Thursday, December 31, 2009

Michael Imperioli, "The Sopranos" Actor Seeks Enlightenment Through Buddhism

By Douglas Harrington
Hampton Style, December 29, 2009, 12:37 pm


New York City - Michael Imperioli, like all the cast members of HBO"s wildly popular "The Sopranos," has, for the last decade, been a darling of the entertainment media. From electronic to gloss to newsprint, he and his fellow cast members have been the stuff that sells the stuff that tells all of that celebrity dish. Amid all that stuff, Imperioli has actually been on a serious journey of self-evaluation, a journey of self-realization, a journey that led him to Tibetan Buddhism.

It might be enough to say that I sat down with Imperioli in Tribeca for an interview, but, in truth, that would not say anything at all about that afternoon. I as the interviewer, and as it should be, is the least important person in the room during the interview. The interviewee is, as it should be, the focal point of attention. This particular afternoon both Imperioli and I respectfully deferred our empirical moment to the divine presence of the 18th generation reincarnated Ngagkpa Lama, Namkha Rinpoche, at the Dharma Center in NYC. The Ngagkpa is essentially a master teacher whose purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and themselves. Rinpoche's life since childhood has been devoted to the study and practice of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, including solitary monastic study and mentoring by other Ngagkpa masters and Lamas, including Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Rinpoche was forced to flee Tibet because of his traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings and public support of the Dalai Lama in 1998.

The 46 year-old Imperioli's interest in Buddhist study began long before meeting Rinpoche, "I really started to get interested in Buddhism when I was around 19 or 20 years old, an interest basically from reading Kerouac and Ginsberg. They piqued my curiosity and I started reading a little bit [about Buddhism]. I liked what I felt about it, but I wasn't ready to study it. I was too young and had so many other things, but it was something that always had a pull on me."

Elaborating that he had always seen himself as "kind of a seeker," as he got older Imperioli, a native of Mt. Vernon, NY, found himself, through his readings, "drawn to Eastern philosophy." Pinpointing his serious commitment to Buddhism he explained, "About three years ago I started going to teachings, including seeing the Dalai Lama himself teach [at the Beacon Theatre in NYC]. I wasn't practicing, just trying to absorb more and more."

His first encounter with Rinpoche came out of an advertisement he saw for a teaching the master was giving at East/West Books in Greenwich Village. "I didn't know him, but what little I had read about him interested my wife and I, so we went to the teaching. I made a very strong connection with him [at the teaching]. Something happened, I just felt very strongly about him. We made contact and signed up on his list. We met a few times during his trip [to the U.S.] last October. Then he came back in December and we officially became students of his. We have seen him a couple of times during the year and we went to Switzerland in August to his center when he hosted the Dalai Lama for two days of teachings."

Rinpoche has several other Dharma centers throughout Europe including, among others, Lithuania and Spain. The Imperiolis created the Dharma center in Tribeca as a way to facilitate more frequent visits by their teacher to the U.S. "We wanted to find a way to make New York one of his regular stops." The center was designed and built by Victoria Imperioli and is located at 499 Canal Street in Lower Manhattan. The center is nothing short of stunning and I was immediately transported into an atmosphere of spiritual tranquility that I imagine must permeate the historic temples of Tibet.

Due to several reschedules of the interview because of the East Coast blizzard, we were without Rinpoche's translator at our meeting and after apologizing for his limited English the master explained his own feeling at his first encounter with Imperioli, "He came to the bookshop for one of my teachings. I don't know who he is, there are many people. After I finish my teach[ing], I touch everybody and I have very special energy that he gives me. I say to him, 'You have special energy.' It was [a] very special feeling that he gave to me. I think that this person is not really normal, he is a special person." Two days later Rinpoche was brought to a luncheon by his secretary. Unaware of the destination at the time, he arrived at the home of Michael and Victoria Imperioli.

I asked Imperioli if there was something unique about the teaching of Rinpoche that drew him to the master, "There is both something unique about his teaching and something unique about him. There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism; his tradition is the Nyingma tradition, which is the oldest tradition. It is very rare to get those teachings in the west." Regarding the man himself, Imperioli said, "It is his energy. He is very passionate and knows that we do not have a lot of time and we have to make the most of our time. His attitude is 'If you want get busy, let's get busy.' If you want to get on the path, there is a path and he can show it."

I asked the master if the path was actually a journey or if it indeed had an end to which he replied, "I don't think so. It is about the journey. In Tibetan Buddhism there is no beginning, there is no end. If all the living beings finished [the journey] that would be the end of our world."

I asked if the journey to personal enlightenment and harmony carried with it the responsibility of actively changing the world at large, a world I referred to as chaotic, Imperioli answered, "Yes, by fixing ourselves we are fixing the world around us. We are far more connected to each other than we realize. The chaos is spoken about in the way the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Pacific will cause a snowstorm in Canada. It is all connected. By working on yourself, you are going to affect what is around you; you are going to bring that energy into the world."

In 1950, the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet, essentially holding the Tibetan people in general, and the Dalai Lama in particular, hostage within their own country. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet to India in 1959, where he has lived in exile ever since. I asked both gentlemen how they thought the situation in Tibet might be mitigated to return the country to independence and religious freedom. Admitting that he is not particularly versed in the politics, Imperioli noted, "With the Dalai Lama's exile, and that of so many teachers, Tibetan Buddhism has spread to the west. So what has been such a difficult time has had a positive effect. The teachings have become much more accessible. Hopefully things will change, things always change. Hopefully a change in China's leadership will bring a positive change for Tibet. I am glad that President Obama, in his meetings with the Chinese, brought up the need for the Chinese government to have a dialog with the Dalai Lama." 

Due to the amount of American debt owned by the Chinese, President Barack Obama has had to walk a fine line regarding Tibet and has been criticized by some for not being strong enough in his condemnation of the Chinese occupation. I asked Rinpoche what he thought of our president, "I love him. I believe he is a very good person, he has very good motivation. His motivation is for the whole world, he wants human rights for the whole world. We will see, it is his dreams, I respect and love him." Regarding his opinion on the political situation in Tibet, Rinpoche said, "For myself, Buddhism is religion, not politics. In Buddhism, religion is religion, politics is politics and I am a religious person. In the West, religion and politics is mixed, this is very bad. The Dalai Lama is both political and religious because he is a Tibetan king. He has no choice, but he made it very clear 'this is religious people and this is political people.' I am [a] religious person, I am a teacher."

Referencing western religion I asked Imperioli how he reconciled his Roman Catholic upbringing with his Buddhism, "I always felt a connection to Christ and what he represented, I still do. I didn't really feel a connection to the practice of the [Christian] religion. By the time I was a teenager I was into other things, but I did feel a connection to Christ, what he taught. It is one of the noble things in life, to model your behavior in life on someone like him, which is really the best way to live. 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"

Imperioli elaborated upon his attraction to the Buddhist religion as opposed to Roman Catholicism, "It is not about what you can and cannot do, it is really about examining yourself and seeing how you operate in the world, seeing what pushes your buttons, seeing your negative qualities and negative emotions. Becoming aware, hopefully on a daily, minute-to-minute basis, how to not just be swept up by negative habits and negative emotions, rather become aware of what is really happening and having a daily practice [to deal with those negative emotions]."

I asked Imperioli if the process of his craft as an actor and director had been affected by his study of Tibetan Buddhism, "I do think meditation does promote concentration, I think that it helps a lot. I feel a lot less neurotic about my work. For a long time all I cared about was being an actor, now it is more about the art of being an actor. Those things that I stressed about and worried about, now I can take more in stride. Hopefully anything that enriches you as a person, if you consider yourself an artist, will enrich your art."

