How Buddhism Was Reincarnated

By LESLIE SCRIVENER / FAITH AND ETHICS REPORTER / Toronto Star - Sunday, April 25, 2004

In exile, Tibet's lamas adapted to West Timing perfect for spiritual revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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