A Texas starting place on Buddhism’s path

Houston Chronicle: Teryl Pittman labored to settle cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. Slowly, she tucked one foot under the other and straightened her back, her eyes closed and hands joined in her lap, palms facing up.

Following the direction of a soft-spoken monk, Pittman and a handful of others swayed slightly before becoming still and settling into gentle and deep breathing.

But her discomfort grew, and 15 minutes later she moved to a bench. A little later, Diana Johns joined her.

The sight brought a smile to the Rev. Katapunna, who conducts Saturday sessions at the American Bodhi Center, which the Texas Buddhist Association opened in May near Hempstead in Waller County.

“It’s encouraging. Our efforts are starting to pay off,” said Katapunna, known to followers as Yuan Fu.

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The small group of followers is among the first promising signs of what the association hopes to accomplish at this retreat: to integrate Buddhism into mainstream American life.

“We want more Americans to benefit from Buddha’s teaching,” said the Rev. Hung I, the visionary behind the project and abbot of Jade Buddha Temple, the association’s Houston headquarters.

One of the largest Buddhist developments in the nation, the Bodhi Center sits on 515 wooded acres, the first phase completed with meditation hall, dormitories and log houses.

The center breaks tradition in many ways: Its simple and neutral designs are devoid of ornate, classic Chinese architecture. Campsites, playgrounds, lakes and trails meandering amid pines and oaks little resemble a religious site. In the meditation hall, a guided contemplative routine allows both seated and walking meditation.

Association leaders hope the retreat reverses a perception of Buddhism as a mysterious, ritual-heavy religion and reveal a buoyant and accessible philosophy practical in everyday life.

“Buddhism must adapt itself to the needs of Americans today in a social and cultural environment different from where we came from,” said Hung I, who was born in China, spent his monastic childhood in Burma and received advanced training in Taiwan before moving to America in 1978.

Hung I has seen his congregation grow to 1,500 families. The American Bodhi Center project was sought partly because Jade Buddha Temple had long reached its capacity with its bustling activities.

On a recent weekend the center welcomed some 90 youths for a camp that included Buddhist sermons and meditation, a lecture on new energy technology, singing and hip-hop dance, games and kite-making. Johns, who lives two miles away, brought three horses for the children to ride.

Pittman, raised Catholic, said she “instantly felt at home” at the retreat, where the teaching and practice are not dogmatic.

“You don’t have to sit cross-legged if it’s hard. The reverend would even say, ‘Go lay down if you’re tired. Just don’t fall asleep,’” she said.

The Buddhist central philosophy of “dependent arising” — that everything happens due to preceding conditions in an unbroken chain of cause and effect, thus calling for mindfulness in all deeds — appeals to her, she said.

“I’m 50 years old, but I feel I am having a new life, never more peaceful and happy,” she said.

Local officials also welcomed the retreat as a cultural asset for the community. Waller County Judge Owen Ralston said the facility offers an “opportunity for us to learn” about Buddhism. “They tried very hard to fit in and built something that everybody here can use,” he said.

The retreat also has drawn non-Buddhist groups. The Houston branch of Self Enquiry Life Fellowship, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Hindu group, will bring 300 people for a two-day August convention here.

“The natural and peaceful surrounding is in sync with what we want to do,” said branch leader Subroto Gangopadhyay, a Sugar Land cardiologist.

Opening the facility to anyone is a way to help people learn about Buddhism and not proselytize them, Hung I said. The only restriction that’s placed on visitors is to practice vegetarianism on site.

The association does grapple with what many Buddhist organizations across the nation face: the lack of English-speaking clergy and the challenge to promote an Eastern religion in a predominantly Christian land.

“Buddhists are such a small group in America. They’re not a big proselytizer,” said Helen Ebaugh, a University of Houston sociologist who has studied immigrant religious communities here.

However, Ann Klein, a Rice University religion professor and an association member who also runs Down Mountain, a Houston Tibetan temple, said Buddhism’s coexistence with other religions can be “enriching for everyone concerned.”

When the Rev. Jan Hai, a Chinese Buddhist scholar, founded the Texas Buddhist Association in Houston in 1978, he adopted a Christian church-style congregational form to place this Eastern religion in a cultural context that Westerners could understand.

In the East, incense burners, altars with Buddha statues, tablets for offerings and meditation cushions are staples of a temple where pews, the piano and choirs are unlikely associations. There, traditional followers frown upon music as a pursuit of sensory pleasure hindering spiritual growth. And monks or nuns run the ministry as well as handle administrative duties.

In contrast, the Houston temple’s grand hall holds rows of pews that fill on Sunday mornings. A piano sits near the altar while a choir sings for participants. A board of trustees comprising volunteer lay people governs the financial and organizational business.

To lead a sermon and meditation program that draws an increasing number of English-speaking participants, Hung I has become proficient in English over the past two decades.

“The completion of the first phase of the American Bodhi Center allows us to promote Buddhism in ways that transcend the confines of a traditional temple,” Hung I said. “Now we need to focus more on translation of Buddhist literature into English and designing appropriate protocol and services geared toward Americans.”


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