Let It Be
Looking for inner peace, compassion for others, and a newfound spirit of generosity? More and more Texans are finding these things in Buddhism.
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Think of Buddhism in terms of dancing. You know that queasy, self-conscious feeling you sometimes get when you first step onto a dance floor? That’s the ego-driven discomfort most of us experience through much of life. Stiff. Trapped in our body. Worried about how we look. But if we allow ourselves to breathe deeply and relax, by the second song, our muscles have loosened and we close our eyes and lose ourselves in the flow of the music. This second song is Buddhism.
Texans are now dancing to this Buddhist tune in record numbers. The Houston-based Texas Buddhist Council (TBC), a nonprofit clearinghouse formed in 1992 to preserve and nurture Buddhism statewide, reports that there are 47 Buddhist temples and meditation facilities across Texas, 16 more than just five years ago. In September Seirin Barbara Kohn, the president of the well-known San Francisco Zen Center, moved to Austin to lead the local Zen center. But though many folks have seen Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet and could pick the Dalai Lama out of a lineup, few know what Buddhists do at these places. What exactly is Buddhism? And why are so many Texans devoting their lives to it?
“Buddhism is to a large extent about how we behave toward another person,” explains Professor Anne C. Klein, the soft-spoken former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. She is also a co-founder of Dawn Mountain, a Tibetan temple, community center, and research institute in Houston. Surrounded by bright green Tibetan tapestries in Dawn Mountain’s shrine room, Klein is sitting cross-legged on a square red meditation cushion. “It’s about knowing the difference between an idea and an experience,” she continues. “It’s understanding, through meditation, that everything falls apart and that we don’t live forever. It’s recognizing the truth about life’s fundamental nature. It’s about taking off the blinders.”
Buddhism is not really a religion, nor is the historical Buddha considered a god. You can be devoted to Buddhism and also be Christian or Jewish or even an atheist. Buddhism takes no stand on the existence of God. It encourages skepticism. It embraces the Golden Rule. And it has survived, essentially unchanged, for 25 centuries. In The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture, Stephen Batchelor wrote, “Buddhism cannot be said to be any of the following: a system of ethics, philosophy, or psychology; a religion, a faith, or a mystical experience; a devotional practice, a discipline of meditation, or a psychotherapy. Yet it can involve all these things.” Buddhists believe that health and enlightened happiness come through a blissful detachment from the material world (symbolized in a Buddha statue’s closed eyes and tranquil half-smile). Buddhism is a journey inward. It teaches that inside all of us an omniscient Buddha nature (what Christians might call “the kingdom of God”) awaits our discovery. Zen master Hakuin Zenji wrote in his eighteenth-century Song of Zazen, “All beings by nature are Buddha, as ice by its nature is water.” Everyone has the potential to become a Buddha, to realize fully that primordial nature, which some Tibetan Buddhists call rigpa. According to Lama Surya Das, an American teacher trained in the Tibetan tradition, Buddhahood is like the sun and a person’s ego is a dark cloud blocking the view. Even though he or she may not see the sun, it’s always present in the sky. Enlightenment—to become a Buddha—means waking up to that fact. That’s precisely what “Buddha” means: one who has awakened, chiefly by destroying the ego-cloud.
“Dharma” is the Sanskrit term for the belief system taught by Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who lived in India six hundred years before Jesus. It often focuses on what Tibetan Buddhists call the Six Perfections: generosity, morality, patience, spiritual practice, meditation, and mindfulness of life’s transient nature. “Buddhism is very much about impermanence and compassion,” Klein explains, glancing at a statue of Green Tara, a female Buddha. (The icons Buddhists often gaze at while meditating are not images of gods, but rather visual reminders of that internal Buddha nature. Tara, for example, represents the feminine aspect.) “When we gather at Dawn Mountain, we sit in a circle. We first bow to the altar and then do some guided silent meditation. We talk about a small piece of Buddhist text, perhaps on karma or rebirth. We do some chanting and focus on some of the figures here in the shrine room. We conclude with a ‘talking circle,’ with people sharing thoughts about their day or perhaps concerns about their job or the health of someone in their family.”
