Tsering Ngodup Yodsampa, who works at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, isn’t your typical hospital chaplain. He was born in Tibet in 1954. After Tibet fell under communist Chinese rule, his family fled to Nepal and India, where they sought to preserve their language and Tibetan Buddhist culture. He now teaches meditation and counsels patients at the hospital.
How did you become a Buddhist teacher?
“I started a restaurant business” in Kathmandu, Nepal. It was “popular for hippies” in the ’70s. Foreign travelers asked a lot of questions, such as, “What do prayer flags mean?” “That brought me to study about my own culture.” He found himself spending lots of time talking about the “internal pursuit.” He later moved to Germany to be an interpreter for a Tibetan Buddhist teacher — a line of work that led him to start teaching, too.
Do you believe in Western medicine?
“Tibetan medicine is all herbal. That’s what I believe. Unfortunately, here, these things are not really accepted.” Hospitals don’t prescribe herbal medicines. If you go by the Western principle that “for every thing, you have to get a medicine,” then you risk “depending on one thing after another.”
So, what’s it like to work in a hospital, then?
“Naturally, I will try to help minimize the need of the medicine,” through meditation and spiritual guidance. Lama Tsering runs weekly meditation groups for patients who have suffered from cancer, brain damage, psychiatric illness, and domestic violence. They work on “how to bring inner peace, inner strength.” He also works individually with patients at the hospital.
What’s the most difficult part of the job?
“The lack of continuity.” When he makes the rounds in the hospital, some patients are there for only a short stay. “You feel like you can help someone with their problems,” but then “the next day they are discharged, or they are dead.” It’s a test of the Buddhist teaching: “learn not to dwell,” not to “get attached either way.”