Encounters of the Buddhist Kind
By HOLLIS WALKER | The New Mexican 10/13/2002
Photo- Julie Graber
Upaya Zen Center's Joan Halifax
Santa Fe's Buddhist community once comprised a group of "hippie
types" who exemplified the idea of an alternative lifestyle.
Fred Cooper, a theoretical physicist who works for Los Alamos
National Laboratory, was an exception. He and a few other mainstream
members of the Buddhist community that developed into the temple
on Airport Road used to ante up the bucks for the bills whenever
donations fell short.
Finances weren't the only aspect of the temple that was unstable
back in the early 1980s. The sangha, or community, was transient,
including many students at the various alternative-healing schools
in Santa Fe. The faces rotated in and out of the temple at about
the rate diplomas were earned.
But all that has changed in the last decade.
"Membership has dramatically shifted," Cooper said.
"There are six people on the (temple) board and they're
all professionals. Everyone makes a real income and is part
of the establishment. It's been a big shift."
Cooper, president of the board since 1989, got involved in Tibetan
Buddhism in 1981. He helped build the temple, which was completed
in 1985. Since then, the temple has bought adjacent real estate
and built apartments, and created a more stable income stream.
Likewise, the human front has stabilized. When a guru in Taos
died, he left his students to the tutelage of Lama Karma Dorje,
the spiritual leader of the Santa Fe temple. Those students
became a constant core to balance the waves of visitors and
And during the early 1990s, about 100 ethnic Tibetans moved
to Santa Fe through a State Department relocation program. Some
of them became active in the temple, but just as important,
their presence and that of visiting Tibetan lamas and cultural
touring groups raised interest in Tibetan Buddhism among others
Everything once shaky about the sangha now seems grounded, though
it remains a small group, Cooper said. Fifteen or 20 people
regularly attend the meditations - meditation being the typical
form of Buddhist "practice," as it is called.
The United States has been home to Buddhists for centuries,
but only since the 1960s has Buddhism become very visible, especially
among nonethnic populations. These "convert" Buddhists,
those who weren't born into Buddhist cultures here or abroad,
comprise about 800,000 of the three to four million Americans
who are Buddhist.
David Komito of Santa Fe, who holds a doctorate in Tibetan Buddhism
and teaches college courses in Buddhism, said he believes Buddhism
is gaining in popularity because of what it is not.
"I think a lot of Americans who have not necessarily a
spiritual inclination, but a self-reflective psychological inclination,
find themselves attracted to Buddhism,'' he said. "It is
not a 'revealed' religion, not a faith-based religion.'' Belief
is not the operative basis of Buddhism.
Instead, Buddhism is a pragmatic way of life, one that asks
its adherents to recognize simple moral and intellectual tenets
and live by them. Buddha, from the Sanskrit meaning "enlightened
one,'' was born in the 6th century B.C.E. in India. The teachings
of Buddhism are based on his discoveries as he sought the meaning
of life, but he is not a god. Buddhism empowers the individual
to seek and possibly achieve enlightenment (Buddhahood) by looking
within, not outside of, the self. Those things appeal to the
21st century American as never before, Komito said.
Komito credits the influx of Californians over the years and
the move of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mayahana
Tradition to Taos two years ago for increasing numbers of Buddhists
and interest in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, in Santa
The FPMT is an organization of 126 Buddhist centers in 31 countries
whose practice follows the branch of Tibetan Buddhism represented
by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the
Tibetan people in exile. FPMT also has publishing houses and
hospice centers, and its presence in Northern New Mexico attracts
many Tibetan Buddhist teachers and students to the area. It's
like having an outpost of the Vatican in our back yard.
Other Buddhist leaders, including Cynthia Jurs, an eclectic
Buddhist teacher and founder of Open Way Sangha, believe that
the environment and the indigenous cultures make the region
ripe for Buddhism - and that those factors have in turn influenced
the shape Buddhism is taking in the American West.
"I think Santa Fe generally attracts people who are interested
in spiritual matters,'' Jurs said.
Several Buddhist communities in Santa Fe have solidified over
the last decade, and new ones have sprung up on a fairly regular
basis. At least eight different sanghas offer regular meditations
in the Santa Fe area.
This spring the Upaya Center, the Zen center on Cerro Gordo,
long home to a tiny meditation center, opened its new, expansive
zendo, or meditation space. Joan Halifax Roshi - roshi is the
designation for the highest level of Zen teacher - has led the
community since 1985.
Buddhism is more popular than ever before in the West, and in
Santa Fe, because of the "increase in the velocity of people's
lifestyles, and their physical and mental ailments,'' she said.
"They are looking for some way to alleviate their suffering.''
She has seen much "tourism" in Buddhism - spiritual
junkies looking for a new fix - but many people here have been
practicing for 30 or 40 years, she said. And while once the
Buddhist community here was dominated by white, middle-aged,
upper-middle-income women, it is now much more diverse. Indians,
Tibetans, African-Americans and Afro-Europeans attend meditations
at the zendo.
Halifax's latest group of students ranged in age from 26 to
73. She is very interested in reaching out to people of color
and young people, though Buddhists do not generally proselytize.
Ralph Steele, a Theravadan practitioner - another branch of
Buddhism, that developed in Thailand - has been working to open
the temple doors to people of color on a national and regional
basis since the late 1980s. In September he sponsored a local
retreat for people of color. Next year he is planning a people
of color retreat in the Washington, D.C. area. As a result of
such regional retreats, Albuquerque now has a sangha for people
of color; Steele, who is African-American, is the group's teacher.
"There have always been people of color in Western Buddhism,''
he said, noting the late musicians Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane,
and writers Alice Walker and bell hooks. Steele, who went to
high school in Japan, was introduced to Buddhism there and became
a practicing Buddhist in the early 1970s.
For three years he has offered two-day summer retreats for youth
ages 8-13 in Santa Fe, using older youth and adults as teachers.
The groups focus on teaching the Buddhist precept of "right
conduct,'' and give youth tools, including meditation, to help
them govern their own behavior.
Lori Paras, a Santa Fe mother of two who had been attending
a meditation group Steele leads, heard about the program in
its first year.
She told her children Gabriel and Filipina, "I am forcing
you to go. If you hate it, you don't have to go back.'' They
loved it. This summer the children, now 14 and 12, attended
for the third time.
"I think they are nicer people to each other'' as a result,
Paras said. "This year especially I've seen a difference
in Gabriel,'' she said. (The children were out of town and could
not be interviewed.)
Fred Cooper remembers his own first experiences with meditation.
The difference it made in his life was dramatic, he said.
"What happens when you meditate is you go through different
levels of your mind being clearer and less cluttered. Once you
settle into a new level of clarity, your mind never gets cluttered
again,'' he said. "Now, instead of waking up thinking of
all the things I had to do again, I just. . .wake up.
"It's really freeing. Once your mind is free, you have
more possibilities in every situation.''