I followed by asking him if his choices of subject matter or parts might now be affected by his Buddhist journey. For example, would he reconsider a part that 10 years ago he would have taken without a thought? A part like mobster Christopher Moltisanti in "The Sopranos," for which he was nominated for five Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, "That is an interesting question, I don't really know. It really depends on the motivation behind the person who is spearheading the project. Something like 'The Sopranos,' I don't really like violence, but I think for certain stories you have to have it. Otherwise, you are not portraying it honestly. You have to show the horror of that, it becomes tricky. Hopefully when people see that they will see that it is horrible and see that is not anything worth emulating by any stretch of the imagination. What your response to it should be is repulsion. When it is tricky is when someone walks away and thinks it is something they should do, or thinks it is cool or to be admired." He concluded by saying again, "It is a tricky thing, but we live within this world. Yes, there are probably things I wouldn't do because they are exploitive."

Imperioli recently made his directorial debut with "Hungry Ghosts," a film based on his own screenplay and starring fellow "Sopranos" actor Steven Schirripa, not an unfamiliar role for Imperioli who wrote five episodes of "The Sopranos" during his tenure as an actor in the series. "Hungry Ghosts" was produced by Diane Crespo, Stefan Schaefer, and his wife, Victoria, who also served as Production Designer. The film incorporates aspects of his Buddhist journey but he noted, "It was written before I met Master Rinpoche." The film is best described by the synopsis on its website,, "Five New Yorkers - of different ages, races, backgrounds - hunger for sensual, emotional and spiritual fulfillment. Their intersecting and colliding paths reflect the zeitgeist of our times, in which the desperation of the West smacks up against the religious teachings of the East." Imperioli described the film's references to Eastern thoughts and practices as representing "a lot of confusion," which prior to his connection with Rinpoche was the point where the director was in his journey.

The "Hungry Ghosts" premiere in September was screened as a fundraiser for Rinpoche's "Golden Bridge" charitable organization whose main goal is " help preserve Tibetan culture and religion, mainly in Tibet but as well in places where Tibetans live in exile." Among many projects supported are seniors' homes in Tibet and for exiled senior Tibetans, monasteries in Tibet and around the world and Rinpoche's international Buddhist study centers.

Due to previous editorial obligations I was unable to attend the original New York premiere, but I was invited by Imperioli to a private screening on December 1. I thought the film was nothing short of brilliant - the acting superb, the dialog real and the story pertinent and timely. I asked why I had not seen the film at the Hamptons International Film Festival and to my surprise I was told it was turned down by HIFF and by 10 other festivals. I found that disappointing as did Imperioli, on both a personal and professional level, "It is not an easy movie. It is not a 'feel good' movie, it is dark. I was a little disappointed by the response on the part of the festivals. I am part of this [artistic] community, I have raised money for these festivals, and I have sat on the juries for these festivals. I am not asking for a favor - but I have to wonder where is that support? That was disappointing, but it is very competitive and there are a lot of films out there."

Imperioli was kind; other independent filmmakers might be less kind. Many think it is time, particularly in this difficult international economy, that film festivals worldwide return to their commitment to independent filmmakers. Major studio films produced by international corporations do not need the festivals' help, independent filmmakers like Imperioli do. A film festival can be a financial vocation or an artistic avocation, perhaps they need to pick a true mission. Due to the lack of non-profit arts funding, Imperioli and his wife had to close their not-for-profit Dante Theatre project last year. They, however, took the opportunity to intentionally cast many of their theater-less stage actors in "Hungry Ghosts," for many it was their first resume film credit. Thankfully, "Hungry Ghosts" will be screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February and was the opening night film of the 2009 Rotterdam International Film Festival. When I asked the master if he had seen the movie, Rinpoche said, "I loved the movie."

As we concluded our conversation I asked Imperioli to elaborate on the mission of the Dharma Center he and his wife founded in Lower Manhattan, "The purpose is primarily to have a New York home for Namkha Rinpoche, to have him come as much as he can and make this a regular stop [for his teachings]. We hope to have him at least 10 or 12 times a year. He will also send other Rinpoches to teach, along with some of his most qualified students."

It should be noted that the word Rinpoche is an honorific that means "Precious One" in the Tibetan language and dates back to the second Dalai Lama. Rigezin Namkha Gyatso Rinpoche, named at birth by his mother as Drupa Tharchin, is one of many recognized master teachers of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world and is so honored with the designation of Rinpoche. A Rinpoche now additionally honored by the Imperioli's personal devotion and their creation of the "Awareness Holders Sanctuary" in Manhattan to foster his teachings of compassion and self-realization.

On Sunday, December 20 the "Awareness Holders Sanctuary" held its grand opening reception which included a teaching by Rinpoche and some friendly socializing. In spite of the blizzard that hit NYC the day before, the turnout was stellar. Imperioli is cautious regarding the expectations of the center beyond the presence of Rinpoche, but would like to see it become a major American center for the study of Tibetan Buddhism. Imperioli hopes it becomes a place for daily meditation, study and illumination, "It is a small space, but I hope it becomes too small too soon." 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Zen Buddhist monk tells ‘lies’ to audience

By Chris Chapman
Olean Times Herald Friday, December 4, 2009

ST. BONAVENTURE - “Truth cannot be spoken.”

That was the first piece of information Zen Buddhist monk John Sojun Godfrey imparted to a near-capacity auditorium in the William F. Walsh Science Center on the St. Bonaventure campus Tuesday.
The Olean native has been home since April after spending eight years in the  Daitoku-ji, a Rinzai monastery in Kyoto, where he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk.

The life of a student in the monastery in Japan, he said, was different from that of a student at St. Bonaventure University, he said.

“Learning in a monastery is not the same as it is in the university setting,” he told those assembled. “It is not an oral tradition.”

The lecture was a plenary session as part of the senior curriculum in the Claire College courses of the university, but not only seniors were in attendance. Several members of the Olean and school community came together to learn more about life in a Zen Buddhist monastery.

“I really wish I came here with something to say,” the lecture began. “Unfortunately, I come from a tradition where talking is not looked upon favorably. I found that it is really quite an irony that I’d spend eight years of my life, more or less in silence. When I come back to the United States the first thing people want me to do is speak.”

In several sects of Buddhism, to speak is to lie, Mr. Godfrey said, and in Zen, it is traditional to apologize to an audience before speaking.

“I’m sorry for speaking,” he said. “If I came here with the intention of showing you the truth, of telling you the truth, I would stand here and say nothing at all, but since you won’t let me not talk, I am forced to tell you lies. It is a long-held principle in East Asian traditions, that the truth cannot be spoken.”

The tradition is backed by sacred texts, such as the Tao Te Ching, which even begins with a warning of falsehood, as pointed out by Mr. Godfrey.

“The first line in the Tao Te Ching is the Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao,” he said. “The speech that can be spoken is not the true speech. So, I have no recourse but to lie to you.”

Learning in Buddhism is based on experiential lessons. Because of this, meditations play a key role; a technique not lost on Mr. Godfrey, as he led those assembled, his students, into a guided meditation.

He continued by saying that that there are virtually no discussions held within the monastery about Buddhist philosophy and thought. The monks really offer no true explanation of the reasons behind the actions.

“I think the assumption is that if you are interested enough in Buddhism to become a monk that you are going to do this (learn the philosophy) anyway,” he said. “I also really feel that they (other monks) don’t think it’s important. I don’t feel that it is necessary to be able to explain what we are doing in able to do it right. We don’t have to know why we are doing it.”

The journey to the Buddhist philosophy struck Mr. Godfrey as an older teenager, he said.

Growing up in the area, Mr. Godfrey reached a point that he felt like the historic Buddha early in his life. The Buddha started his life as prince in a province of what is now Nepal. Still going by his birth name, Siddhartha Gautama, as a prince he had all the riches and excesses of life, but he was still not happy. He knew that he would suffer. He knew that he would get sick, and he knew that he would die.

At the age of 29, Siddhartha left his life of luxury to search for a way to release himself from the cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth.

