Richard Gere

How Buddhism was reincarnated (The Toronto Star, Canada)

Eslie Scrivener, Toronto Star, Canada: In exile, Tibet’s lamas adapted to West Timing perfect for spiritual revolution

By rights, Tibetan Buddhism should have faded like the dying light in a thousand butter lamps before a thousand knowing Buddhas. But something extraordinary happened after the Dalai Lama rode a mountain pony into exile in 1959, disguised as a soldier, his glasses in his pocket: Tibetan Buddhism found a new incarnation.

Not in the monasteries — the Chinese invaders took care to burn them. Not in the memories of monks and nuns — thousands were imprisoned or murdered. Not in secret, feudal Tibet at all — the Chinese ruthlessly dragged the land into the 20th century. But in Europe and the United States and Canada, too.

The lamas, who had followed the Dalai Lama into exile in India, headed west. It was the Sixties, and the West, weary of what it knew about Christianity or Judaism, was ready to bow down to what it didn’t know — spiritual practices of the East.

The timing was perfect, says writer Jeffrey Paine, whose new book Re-Enchantment explains how Tibetan Buddhism came to the West and how the lamas ushered in the greatest revolution in their religious history by adapting to western tastes.

Instead of esoteric theology and metaphysics, they taught simple meditation: breathe in, breathe out — anyone could do it. You were required to be kind and compassionate. You could chant, do a thousand prostrations — or more! And for New Agers who liked it, there was the thrill of magic and mystery, clairvoyant monks and even flying lamas.

“The first lamas, once they got the hang of what the West was like, were able to dispense with theology and teach practical things,” Paine says from Washington, D.C.

They gave people “something that was almost the experience of faith and close to the satisfaction of faith, without a theological structure.” In effect, “delivering a religion that could dispense with God and belief, too.”

Buddhism addressed the universal sorrow — suffering. “People suffer, people die. Why?” asks Chris Banigan, an artist and book designer. “Am I being duped by the senses? It was more about questions and a reminder that I have very little time here. What am I doing with this time? That’s the question.”

And if the lamas could also help North Americans with their bruised psyches, all the better. The lamas, including the Dalai Lama, were astounded that westerners, so well educated, so at ease with engines, suffered from low self-esteem, says Paine. When they compared the two cultures, they concluded that the major difference between Tibetans and North Americans was that Tibetans liked themselves.

Coming from Tibet, where the spiritual life was well-developed and one-quarter of the male population were monks, the lamas couldn’t understand North Americans walking around not thinking they were potential Buddhas, says Jeff Cox, president of Snow Lion Publications in Ithaca, N.Y., which specializes in books on Buddhism.

They were skillful teachers and appealed to those with a scholastic turn of mind, says Frances Garrett, an assistant professor of Buddhist studies at the University of Toronto where 200 students are enrolled in classes studying Tibetan Buddhism. But the lamas went further.

“They realized that monasticism just wasn’t going to catch on, so the practices and teachings that had only been available to monks and nuns became available to lay people. A transformation had to occur to become palatable and interesting to the West.”

Some purists were critical, saying secret teaching was being squandered on ordinary people, homeowners, students, people with families and jobs, people who couldn’t possibly appreciate or practise the teachings as they should.

But in Richmond Hill, Lama Tashi Dondup of the Karma Tekchen Zabsal Ling centre appreciates his western students. “They don’t just do what the teacher says. They check to see if that is what the Buddha says. Westerners do this. They are not just jumping in. I like this way. It’s not a stupid way.”

And, he adds, it doesn’t matter if you are Christian or Jewish. “You can still meditate. Then you really become relaxed, peaceful and comfortable.”

Buddhism in the West was seen as a spiritual practice, not a religion, which appealed not only to those attached to western religious practices, but those who were dissatisfied and the rising group of people known by the census takers as the “religious nones,” those who declared they had no religious beliefs. “It’s just a word game, but another way Buddhism transformed itself in a new culture,” says Garrett.

Garrett had always been interested in philosophy, but after studies in India became drawn to Buddhist practices. “They satisfied me with a complexity and profundity of thinking, but gave those ideas some purpose in interacting with other people. It was a profound philosophy aimed at helping others.”

