Buddhist advisor Ji Hyang Padma ’91 discusses living a meaningful life

Ji Hyang Padma speaking to student Hannah Degner '15

By KILY WONG ’16

Staff Writer

Ji Hyang Padma speaking to student  Hannah Degner '15

Ji Hyang Padma speaking to student
Hannah Degner ’15

Living in a world steeped in conflict and struggle can leave the individual feeling overwhelmed. Navigating such a fast-paced world has never taken a greater toll on the human mind. Recent studies have shown that the majority of students regularly multitask—instead of focusing on one task—to keep up, and these efforts to do too much in too little time come at a price, including decreased memory-retention and burnouts.  That’s why it’s important to take the time to slow down, reconnect and reacquaint ourselves with the environment around us.

This is exactly what happened on Nov. 11, when the Wellesley College community celebrated the publication of Ji Hyang Padma’s ’91 guide to spirituality and Zen practice in “Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times.” Padma is the director of spirituality and education programs and Buddhist advisor on campus.

The event was held in the Multifaith Center, where the warm atmosphere lent itself to the special moment of connectedness felt by many attendees. The air was electrified with excitement, and there was a sense of familiarity among all those present, even those who were simply visitors to the space. As Padma looked around the room at the various members of the Sangha, the Buddhist community, she echoed the first lesson she teaches each year at Wellesley, describing everyone seated as part of a great mandala.

Padma explained that the mandala is a traditional geometric design within Tibetan Buddhism that symbolizes the inner macrocosm of the self as well as the outer universe. She reminded everyone of the sand mandala that was created by the Tibetan nuns of Keydong nunnery, only to be dismantled, and how that beautifully illustrates the impermanence and transitory nature of life.

It was her own early experiences with the fleetingness of life, so full of grief and hope, that caused Padma to question the purpose of her own existence. After witnessing a car crash at age 14 and being left frozen in shock, she wanted to equip herself with the skills to be able to help.

“I recognized the need to get training to be able to respond in a way that would truly be of help,” she said. Yet even after becoming an EMT Padma still encountered situations where she could not save a person’s life. “The question came up again: what is suffering and how do we alleviate it?” she asked.

Determined to find the answer, she dedicated herself to 90 days of meditating and became ordained as a nun at Shin Won Sah, a temple located on the sacred mountain Kye Ryong San in South Korea. Upon completing her training, Padma did not arrive at the answer she expected to find.

“I thought I would attain great enlightenment, and my teacher said, ‘You attained your direction,’” she explained.

Afterward, Padma returned to America and served as Abbot of the Cambridge Zen Center, as well as chaplain and teacher of meditation and physical education at both Harvard and Boston University.

Wanting to give back to the community at Wellesley, where as a student she had originally discovered the Dharma (the practice), she returned as a meditation instructor and has served as the Buddhist advisor since 1994. She also occasionally teaches at meditation centers including Omega Institute in New York and Kripalu Institute in Massachusetts, as well as Esalen Institute and UCLA, which are both in California.

Combining psychological theories with Zen teachings to help guide others toward self actualization, Padma motivates people to maximize personal growth and self enhancement. “I hope, on a personal level, that they are able to find greater joy and natural equanimity, calmness and centeredness, and become ready to take each moment as it is without holding back,” she said. “And on a larger level, I hope that their openness, compassion, ability to see connection strengthens our ability, collectively, to create a more connected world.”

Padma’s practices help people develop into their true and authentic selves and reveal the journey to “wholeness” as a lifelong process. Reflecting on concepts from humanist psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, she explains the importance of living each moment in its entirety, in order to experience life fully. Meanwhile, her Metta philosophy and practice emphasize the importance of unconditional positive regard and sense of consideration for the world beyond the self, which are necessary for self-actualization.

Padma suggests that there are greater reasons to take part in this practice, beyond personal motives to engage in mindfulness. “I do think there’s need for it now more than ever,” she said. “As a society we’re getting a little ADHD.”

Seeing this lack of deliberate mindfulness as a problem, Padma believes that we, as a nation, need to regain focus in order to solve the larger problems of the world. “As a result, it is increasingly necessary to find ways to see the connections so that we can build a future that’s sustainable for the next generation, and meditation is a way to do that personally, to move past the idea of separate being and lives [and see] what’s going on [around us] affects all of us.”

Adapted from Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh, mainstream meditation has gone from being a traditional Eastern practice to a Western phenomenon. A recent New York Times article mentions how the claimed benefits of mindfulness training has sparked interest in this practice. Lowering blood pressure, increasing the rate of recovery in patients, inspiring creativity and improving people’s sense of overall well-being have been reported, just to name a few effects.

But regardless of all the recent buzz, Zen has always been more than just a religious belief and method of maintaining mental health. The practice involves learning about history and culture of an ancient tradition. It requires self-discipline and is about embracing all parts of the self, becoming vulnerable, and succumbing to the shared experience of the human condition. Only then can one become empowered.

According to Padma, we all have the potential to become an awakened, compassionate, and wise being. In fact, enlightenment isn’t something extraordinary. It’s so simple that we can miss it if we try too hard to attain it. Buddha nature is within us all; it is our original nature or self-concept.

By teaching her students to bring more unconditional awareness to each moment of their lives, Padma hopes that they will learn to transfer their sitting practice into a living one. A recent graduate described  how her discovery of Buddhist meditation during her senior year shaped her outlook on the rest of her time at Wellesley. “It taught me to look at life holistically and follow my heart. It encourages me to try new things and explore the world,” she said, describing her newfound openness to experience and change. “By talking to [Ji Hyang], I was able to see the world clearer. Her calmness dispelled [the] anxiety and uncertainty about life within me.”

While for some mindfulness practice is a way to find focus and attain a clear mind, for others, Zen practice is more than just an art to be perfected. It is a way of life. As Padma explains, the book was inspired by all the Dharma Talks that she had given over the years at the College during her Buddhist Meditation Sessions. The sittings are lead by Padma on Mondays and Thursdays from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Houghton Chapel and on Wednesdays at 12:30 to 1 p.m. in the Greenhouses. All are welcome. Padma also hinted that another book might be on its way, this one more focused on Buddhism and traditional healing practices.

Until we meet again, as Padma would say, Namaste. The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.

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