meditation in universities

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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Meditative practices for the college life

Sumayya Ahmad, Daily Trojan, Univ of Southern California, USA: Buddhist students on campus practice meditation and host discussions weekly.

In the fast-paced college atmosphere, some students at USC have turned to Buddhism, an ancient religion more than 2,500 years old, for guidance in their modern lives because of the faith’s philosophy and the simple answers it provides for everyday problems.

Buddhism is used to purify your mind and understand how to eliminate all suffering, agony and stress,” said Dr. Jongmae Park, Buddhist director at USC and a faculty fellow.

“Youngsters are very hyper and have so much passion. A life of passion is OK, but we try to make them slow down. They are often missing the cultivation of the self,” he said.

Buddhists believe people were born with a pure mind and spirit, and develop greed, anger and prejudices through life, Park said.

The philosophy of Buddhism is unlike most religions in that there is no belief in a supreme being or God, Park said. Buddhists, however, are not atheists, he said.

“We believe in the nature of the universe. In fact, the Buddha said that each sentient being is a small universe,” Park said.

The Buddhist goal is to attain nirvana, or enlightenment. There are several ways to develop wisdom through Buddhism, he said. One way is through the reading of Buddhist scriptures, and another way is coaching oneself through meditation and chanting. The Buddhist book of scripture, the Sutra, is 84,000 chapters long.

Park said that he thinks part of getting an education is to gain wisdom.

“The young age is important. The mind is in high gear and learning to develop many different things. Wisdom doesn’t only come from education, it also comes from experiences,” Park said.

“If you have no wisdom, it’s like building a house on sand, not on a concrete floor. We try to help USC students build a house with a good foundation. This is called spiritual development.”

Darryl Ng, a senior majoring in business with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, is president of external affairs for the USC Buddhist Association. Ng, who was not raised with a religious background, became interested in Buddhism in college.

“The Buddhist philosophy, I find, really clicks with my own personal beliefs; it’s essentially the madhyamam, the middle path, not to one of the extremes or the other, and I try to implement that in my daily life,” he said.

Ng meditates twice a day for 15 minutes, once in the morning after he wakes up and also before he goes to bed. Meditation helps to clear his mind, he said.

Ng also leads meditation sessions on campus for students who want to learn relaxation techniques on Thursdays in the Fishbowl Chapel from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The USC Buddhist Association holds meetings every Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in URC 205, where there are teachings and discussion about the philosophy.

“The mind is like a pool of water — it’s murky, you can’t see through it. By sitting down, and allowing the mind to calm itself, essentially your muddy water becomes clear and you can see through it,” he said.

Caroline Bartunek, a sophomore majoring in creative writing and comparative literature, is the vice president of the USC Buddhist Association.

Bartunek grew up in a Catholic family and said that she, too, became interested in Buddhism in college.

Although she said she considers herself predominantly Catholic and attends church at home, she thinks that Buddhism is a great philosophy.

“I think that for most people it’s a philosophy — it’s not a mythology. It’s really about the core of teaching. It has a great way of looking at life and treating people with compassion,” she said.

Bartunek said that she really liked the teachings of Jesus, but as she grew older, it became harder for her to identify with the Christian culture.

Bartunek also said that most people who express an interest in Buddhism are “white American” kids who are interested in the philosophy.

“Different people follow Buddhism in different ways,” Bartunek said. “One of the precepts is that you shouldn’t use any intoxicating substances. The principle behind that is that one of the goals of Buddhism it to gain a higher consciousness.”

“I don’t make a big deal out of it, but I don’t drink or use drugs. If others want to do it, it’s their decision, though. I go to parties, but I avoid drinking.”

Bartunek also said that she likes how the philosophy can be adapted to any culture.

James Gauntt, a sophomore majoring in Spanish, became interested in Buddhism after one of his friends took him to a meeting last spring.

“I liked how accessible and venerable it is, how entertaining the lectures can be, and how easy they are to understand,” Gauntt said.

Gauntt said he was a “church-twice-a-year” Christian, one who attends only Christmas and Easter services. He said that although he would not call himself a Buddhist, he is fascinated by the philosophy.

“I am really willing to learn more and see about making it a big part of my life in the future,” he said.

“It makes life very easy to understand and deal with. I like the philosophy. It makes life very easy, and I think it’s just the life lesson more than anything.”