Then there is the appeal of science. “Generations of disciples looked at the nature of reality and mind from a scientific point of view,” says photographer Don Farber, whose most recent book is Tibetan Buddhist Life. “That meant they tested and analyzed and didn’t take anything for granted. That approach to spirituality appeals to the western mind since we’ve had scientific education.”

Plans are under way at the University of Toronto for a centre that would unite western scientists who study the physiological and neurological effects of Buddhist meditation with researchers, such as Garrett, who study Buddhist texts. “It will be unique in North America to unite the expertise,” says Garrett.

American actors and celebrities also embraced Tibetan Buddhism, making it better known — though some see it as an embarrassment. Steven Seagal’s celebrity was the sort that gave Buddhism in the West a bad name. The actor, who plays efficient but good-guy killers, was declared a tulku, or reincarnation of a great religious figure, by a Tibetan rinpoche he had supported financially.

Richard Gere was the good side. Paine was told the actor has become a “lovely person,” a generous contributor to Tibetan causes, presumably the effect of meditating between 45 minutes and two hours every day for 25 years.

“A few matinee idols and film directors have done more than a thousand monks could have to chant Tibetan Buddhism into general awareness in the American culture,” Paine concludes.

Cox estimates there are 800,000 western Buddhists — about half of those follow Tibetan Buddhist practices — and about 500 Tibetan Buddhist centres in North America. In the United States, Paine reports, Buddhism is doubling its numbers and the fastest growing form is Tibetan. Canada’s 2001 census showed there are 97,000 Buddhists in Toronto — about 4,000 are not visible minorities.

In Toronto, there are at least eight Tibetan centres, some in suburban bungalows, some established centres, with some lamas in residence as teachers and dozens of others visiting regularly from India for special teachings.

It’s the connection to his teacher, Lama Namse Rinpoche, that’s important to Allen Gauvreau, who lives and works at the Karma Sonam Dargye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre on Vaughan Rd.

Outside, prayer flags strung across the parking lot flap wildly in the wind. Inside, it’s serene, with shining floors, a screen of glimmering gilt Buddhas and meditative images of Buddhas hanging from the walls.

Gauvreau recalls there was no religious ritual in his upbringing. He remembers going to Sunday school. It was United Church. No, he says, it was Anglican. “The practice has given me what was missing; it’s given me ritual,” he says. “Though I find I’ve become more interested in the meditation. But all this ritual helps me in visualizations.”

Meditative visualization takes you through a series of exercises. A simplified description of these elaborate practices: Picture a Buddha at the centre of a mandala with other Buddhas around him, then you picture yourself as Buddha and imagine taking all the suffering of the beings around you and transforming that into happiness.

At mid-week, perhaps seven members will come for a chanting and meditation; when the lama teaches, 50 will attend; 100 may come for visiting teachers. The members are mixed. While most are Canadian-born, one is from Mexico, another from Ethiopia, one is Serbian, and some from Hong Kong.

Says Gauvreau: “The important thing, there’s a place, here, for people to have contact with a living meditation master.”

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Dalai Lama: Moment for Meditation

Newsweek: The Dalai Lama always stirs up plenty of karmic excitement when he comes to town. But a sold-out conference–“Investigating the Mind: Exchanges Between Buddhism and the Biobehavioral Sciences on How the Mind Works”–held last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a bunch of Western scientists downright giddy. For 15 years they’ve been holding invitation-only meetings with the Dalai Lama at his residence in India to discuss the science of Buddhism; the fact that this year’s rendezvous was cosponsored by the venerable McGovern Institute for Brain Research–with celebs like Richard Gere attending–is a giant boost for the field. Says one participant: “This is really a coming-out party in Kresge Auditorium”…

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Buddhism and mind science

Deseret.com: Can concentration be controlled? Can attention be practiced and perfected? These are questions that are of increasing interest today to scientists but which Buddhist monks have been exploring for thousands of years.

With the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, sitting between them, the two sides gathered over the weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a search for common ground in their pursuit of understanding of the mysteries of the human mind.

