My Buddhism professor, a formerly ordained monk himself, once told me, “Your one true friend is your breath. It stays with you from the moment you’re born, and leaves you only when you die. Your breath supports you and keeps you alive.”
It’s one statement that has struck and plagued me. People come and go. We move from place to place. One of our few constants is our breath.
If we are to treat our true friend well, we need to take care of our health. We have to treat our life as precious just like the breath that works so hard to sustain us in every moment. This seems simple enough to accomplish with proper diet, nutrition, and exercise.
Yet, for some, this care that seems so fundamental and simple is unattainable. There are those who cannot afford food. There are some who have no shelter and face harsh weather conditions.
In Thailand, a country filled with over 90% of Buddhists, they believe in treating everyone as a part of themselves. A stranger is like a friend. There are practically no homeless people because a person on the street is just an extension of who they themselves are. They give food freely because food is a basic right. Even animals are treated just as highly because they too live and breathe. Everywhere you turn in Thailand, there are stray cats and dogs, but all of them are well fed. Life is respected and valued. If you have no home, true Buddhists would not turn you away from their door, and temples scattered throughout the city will always welcome you. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you follow, and there is no distinguishing between the color of your skin to another. You live, you have a breath, and you are a part of the same universe as everyone else.
However, one of the largest problems that torments northern Thailand in the city of Chiang Mai, is something the locals call “burning season.” For about two months of the year, smoke pollution from the city and agricultural burning shrouds the skies and makes it difficult to breathe. The international standard for clean air quality is pollution no greater than 50. Anything over 50 is unhealthy, and people are generally advised to stay in-doors. In Chiang Mai, unhealthy air quality is considered to be over 150, and for two months, the air quality in Chiang Mai is usually well over 150.
With Thailand as my new home, and as a place that thrives on love and kindness, I volunteered to try and help prevent the development of polluted air. Giving food and shelter can be easy, but air? You cannot escape air, and good air can be a rare commodity, something I never even realized until I moved to Thailand. Polluted air negatively affects your health, but if the air quality is bad, you can’t just stop breathing.
So, I volunteered to help make a fire break in the mountains with another group of local volunteers. Fire break essentially means making a path in the mountains by raking and sweeping dead branches and leaves to the side. You create a break in the path so that if a fire starts, the hope is that the lack of dead leaves and branches will break the fire’s path.
Overall, this experience was invaluable to me. By volunteering abroad, Thailand truly became my home to protect and cultivate for the better. I felt that I had become a part of the community bonding with locals. Even though I know Thailand will only be my home for a couple more months, the earth is my home. The people in Thailand are a part of the same universe and world that I inhabit. If I can sit in my Las Vegas home breathing in as much clean, clear air as I want for free, others all around the world should have the same luxury. I know now through my travels and conversations from Thai locals of the value of a single breath, and I now appreciate the little things even more.
A study abroad volunteer reflection in Thailand from Samantha Trieu, PiP’s Communication Coordinator.