Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
“You matter because of who you are. You count until the last moment of your life, and we will do everything we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.
Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the first modern hospice.
His words resonate with the philosophy of the Jade Buddha Temple. The religious site in Shanghai aims to alleviate the fear and suffering of terminal illnesses by training volunteers on how to bring those near death comfort, dignity and quality of life.
The more than 130-year-old downtown temple has signed an agreement with the Shanghai Community Health Association to provide training for community health centers in the city.
The first group of 44 students, aged 18 to 62, completed a six-day training session on November 1.
“I swear to dedicate myself to helping others and upholding the sanctity of life and the honor of caring, and to showing the utmost respect for human life,” the students recite in pledge at graduation.
Their training enables graduates to serve in local hospitals and in people’s homes as volunteers.
The class spent three weekends studying life philosophy, psychology, and care skills with 17 medical and psychological experts, including experienced physicians, academics, and a member of the US Spiritual Care Association.
Palliative care originated in Europe in medieval times. It focuses on symptom management and comfort care for the terminally ill. Compassion and gentleness are the major aspects of caring for people in their last weeks or months of life.
Palliative care in China has lagged behind Western countries, perhaps due to the national tradition of filial piety and certain taboos surrounding death. The national health authority started promoting palliative care in 2017.
Shanghai and more than 70 other Chinese cities serve as testing sites for palliative care, but professionals in the field are still in short supply.
Shanghai’s 246 community health centers have launched palliative care programs. In the year to August 2020, some 11,600 terminally ill people received palliative care services, according to city health officials.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Zhang Chao, a local insurance agent, has lost his father, grandparents and sister-in-law over the past decade.
After witnessing their miserable final days in hospitals in his hometown in central China’s Henan Province, he decided to learn how to care for the terminally ill. He was one of the few male students in the temple class.
“I think we men have certain advantages over our female counterparts because of our physical strength and magnetic voices,” the former radio host said. “People are always happy to welcome the birth of a new life, but they tend to overlook the needs of those who are leaving life.”
He added, “In the classes, I learned how to properly deal with the death of my loved ones and help them spend their last days with respect and peace.”
Classmate Wang Lijing, originally from Shanghai who worked in the Lotte World Tower in Seoul, returned from South Korea to learn professional palliative care.
Her mother died when Wang was 14, leaving her father to raise her.
“I wondered how I would take care of my father, my only parent, when he got older,” said Wang, who plans to pursue higher education to become a palliative care professional.
“I believe in Buddhism and that my contribution to others will bring a good destiny to me and my father,” she added.
The temple covers all training costs, but students must commit to at least 100 hours of volunteer work within two years of graduation.
After the temple issued a notification of the training, 193 people applied to attend. The 44 participants were selected after examinations and interviews.
“Shanghai, as a megacity, has an increasingly aging population,” said Jue Xing, abbot of the temple. “We believe that all of society should pay attention to palliative care in such circumstances. To better respond to these social demands, we started this project.”
At the end of 2019, the number of residents aged 60 or over in Shanghai stood at 5.2 million, or 35% of the city’s registered population.
“Previous charitable projects launched by the temple focused more on the physical needs of the elderly,” said Hui Jue, secretary-general of the temple’s Juequn Culture and Education Foundation. “The last program aims to meet the mental needs of life and death problems.”
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Hui Jue left his hometown in neighboring Jiangsu Province to study at the Shanghai Buddhist School at the temple in 1985, when he was 18. He then focused on the temple’s charitable projects, and now he is deputy director of the Shanghai Charity Foundation (Putuo) and district policy adviser.
Education on how to care for the dying is rare in China, but Buddhism addresses the issue well and clearly, he said.
The cycle of birth and death, for example, is one of the fundamental theories of Buddhism, which teaches people to stay active throughout their lives and to stay positive in the face of death. It leads people to deal with life and death more naturally, while Zen meditation enlightens people to understand the truth of life, Hui Jue said.
However, the trainings are not limited to Buddhist doctrine.
Wang Fengshuo, a graduate of Buddhist studies at Harvard University’s Divinity School and a member of the US Spiritual Care Association, lectures at the temple on the philosophy of life and death from an Eastern perspective and western.
“Despite cultural differences, Chinese and Western philosophers share a common view of life and death,” Wang said. “The lesson I gave at the temple is meant to help students think about and understand the issue from multiple perspectives.”
After years of spiritual care in the United States, she returned to China and has been involved in life care work for the temple foundation since 2018.
“An urban temple in downtown Shanghai is an ideal place to promote Buddhist thanatology (the study of death) and meet the needs of modern people,” she added.
Besides the palliative care training program, the temple also plans to assist in the care and education of new retirees, young office workers and minors.
The foundation has signed agreements with Shanghai Children’s Foundation, Shanghai Mental Health Center and Putuo District Women’s Federation to train volunteers for related programs.
“We invite professional research and life care institutes around the world to join these programs,” said Hui Jue. “It was Buddha’s original purpose to help people relieve the pain of birth, aging, illness and death.”