The Dalai Lama, who is halfway through a 16-day tour of the United States, said he hoped science could provide answers in areas where inward contemplation can’t.

“I myself am not clear,” he said at one point, drawing laughs from the overflow crowd that included actors Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn.

The scientists want to pick the minds of the Buddhist scholars about how best to use technology such as brain imaging to study consciousness.

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Dalai Lama, 300 leaders to meet

Private session of top Buddhists to cap his U.S. tour

Deseret News: The 14th Dalai Lama is simultaneously the exiled monarch of Tibet, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning statesman and Buddhism’s most renowned world leader — aspects that are all evident during his current U.S. tour.

But a private event, carrying out his religious role, may be the most significant moment in the India-based lama’s visit — a conference in the upstate New York community of Garrison for 300 leaders of local Buddhist centers in the Western Hemisphere.

This is apparently the biggest gathering of Buddhist teachers ever held in the United States. Only followers of the Dalai Lama’s own Tibetan form of the faith are invited, although some speakers will come from other traditions. The lama has previously encouraged smaller meetings for teachers representing all Buddhist branches, most recently in 2001.

Such get-togethers are rare because North American Buddhism is highly individualistic and decentralized, with less unity and nationwide cooperation than is found in Christianity, Judaism or Islam…

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The Dalai Lama is asking the teachers to take stock after a period of notable New World expansion for all of Buddhism. The 1998 “Complete Guide to Buddhist America” listed over 1,000 dharma (“teaching”) centers in North America, more than double the total a decade earlier.

One survey puts U.S. Buddhists at 3 million to 4 million. Most are immigrants, their numbers swelled by the 1965 liberalization of U.S. immigration laws.

But an estimated 800,000 are native-born converts or “new Buddhists,” including such celebrities as movie actor Richard Gere, who helped plan the Sept. 22-23 Garrison meeting.

Such progress owes much to the magnetism of the 68-year-old Dalai Lama, who by Tibetan tradition was recognized at age 2 as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvar, the Buddha of Compassion, and the reincarnation of his deceased predecessor.

Tibetan Buddhism, known as Tantrism or Vajrayana (“the Diamond Vehicle,” denoting clarity of experience) is one of Buddhism’s three main branches. The others are Theravada (“the Way of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“the Greater Vehicle,” which includes Zen).

All three, and their many subgroups and spinoffs, are active in contemporary North America. In fact, this is “the first time in history you have all these diverse traditions in one place,” says historian Jan Willis, a Baptist-turned-Buddhist who will speak at Garrison. She tells her Wesleyan University students to speak of “Buddhisms,” plural, underscoring these varieties.

Though many branches live side by side, they mostly live apart, with the line between immigrants and “new Buddhists” particularly obvious. In the Tibetan branch, “new Buddhist” converts far outnumber ethnic immigrants, yet teachers imported from Asia overshadow U.S.-born leaders.

Among the topics on the Garrison agenda: challenges in teaching Tibetan Buddhism in the West; preserving the tradition; interfaith relations; responsibilities to society; and, promoting collaboration among Buddhists. The last topic is crucial for Western Buddhism and especially for the Tibetans, says Helen Tworkov, editor of the independent Buddhist magazine Tricycle.

Tibet’s strong sectarian divisions naturally spill over to the West, Tworkov says, and “if they do not acknowledge it’s here, it will be hard to get beyond it.”

The Dalai Lama doesn’t hold the power of, say, the pope, and he actually leads only one of Tibet’s four major separate schools. But Tworkov says he enjoys a respect among almost all Buddhists that puts him in a unique position to foster unity.

She also says that, because the traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture is under threat of extinction from the Chinese occupation that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile, Tibetan teachers tend to be conservative.

The faith faces major adjustments in North America. The heritage of authoritative, male teachers clashes with feminism and democracy, for example, and liberals are rankled that the Dalai Lama teaches against homosexual activity, in keeping with Buddhist tradition.

Years ago, the Tibetan branch was rocked by scandals involving such prominent leaders as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Colorado’s Naropa University, who was accused of having sex with women students.

