Compassion helps reduce suffering
by Lillian Piel
Setting out with the intention of a career in finance, Gloria Chien had no idea that becoming a professor who researches and teaches about Buddhism and meditation would be the path she would take, but it is the one she has pursued.
Taking this path has allowed her to follow her passion.
Gloria, who began teaching at Gonzaga University in 2017, grew up in Taiwan and earned a bachelor's degree in finance in 2003 from the National Central University in Taiwan. She received a coveted job offer as a financial analyst, but she turned it down so she could pursue a career in her new-found passion in Buddhism.
"I wanted to follow my heart. There was a voice inside me saying a financial career is not right for me," she said.
In college, Gloria attended a Buddhist meditation group, where she first started learning about Buddhism and Buddhist meditation, specifically Thai Buddhist Mahasati meditation.
To pursue a career in Buddhism, she went to a monastery for three years where she studied and practiced the Chinese Buddhist monastic life style.
In 2007, Gloria earned a master's degree in Tibetan Buddhism at the Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan.
The idea of being a professor had first piqued Gloria's interest while she was in Taiwan pursuing her master's degree at Dharma Drum Mountain, because of her desire to help reduce people's suffering by facilitating their self-awareness through an academic environment.
She explained that her approach to Buddhism is different from how the general public views it in Taiwan because she emphasizes the psychological approach to Buddhism.
Gloria was especially touched by the Buddhist idea of universal compassion to alleviate sentient beings' suffering, she said.
Dharma Drum Mountain has a relationship with the University of Virginia's religious studies department, where Gloria earned a master's degree in religious studies in 2009 and then a doctoral degree in 2015.
Her dissertation was on "The Life and Collected Works of Tibetan Lojong Master Tokmé Zangpo (1295–1369)."
It focused on "Lojong," a Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation teaching. That research took her to Nepal, India, China and Tibet.
In Lojong, compassion takes time to develop, Gloria said, and having a compassionate mindset is key to caring for others.
"Caring for others widens peoples' ethical concern outside of themselves and outside of their relatives," she said.
When working on her research in India on Lojong, she bumped into a summer study abroad group from Emory University.
The head of the program was the pioneer in Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT), which is inspired by Lojong. The program developed at Emory, is based on its founder, Lobsang Tenzin Negi,who is from the Geluk tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which is related to the Dalai Lama, she said.
Lojong takes a step-by-step approach, Gloria said, and Emory's CBCT borrows some techniques and principles from Lojong to make it accessible to everyone, regardless of religious or spiritual affiliation. Emory's CBCT class is a 10-week program that includes six modules, which cover affective, cognitive and motivational dimensions.
By 2016, Gloria had begun her research and earned CBCT certification.
She explained that each dimension of CBCT teaches a different aspect of compassion.
The affective dimension focuses on having a feeling of warm-heartedness and closeness, the cognitive dimension seeks to make a person aware of the suffering of other people, and the motivational dimension is connected to action and the desire to alleviate suffering.
The modules of CBCT also teach about concentration, self-compassion, recognizing common humanity, gratitude, deepening one's understanding and cultivating a mindset of wanting to help others, she said.
In 2018, she began teaching a CBCT course, "Compassion Meditation and Happiness," to promote wellbeing among Gonzaga students. The Office of the Dean at the College of Arts and Sciences funded the course.
Because caring for others is one of Gonzaga's main goals, she wanted to do a research project on it.
She noticed that although GU talked about compassion and caring for others, there was no class to teach step-by-step on how to do so, and so she created the research project that functioned as a non-credit class.
The project was successful, and she created a new class called Buddhist Meditation and Practice, which she has been teaching since 2019.
"Based on the students' responses, I feel rewarded," Gloria said. "They share with me how they have grown and what they discovered about themselves, and how this class benefits their emotional well-being or psychological well-being because even though it's called compassion meditation, at the same time it also includes some self-care."
Currently, Gloria is researching Chinese religions in film, and began teaching a class at Gonzaga this fall called "Asian Religions in Film."
In that class, she has students explore how the non-Abrahamic religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism are portrayed in film.
"By focusing on how those Asian religious themes are treated in each film, we are identifying long-standing Asian religious teachings in contemporary cinema. We are investigating how the films reflect and critique Asian religious practice and expose Asian cultural values," Gloria said. "This investigation also shows us how religions continue to play important roles in Asian societies.
Gloria introduces each religious philosophy and practice so students learn concepts of Asian religions as a way to examine the film. The class cultivates students' critical viewing, religious sensibility and awareness of assumptions on religious traditions.
Beyond the classroom, she has shared about her own faith practice.
"The more I understand Buddhism, the more I can resonate with its ideas about compassion and self-awareness," Gloria noted.
Her practice is more in line with the Thai Mahasati meditation, the Geluk Buddhist tradition and CBCT, which is not a Buddhist program, but borrows principles from Tibetan Buddhism.
In the U.S. today, she believes suffering tends to come in the form of emotional or psychological suffering, which ties into her research and teaching, especially related to compassion meditation.
Gloria recognizes that her perspective and beliefs drive her feelings, and her feelings drive her actions, which is a perspective of Cognitively Based Compassion Training.
"I follow the self-development approach to Buddhism that is more psychological. It's about being mindful of my emotional reactions," she said. "If I'm angry, I ask why I am angry at a person, in line with the Buddhist principle of looking inward at emotions.
That is also something anyone can do and can benefit from doing, Gloria said.
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