After trying several different approaches to alleviation of those sufferings (called duka, in the Buddhist traditions). Each method proved to be the wrong path for the former prince. He decided to sit on the ground, under a bodhi tree and meditate on the problems that face all living beings.

At the age of 35, and after 49 days of meditation, the Buddha (a word meaning the Awakened One in the Pali language) found the way to remove all duka. He later laid out the path in The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path, practiced to this day by those who adhere to the Buddhist philosophy.

It is believed by adherents of Buddhism that Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha on Dec. 8.

Mr. Godfrey told those in attendance that he felt that something was missing from his life, and that, much like Siddhartha, he would go on a journey to find it.

“Something was off in my life,” he said. “I came from a great family life. I had everything I could have wanted.”

After taking students and residents alike through meditation and reciting part of a sutra, a story similar to those of Christian teachings, but in ancient Chinese, Mr. Godfrey exposed his path.

“While at the monastery, I found myself becoming not Christian,” he said, “but, after more time, I found that I will always carry part of that faith in me. I was born into it.”

But how does that influence the Zen monk he has worked for nearly a decade to become?

“I found in my training, the way to find what was missing, stop looking for it,” he said. “I traveled around the world to figure out that what I was looking for was not there. I think it was worth it.”

Now that he is living back in Olean, Mr. Godfrey said he still does practice Zen Buddhism.

“I practice it because it feels good,” he said.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bhikkhu aggacitto

[100_0565.jpg]"I am a homeless missionary Buddhist Monk. We take our lineage from the Tipataka Scripture, Vinaya Pataka (Mahavagga Ch.11) "Go ye now o bhikkhus,a... (More) I am a homeless missionary Buddhist Monk. We take our lineage from the Tipataka Scripture, Vinaya Pataka (Mahavagga Ch.11) "Go ye now o bhikkhus,and wander for the gain of the many,for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good ,for the gain,and for the welfare of gods and men.Let not two of you go the same way.Preach o bhikkhus, the doctrine which is glorious in the beginning, glorious in the middle and glorious at the end, in the spirit and in the letter; proclaim a consummate, perfect, and pure life of holiness.There are beings whose mental eyes are covered by scarcely any dust,but if the Doctrine is not preached to them, they cannot attain salvation.They will understand the Doctrine. And I will go also,o bhikkhus,to Uruvela, to Senaninigama, in order to preach the Doctrine". I enjoy religious study in general as well as Tipataka study in particular, contemplation (vipassana) meditation (samadhi),meeting new people and experiencing new places."

U.S. Army Sending First Buddhist Chaplain to Iraq

Friday, October 30, 2009 Fox News
By Lauren Green

  All Army chaplains wear the same uniform, and all of them answer to the same calling: to provide comfort and to relieve the suffering of American soldiers.

But one chaplain stands out from the crowd. Thomas Dyer is the first and only Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.

Dyer will be deployed to the Middle East in December along with the 278th Armored Calvary Regiment. Although his faith is grounded in pacifism, the 43-year-old Dyer says war has become a necessary part of peace.

"My teacher has concluded that without the military, without civil protection, the world would enter into a very dark place very quickly," Dyer told Fox News. "There aren't that many caves to run to, there aren't that many mountains to go to anymore. And if we don't have protection, we suffer greatly."

A former Baptist preacher, Dyer found his new faith a few years ago through the practice of intense meditation. Born in Nashville, Tenn., he says his Christian background gives him an advantage in meeting the demands of a military with diverse spiritual needs.

“It has made me kind of like someone who is bilingual, where they can speak two languages, or bicultural,” he said. “I am kind of like a bi-religious person, so I am able to make connections with soldiers in a way that is very familiar to them, so I don’t look so scary or ... strange."

Less than one percent of the United States population is Buddhist, and Buddhists make up only three-tenths of a percent of the military. But Dyer has quickly gained the respect of his Christian colleagues, who make up the vast majority of military chaplains. He has also fostered a close relationship with his chaplain assistant, Spc. Jonathan Westley, who's trained specifically to protect him.

"It definitely was something different when I got to meet him for the first time last year,” Westley told Fox News. “Fortunately, we clicked right from the start."

Dyer will be a spiritual guide to all soldiers, not just Buddhists. He says no matter what their faith, all soldiers at war have common spiritual needs.

"They have a lot to bear. The training is tough. The environment is rough at times ... and as a result of this they will come to someone who wants to help," he said.

Religion aside, he says, soldiers face death daily, and what matters most to them is that someone who knows what they’re going through cares about their fate.

Kuala Lumpur's Buddhist Maha Vihara publishes first ever book in LUGANDA language


 Bhikkhu Buddharakkhita was born in Uganda (East Africa). He has learned from various masters in India, Burma, and the US and was ordained by the late Burmese monk Sayadaw U Silananda in 2002. In 2005, he founded the Uganda Buddhist Center in Kampala, Uganda, the first Buddhist Center in Uganda. He has been a resident monk at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia. He is the first African monk to open a temple in the continent of Africa. Previously there have been temples in Africa, but all opened by Asian, European, or American masters or teachers.
For further information, please visit: and


The Buddhist Channel, Oct 23, 2009

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The Buddhist Maha Vihara in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur is pleased to launch its first ever Dhamma publication in Luganda, the language of the people of Uganda, in Africa.

This is the 16th language undertaken by the Vihara’s FREE PUBLICATIONS PROGRAM to serve niche Buddhist communities throughout the world.

The book is a translation of “How to Practise Buddhism? authored by Ven Dr K Sri Dhammananda. The book was translated by Nicholas K. Ssewanyana and Tom Kyembe and edited by Bhante U. Buddharakkhita, currently the only native African Theravada Buddhist monk.

Ven Buddharakkhita has also authored another popular book, “Planting the Seeds of Dhamma”- the Emergence of Buddhism in Africa. Bhante’s book was also published by our Vihara in English and Mandarin.

Ven Buddharakkhita was also instrumental in setting up the Uganda Buddhist Center in Kampala, the first ever Buddhist center in Africa set up by a native African Buddhist monk. The Venerable’s mother has ordained to become the first Theravada native African Buddhist nun.

The Uganda centre and its Buddhist population is growing slowly with the support of Buddhists overseas and the small expatriate Chinese, Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan communities.

The Vihara annually publishes about 200,000 to 300,000 Buddhist books in several languages, and also produces CDs, VCDs and MP3s for free distribution.

The Vihara’s free publications are available in English, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, Sinhalese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, Brazilian Portugese, Spanish, Hindi, Kannada, Telegu, Kishwahili and Chichewa. The Vihara also teaches the Dhamma to the Deaf using sign language, the only such Buddhist class in Malaysia.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Buddhism Roots Deeply in America

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Posted: Oct 18, 2009

While the Dalai Lama was snubbed by President Barack Obama, who refused to meet with him last week, there was an open door policy everywhere else in our nation’s capital – from congressional receptions to synagogues and schools.

One scene in particular is striking: the most famous monk of the 20th Century on the dais, lecturing on wisdom in the modern world as hundreds of enthralled monks and laymen look on below. The scene harks back to the golden era of Tibet, with the halls festooned with hundreds of strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, except the event took place at American University.

In the last half of the 20th Century, America cunningly exported itself overseas, marketing its images, ideologies, products and religions with ingenuity and zeal, but what it has not been able to fully assess or prepare for are the effects in reverse. For if Americanization is a large part of globalization, the Easternization of the West, too, is the other side of the phenomenon.

I take it as some cosmic law of exchange that if Disneyland pops up in Hong Kong and Tokyo, Buddhist temples can sprout up in Los Angeles, home of the magic kingdom. Indeed, it comes as no surprise to many Californians that scholars have agreed that the most complex Buddhist city in the world is nowhere in Asia but Los Angeles itself, where there are more than 300 Buddhist temples and centers, representing nearly all of Buddhist practices around the world.

