What kind of person is drawn to Buddhism?

Just about anyone - as regulars at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center (KBC) will testify. Our community is aged anywhere between 22 to 62 and includes attorneys, actors and teachers. In the first of a new series, we will meet the people who make up the KBC as we get up close and personal with someone new each month.

First in the chair is hairdresser Curt Darling, who has traveled the world teaching the tricks of his trade. Curt says it was a fire at his home that really ignited his interest in Buddhism. Over to you Curt!

What first sparked your interest in Buddhism?

I had a karate teacher when I was 12 who was a Buddhist, so I guess it was through him that I first became interested. Then in 1990, I moved to Hong Kong to teach hairdressing and I gradually became influenced by the Buddhist culture in that country. I would visit temples at the weekends, but it was more for pleasure than anything else. Seven years later, my interest in Buddhism became more serious as a result of a chain of bad events. First my home burnt down and I lost all my possessions because they weren't insured. Then I got hit by a truck while on my motorcycle and a few months later, I wrecked the car I was driving and ended up in a swamp! As I limped out of the swamp (my knee was still badly injured from the motorcycle accident) I knew I'd hit rock bottom!

So landing in the swamp was the turning point in your life?

That and kicking the addiction to painkillers I'd developed while undergoing surgery for my knee. I eventually sorted myself out, but once I was clean I found that my mind was naturally restless and discontent. I was looking for something but I wasn't sure what. I decided to go on a five-day Zen retreat in San Diego. Later in the year I went to see a Vipassana teacher for my birthday. At a restaurant later that evening I came across a Western nun wearing Tibetan colors. I remember she made a very strong impression on me. Also I was given a card for my birthday with a picture of a monk. On the back of it was the address of the Khandakapala Buddhist Center. A little while later I went to the KBC for a Lamrim meditation class and it was there where I met Rak-ma. I realized at once she was the nun from the restaurant.

How did you feel after your first meditation class?

I remember feeling delighted that I no longer had to go to India to get the teachings I wanted! I was so inspired by Rak-ma and Gen Lekma (principal teacher at the KBC) that I began attending the meditation classes and morning chanted meditations. There are many Buddhist centers in LA but it is difficult to find somewhere to practice on a daily basis. It wasn't long before I wanted to move onto the Foundation Program (Buddhist study program).

Did you feel that you'd finally found what you were looking for?

Not quite because at that time I didn't understand the value of embracing one tradition. All that changed during the spring of 2001. I let go of my apartment in LA and went to Europe where Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (spiritual director of the New Kadampa Tradition) was giving teachings in Spain. Following this I went to the annual NKT Spring Festival at the Manjushri Center in England and to several other Kadampa Buddhist centers around the country where I was exposed to many senior teachers. I returned to the Summer Festival at the Manjushri Center where I received some incredibly blissful teachings from Ven. Geshe-la and then I went on to the Madyamaka Center in Yorkshire, England. It was a very tranquil time. Before I left Los Angles I had already developed much admiration towards Gen Lekma. But the teachings I received directly from Geshe-la in Spain and England encouraged me to practice this particular path as best I could.

Why do you think it is important to embrace one spiritual tradition? Isn't this limiting yourself?

In Los Angles we have such a pot pourri of spiritual teachings available to us. I was under the impression I could dabble with all of them and create my own blend of spirituality. Now I understand what I was doing - I was using these different spiritual traditions to reinforce what I thought I already knew. There was a lot of ego involved. I thought, 'I'm a vegetarian, I do yoga, I am spiritual!' But it doesn't go very deep. If you want to dig deep you need to dig one hole not ten. I have respect for other traditions but I don't need to practice them anymore. There is everything I need in this tradition. I'm happy that I've checked out the spiritual community in LA but there is no example for me like Gen Lekma. It's not just because she's a great teacher - there are many inspiring teachers in LA - but it's rare to find someone so dedicated, happy and available to practice with on a daily basis.

How do you incorporate Buddhism into your daily life?

Buddhism is so practical; we are encouraged to watch our minds all the time. If I feel any discomfort in my mind I try to go no further with that feeling and instead find its opponent. There are countless opponents to prevent negative thoughts from arising and continuing. One of the great things about having a close relationship with Gen Lekma is that she has come to know me and can stop me from going down repetitive paths.

Curt is the Education Program Coordinator at KBC and has recently started teaching meditation classes.