A Religions for Peace USA Member Community Profile
With a vast diversity of member communities, Religions for Peace USA has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share about working for peace. These communities meditate, pray, advocate for justice, and work for a better world in many ways. Sometimes, simply hearing these stories can be inspiring for our own work. In this month’s issue, we profile a Jain community in Michigan, as Nirmala Hanke, M.D. leads us through some of the core tenets of Jainism and its applicability to our world today.
For more information about Nirmala and her community, the Lighthouse Center, visit their website.
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Religions for Peace USA: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today, Nirmala. Let’s begin with a simple question: What is your religious/spiritual background?
Nirmala: I first learned to meditate 32 years ago, when my Jungian analyst, Dr. David Hart, taught me the Zen practice of shikantaza. I learned Jain meditation from Chetana Catherine Florida, the first apostle of Jain Master Gurudev Shree Chitrabhanuji. She founded the Lighthouse Center for Spiritual Development in Whitmore Lake, Michigan in 1979. The Lighthouse Center is am non-denominational meditation center that has embraced Jain teachings but is open to all faiths. The Center is a bridge between East and West, focused on supporting all people in their spiritual philosophies and journeys.
RfPUSA: So, what led you to become a meditation instructor?
Nirmala: I began teaching the introductory meditation lecture and the chakra class at the Lighthouse Center under Chetana’s guidance. Since her transcendence in 2003, I have been teaching the classes that she used to teach.
RfPUSA: How does the Jain religion focus in both your professional and personal lives?
Nirmala: The Jain practices of Ahimsa, Anekantavada, and Aparigraha, which I can explain, are central to my life. Through my meditation practice I am becoming more and more peaceful, more tolerant, and less possessive – both within myself and with others. Professionally, I practice meditative psychotherapy, in which meditation and other spiritual practices are an essential part of the therapeutic relationship and in fact guide the therapy.
RfPUSA: In what ways does Jainism promote peace and understanding? How do you suggest we put these tenets into action?
Nirmala: The three core principles of Jain dharma, lived and embodied by Jains for thousands of years, make the Jains beacons of peace and understanding.
Ahimsa is nonviolence in thought, word, and action towards all living beings – human and non-human. For thousands of years, Jains have been vegetarian. In recent years, Gurudev Shree Chitrabhanuji, the first Jain master to leave India and come to America, has been leading Jains worldwide to adopt a vegan lifestyle. Being vegan means having a plant-based diet and using no animal products whatsoever. This is done to prevent suffering to animals. Ahimsa is all encompassing: being nonviolent, knowingly or unknowingly, in one’s thoughts, words, and actions – at this point in time, at all times. Also inherent in Ahimsa are compassion and caring for both oneself and all other living beings. In short, Ahimsa is the Jain version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Anekantavada is multi-faceted viewpoints. Jains believe that no one person has the whole Truth; we are each unique, so your perception of what is true in a given situation may be quite different from mine. Who knows the Absolute Truth? No one individual. The Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant illustrates the principle of Anekantavada. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant, describing what he takes to be the truth. Each person, therefore, has a part of the truth, but no one has the whole truth.
In this same way, we are all limited by our perceptions, which are conditioned by our experiences. Realizing this allows for tolerance of others’ viewpoints and keeps us from falling into a fundamentalist ideology in which we believe we have the whole truth and the only God. One reason Jains have survived peacefully for millennia is that they have not fallen prey to fundamentalism. They are always willing to see another point of view and do not insist on theirs. They “live and let live.”
Aparigraha, the third core principle, is defined as non-possessiveness, in which one strives to balance one’s needs and desires with those of others, and indeed the entire world. With Aparigraha we aim to decrease our greed and ego attachments to the material world and promote a sustainable planet for all beings.
Putting Jain Principles into Action
With Ahimsa, Jains are guided to live a life of nonviolence on all levels, from the food they eat to the words they speak, from their personal habits to the company they keep, from the TV shows they watch to the animal shelters and sanctuaries they support, from the occupations they choose to the politicians they vote for. We practice Ahimsa in our daily lives. The Circle of Non-Violence begins with us. We can first learn to avoid harming ourselves through bad habits such as smoking, excessive drinking, overeating, and using illicit drugs. We can watch our words about ourselves, noting self-criticism, arrogant remarks, even self-pity, and begin to change how we speak. We can then begin to watch our thoughts, first observing and then changing negative thoughts we may have about ourselves, transforming anger to forgiveness, self-criticism to acceptance, hurt to healing.
The next step is to expand the circle of nonviolence by working on the negative actions, words, and thoughts we have about others: We start with family members and friends, and then branch out to strangers, society, and all beings, including animals. One way to live a life of Ahimsa, Anekantavada, and Aparigraha, of nonviolence, tolerance, and non-attachment, is through the practice of meditation.
RfPUSA: What have you and the Lighthouse Center done to promote peace in your community?
Nirmala: The Lighthouse Center promotes peace by practicing Ahimsa, Anekantavada, and Aparigraha and in our core practice of meditation. Meditation is a time-honored way to transform our negative thoughts, words, and actions. Violence of all kinds begins with violent thoughts; without violent thoughts there would be no violent actions.
Through meditation, our negative thoughts and feelings can be released safely, instead of being acted out in words or deeds. We become keen observers of ourselves and others, and this leads us gradually to Ahimsa, “becoming peaceful,” to Anekantavada, “finding balance between our thoughts and those of others,” and to Aparigraha, “becoming less attached to our own desires as we focus more on the needs of others.”
In addition to meditation and classes, open to all, the Lighthouse Center promotes peace in various ways. We have a group email where we receive Light Requests from anyone in our spiritual community for healing or support. We are a healing community, with many Reiki practitioners, and we have a monthly Healing Night for anyone in the community needing healing at any level.
Our website, lighthousecenterinc.org, includes an educational blog with talks given by Chitrabhanuji at the Center and articles about being vegan. We give monthly donations to support Sasha Farm, an animal sanctuary in Manchester, Michigan; Partners in Health worldwide; and the local community center. We are a vegan center: only vegan food is served at the center, and we promote a vegan lifestyle, helping members transition to eating more peacefully. We recently participated in the first International Vegan Day with a complimentary vegan luncheon and a discussion about learning to become vegetarian and vegan.
RfPUSA: What makes the interfaith community so special and important? In what ways does it differ from other heterogeneous communities?
Nirmala: The Lighthouse Center is open to all faiths and actively supports seekers on their individual spiritual paths through the practice of meditation. Chitrabhanuji and his wife Pramodaji are our spiritual advisors. With Ahimsa, Anekantavada, and Aparigraha, the Jain teachings of peace, tolerance, and non-possessiveness, we are striving to reach out to any and all who are seeking world peace through inner peace, the inner peace which comes through meditation and other spiritual practices.