Since 1995 I have been bringing students to the Foshan orphanage in southern China because of the happiness that it brings to the children we visit and the profound effect that it has on our students. Following the creation of Humanities I in Action in 2002, the Foshan trip quickly became the highlight of the year. This is a picture of our final moments at the orphanage on November 13th, 2011 before we said our emotion-laden goodbyes and began our return to Hong Kong.
People often ask what the Foshan trip is all about and why it receives such strong reviews from students. However, as students pointed out in follow-up discussions this week, it’s easier to say what we did – play with babies for 3 days – than to express what it meant to us. In our discussions, students explained that leaving behind the relentless push for college admissions that is a defining, nearly ever-present reality for most students, and venturing into what we called the “special world” of compassion for a long weekend is a heart-and-mind expanding experience. Spending the better part of three days with babies and special needs children challenges students and teachers alike to consider what life would be like if compassion were the highest value of society rather than success. So, while the trip appears deceptively simple, it introduces profound and universal questions about altruism, compassion, purpose and meaning, fairness and disparity, and it then presses these seemingly abstract queries into adorable flesh and blood that we grow quite fond of in three days.
One of the highlights of this particular Foshan trip was a visit to the mammoth Kuan Yin statue, more than twice the size of Lantau’s Giant Buddha, and learning about this Goddess (or Bodhisattva) of Compassion. Before we left for Foshan, Ivy shared about the essense of Kuan Yin, which is karuna, the Sanskrit word for compassion. She explained that karuna is an “unblemished sense of oneness with others that involves an all-encompassing love that is unlike conditional love in that it is neither egoistic or possessive but extensive and ever-expanding.”
While at the temple site, we had the privilege of meeting a Chinese Buddhist monk that spoke to us about the Buddhist path of compassion. One of our students, Winfield, asked, “Which Bodhisattva [a Buddha-in-the-making] is the most important in Buddhism?” The monk gestured to all of us and stated, “Each of your hearts is the most important Bodhisattva.”
Although difficult for students that have not even completed their first semester in high school to articulate clearly, the Foshan trip leaves an indelible imprint of “karuna,” the joys and sorrows of caring for children who are invisible in Chinese society. Just this morning I received an email from a graduate, Robbieana Leung, who was in my first Humanities I in Action class that attended Foshan in 2002, and she even asked how “Hung Na,” a girl at the Foshan orphanage with leukemia was doing. I was glad to report that this 13-year old looked better than I had seen her for years. What a world it would be if all of us years later would bring to mind the names and faces of children that we have encountered whom we still carry around in our hearts.