Buddhists in Brazil's favelas

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

Compassion in action: report from the heart of the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

In the heart of the effervescent city of Rio de Janeiro, a stone's throw from a noisy crowd day and night, a suburban street with tropical vegetation, with the song of birds as the only noise, exudes a serenity that immediately plunges elsewhere. The houses with impeccable white facades line up with each other. You can barely make out the temple. A black gate, green plants, a small one-storey pavilion and the BLIA sign on the door: this is where one of the two hundred monasteries in Brazil and abroad of Fo Guang Shan (the monastic order founded in Taiwan in 1967 by master Hsing Yun) and the BLIA (Buddhist Light International Association), created in 1992 and recognized as an NGO by the United Nations in 2003. In Rio, the BLIA carries out numerous actions in the favelas.

A nun as spiritual guide of the temple

A woman in a skirt and blouse, in her fifties and speaking good French, opens the door with a most welcoming smile. It's Zenzide, a Brazilian, a volunteer receptionist for six years and a convert to Buddhism. At first glance, there is nothing “Buddhist” about the place. White tiles, a large living room, a table along the bay window, a wooden counter that serves as a reception, and at the back, a large kitchen. The "temple" is upstairs. Zenzide calls the nun in charge of the place: Miao Wei. From his small stature emerges a gentleness mixed with a strong personality. Aged 52, she came to Buddhism through meditation, which she discovered at the age of 28 in one of the Fo Guang Shan monasteries in Taiwan. “This path came to me as obvious. I converted to Buddhism and I was ordained a nun. My desire is to serve society and humanity in the most virtuous way possible. " Appointed in 2012 by the Venerable Master Hsing Yun to direct the Rio temple opened in 1996, she assumes sole responsibility: "I ensure the practices and the teachings and am helped by about thirty Taiwanese and Brazilian volunteers for the administration, communication, events and regular activities,” she explains. And to add: "In the three temples in Brazil of Fo Guang Shan, there is a majority of women and it is Miao Yen, a nun, who directs the monastery of Sao Paolo, "Zu Lai", the largest Buddhist temple of all South America”.

A humanist Buddhism

From the Mahayana lineage and referring to Buddhism Chan, Fo Guang Shan was founded with the aim of promoting "humanistic Buddhism". “To serve society and devote ourselves to the people,” says its founder Hsing Yun. While serving the tea that one of the temple's volunteers had just prepared, Miao Wei explained: "Our philosophy is to spread the Buddha Dharma through culture, to train talents through education, to bring good to society through charitable works and to purify the heart through the practice of Buddhism. Whether we are religious or secular, we are all guided by this approach of a humanistic Buddhism”. " Look ! she says, holding out the monthly magazine titled Budismo Humanista, in which you can read articles on temple news, meditation and depression, the socio-educational actions of the BLIA in the favelas (the "slums" located in the very heart of large cities, renowned for their violence and their poverty). “Here, there is a lot of inequality and violence. This gives us a very good opportunity to put these precepts into practice. »

“With the BLIA in Rio, adds the abbess, we set up a project in March 2003, for example, in response to the social problems identified in the sensitive district of Santa Angela. Its objective is to enable the schooling of children and adolescents at risk, to stimulate the exercise of citizenship and to promote social inclusion”.

Buddhists in the favelas

It is in the favelas that the Buddhist volunteers of the BLIA intervene in priority. Convinced that "only education can enable children to escape the misery and crime that surrounds them", Miao Wei nevertheless moderates her enthusiasm. “Do not steal, do not lie, do not kill, do not indulge in drugs or alcohol, all these precepts are such an ingrained reality of daily life in the favelas that it is difficult for us to put these children out. safe from such dangers.

Going to these slums is no small feat either! "If the gangs who hold the place do not know you, they can shoot you," she continues, remembering a "trip" to São Paolo. “It was nuns dressed in civilian clothes who went there first, meeting women first. We talked and, little by little, they trusted us and understood that our approach was to help them in their daily lives, with their children, to help them acquire more autonomy: to teach them how to repair a power failure or managing a budget, offering them free language, sports or computer courses. »

“Our philosophy is to spread the Buddha Dharma through culture, train talents through education, bring good to society through charitable works, and purify the heart through the practice of Buddhism. »
Miao Wei

In the favelas of São Paolo, the Sons of Buddhas Foundation has set up three schools with a total of 107 students. “In Rio, it's too dangerous, we're not going there. Instead, we opened tutoring classes, where about sixty children study, often those of the mothers we help in the favelas. But coming to a Buddhist place is not familiar to them, there is still reluctance,” she laments. Proud however, to specify that "the best students have the possibility of being educated in the colleges and universities that our Master Hsing Yun founded in Taiwan, Australia or the United States".

Football teams coached by Buddhists

In the land of football, it is no coincidence that the BLIA has founded a club: the BLIA FC, where young people can play as amateurs or more seriously as boarders. “In São Paolo, thirty young people between the ages of 12 and 16 have chosen to be boarders at the temple. A building is dedicated to them with classes where they follow the school program and daily sports training, ”says Miao Wei, while taking out a photo album where we see these young people playing a match. In total, two teams trained by Buddhist footballers, including one of Brazilian nationality: the famous Mario Guerra who trained the Brazilian Olympic team in the 80s. "This club allows some young people to realize their dream", rejoices the Abbess of the Temple of Rio. But she clarifies: “We never force these young people or the women we help to adhere to Buddhism. We are not here to convert anyone, but to show the example of another way. Often, those who receive our help become sensitive to our way of living and thinking and adhere to Buddhism by choice. I have seen many mothers come here to follow our cultural activities and take up meditation. Some even confided to me that they wanted to convert”.

Buddhism attracts Brazilians

“In our society where the Catholic Church is emptying itself in favor of the Evangelicals, some choose another path,” says Zenzide. “I was baptized Catholic, but from the age of 16, I followed my brother to a Tibetan Buddhist temple. It expanded my awareness, allowing me to find answers to my life that I didn't have with the Church. A humanist at heart, she taught meditation in the favelas, volunteered in several Brazilian NGOs before joining Fo Guang Shan, where she spends three days a week. Carlos, 50, is another temple volunteer. As robust as he is shy, he does not dare to speak, but admits that it was the death of his sister in January 2017 that brought him here. “I told myself that meditation could help me overcome this ordeal. I felt welcomed, accepted with my weaknesses and never judged. It's so rare! Here, he teaches computer science, English and maths. "Devoting yourself to others allows you to fulfill yourself and the satisfaction that you get from it is unparalleled," continues this volunteer who converted to Buddhism last September.

For many Brazilians, coming to sports, cultural or meditation activities in temples is a first step. With nearly 250 followers, Buddhism, still a minority, is with the evangelical Christian movement the religion that has developed the most in recent years, attracting more and more faithful.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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