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Student finds transformation in monastery stay (Buddhist News Network)

Knoe College News: Knox College student Sean Dowdy (photo) credits “feeling more focused” this term to the way he spent the last term: meditating with monks in a Buddhist monastery.

Dowdy, a junior from Morrisonville, Ill., recently returned from Bodh Gaya, India, where he spent three months in the Buddhist Studies program.

“I feel more focused since I’ve returned,” he said. “I think this experience has helped me overcome bad mental and emotional habits. It was an intense education.”

For the first three weeks of the program, Dowdy and a group of other American college students lived in a Buddhist monastery.

“We lived our days as if we were monks,” he said. “We got up at 4:30 a.m. and meditated for one hour, and then we’d have a silent breakfast.”

For Dowdy, this was a stark contrast from his life at Knox.

“The earliest I get up is six a.m., and that’s only when I have homework to do,” he said. “Otherwise I sleep in until right before class. And I never take time to eat breakfast.”

Students were expected to follow the monastery’s social and moral laws, which included “preserving all life, being celibate, avoiding intoxicants, and refraining from stealing,” he said.

“Vowing to preserve all life meant more than just being vegetarian,” Dowdy said. “It even included not swatting the mosquitoes that were bothering you constantly.”

A junior Anthropology-Sociology major, Dowdy enrolled in the program to study the cultural and historical aspects of Buddhism, which he first became interested in as a high school student.

“It’s one of the most peacefully-spread religions in the world,” he said. “I come from a background of staunch Irish Catholics, and my mother is a lay nun. But she encouraged me because she is interested in world religion. This program was a great way for me to study in another culture, but it was also a personal pilgrimage to see what I believed in.”

In India, Dowdy learned different types of meditation from a Japanese monk, as well as Nepalese and Burmese masters.

“In meditation, you’re striving toward mental and spiritual development,” he said. “Buddhism teaches you to seek true, unselfish compassion for others through meditation.”

Dowdy also took classes focusing on philosophical concepts related to meditation, as well as language instruction in Tibetan and Hindi. He also studied Buddhist philosophy and the history of Indian Buddhism.

“There are multiple variations of Buddhisms, like Zen Buddhism in Japan or Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, and each one is interpreted differently by different cultures,” he said. “It’s a very diverse and international religion. But there are basic similarities, such as a focus on compassion, and belief that all life is suffering.”

Nancy Eberhardt, Professor of Anthropology/Sociology at Knox, said Dowdy benefited from learning about Buddhism outside a classroom setting.

“Sean is an exceptional student, and already knew a great deal about Buddhism before he went,” she said. “But I know this experience has broadened his knowledge and deepened his commitment to studying the role of Buddhism in people’s every day lives. It introduced Sean to Buddhism as it is actually lived, with many opportunities to talk with practicing Buddhists from all walks of life. That’s an indispensable part of learning about any religion.”

Dowdy also traveled extensively while in India, visiting Dehli and Calcutta, among other places. In Darjeeling, in West Bengal, he saw the Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism—giving a religious talk to a large crowd.

“We received a blessing from him,” Dowdy said. “We shook his hand and he presented us with a white scarf.”

After leaving the monastery, Dowdy conducted anthropological and sociological field research in Lachung, a northern village near the Tibetan border.

“It’s small and isolated, and there are no phones there,” Dowdy said. “It’s spread out in a valley in the heart of the Himalayas, and when you look up, you see these awesome snow-capped precipices. It’s beautiful.”

For his research project, Dowdy interviewed heads of the village and spent time with its residents in order to study its unique form of government. “It’s a communitarian Buddhist government, where all decisions have to be made by each household,” he said.

Dowdy lived with a Tibetan family and with a translator in the village.

“Everyone was wonderful to me there,” he said. “I’d love to go back.”

After graduating from Knox, Dowdy hopes to return to India and work for a non-governmental organization in humanitarian aid.

“I see myself as more of a ‘world citizen’ now,” he said. “It was the greatest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It was a widening of my lenses. And I feel like I know so much more about the Indian students at Knox and their culture now. It’s given me a much more open way of looking at the world.”

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Meditation session relieves stress

Rachel Silverman, The Daily Pennsylvanian: This time of year life on campus can be dreary. Finals week is rapidly approaching and trekking through the snow and wind on Superblock often feels like a life or death struggle.