Over the past 25 years, Buddhism has become the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to a 2008 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evidence of Buddhism spreading deep roots in America is abundant.

Last week CNN reported that, “programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.” There are more than 75 organizations working with some 2,500 people, most of them prisoners, and they inspired a documentary called “The Dhamma Brothers.”

This December, Thomas Dyer, a former Marine and one-time Southern Baptist pastor, will head to Afghanistan as the first Buddhist chaplain in the history of the U.S. Army.

The Supreme Court is currently deciding on Salazar vs. Buono. At issue is whether a cross that stood in the Mojave National Preserve is a religious symbol or not. The National Park Service had turned down a request to have a Buddhist stupa erected a few years back. The question to ask then: Why should the Christian cross be accepted in a national park as an icon that transcends religion but not a Buddhist symbol? And, what would the high court say about religious plurality if it decides that one religion is to take precedence over another on public lands?

Yet, despite Buddhism’s message of inner peace and compassion, it, in its own way, is a very radical spiritual practice for its refutation of the existence of a creator. In essence, the serious practitioner aims to extinguish the self by defeating his own ego and, thereby, seeing beyond the illusion spun by the ignorant mind.

The ultimate Buddhist experience entails neither god nor self, neither “out there” nor “in here,” for that membrane that separates the practitioner’s being and that of the world, upon awakening, has been lifted. All that remains is - ohm – absolute awe and bliss. Imagine, if you will, Moses not turning his face away from the burning bush that is god but approaching it then fully merging with that terrifying fire.

As ties deepened between the two continents, as immigration from Asia continues, and as the Dhamma [Buddha’s teachings] spreads beyond all borders, we are entering what many thinkers and philosophers call the second axial age, an age of pluralism where the various spiritual traditions co-exist.

In these global days, no single system can exist as a separate entity, nor can its borders remain impervious to change, all exist to a various degree of openness and exchange. And the old Silk Road along which so many religious ideas traveled has been replaced by a far more potent thoroughfare: unprecedented global migration, mass communications, and the information highway, which transcends geography.

I once kept on the wall in my study two very different pictures to remind me of the way East and West have changed. One is an issue from a Time magazine on Buddhism in America. In it, a group of American Buddhists sits serenely in lotus position on a wooden veranda in Malibu overlooking a calm Pacific Ocean. The other is of Vietnamese-American astronaut named Eugene Trinh’s space shuttle flight. The pictures tell me that East and West have not only met, but also commingled and fused. When a Vietnamese man who left his impoverished homeland can come very close to reaching the moon, while Americans are turning inward, trying to reach nirvana with each mindful breath, I think that East-West dialogue has come a long way.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

American-Thai enters monkhood

Pattaya People, Oct 13, 2009

Pattaya, Thailand -- A merit making ceremony was held at Tungklon Talman Temple on the afternoon of the 11th October when Mr. Scott Tanner was ordained into the Buddhist monkhood.

Mr. Maurice Tanner from Texas, where Scott spent most of his early days, and Thai mother Mrs Chammian Tanner, were both in attendance to watch their son being ordained.

Many close friend and relatives turned up to take part in the ceremony held at the temple and later at the Tanner’s residence for a special lunch put on for the occasion.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Look at Christianity, Through a Buddhist Lens

By PETER STEINFELS, The New York Times, October 9, 2009

Five decades ago, Paul F. Knitter, then a novice studying to become a Roman Catholic priest, would be in the seminary chapel at 5:30 every morning, trying to stay awake and spend time in meditation before Mass.

Last Wednesday, at the same hour, he was sitting on his Zen cushion meditating in the Claremont Avenue apartment he occupies as the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

A few hours later he was talking about his pointedly titled new book, “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian” (Oneworld). The book is the outcome of decades of encounters with Buddhism — and of struggles with his own faith.

Born in 1939, Mr. Knitter began his path to the Catholic priesthood at age 13, studied theology in Rome during the years of the Second Vatican Council, was ordained in 1966, completed a doctorate in Germany and began a long and influential career as a scholar addressing questions of the relationship between Christianity and other world religions.

He received permission to leave the priesthood in 1975, taught for many years at Xavier University in Cincinnati and after his retirement was invited to Union Theological.

“Am I still a Christian?” he asks in his new book. It is a question posed over the years by others, including some unhappy officials in the Vatican. But the question, he writes, is also “one I have felt in my own mind and heart.”

“Has my dialogue with Buddhism made me a Buddhist Christian?” he writes. “Or a Christian Buddhist? Am I a Christian who has understood his own identity more deeply with the help of Buddhism? Or have I become a Buddhist who still retains a stock of Christian leftovers.”

The struggles Mr. Knitter is writing about are not the familiar ones about sexual ethics, the role of women or the failures of church leaders.

His focus here is on what he calls “the big stuff”: What does it really mean for Christians to profess belief in an almighty “God the Father” personally active in the world, or in Jesus, “his only-begotten Son” who saved humanity through his death and bodily resurrection, or in eternal life, heaven and hell?

However much he tried, Mr. Knitter found that certain longstanding Christian formulations of faith “just didn’t make sense”: God as a person separate from creation and intervening in it as an external agent; individualized life after death for all and eternal punishment for some; Jesus as God’s “only Son” and the only savior of humankind; prayers that ask God to favor some people over others.

Mr. Knitter’s response, based on his long interaction with Buddhist teachers, was to “pass over” to Buddhism’s approach to each of these problems and then “pass back” to Christian tradition to see if he could retrieve or re-imagine aspects of it with this “Buddhist flashlight.”

He was not asserting, as some people have, that religions like Christianity and Buddhism are merely superficially different expressions of one underlying faith.

On the contrary, he insists they differ profoundly. Yet “Buddhism has helped me take another and deeper look at what I believe as a Christian,” he writes. “Many of the words that I had repeated or read throughout my life started to glow with new meaning.”

Those new meanings will unsettle many Christians, as Mr. Knitter recognizes, even as they address difficulties felt by many others. This will vary, of course, from issue to issue. Mr. Knitter’s translation of Buddhist meditation into a call for a Christian “sacrament of silence” may be readily welcomed. His search for a “non-dualistic” understanding of God and the world may be only leading him through Buddhism back to Thomas Aquinas.

“Perhaps I could have come onto these insights without Buddhism,” he said Wednesday. Yet even in those cases he often expresses these insights in language that will be debated, like God as “InterBeing” or “Connecting Spirit.”

When his comparison between “Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha” leads him to conclude that both are “unique” saviors but not sole or final ones, he is treading, as he well knows, in a theological minefield.

One can predict that this book will receive instant condemnation from people who feel their duty is to protect Christian doctrine from wandering off course.

One can also predict that those condemnations will, in turn, make others hesitant to voice more nuanced, thoughtful criticism out of fear of piling on.

Mr. Knitter and his book deserve better. It is easy to draw up a list of substantial criticisms. For one thing, Mr. Knitter’s Christianity comes laden with all the impurities of popular piety and workaday theology while his Buddhism seems to be that of the best and the brightest.

Some readers may detect the reflex of the lifelong recovering cleric in his recoiling from whatever might appear to be patriarchal or excluding. And most important are questions about the nature and use of religious language for pointing to a mystery that can never be captured in human words.

Yet serious critics, no matter how major their differences, will not be able to ignore the enormous, almost disarming honesty of this book. Mr. Knitter admits his painful puzzlements and conducts his search for answers out in the open. He does not hide behind academic abstraction but writes clearly and personally and leaves himself open to correction.

Although he argues for a kind of religious “double-belonging,” he does not hesitate to ask whether this is ultimately a kind of promiscuity — or, as one of his students put it, “spiritual sleeping around.”

Mr. Knitter doesn’t believe so. But he has written his book in part to see whether fellow Christians agree.

