Western medicine, Eastern mysticism
Maureen Fallon has an unusual job description: monk minder.
For the past 15 years she has been organising Australian tours for groups of Gyuto monks from Dharamsala in India, where they are living in exile from their spiritual home in Tibet.
About a year ago they established a permanent Australian home in Rosebank and Maureen started working on an ambitious health program to treat a common stomach complaint known as ‘phowa’ that affects up to 80% of the exiled Tibetan population.
The term phowa describes painful stomach disorders like ulcers, gastritis and reflux and several years ago one of the monks visiting Australia was diagnosed with the bacteria helicobacter pylori (H.pylori) as the cause of his problems.
H.pylori is a common bacterium that lives in the stomach, but it eluded medical science for many years. In 2005 two Australian scientists, Dr Robin Warren and Dr Barry Marshall, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering it and the link with stomach ulcers.
Last November Maureen and a medical team ran a pilot program to test about 60 monks back in the Dharamsala monastery and as expected, the tests showed that an incredibly high proportion of the population had the bacteria. It can be treated with a simple course of antibiotics.
“It was incredibly successful,” Maureen said. “78% of people tested positive and were promptly treated. Within seven days people who had been suffering for 20 years were basically cured. We had a 100% success rate (for those treated). It was an excellent result.”
Maureen is now hoping to go back in April to run a much bigger program that would involve testing all 500 monks at the monastery and about 2200 people at a nearby school.
Maureen and her cultural translator Sonam Rigzin said word has spread around Dharamsala about the program and now that the cause of the problem has been identified, it has given the Tibetan refugee community real hope.
“We had a TV crew making a documentary about the project and they did an interview with one of the monks who was treated and he was talking about how he had pain and trouble eating and would wake up at night... He said it felt like somebody had removed a huge lump of rock from his stomach. He was so happy,” Sonam said. “We have learned that for $150 we can save a life (the cost of testing and treating), for $2500 we can buy a machine that is able to give instant results for the tests and for $250,000 we can build a clinic,” Maureen said. “That’s the exciting thing for me – it’s not millions.”
Keeping up their usual hectic schedule, Maureen and Sonam had two days at home in Rosebank after they got back from India and then had to fly to Sydney with the four monks who are currently in Australia to be part of the Dalai Lama’s visit.
Passang Gyamtso, Sonam Dorjee, Gelek Gonpo and Tenzin Jigme were given the honour of preparing the altar on the stage of the Sydney Entertainment Centre for his holiness and then took part in ritualistic ceremonies with him. Meanwhile Maureen, Sonam and their supporters set up a stall to raise money and awareness about the phowa project.
After three days in Sydney they flew to Melbourne to build a sand mandala for the World Parliament of Religions before coming back to Rosebank for a traditional Australian Christmas.
They are back in Sydney next week for a two-week program at Bondi Pavilion before they start preparing to celebrate Tibetan New Year at Repentance Creek Hall in Rosebank from February 12-16.
“Tibetan New Year is called Losar and this year is the year of the Iron Tiger,” Maureen said.
As well as the harmonic chanting and meditation, there will be talks and kids classes over the five days. They are also asking people to bring along something that represents prosperity for a special ceremony to be conducted by Gen Lama.
“It’s a community act to generate goodwill and prosperity for the people of Australia as a way of saying thanks,” Maureen said.