2017-12-07 / News

Buddhist scholar wants eyes wide open

Native Tibetan is fighting to improve vision of his neighbors in Nepal
BY TIM RIEL


Chris Curren, from left, Santi Meunier, Pema Wangdak and Guru Gyaltsen discuss mission plans to India while eating lunch at a New York City deli in 2008. Meunier and Wangdak, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, reunite at the library Friday. Chris Curren, from left, Santi Meunier, Pema Wangdak and Guru Gyaltsen discuss mission plans to India while eating lunch at a New York City deli in 2008. Meunier and Wangdak, a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, reunite at the library Friday. The enduring effects of peace, love, kindness and compassion, along with everything else that is positive in human nature, from ethics to aspirations, are achievable when combined with the power of patience, according to Dr. Santi Meunier, a Wickford psychotherapist.

Without that strength, she said, those values are fragile. Meunier realized this through nearly three decades of friendship with Pema Wangdak, a Tibetan religious scholar who will visit town Friday night.

“We’ve become dear friends,” Meunier said. “People are feeling so much fear right now. We need inspiration. We need to know that people are doing amazing things all around the world.”

During his appearance, which will include a blessing, meditation and a screening of the documentary “Visions of Mustang,” Wangdak will discuss the gentle teachings of the Buddha through secular and spiritual approaches. The free lecture starts at 7 p.m. at the library, 26 North Road.

Wangdak, who founded the Vikramasila Foundation in New York City to promote Buddhism in America, became a monk before his eighth birthday. That’s also when he trekked through the Himalayas to a Nepalese refugee camp following the Chinese invasion of his country, which ended in death for most of his family in the 1950s.

Patience, however, guided Wangdak forward. Since being driven from his homeland, he has graduated from a Sanskrit university and was bestowed the 2009 Ellis Island Medal of Honor as a humanitarian. As the first Tibetan to receive the award, Wangdak joins seven U.S. presidents and two Nobel Prize laureates as recipients. He also was appointed khenpo in 2007; the highly distinguished title refers to Tibetan Buddhists who are qualified to teach the religion.

“His wisdom and compassion make him an outstanding role model and teacher in today’s world,” Meunier said.

The relationship between Meunier and Wangdak began when she heard him speak in 1986. She’d always been drawn to the Tibetan culture, but Wangdak influenced her to take that a step further. “I’ve had this calling all my life,” she said. “I just wanted to help.”

It was 10 years ago when Meunier became deeply involved. She connected with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit that provides hearing aids to impoverished villages around the globe. The foundation raises money through its annual gala, which is flush with celebrities, from Ben Affleck to Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu to Steven Tyler. As the Tibetan liaison, however, it was Meunier who was responsible for the holiest connection.

“I got a hold of my lamas on the ground to arrange a meeting between the Dalhi Lama and the head of Starkey,” she said. “They have since become great friends. We have brought hearing to thousands and thousands of Tibetans.”

After a decade focusing on hearing improvements, Meunier is now shifting toward eyesight. The documentary to be shown during Wagdak’s appearance Friday, “Visions of Mustang,” showcases the plight of vision in northwestern Nepal.

The Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang lies in a remote region nestled in the Himalayas, 13,000 feet above sea level. It is a last refuge for traditional nomadic culture of Tibetan Buddhists. Due to extreme sun exposure, its residents suffer one of the highest rates of cataract blindness in the world and lack even the most basic form of medical care.

“Visions of Mustang” follows the first expedition to enter Upper Mustang to provide surgical clinics and restore sight. With a team of 18 monks 33 ponies and a contingency of international doctors, the expedition sets an arduous journey to reach the heart of Mustang, the walled city of Lo Manthang.

Although the presentation is free, Meunier is asking guests to bring their old eyeglasses and sunglasses, which will be donated to visually impaired Nepali people. Donations to the Vikramasila Foundation also will be accepted. Every cent, Meunier said, will benefit this eye-opening cause.

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