Will his “double-belonging” resonate sufficiently within his own faith community that he can continue to consider himself a Buddhist Christian? Or if not, as he explained this week, will he feel obliged to recognize himself as a Christian Buddhist?

One need not have a stake in that outcome to find “Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian” a compelling example of religious inquiry.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Prison inmates go Zen to deal with life behind bars

By Stephanie Chen
CNN Fri October 9, 2009
Kenneth Brown, a former inmate, learned to meditate during his nine years in prison.
RIVERDALE, Georgia (CNN) -- In his darkest moment, Kenneth Brown lost it all. His wife and kids, the housebroken dog, the vacation home on Cape Cod all vanished when he was sent to prison for an arson in 1996.

Trapped in his gloomy cell and serving a 20-year sentence that felt like an eternity, Brown, then 49, found himself stretched out on the floor. He was silent. His eyes were shut. His body did not move.

Brown, a man raised as a Baptist and taught to praise the Lord and fear the devil, was meditating.

"I try to focus on the space between two thoughts, because it prevents me from getting lost," said Brown, who discovered meditation, yoga and Buddhist teachings three months into his sentence.

"This helped me stay on track and get me through prison," he said.

Eastern religions encompassing meditation techniques have captivated hippies, 20-somethings and celebrities like actor Richard Gere. But since the 1960s, the art of meditation also has found a growing number of unlikely followers behind prison bars.

The inmates say meditation -- an ancient practice that develops mental awareness and fosters relaxation -- is teaching them how to cope in prison.

"Mostly, the people in Buddhist community are going into the prisons, providing programs, and word of mouth gets from one inmate to another," explained Gary Friedman, communications chairman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. "It's a break from all the hustle and noise of the prison environment."

There is no group tracking the number of inmates converting to Buddhism or engaging in meditation practices. But programs and workshops educating inmates about meditation and yoga are sprouting up across the country.

Meditation can help the convicts find calmness in a prison culture ripe with violence and chaos. The practice provides them a chance to reflect on their crimes, wrestle through feelings of guilt and transform themselves during their rehabilitative journey, Buddhist experts say.

In the past five years, books like the "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" and "Razor-Wire Dharma: A Buddhist Life in Prison" have emerged.

"This is transformative justice, as opposed to punitive," said Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Dharma Network, one of the largest support networks helping inmates learn meditation and Buddhist teachings.

Since its inception in 1989, Prison Dharma Network has grown from one person -- Maull -- teaching Buddhist principles to more than 75 member organizations corresponding with 2,500 individuals, many of them inmates.

For the past seven years, Maull's group has taught a weekly meditation class in Boulder County Jail in Colorado.

Some inmates follow Zen Buddhism, a practice that originated in China, and meet weekly to focus their minds. Others practice Vipassana, a Buddhist practice founded in India, which consists of completing hundreds of hours of meditation in a short period of time.

Buddhism has gained momentum in the United States over the past 25 years, becoming the third most popular religion in America behind Christianity and Judaism, according to the 2008 report from the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. About 1.7 million Americans call themselves Buddhists, and many of them are converts, the study said. According to the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008, there were 1.2 million self-identified Buddhists.

Some inmates, like Brown, may not label themselves official Buddhists, but they meditate, practice yoga and follow Buddhist principles on truth, responsibility and suffering.

The practice of meditation seeped into the heart of the Bible Belt in 2002. The Donaldson Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Alabama, was notorious for violence. But a group of male inmates, including several murderers, completed a Vipassana meditation retreat that required more than 100 hours of meditation in 10 days.

One inmate, who was featured in the 2007 documentary "The Dhamma Brothers," said Vipassana was harder than the 8½ years he had spent on death row. More than 120 men in Donaldson have gone through Vipassana at least once.

"They don't feel so close to exploding," said Jenny Phillips, director of the film. "They aren't afraid to have conversations with people and to express themselves. They aren't always on edge."

Critics, including some prison officials, doubt that meditation works. They worry that it may be a tactic to convince parole boards to lighten a sentence.

In areas that are heavily Christian, some wardens are uncomfortable with introducing Eastern religions. Alabama prison authorities were initially skeptical about meditation but next year will designate an open dormitory for inmates going through Vipassana, said Ron Cavanaugh, director of treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

He said corrections officers have seen lower levels of violence among Donaldson inmates who meditate.

In California, a state where the swollen prison population has resulted in dangerously overcrowded prisons, teaching conflict management is critical, said Anne Seisen Saunders, a Zen Buddhist instructor who was raised Christian.

Her Prison Meditation Project, based near San Diego, began a decade ago in one prison yard. Today, the program has expanded to five prisons, with an average of 20 inmates participating in each location.

Last week, the autumn sky transformed from a deep purple to light blue outside Kenneth Brown's meager studio apartment. Inside, Brown sat on his bed, barefoot and deep in concentration, in front of a makeshift altar holding books a photo of the Buddha. Traces of incense billowed in the air.

Brown, now 62, resides in Georgia to be near his family. He says he was wrongfully convicted of arson. In 2005, a Massachusetts appeals judge reduced his sentence from 20 years to nine.

His body was motionless, his eyes closed and the palms of his hands facing upward.

These days, Brown's practice of mediation helps him tackle the challenges of being unemployed with a felony record. The college graduate has been rejected from jobs catching stray dogs and cleaning hotel rooms.

But he's got a lot to be thankful for: His daughters, his grandchildren -- and meditation, he said. "I finally feel at peace."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Meditation influences brain function

Friday, September 25, 2009

Being young, here, now

By Nandini Jayakrishna, The Boston Globe, September 8, 2009

Colleen Cary and others meditated during a retreat last month for those 18 to 32 years old at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre.
Colleen Cary and others meditated during a retreat last month for those 18 to 32 years old at the Insight Meditation Center in Barre. (Christine Peterson for The Boston Globe)

BARRE - Nestled in the woods of this small town, 96 young adults recently gathered at a quiet mansion for a weeklong sojourn, away from buzzing cellphones, humming iPods, and the myriad callings of human and cyber civilizations.

Keeping even the most basic forms of communication, like speaking and writing, to a minimum, they meditated in silence, practicing vipassana, or insight meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique that involves focusing one’s attention on the present, on the breath, mind, and body.

“It was just meditate, eat, sleep,’’ said Kestrel Slocombe, 19, a student at Vermont’s Bennington College who spends much of her time rushing to class, worrying about a novel she’s writing, and painstakingly planning her days, sometimes weeks in advance.

“It was almost like being a child, she said. “You didn’t have to put together a puzzle of a complicated day.’’

At a time when homework or job pressures and the likes of Facebook and Twitter compete for attention throughout the day, meditation groups say an increasing number of young adults are signing up for retreats and classes, seeking a temporary escape, a haven to reconnect with their thoughts.

“Young people are much more stressed out than people 20, 30 years ago,’’ said Rebecca Bradshaw, one of the retreat leaders who also works as a psychotherapist. “We have a fast-paced and alienating culture.’’

Since the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist nonprofit, introduced the retreat specifically for 18- to 32-year-olds in 2004, the number of young adults attending to practice vipassana has steadily risen, said Bob Agoglia, the organization’s executive director.

This year’s retreat attracted more applicants than ever from 16 states, he said, and for the first time the group had to turn away more than a dozen applicants.

The Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, a nonresidential nonprofit, has also seen a stream of curious young adults at its weekly vipassana, or “mindfulness,’’ meditation sessions for beginners, said Peggy Barnes Lenart, the center’s operations coordinator.

Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy, a community for agnostics, atheists, and the nonreligious, started a free, open-to-all group this year that practices different forms of meditation, including Buddhist and Quaker, said Zachary Alexander, 26, the group’s founder. Half of its nearly 30 members are under 32, he said.

“It’s something that people find can be a break from their stressful lives,’’ said Alexander, who considers himself an atheist.

“It can be something that leads to personal insight.’’