In a dramatic (and still disputed) exercise of unified action, 21 Western Buddhist teachers met the Dalai Lama in India in 1993 and issued an open letter that lamented various teachers’ “sexual misconduct with their students, abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds and misuse of power.” The group urged believers to confront teachers and publicize behavior that violates Buddhist teachings.

“People have come through the scandal period,” says historian Willis, and now it’s time to contemplate long-term challenges that could be raised at Garrison.

She’s particularly concerned about two of them, that westerners attracted by meditation both neglect the faith’s devotional and ritual aspects and have little interest in joining monasteries, which have always supplied Buddhism’s teachers.

Without these elements, she’s concerned the faith may grow only shallow roots in the West.

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The Healing Power of Meditation

A nonprofit group brings one of Buddhism’s core practices to former inmates. And the Dalai Lama is listening.

Newsweek: It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely pair discussing politics at New York’s swanky Mark Hotel last week: Moses Weah, a 21-year-old African-American from the South Bronx, currently residing in a Times Square shelter, with corn-rowed hair and a rap sheet longer than his untucked T shirt and, not 10 feet away, dressed in his saffron-and-maroon monk’s robes, 68-year-old Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile.

Surrounded in the hotel’s small conference room by 17 former prison inmates, meditation teachers, meditation teachers, State Department security agents, a film crew and actor Richard Gere, who helped facilitate the gathering, Moses held forth so passionately he half rose from his seat. “It’s about making money, man. Uzis aren’t made in the ghetto. Nobody in the hood’s making money off the Dolce & Gabbana we’re wearing. Prisons are about making money for the dudes the prisons. They us to fail. They us to go back.” His Holiness listened and nodded and replied without using his translator, “I too could be in this prison. That potential is inside all humans. But so is potential for transformation. You must keep on path for what is good inside you.”…

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From the Dalai Lama’s perspective, that path is intimately connected to meditation—the mindfulness and natural compassion that Buddhists believe arise when one is fully, selflessly, connected to the present moment. (Kundun, the Dalai Lama’s name in Tibetan, means “presence.”) Though it seems a no-brainer to offer people in prisons a healthy, inexpensive way to deal with anger and stress (if for no other reason than most will one day be of prison), thus far there’s been considerable resistance to it by most government agencies. For the past four years I’ve been teaching meditation classes in New York City youth prisons with a nonprofit organization called the Lineage Project. It’s often a struggle to get inside, and though our group received the Mayor’s Voluntary Action Award we get no funding from the city or from the Department of Juvenile Justice. Recognizing this and myriad other issues surrounding the American prison system, Soren Gordhamer, the founder of the Lineage Project, organized (through Gere’s Initiatives Foundation) a three-day conference in Manhattan called “Healing Through Great Difficulty.”

