Blazing a Bodhisattva Trail in Cuba, with Ven. Zhihan

The reinvigoration of the Chinese Mahayana tradition in Cuba has largely been thanks to a single Buddhist monk, Taiwan-born Ven. Zhihan. Ven. Zhihan was already an established name in Vancouver, where he had founded the Bodhiyana Foundation, an educational non-profit devoted to spreading the Buddhist teachings. Ven. Zhihan is a charismatic and thoughtful religious leader, who has a large following due to his straightforward teachings on Buddhist wisdom, as well as his humanitarian and social and environmental justice interests.

As one of the few prolific writers and researchers of Buddhism in Cuba, Dr. Douglas Calvo Gaínza has interviewed Ven. Zhihan numerous times, with this interview being about romantic love from a Buddhist perspective. In Amor de pareja: una entrevista al Ven. Shifu Zhihan, the monk offers some reflections on the inner work essential to establish healthy relations, which also contribute to the cultivation of spirituality.

For those that missed out my previous post on the earliest presence of Chinese Buddhism in Cuba, Dr. Gaínza has also offered an insightful account of this phenomenon, tracing its origins in the 19th Century and Asian immigration up to the present day: Los culíes y el abad. Una crónica-comentario sobre la más temprana y la actual presencia del budismo chino en Cuba.

Ven. Zhihan has had a karmic connection to Latin America since at least 2011, when he launched an initiative in Paraguay to filter dirty water into drinkable water. His Bodhiyana organization had also established contacts in Argentina and Brazil. In his article Proyectos humanitarios en América Latina: Conversando con el Ven. Shifu Zhihan, Dr. Gaínza interviews Ven. Zhihan on how he came to be involved with various humanitarian and environmental projects in Paraguay. By 2018, he had expanded his work into a seed nursery: “The seed bank had been supported by the New Zealand Embassy from 2016–17, but afterwards had no funds to continue. So, I stepped in,” he tells Dr. Gaínza. “Our center, which we had set up in 2011, has 6 hectares of land, so we began to expand the operations of the Seed Bank there.”

Since 2019, the land has been a haven for organic food, vegetables, and fruit. Ven. Zhihan also collects seeds from traditional communities, bringing them to his nursery at his center, and planting them so that they can grow, multiply, and be brought back to said communities. This encourages sustainability and preserves the agricultural livelihood of these traditional villages and towns.

However, like with so many meaningful, lifelong bonds, the monk’s relationship with Cuba happened by chance, almost on a whim. In this interview, Un hito en el budismo hispano: la visita del Venerable Shifu Zhihan a Cuba, Dr. Gainza talks with Master Zhihan about how his first visit to Cuba came to be: “Last year [in 2019], Li Chien Chuang, my assistant at the Bodhiyana Foundation, suddenly told me that there was an opportunity to come to Havana, and asked if I was interested. I was originally going to go to Sao Paulo, but through the family of Alberto Granado (1922–2011), an Argentine–Cuban luminary, we ended up being able to organize an event in Cuba.”

This resulted in the visit of Ven. Zhihan and Li Chien Chuang to the University of Havana in early 2020. At this milestone event, Ven. Zhihan gave a Dharma talk and taught meditation to a group of several dozen, planting modest seeds that are nevertheless full of potential in the hearts of interested seekers. Just as he has done with water and seeds, he is nurturing hearts residing in Cuba, and with right intention and persistence, this initial visit can only grow into something more profound and noble.

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