While traditional Quaker meditation emphasizes hearing divine messages, the humanist meditators focus on impulses toward love and truth, and try to accept the events of their lives to gain greater inner calm, said Alexander, a lab administrator at the Harvard Center for Brain Science.

Joshua Beckmann, 28, of Allston, who practices insight meditation, said he enjoys the flexibility Buddhist teachings provide.

“No one’s asking me to profess anything or asking me to call myself Buddhist,’’ said Beckmann, a public health researcher at Boston University who was raised Catholic. “I really appreciate the opportunity to explore.’’

The benefits of meditation, supported by scientific research, might attract younger populations, according to Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital who conducts meditation research.

Lazar said her team recently studied the brains of about 30 adults - some as young as 18 - before and after they underwent an eight-week insight meditation course.

The results showed that in most participants, the portion of the brain that responds to fear, anger, and stress - the amygdala - became smaller. In animals, the amygdala has been shown to get larger in stressful situations, Lazar said.

About a year ago, the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness at MIT Medical began offering stress-reduction classes that incorporate meditation, said Lauren Mayhew, a program manager at the center.

“A lot of people have a hard time going from their frenetic lives to sitting still,’’ Mayhew said, noting that the classes, discounted for students, tend to fill up on the first day.

“The really crucial age is mid- to late-20s,’’ she said.

“That’s when students wake up and realize that they are mortal beings and that their bodies are affected by stress.’’

Some are drawn to meditation out of sheer curiosity about how their lives might change both during and after meditation.

Angela Borges, 26, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Boston College, turned to insight meditation about two months ago, though she was skeptical of its tangible benefits.

Many have told her she looks much happier, she said.

“I actually have a sense of empowerment,’’ she said.

“I’m running around crazy but there’s just a little part of my attention . . . that sort of says ‘Look what’s happening, notice how I’m living.’ It’s just opened up this new way of being.’’

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why is Buddhism the fastest growing religion in Australia?

by Darren Nelson

The answer to this inquiry is multi-layered and complex. It is a tantalising issue because it highlights the changing spiritual landscape of Australia and provides an insight into just how multicultural we have really become.

Cultures that were foreign to Anglo-European Australians are now being adopted by some of them - though not without some dissenting resistance. This level of resistance in Australian society can be seen as a litmus test, used to measure future political and religious tolerance in this country.

The story concerning the rise of Buddhism in Australia is a compelling tale of a resilient religion that has survived despite the odds. How is it possible for a 2,500-year-old philosophy, which began five hundred years before Christianity and one thousand years before the Muslim faith, to be relevant to modern life in Australia? Considering all the other ancient religions that have faded from contemporary practice, such as the sun worshippers of Ancient Egypt, the human sacrifices of the South American Mayans and the Druids from the Dark Ages of England, Buddhism has outlasted them all.

It does not preach the dogma of a strange cult, nor seek converts with evangelistic fervour. Those Australians who actively convert to Buddhism do so voluntarily, and are usually well-educated middle-aged professionals who are attracted to a sense of inner peace. This documentary therefore, seeks to immerse itself in the substance of this seemingly magnetic Buddhist approach. Perhaps it will be like seeing Australia for the first time, through ancient eyes.

It is interesting to note that in spite of the recent increase in Buddhist numbers across Australia, Buddhism has actually played a part in Australian history for some time. It did not just suddenly arrive in a recent wave of migrants. Some anthropologists, in fact, have suggested that Buddhism was possibly the earliest non-indigenous religion to reach Australia before white settlement.

Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese Ming emperor, Cheng-Ho, sent sixty-two large ships to explore southern Asia. Although there is evidence that several ships from that armada landed on the Aru Islands to the north of Arnhem Land, it is not known whether they reached the mainland.

One unproved hypothesis of Professor A.P. Elkin is that the belief of some Northern Territory Koorie tribes in reincarnation, psychic phenomena and mental cultivation is evidence of early contact with Buddhists. Despite certain rock paintings that possibly depict Chinese junks weighing anchor or images of the Buddha, actual material evidence remains to be seen.

The first documented arrival of Buddhists in Australia was in 1848 during the gold rushes, when Chinese coolie labourers were brought into the country to work on the Victorian gold fields. These workers represented a transient population that usually returned home within five years. It was not until 1876 that the first permanent Buddhist community was established by Sinhalese migrants on Thursday Island. There the ethnic Sri Lankans built the first temple in Australia, while they were employed on the sugar cane plantations of Queensland.

From the late 1870’s onwards many Japanese Shinto Buddhists also arrived and were active in the pearling industry across northern Australia, establishing other Buddhist enclaves in Darwin and Broome. Buddhist cemeteries were kept and festivals celebrated. Official government statistics compiled as part of a national census in 1891 indicate that, at the time, there were slightly more Buddhists in Australia (at 1.2%), than there are today (at 1.1%).

Buddhist numbers would have continued to increase if the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 had not been introduced to combat the ‘yellow peril’. Alfred Deakin, who was destined to be Prime Minister three times, drafted the legislation to pacify a somewhat xenophobic Caucasian electorate. This bill later grew to represent the more broadly implemented White Australia Policy.

For the next fifty years the benefits of mind training and meditation, as taught by Buddhism, would be disregarded as some sort of obscure ‘eastern mysticism’. Except for some remote surviving pockets of Buddhists (such as Broome and Thursday Island), the religion became virtually extinct in Australia.

A small group of committed western Buddhists formed the earliest known Buddhist organisation in Australia, The Little Circle of the Dharma, in Melbourne in 1925. Progress was slow though, until after World War II when local enthusiasm for the White Australia Policy began to decline. In 1951 the first Buddhist nun visited Australia. Sister Dhammadinna, born in the USA, ordained and with thirty years experience in Sri Lanka, came to propagate the Theravadin School of Buddhist teaching. She received nation-wide media coverage.

Inspired by this visit, the next year the Buddhist Society of New South Wales was formed under the presidency of Leo Berkley, a Dutch-born Sydney businessman. This organisation is today the oldest Buddhist group in Australia. Its membership was, and still is, compromised mainly of people from Anglo-European backgrounds.

In 1958 the Buddhist Federation of Australia was formed in order to co-ordinate the growing Buddhist groups that had sprung up around the country in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

The Buddhist presence in Australia had depended for the first hundred years on lay people with only the occasional visits by ordained members of the Sangha (the Buddhist clergy). But in the 1970’s the growing number of Buddhists created a need for resident monks, and a new phase in Australian Buddhism began.

In 1971 the Buddhist Society of New South Wales established the Sri Lankan monk, Somaloka, in residence at a retreat centre in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. This became the first monastery in Australia. A succession of monasteries representing different aspects of Buddhism slowly became established around Australia; in 1975 at Stanmore in Sydney, in 1978 at Wisemans Ferry in country NSW and in 1984 at Serpentine in Western Australia.

The charismatic face of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, (who was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1989 and describes himself as ‘a simple monk’), has travelled the world constantly giving lectures and answering questions in 20,000 seat pop concert halls. John Cleese speaks out for him in London, Henri Cartier-Bresson records his teachings around France and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys pop group has even interviewed him in Rome for Rolling Stone magazine.

In the past few years he has opened eleven Offices of Tibet, everywhere from Canberra to Moscow and last year alone provided prefaces and forewords for roughly thirty books. The 14th Dalai Lama, who holds the titles of Ocean of Wisdom, Holder Of The White Lotus and Protector Of The Land Of Snows, has even served as the guest editor of French Vogue magazine.

The three visits of the Dalai Lama to Australia in 1982, 1992 and 1996 were joyful occasions for Buddhists of all traditions, and huge crowds of Buddhists and the general public gathered to hear him speak. On the third visit, and despite virulent Chinese protests, the Dalai Lama met with and was photographed with the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard. It was now clearly evident at this stage, that Buddhism had become a significant minority religion in Australia.

