Tufts’ first Buddhist chaplain talks about working with students—and gives advice on starting a contemplative practice
The Venerable Priya Sraman is Tufts’ first Buddhist chaplain, one of the few Buddhist chaplains employed by universities in the U.S. Originally from Chittagong, Bangladesh, Sraman was eleven years old when he started his monastic studies in the Theravada branch of Buddhism. He went on to earn a B.A. in Buddhist studies at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Thailand, a master’s at the University of Hong Kong, and a Master of Divinity degree from the Buddhist Ministry Program at Harvard Divinity School in 2017.
He joined the Tufts University Chaplaincy in 2016 as an intern Buddhist in Residence, and now, as Buddhist chaplain since July 1, he brings new depth to programs that illuminate Buddhist practices and teachings and that engage the wider community in spiritual conversations. Activities include retreats on and off campus and mindfulness meditation sessions for students on Mondays and Fridays at noon in Goddard Chapel. And thanks to a partnership between the University Chaplaincy and Human Resources, Sraman will also lead five-week program on mindfulness medication for Tufts faculty and staff starting on February 25, 2019.
“It’s important that Tufts create an inclusive space where students can practice learning and living Buddhist teachings, which have shaped global cultures and personal lives for thousands of years,” said the Reverend Gregory McGonigle, the university chaplain. “At the same time, we know that many faculty and staff are eager to learn more about how contemplation and mindfulness can help them in their work and daily lives. Venerable Priya’s presence here contributes greatly to the University Chaplaincy and how we can meet spiritual needs of the whole campus.”
Recently Sraman spoke with Tufts Now about his work, Buddhist practices, and how to start a mindfulness practice.
Tufts Now: How did you decide to become ordained?
Venerable Priya Sraman: I come from a Buddhist family, and as a child went to temple with my family and my grandparents. In our tradition, we have a system where you can be ordained for short periods of time and even as young as seven.
When I saw the monks, I was curious—why do they dress differently from us? As soon as I was old enough, I told my parents I wanted to be ordained, at least for seven days. My monastic training didn’t begin until I was eleven, when I went to school in Sri Lanka. For six years I was immersed in Buddhist studies. We only had to worry about our education: eat, sleep, study—and, of course, practice meditation and chanting, every morning and evening.
What does Buddhism mean to you?
I think Buddhism is a way of living. Buddhism teaches us how to take care of our mind, our speech, and our actions. According to Buddhism, these are the three doors through which we act—how we think, talk, and behave. Buddhism is teaching us how to do all three in a proper way so as to be harmonious with yourself, within yourself, and with the world around you.
Some Buddhist practices focus on developing the “brahamaviharas” or four immeasurables—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Why are they called immeasurables?
They are called that because in the process of developing them, you reach a point where you are not limiting yourself to yourself. You go beyond: to your family, your community, your continent, the world—you become bigger and bigger. It is infinite.
For instance, your love and kindness are for everybody, whether you see them or you don’t see them. Sometimes the immeasurables are also called divine abodes, because when you have developed them well, you are living them. In this way, your interactions with others are proper. You are not harming yourself, and you are not harming anyone else who comes in contact with you.
Can you talk about the retreat experiences at Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in New Hampshire?
The retreats are some of the most popular things for the students. The first retreat was for one overnight, and it was so successful that they wanted two. So, we went for two nights, and now they want three nights.
What makes them so popular?
For one thing, the students like to get away from campus. It’s also the internal practice of caring for each other, listening to each other, and being in this space away from stress and pressure—it’s an opportunity to be themselves.
One thing I do with all my students is tell them: when you talk, be yourself. No one here is judging you for what you say. Sometimes in the discussion I say there is no right or wrong answer—the answer that you have right now is based on the experiences you have had so far. We can always improve ourselves, but if you are afraid to share your thoughts, there is no way we can improve.
Another reason, I think, is that we have silent practice: silent meditating, sitting, walking, and eating. I also give them exercises, such as reading a passage by Thich Nhat Hanh, and at the end of the silent practice we have a discussion. I make sure to give them that opportunity—after a long, silent day they have a lot of questions.
Are mindfulness and other contemplative practices helpful for students?
If our students are having anxiety or stress, I want the experience here to help them. I have seen that happen. People coming here are happier and they want to ask their friends to come. That is what truly motivates me—that my work bears some fruit. I am humbled when I hear students thank me for helping them; it means that I have to be better than myself. I am reminded how my chaplaincy position has a real impact.
Is there a hunger for conversations that are profoundly spiritual in nature? Do you think we need to talk more about our spiritual wellbeing?
We do need to talk more about that. It’s a very important part of our growth. In Buddhism, as in other spiritual traditions, the connection between mind and body is very well emphasized. A spiritual practice like meditation is not only taking care of your mind—it is taking care of your body as well. And when the body is taken care of, it positively influences your mind. We have to find ways to make those connections to develop a full sense of well being.
How can the average person start a mindfulness practice?
I would refer to wonderful advice from Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Thai meditation teacher. A businessman asked him about finding the best time to meditate in his busy schedule, and he said: “If you have the time to breathe, you have the time to meditate.”
So, with the right intention, mindfulness practice can and should be done on a daily regular basis. Maybe starting with a few minutes in the morning and evening to sit and attentively observe and be aware of the breath, to pay attention to the body, to be attentive to the experience that occurs at the moment.
If one chooses a particular time of the day to meditate, it is good to follow that every day in order to develop a habit. But one also can try to be aware of and present to daily activities. Eating, washing dishes, or listening to a friend—these are all opportunities to be mindful. The key is consistent practice.