Klein, who speaks fluent Tibetan and has a Ph.D. in religious studies, has been on this journey for nearly thirty years. She discovered Buddhism in the late sixties through reading Herman Hesse and spent much of the seventies in India and Nepal studying meditation with Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader-in-exile of Tibetan Buddhists. For the past three years, Klein and her husband, Harvey Aronson, a psychotherapist and a Buddhist scholar, have run Dawn Mountain (713-222-2331; dawnmountain.org), which is located above a women’s health clinic on a tree-lined street in Houston’s museum district. “Many kinds of people come here,” she says, gesturing to the cushions scattered about the shrine room. “Professional people, blue-collar people, single people, people with children, young and old, male and female. The common denominator is that we’re all working to recognize that suffering has causes—which is the best news in the world, because once you recognize and change the cause, it is possible to be released from your suffering.”
Many Buddhists believe that the new century might very well prove to be a Buddhist century. The Dalai Lama’s recent books The Art of Happiness and Ethics for the New Millennium have become best-sellers, making it clear that the idea of a more spontaneous, spiritually inclined life has growing mainstream appeal. At last count there were nearly 20,000 Buddhists affiliated with temples in Texas. There are fourteen Buddhist temples in Houston alone, and Austin is home to ten. There are even meditation centers in Amarillo and Midland.
Many Texans claim that Buddhism has transformed their life. Bill Magness, an Austin lawyer who was raised in Orange, says, “Before leaving for my honeymoon in Italy in 1994, I asked a friend who meditated for advice about how to stay present. I was in love and going to one of the most beautiful places in the world and thought it would be a shame to go there and not be fully there. My friend’s advice was to sit, look in a mirror, and focus on my breathing for five minutes a day. Though I thought this odd, I tried it the morning of my wedding and found it very powerful. Each morning on my honeymoon, I set aside time to sit still and breathe, and I felt my mind changing. Now a deep breath can take me back to the present anytime I choose. When I’m with my two-year-old daughter, I am really there with her. My experience with Buddhism over the past five years has opened my soul and is utterly inexplicable. Words diminish it.”
In 1998 Flint Sparks, a clinical psychologist who is preparing to become a Buddhist priest, founded the Austin Zen Center (512-479-4022; www.austinzencenter.org), which sponsors discussion groups, extended retreats, lectures, meditation workshops, and morning and evening meditation sessions. He is excited that Seirin Barbara Kohn, with her fifteen years of dharma teaching experience in San Francisco, is guiding the growth of the Buddhist community in Austin. Following the Japanese Soto Zen tradition (emphasizing silent, seated meditation), the Austin center has become so popular it was forced to move into a bigger space last year. Says Sparks: “Working with cancer patients, I began to realize that although psychotherapy is a powerful tool, it provides only limited answers to the difficult questions life poses. I’ve become one of those therapists-turned-Buddhists who are shifting their whole life to dharma practice. Buddhism hasn’t just changed my life. In a way it has become my life.”
In 1999 Soren Gordhamer, who grew up in Lubbock, moved to New York and set up a branch of the Lineage Project, the country’s first nonprofit, dharma-based meditation program for incarcerated teens (which is now winning raves from prison officials in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx). “The frantic pace of our lives, especially in inner cities, leaves a lot of us on edge,” Gordhamer says. “Many jailed youths—and, perhaps as important, youths who will be released from jail—find that the sense of ease and relaxation they sought through drugs can actually be accessed through meditation.”
Whether practicing the highly disciplined Zazen of Japan or the compassion-fueled Mahayana Buddhism of the Dalai Lama, all Buddhists believe that we’re inevitably made miserable when we cling to what could be rather than what is, when we focus on the next bite rather than the one we’re chewing. The Buddha also suggested that desiring and clutching things—a thinner body, a younger car, a plusher mate—lie at the heart of life’s sufferings, even illness and death. It is through meditation, Buddhists believe, that a person most successfully defies his or her ego (that notion of me and mine that compels one to covet and cling and feel that “first dance” queasiness) and most fruitfully learns from the omniscient rigpa. “Meditation is a quiet state of mind in which value judgments are suspended,” explains John Whittlesey, a vice president of the Texas Buddhist Council. “When thoughts arise, one simply labels them ‘thinking’ rather than calling them good or bad, profitable or unprofitable, happy or sad.” Contrary to what many Westerners assume, meditation does not necessarily mean sitting cross-legged on the floor. The Buddha taught that meditation is any experience cultivated with selfless, mindful attention. Jogging, cooking, even making love can be an exercise in Buddhist spirituality.