During this visit local celebrities contributed generously to fundraising activities. For example, Kate Ceberano, Rachel Berger and Frente were just some of the ‘star-studded cast’ to perform at the Dalai Lama Lounge Room. They helped to raise $14,000 over three nights. Mushroom Records released a benefit album called The Mantra Mix CD, featuring Jenny Morris, Jimmy Barnes and Johnny Diesel. One local advertising agency, providing their services for nothing, came up with the slogan "You missed Jesus. You missed the Buddha. Do not miss the Dalai Lama". When was the last time such hype accompanied the visit of a religious leader?

But Australians are not alone in their sympathy towards his cause. The issue of Tibetan oppression has come to the attention of Hollywood and with two new films about his life in the cinematic pipeline, the Dalai Lamas’ profile has not only moved into the mainstream, but has (much to the horror of the Chinese Government) gone global.

The first to be released, Seven Years In Tibet, tells the story of Heinrich Harrer, a mountain climber and Nazi party member who encounters his own sense of enlightenment after becoming the tutor to the young Dalai Lama in Tibet in the 1940’s. The film has attracted healthy attention because it stars Brad Pitt.

The other film is Kundun, directed by Martin Scorcese. This epic tells the remarkable tale of the Dalai Lama from his point of view, from his recognition as the reincarnated Buddha of compassion at age two until his escape to India at twenty-four. Recently released here in Australia, it was reviewed by Channel Nines’ Sunday program on June 14th and described as ‘the most beautiful and important film released this year’.

Hollywood’s fascination for Buddhism extends beyond these two screenplays, with many stars expressing interest in the religion itself. In February 1997, the karate-kicking action star Steven Seagall was recognised by the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism as the reincarnation of a 15th century lama. Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys pop group has organised two huge benefit concerts to publicise the plight of Tibet.

Actor Richard Gere, together with Uma Thurmans father, Richard Thurman, has opened Tibet House in New York, published books on the subject, and meditates daily. Other practitioners that have come to attention include Tina Turner, Harrison Ford (whose wife Melissa Mathison wrote Kunduns script), Oliver Stone, Herbie Hancock, Courtney Love, composer Philip Glass (who also worked on Kundun) and REM’s lead singer Michael Stipe.

The momentum of Buddhism’s’ profile is driven by other, more subtle reminders as well. A new make up is being advertised as Zen Blush, a new sitcom is called Dharma and Greg, a designer fruit juice container has on its’ label "Please recycle this bottle. It deserves to be reincarnated too", and monks star in television commercials and news items.

Such recent exposure does not take away the fact that Australians have been quietly turning to Buddhism for some time. The statistics compiled in the 1986, 1991 and 1996 Commonwealth Government Census support the view that Buddhist numbers have been steadily increasing. Between 1986 and 1991 the numbers of practitioners rose from 80,387 to 139,847, a growth of 74%. Due largely to the decrease in immigration numbers in recent years the percentage growth for Buddhists slowed between 1991 and 1996 to 43%, from 139,847 to 199,812. This rate of increase is still higher than that of any other religion.

The three census surveys also indicate that of the eight Christian denominations listed in the analysis for New South Wales only three show an increase (Baptist, Catholic and Orthodox), while five (Anglican, Church Of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Uniting Church) have decreased in numbers.

Does the fluctuating demographic between Buddhism and Christianity point towards dissatisfaction with traditional Australian religious beliefs? Is Buddhism more competitive than Christianity or is one spiritual experience simply more meaningful than the other?

Of the 199,812 Buddhists across Australia today, approximately thirty thousand are Anglo-European’s who have ‘crossed over’, by choice, to this alternative philosophy. They have turned from ‘Christian sinner’ to ‘Eastern Mystic’. The slump in immigration figures from Buddhist countries is apparently not enough to stall the continued growth in Australian Buddhism, especially now that local support has been established. Back in 1938 a Japanese Shinto monk, noting that it took China three centuries to adopt Buddhism from India, said introducing it in the West would be like holding a lotus to a rock and waiting for it to take root.

When the Age of Aquarius spread across the world in the form of the 60’s alternative hippie counter-culture, there appeared to be no shortage of poets, artists, actors, writers and musicians interested in a voyage of inner peace through Buddhist philosophy and meditative practices. John Lennon used Buddhist mantras’ in the lyrics of his music such as Across the Universe. Allen Ginsberg used a mantra (Buddhist blessing) to bless the ground at Woodstock before the first fans arrived. Zen meditation too, first embraced by the Beat poets in the 1950’s flourished across first world nations as a healthy alternative to LSD-induced enlightenment.

More importantly the drug-fuelled 1960’s, when the Vietnam War was at its height, feminist protestors burnt their bras and man landed on the moon, saw a relaxation of traditional middle class values that allowed a greater versatility in public consciousness. During this time, people had greater access and freedom to experiment with new schools of thought (feminism, civil rights, the peace movement, alternative lifestyles etc) without suffering as many social ramifications as in the past.

According to the Reverend Phillip Hughes, a Melbourne-based religious researcher, "many people thought in the 1960’s that science itself was not sufficient to really explain existence, but then they were not keen to go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition with its holy books, miracles and so forth. Also the need for a sense of peace has become more apparent".

Potential Buddhists are attracted to the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) not only to take refuge from a world of chaos and confusion, but also to re-invent their own personal sense of a meaningful spirituality in a society of high-tech consumerism, commercialism, violence and apathy. Compared to the Christian beliefs many Anglo-European Australians grew up with, Buddhism does not require its adherents to remain faithful to a specific dogma.

It is not a faith. It is not technically a religion either, though when discussing systems of worship it is easier to work with that label. It is more a psychology and a philosophy wrapped around a moral code of mind training.

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (born in 563 B.C.), turned his back on the royal family he had been born into, to live life as a simple ascetic monk. At the age of thirty-five he became enlightened and ‘saw things as they really are’, having achieved a mental state of absolute egolessness, where he no longer felt any sense of narcissism or craving.

He became the first Buddha and was quick to teach his disciples that he was not a god, should not be revered and no rituals should be developed around his teachings. Heaven and hell, he taught, are not external places that we travel to after we die; they do not in fact exist. Rather, both places dwell only in the hearts of people. People are either good or bad, pious or evil. Paradise exists within our spirit, it is here and now, and not some destination in the after-life.

Meditation, he believed, is the process required for all adherents to achieve Buddhahood. This is one of the main differences between Buddhism and other religions. Practitioners are offered an ultimate goal, enlightenment itself, which is equivalent to the level attained by the Buddha himself. He taught that everyone is capable of achieving this, providing equality to all his followers.

This is a radical departure for born-Christians to realise when they first start studying the principles of Buddhism. The best a faithful Christian could hope to achieve with his devotion was entry to heaven as an angel where he is still subject to the will of a greater being who could smite him anytime at will. The Buddha teaches his disciples too become the same as he, which is why he is not a god. In Buddhism there is no pecking order in the after life, because that would require the presence of an ego, which is the Buddhists life work to gradually eliminate.

Buddhism dispenses with the notion of a Supreme Being, as does science, and explains the origins and workings of the universe in terms of natural law. All of this certainly exhibits a scientific spirit. The Buddha advised that we should not blindly believe him but rather question, examine, inquire and rely on our own experience. This scientific approach of cause and effect was not overlooked by Albert Einstein in the 1930’s:

"The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion", he said, "it should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism".

While the antipodean blossoming of Buddhism seems to have gone from strength to strength since the 1980’s, this has not always been the case. It is in the Buddhist principle of godlessness that the journalist can find opposing and dissenting voices to the Buddhist cause. This theological bone of contention is the main source of friction with other religions.

