Tara Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Harts Gap, Hastings, Christ Church and she is responsible for bringing the Kadampa Buddhist tradition to the island.
She sat down with the SUNDAY SUN last week to discuss the non-theistic religion which is among the smallest recognized faiths in Barbados and which has reincarnation as a theme.
“I was living in Canada but I was doing some work in Barbados before I retired and before I was ordained,” she pointed out. “I was a Buddhist in Canada so I said to my teacher: ‘Why don’t you come some time when I’m going down and see if there’s any interest at all?’
“She gave a public talk and it went from there. Some people showed an interest and then they wanted to get more teachings but there was no teacher,” she said.
That was about seven years ago. Today there are nine people in the centre’s foundation programme which is for people who have committed to a Buddhist way of life. This programme features systematic study sessions which participants commit to attending regularly.
There are also more than 50 people who have been attending classes at the centre for a long time, although they have not made a commitment, Oden said,
“They come when they want particular classes that interest them or to [take part in] particular day courses,” Oden reported, noting that topics discussed included anger management, death and dying and mindfulness, all from a Buddhist perspective.
The Buddha, who was born in what is now called Nepal, is not considered a deity.
“We don’t believe he’s a creator,” Oden said.
“We believe he’s omniscient, not omnipotent. He doesn’t have the power to enlighten us. We have to do the work.
“There are many levels at which we think about Buddha. One is as a historical Buddha – he turned away from a very wealthy family and a pleasure palace, so to speak, to follow a spiritual life. In doing that he came to certain conclusions – that we suffer and the origin of suffering is these distorted minds.
“We also believe there is not just one Buddha in the world, that anyone who awakens to those same truths is a Buddha. Buddha is a representation of our own potential so when we have an image of Buddha, it’s not that we worship it,” she said.
Oden noted that, at its simplest, Buddhism is about looking inwardly for the source of happiness.
“Buddha taught that everybody has this in common, that they’re looking to be happy and to avoid suffering,” she remarked.
“He taught that this will deliver temporarily but sooner or later we’re separated from whatever we thought it was that made us happy, whether by death or some other reason. It’s not a reliable form of happiness,” she said.
Oden explained that inner peace was what allowed people to be truly happy facing different circumstances.
“We train in this. One of the things about Buddhism is that it’s very methodical. It doesn’t just say love everyone. It actually says if you want to improve the quality of your love, you meditate on this; this is how you practise in daily life.
According to Buddha’s teachings, people are essentially good, pure and loving but their minds are confused by exaggerating the good qualities of the things they seek and the negative qualities of what they want to avoid.
Oden said that while there were various vows people could take as they deepened their practice, only five precepts were mandatory: there is to be no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or use of intoxicants.
“Ultimately the aim is to help yourself calm your mind, develop wisdom and compassion so you can help others,” she explained.
The law of karma is key in the everyday lives of Buddhists. It states that actions, whether negative or positive, manifest themselves in a future life.
It follows naturally that Buddhists believe in rebirth.
“We believe that the mind is a continuum of awareness. One moment gives rise to the next. Death is really just another moment but it is the moment at which this body separates from this mind, so when we take rebirth this same mental continuum inhabits another body. What kind of a body that is depends on our karma,” Oden explained.
The Buddhist nun stressed that no attempts are made to convert others.
“Traditionally, Buddhists go where they are requested to teach. They may give a teaching somewhere and if there is no interest they leave. People have to say: ‘Would you come back?’
Oden noted that people were often curious about her maroon and yellow robes.
“You get a bit of curiosity but I find that in Barbados people on the whole respect that which is religious instinctively,” she said.
“People do ask. Sometimes people don’t even think it’s religious. They think I’m just a tourist wearing whatever. Sometimes people think it’s a uniform. Sometimes when they ask and I say I’m a Buddhist nun, they’ve never heard of Buddha and they’ll ask who that is . . . .
Other times, however, people have had some experience with the religion if they’ve travelled abroad or they know about meditation.
“I haven’t had any overtly negative reactions,” she admitted.
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