Yesterday afternoon, several dozen students cast aside their bulkpacks and coffee cups to escape these undeniable realities — through the art of meditation.

Robert Mawson, a certified meditation instructor, led the group in a 30-minute relaxation exercise in the Hamilton College House rooftop lounge.

Participating students came with varying levels of experience with meditation, but many said they enjoyed the event.

“I’m a practicing Buddhist and haven’t been able to go anywhere to do meditation,” College freshman Terra Gearhart said….

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Even for first-timers like Engineering senior Brian Lau, the event was time well spent.

“I didn’t do it exactly right but I was still able to relax,” he said.

According to the instructor, meditation can provide clarity and understanding to those who practice regularly.

“When you meditate, things are much clearer for you,” he said. “You will see solutions to problems instead of problems that are insurmountable.”

For Mawson, meditation practice offers escape from the daily grind.

“From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed your mind is bombarded will all kinds of stimuli,” he explained. “You can get rid of the junk in your brain through meditating.”

Mawson also credits meditation with certain curative abilities.

“I know personally and from personal experience those who meditate get well before those who do not,” he told audience members.

Mawson noted he has survived a heart transplant, multiple cardiac arrests and surgery without anesthesia by relying on meditation exercise.

In spite of health difficulties, Mawson has led quite a life.

Originally from a “poor, coal-mining town in Northeast England,” he has, among other things, lived with Eskimos in Greenland, become a deep sea diver, hiked all over India, learned seven languages and spent time as a practicing monk in Thailand.

Currently 60 years old, Mawson works for the Dhammakaya Foundation, a nonreligious, nonprofit group committed to teaching meditation. He also holds relaxation seminars at the United Nations and power walks eight miles daily.

The Thai Students Association and the Office of Health Education collaborated to bring Mawson to campus.

Engineering sophomore Ron Wallach called for more such stress-relieving activities at Penn.

“The University should offer group meditation sessions throughout the year,” he said.

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Lecture, classes introduce State College to Buddhism

Anne Hainer, Penn State Collegian, Pennsylvania: Penn State students, faculty and local residents were able to get an introduction to Buddhist culture and meditation this weekend.

Several hundred people attended a lecture by Chan Master Sheng Yen and introductory meditation classes as part of the Chan (Zen) events that took place Saturday and yesterday.

“We hope to help introduce Buddhism into Western society; not for religious reasons, but more to help people understand Eastern philosophy,” said Chang-Jin Lai, the lecture’s coordinator.

“It is important for people to understand other people’s beliefs as well as their own; we want to help this school diversify.”

Yen, who has written more than 100 books and has spoken with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, spoke about focusing on how to achieve happiness while being mindful of others and promoting the interests of the general public.

Yen travels worldwide to spread not only ideas of Buddhist thought but also the ideas of religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation….

During his speech, Yen spoke about being selfless.

“There are two prerequisites to true selflessness: the observation of the cost that selfishness incurs and the willingness to sacrifice for others,” he said.

Many audience members were receptive to the speech.

“I really liked it. It gave you something to contemplate and helped explain the philosophy of Buddhism pretty in depth,” Shawnette Brandt (graduate-counselor education) said.

There were two events, each divided into two parts — a lecture by Yen on selflessness and fulfillment, and a beginning meditation class led by Chan Meditation Center Abbot Guo-yuan Fa Shi.

The class discussed the eight postures of mediation, as well as some Buddhist beliefs concerning the practice, with exercises and discussion led by Guo-yuan.

“Meditation requires a clear mind and relaxed body,” Guo-yuan said.

To attain this state, meditation focuses on moving one body part slowly.

For example, rotating the hips with your hands on them is supposed to relax the entire body through steady breathing and emptying the mind.

“Meditation is a daily exercise — practice for about 32 minutes a day — three to four minutes of each of the eight postures,” Guo-yuan said.

“The class was held because meditation is a very important practice, and people have to know how to do it correctly,” said Chi-Yen Chiu (graduate-teaching English as a second language), a member of the Buddhist Association of Central Pennsylvania.

Those in attendance were pleased with the turnout.

“We had 50 people register beforehand online, like we asked, but then there were 85 people in class,” Chiu said.

“The class was just incredible — I felt the most in touch with myself than I ever remember feeling. It would do a lot of people good to learn this,” Stephanie Whitesell (senior-human development and family studies) said.

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