Jeff Wright The Register-Guard, Eugene Oregon: Twenty-two adults, legs crossed as they sit in chairs or on floor pillows, recite the words in unison: “Think of not thinking. Not thinking – what kind of thinking is that? Nonthinking. This is the essential art of zazen.”
Zazen means meditation, and the 22 Buddhist practitioners now turn to face the nearest wall, close their eyes and say nothing for the next 20 minutes. Aside from the occasional passing car, it’s so quiet that even the participants’ breathing is too hushed to hear.
Welcome to Eugene Zendo, a Buddhist community that got its start five years ago as a meditation “sitting group.” The community took root two years ago in a west Eugene home – after efforts to establish a sanctuary in a rural neighborhood just south of Spencer Butte fizzled in the face of adjacent landowner opposition.
This week, the community’s benefactor, a 76-year-old monk from Japan, arrives to dedicate the meeting place as a fully recognized temple of the Soto Zen branch of Buddhism.
The ceremony showcases a long-standing – and apparently growing – interest in Buddhism among Eugene’s ranks.
The temple’s resident priest, Patrick Ejo McMullen, said he came to Eugene in part because of its reputation as a Buddhist refuge. “I knew there was a lot of meditation and interest here, but very little in terms of (Buddhist) institutions,” he said.
A Salem native, McMullen studied under Joshin Keiri Roshi, the Japanese monk, for three years. With Roshi’s blessing, Eugene Zendo this week will become a subtemple of the monk’s Shurin Temple in Sendai, Japan. The Eugene temple – the first ever established by Roshi outside his city – is home to more than 30 adherents.
Interest in Buddhist ways isn’t new here: The Eugene Buddhist Priory, a monastery run by a priest or teacher, was founded in 1973, for example. But the curiosity has bloomed in recent years, at least if the sale of such things as Buddhist peace flags and books is any indication.
Kyizom Wangmo and her husband opened Potala Gate, a downtown Eugene store that sells Buddhist gift items, in October 2001. Business is good and growing, she said, even though she estimates that 75 percent of her customers don’t consider themselves Buddhists.
“They like the idea of Buddhism, but don’t know what the beliefs are,” she said. “People are very curious.”
A few blocks away at the Book Mark book store, owner Larry West has a separate floor-to-ceiling shelf devoted to Buddhism – more space than what’s provided any other religion. “There’s always been a big market here with all the counterculture in Eugene,” he said.
11 Buddhist groups in Eugene
Heightened interest in Buddhism and other Eastern religions may be more regional than local. In the mid-1990s, the Seattle-based Northwest Dharma Association knew of about 100 Buddhist groups in Oregon and Washington. That number has since increased to about 300, including 11 in Eugene, said association president George Draffan.
There are multiple lineages or traditions of Buddhism, all premised on the Buddha’s teaching that correct thinking and self-denial can enable a person to reach Nirvana, a divine state of release and enlightenment.
About 31 percent of the Northwest’s groups follow Tibetan Buddhism – the tradition espoused by the Dalai Lama – and 18 percent are Zen groups known for their focus on meditation.
The Pacific Northwest, along with New York and San Francisco, is recognized as a major center of Buddhism in this country, Draffan said. Exact numbers are hard to come by, however, because Buddhist temples and groups aren’t centralized into denominations like Christian churches, he said.
Also, many people practice Buddhist meditation without considering themselves Buddhist or belonging to a Buddhist group. As a result, estimates of the number of Buddhists nationally vary widely, from less than a million to several million.
In a 2000 North American Religion Atlas project, 151,475 people in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington and Alaska) were identified as adherents to Eastern religions – Buddhists but also Bahai’s, Hindus and Sikhs, for example. That represents 4.5 percent of all religion adherents in the Northwest, compared to 1.5 percent nationally.
But those numbers are probably low, said Mark Shibley, a professor of religion and sociology at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. The Northwest is ripe for Buddhism and similar traditions, he said, because no one particular faith – such as Catholicism or Mormonism – dominates here as in other parts of the country.
Religion no longer Asian only
Another explanation is geography. When Buddhist teachers from Asia started arriving in this country in the 1970s, they set up retreats and temples up and down the West Coast. Also, while often viewed as largely white, the Northwest is home to proportionately more Asian-Americans than much of the country, Shibley said.
But Buddhism is no longer an Asian-only faith. Draffan, for example, estimates that roughly two-thirds of the Northwest’s Buddhist groups are white rather than Asian in ethnic background.
That certainly describes Eugene Zendo where, during the recent evening meditation, only one of the 22 people in attendance appeared to be Asian – and where virtually no one, according to McMullen, grew up in a Buddhist household.
That includes Debra Savelle, a Symantec manager who grew up Presbyterian in Alabama and used to attend the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene. Savelle said that when a friend invited her to a daylong meditation in 1996, “I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever done.”
But she was surprised to have felt drawn to the incense and the quiet, and soon became a serious student. “I tend to be an anxious person, and I like being able to find that stillness and create it for myself,” said Savelle, who now meditates in her office chair at work 20 minutes every day.
The Rev. Oswin Hollenbeck, resident prior at the Eugene Buddhist Priory, said he believes what draws people to Buddhism is its emphasis on compassion and reliance “on experience and knowledge rather than blind belief.”
There’s also the fact that it includes a practice. “You meditate or you chant – there’s an actual way to learn what the teachings are pointing to and express it for yourself,” he said.
At Eugene Zendo, McMullen said a strong interfaith tradition in Eugene may also explain the interest in Buddhism.
“There’s a maturity here that’s a little difficult to find in other places,” he said. “While all traditions may sprout from the same fundamental truths, it’s still important to walk a particular path. I hear people here say that a lot.”
Inmyakue: “Tying Our Lives to the Buddha Way,” ceremonies, chanting, lectures, question-and-answer periods, Friday afternoon and evening, all day Saturday, Sunday morning
Kaitanshiki: “The Opening of the Tan,” dedication of wooden benches upon which Buddhist monks sit in meditation, 3 p.m. Sunday
Presiding: Joshin Keira Roshi, abbot of Shurin Temple, Sendai, Japan
Address: 2190 Garfield St.
Information: 302-4576, www.eugenezendo.org
In the measured steps of walking meditation, Yoko Mine slips through the light and shadow of early evening at the Eugene Buddhist Zendo. This weekend, the former Eugene home will be dedicated as a fully recognized temple of the Soto Zen branch of Buddhism.
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