‘Silent Mentors’: aspects of Buddhist bioethics in Taiwan

Categories: Education.

As part of the workshop, participants travelled to the East coast of Taiwan to visit the Tzu Chi University and Hospital in Hualien, two large Buddhist institutions established by Buddhist nun, Jei Chi.

At the University, participants learned about the structure of both the medical and nursing courses, which both operate under the values of compassion, joy, unselfish giving and kindness.

To this end, all first year students learn the traditional tea-making ceremony and the art of flower arranging, activities which also serve to create self-awareness and reflection.

The ‘Silent Mentors’ programme was the most surprising aspect of the curriculum.

Patients and the public can elect to will their bodies to the University, as they do in many western cultures.

The subsequent involvement of the student and the family, and treatment of the body is however quite different.

When the patient dies, the body is delivered to the university. At the time when students will use the body for dissection, they visit the family to acquaint themselves with the patient’s life story, which they then write up.

Then a ceremony is conducted, which includes students, family members and Buddhist nuns, whereby the body is handed over and families say goodbye.  

The students are taught to revere the body, as not just an objective body, but as a person; and each time they undertake a dissection activity, they firstly pray over the body.

When the students have completed their dissection, again there is a Buddhist ceremony involving the families and the students, whereby the body is transported for cremation.  

After the cremation, the University holds some or all of the ashes in a special prayer room, where families can come at any time to pay their respects. This room sits in the middle of classrooms and laboratories.

This programme has something to offer the western clinical view of the dead body as fulfilling a function. In setting the student’s expectations of the body as a person, their approach to dissection and anatomy becomes viewed in terms of a privilege and an honour, rather than a means to an end.

This is surely in keeping with the holistic philosophy of palliative care, whereby the whole person is respected as an individual with their own individual story.

Hear more about hospice and palliative care work in Asia at the Asia Pacific Hospice Conference to be held in Taiwan from 3 April to 3 May this year.