“We’re trying to address a system that’s not working,” Gordhamer says. “Too often prisoners come out angrier than when they went in. Prison guards have a shorter life expectancy than most other vocations and often die shortly after retirement. Prison groups worry more about their paychecks bouncing than teaching. Our goal is not to make people Buddhists. It’s about helping to calm the minds of prisoners and staff, and to support the human values of empathy and respect.”
The New York conference, the first of its kind, which by design coincided with the Dalai Lama’s 20-day American tour, began with panel discussions led by Western meditation teachers, including Jack Kornfield, a former Buddhist monk and author of the best-selling “A Path With Heart”; George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation coach with the Los Angeles Lakers; a feisty Buddhist nun from Australia named Robina Courtin, who labors to keep afloat her California-based Liberation Prison Project, which has donated more than 20,000 books to prison libraries worldwide; Fleet Maull, an ordained Zen priest who founded the National Prison Hospice Association while serving 14 years in federal prison, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, an author and scientist who has helped bring mindfulness practices into the mainstream of American medicine. Two questions the teachers wanted to address: What works? What more can we do?
The 18 former inmates—nominated by prison groups and halfway houses from around the country to attend the conference and offer answers—proved to be inspiring examples of the possibility of transformation through spiritual practice. Among many of the former inmates were two common denominators: tough, often abusive childhoods in broken families, and a fervent desire to give something positive back to their “brothers and sisters” still inside. “Meditation saved my life,” said Ananda Baltrunas, who, released just weeks ago after two decades in prison, lives in a Zen monastery in Indiana and plans to counsel local inmates. Dylcia Pagán, a former Puerto Rican political prisoner who served 20 years for sedition, told the group, “Meditation enabled me to find that sacred space within me in the madness of prison life. It allowed me to learn forgiveness for myself and for my jailors.” Luz Santana, who works with emotionally disturbed women in the same New York state facility where she was locked up for 11 years, tearfully explained, “It was acts of kindness that helped me survive in prison, and I’m now trying to pass that on, to give a little bit of love to those who never experienced it.”
Perhaps the most powerful testament to the value of meditation and spiritual practice came when two Tibetan nuns shared with the American prisoners the grim details of their incarceration by the communist Chinese government. Though guilty of nothing more than attending a peaceful demonstration in Lhasa advocating religious freedom, both teenage nuns were arrested, tortured and for five years kept in an unheated cell with 12 other prisoners with whom they were not allowed to speak. The Tibetan translator’s eyes welled with tears as she explained how throughout their ordeal the two nuns continually, silently, meditated on the only Buddhist image they had ever seen: a smuggled photo of the Dalai Lama as a little boy. When asked by the American prisoners how they survived, one of the nuns replied, “We remembered those who were suffering more than us.”
During the conference it became clear that society’s bias against former inmates is multifaceted. For instance, only two of the 18 participants had regained their voting rights. Were it not for a special waiver to attend the conference, because of parole restrictions, most could not have traveled to New York or even associated with each other as former prisoners. When I escorted a participant from Massachusetts to the 20th Precinct police headquarters so he could register as a “parolee from out of state,” the cop who gave him the form sneeringly refused to sign it or log it into the computer, and when he got his pen back he threw it in the trash.
For most of us, the conference highlight was the intimate, 90-minute conversation with the Dalai Lama. “It didn’t turn out like I had planned,” says Gordhamer. “I thought he would be answering lots of questions. Instead, the prisoners wanted to educate him about so many of the problems people in poverty face growing up in our culture. His Holiness was visibly moved when he learned that several states spend more money on jails than colleges. He’s already expressed interest in returning next year to talk with wardens, judges and politicians about changes to our prison system that would lead to a safer society for everyone.”
After the unprecedented discussion, the Dalai Lama bowed and blessed the teachers’ and prisoners’ mala beads. As the group gathered around him for a photograph, one of the participants asked if she could give His Holiness a kiss. He laughed and patted his cheek. Watching, keeping in mind the lessons embodied in the suffering and wisdom of both the Dalai Lama and the likes of young Moses Weah, I recalled the last meditation class Soren and I taught at a youth prison in the South Bronx. The final steel door yawning shut behind us with an emphatic deadbolt . The tiny chapel filled with 16 young men, convicted or accused of offenses including armed robbery, rape and murder, slumped throughout the pews in their sweaty brown jumpsuits, somehow looking both anxious and theatrically bored. Ten minutes later an always amazing sight: the inmates were sitting up straight, most with closed eyes, silently counting the echoing from the brass bowl balanced on Soren’s fingertips. One kid chewed on a toothpick and sat so fully erect his posture seemed a parody of itself, yet when the meditation concluded he was the first to shout out the correct number of chimes. Another rubbed his eyes and said to no one in particular, “Yo, where I?”
Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, even Jesus—many of the world’s great leaders, Soren reminded the young men, spent time in jail.
As the female inmates lined up in single file at the conclusion of that night’s second class, a woman whose hair was styled into a dozen tiny Afro tufts gently knocked knuckles with us. “Yesterday I meditated before I met my judge,” she whispered. “My stomach was all fluttery, so I went into the bathroom at the courthouse, put paper towels on the floor, closed my eyes, and counted my breaths.
Soren smiled. “Did it help?”
“Yeah, a lot,” she answered as she was marched off to her cell. “It made me feel so much better, I thought I was doing something illegal.”

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