Perhaps these are the reasons why Buddhism has become so popular—its practice can be approached and felt in so many ways. Buddhists believe that resting for a moment in the emptiness between two thoughts is a Buddhist experience. So is losing yourself in the granite when rock climbing or being centered on a bowl spinning on a potter’s wheel or aching with hunger when you see someone without food.
People who become interested in a more formal approach to Buddhism may choose to go on meditation retreats, which can last only a weekend or as long as three years. Retreatants often take a vow of Noble Silence, which means no talking, reading, writing, watching TV, or listening to music. Days start early, sometimes before dawn, and can include sessions of guided mantra chanting (such as “Om Mani Peme Hung,” the Tibetan prayer for wisdom and compassion), sky gazing, yoga, teachings on the sutras (the talks given by Siddhartha Gautama), or even contemplative walks through the woods. There are dozens of retreat possibilities all over Texas: The Margaret Austin Center in Chappell Hill (800-836-4757; www.macenter.org), one hour northwest of Houston, hosts a variety of spiritually oriented retreats, including several devoted to dance-movement meditation. The Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center (214-521-5258; www.siri.dhamma.org), near Dallas, sponsors ten-day retreats that focus on a technique of meditation, first used more than 2,500 years ago in India, that gives a deeper insight into the nature of reality; the retreats are free, including food and lodging. The San Antonio Shambhala Center (210-647-1804; www.shambhala.org) sponsors weekend retreats devoted to “mindfulness-awareness meditation” as well as meditation instruction, group discussions, and individual interviews, all by appointment.
It is now even possible to attend a Buddhist academy in Texas. Since February 1998, Jade Buddha Temple’s handsome three-acre campus in far southwest Houston has been home to the Texas Buddhist College (281-498-1616; www.jadebuddha. org). Twice a year the school offers an intensive twelve-week course to laypersons interested in an increased understanding of Buddhist practices; about sixty students were enrolled in the last session. In addition to the college, Jade Buddha Temple sponsors four-day meditation retreats, youth summer camps with lessons and activities centered on topics such as “Loving Kindness” and “The Environment,” and free meditation classes. What started in 1979 with ten Chinese Buddhists who held their meetings in a shopping mall has evolved into a world-class spiritual center that has been visited by the Dalai Lama and numbers more than 1,400 members.
According to Lama Surya Das, the author of the best-selling Awakening the Buddha Within (and whose popular chant tapes were produced in Austin), there are now about five million Buddhists and three thousand meditation centers in North America. “What I call ‘stealth dharma’ is invading every aspect of society,” he says. “It has already made a large contribution in psychotherapy and in the field of death and dying. Doctors are recommending that patients meditate for their hypertension. You see the Zen aesthetic in architecture and gardening. Yoga and tai chi and natural eating are being taught at the local YMCA. Buddhism is a kind of fad now, with Hollywood and all, but as the sizzle fades the substance will remain.”
Anne Klein agrees. “There’s really a sense now of Buddhism having its own community in Texas. What’s happening with Buddhism in Houston is amazing. When we came here in 1989, there was almost nothing. Now visits by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan teachers draw hundreds of people. There’s a hunger for ritual and for practices of stillness and love and opening. These are not things that our secularized culture has really been called on to provide. Buddhism provides them.”
Perhaps it’s worth noting that Texan Buddhists don’t always wear maroon and saffron-colored silk robes or shave their heads. Brenham-born singer-songwriter Darden Smith is a dharma practitioner. League City (population: 45,000) is home to the Fighting Wildcats high school football team and the Diamond Way Buddhist Center. Wooden mala meditation beads rattle around the wrists of Fort Worth architects, fiddle players at Austin’s Broken Spoke saloon, firefighters in El Paso, the grandmother handing out sandwiches at the local church’s soup kitchen, and maybe even your child’s kindergarten teacher. Whether in Tibet or Tyler, practicing dharma means being a mindful parent, a patient and faithful spouse. It means slowing down. Letting go. Lowering your fork after each bite. And offering the world a knowing half-smile when you hear Kris Kristofferson or Janis Joplin sing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”