On Wednesday, the 18th of January 1995, Pope John Paul II arrived in Sydney and attended an Interfaith Gathering in the Sydney Domain. Representatives from major religions, including Protestant, Orthodox and Coptic Christians, Jewish and Muslim were invited to share the platform with him. Notable by its absence was Australia’s’ third largest religion, Buddhism.

The organisers told SBS Radio that they were unaware that Buddhism was Australia’s’ third largest religion and besides that there was no national leader of Buddhism, so who were they to invite? The Sydney Morning Herald reported that "somebody in the State Government had forgotten to invite the Buddhists". This is unlikely, as the New South Wales Government is very aware of the presence of Buddhists in this state and often invites Buddhist representatives to State functions. A more likely explanation is that the Vicar of Rome holds Buddhism in very low esteem as is evident from the following extract from his book, Crossing The Threshold Of Hope:

"Buddhism is in large measure an ‘atheistic’ system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process. Christian mysticism is born of the Revelation of the living God. This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him, especially by means of the theological virtues - faith, hope and above all, love".

Graeme Lyall, Chairman of the Buddhist Council of New South Wales, strongly refutes the Catholic position. "The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘atheism’ as ‘disbelief in the existence of God’ ", he said, "the Buddha is described as the teacher of ‘gods and men’, so how can Buddhism be an atheistic system? Religious arguments often come down to the use of religious language. We must ascertain to what we are referring to when we use the term ‘God’.

What is a ‘living God’? Anything that is living is subject to death and decay, so why should we place ourselves in the hands of something, which, like ourselves, is impermanent? If he is referring to the old man with a white beard who sits in the sky taking notes in his little black book ready for the day of judgement, then he is out of step with modern theological thinking and most other theologians.

Modern theologians, such as Paul Tillich, suggest that the term ‘God’ refers to the ‘ground of being’ - the very fact of existence. No Buddhist would argue with this, but they may be reluctant to use the term ‘God’ to describe it".

Lay’s implication that the Pope is out of touch appears to be more than just a knee-jerk defence, when you consider that the ranks of Catholics themselves are split on the issue. Irish-born Father William Johnston, a Jesuit priest, spoke of his sympathy to Buddhism when he visited Sydney in early January 1997. Here to attend the Religion, Literature and Arts Conference at the Australian Catholic University, Father Johnston spoke of the Christian churches need to introduce aspects of Eastern Mysticism - such as meditation, yoga and Zen - if they want to increase numbers attending weekly services.

"Some Catholics are very nervous about meditation but there is a lot to learn from it and yoga and Zen", he said. "The Catholic Church has always kept meditation very strongly in its religious orders; our problem is that we didn’t teach it to the laity, who are now looking for it".

Father Johnston, director of the Institute of Oriental Religions at Tokyos’ Sophia University, has lived in Japan since 1951 and believes Christianity has become ‘too legalistic’, with ‘too many do’s and don’ts and not enough vision and enlightenment’.

Besides the Catholic Churches’ potentially bilateral reaction to Buddhism, local opposition to the arrival of Eastern Mysticism has also occurred in the steel manufacturing town of Wollongong, an hours drive south of Sydney. There the Anglican Bishop of Wollongong, the Reverend Reg Piper has weighed into the debate expressing his annoyance not only at the presence of Buddhism, but the presence of a philosophy he sees as evil.

The contest began when a Taiwan-based Buddhist sect, Fokuangshan, opened a huge fifty million-dollar temple just south of the steel city in Berkley. The monks there planned to promote their style of ‘humanistic’ Buddhism, which emphasises the ‘oneness and co-existence of the global village’.

The Fokuangshan sect was founded in the mid-1960’s and has more than one hundred branches world-wide (including Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth) with 1.5 million members and its own university, several schools, an organ donor bank, a retirement home, even a cemetery. This growth is due to its’ charismatic founding father, the Venerable Hsing Yun. The size of the Wollongong temple, called Nan Tien, is second only to their headquarters in Taipei.

Bishop Piper’s concerns are not shared by other Christian churches such as the local Uniting Church, which has adopted a user-friendly approach to the temple. On Tuesday, the 18th of June 1996, Bishop Piper appeared on the ABCs’ 7.30 Report to voice his opposition.

Bishop Piper: See when you have the bible view of humankind, generally, if it is outside the framework of the truth - the bible terms it as evil.

Reporter: Is it a deception?.

Bishop Piper: In that respect, yes. While ever it is not based in the truth of Christ, it would be a deception. Because Buddhism is basically an atheistic religion. There is no god.

Reporter: Why is that a problem?.

Bishop Piper: Because God has revealed himself through Christ. Christ has been raised from the dead. He said he is God. There is no other way to the truth and no other way to really live except through Christ.

The growing curiosity about Buddhism has so worried Bishop Piper that he has made a video called In Search Of Paradise - A Biblical Response To Buddhism. It is to warn all Christians of the evil deception of Buddhism, that has arrived to convert them.

Reverend Shin of the Nan Tien temple (pic) remains perplexed with Bishop Pipers attitude. "We don’t convert people to Buddhism or change their religion", he said. " As long as they feel comfortable with any of the practices or any of the beliefs and it is good for the society, good for them and good for the family, that is the most important thing. Whether they decide to become Buddhists or not - that is not our concern".

Local opposition to Buddhism also extends beyond the Christian clergy. A survey by the Federal Office Of Multicultural Affairs, conducted in 1988, found that 41% of the general population did not wish to have a Buddhist as a workmate. Only Muslims fared worse.

Despite this, on Sunday 8th February this year Australian Buddhists were delighted to learn they had a friend in a high place when the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, expressed his support at the opening of the Rahula Community Lodge in Canberra.

"A report from the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research a couple of years ago, showed that over the ten years to 1991 Buddhism was by far the largest growing religion in our country: an increase in the order of some 300%" he said. "To a significant extent, of course, the figures reflect the substantial increase in migration from south-east Asia over that period.

But the second largest national group were Australian-born Buddhists - many from non-Asian cultures attracted by both the philosophy and the practice of Buddhism, with its emphasis upon the search for inner peace and understanding. I offer my very best wishes for the success of all that you hope to achieve in the years ahead as future stages of the centre are completed. May all your endeavours prosper and bring joy to those whom they are intended to help".

Buddhism continues to maintain a steady trickle of recruitment at the grass roots level. According to the Venerable Pannyavaro, a monk based in Surry Hills in Sydney, young people are still attracted to Buddhism because they are looking for an alternative to established Christian churches and they can explore Buddhism without feeling obliged to join.

"A lot of young people in the twenty to mid-thirty age group are coming because they don’t feel imposed upon", he said, " and there are deeper meditative techniques they can draw upon". The Buddhist website he operates ( gets an average 50, 000 ‘hits’ a day. Venerable Pannyavaro offers cyber-nirvana at this site in the form of online meditation sessions where people can log on, meditate and contemplate the infinite.

There are now more than ninety Buddhist temples and organisations in New South Wales, sixty-five of them in Sydney. The bulk of the two hundred people who each week visit the Buddhist Library, Meditation and Information Centre in Camperdown in Sydney are in the thirty to fifty age group. About eighty-percent are from a non-Asian background.

Much to the horror of the Christian clergy (if they ever find out), Buddhism is even being taught in one New South Wales primary school during religious scripture classes. In early 1995 at Blackheath Primary School a group of parents approached the principal, Kate Allan, asking the school to provide Buddhist instruction as well as the traditional Catholic and Protestant options. Now, forty-five of the schools three hundred and fifty students attend classes in Buddhism.

"The move came from the community", Allan says. "In the mountains we have quite a diverse community and it was the choice of the parents to have these classes - it was not something imposed on the whole school".

Answering the question of Buddhism's growing popularity in is clearly going to be a rich and involved conclusion. This religion seems to have, at first glance, a vigorous influence on the world stage. Just when you think you have examined the issues thoroughly, you suddenly discover that you are still only looking at the tip of the iceberg.