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