How Buddhism Was Reincarnated
LESLIE SCRIVENER / FAITH AND ETHICS REPORTER / Toronto Star
- Sunday, April 25, 2004
In exile, Tibet's lamas adapted to West Timing perfect for spiritual
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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
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
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."
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.
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."
he adds, it doesn't matter if you are Christian or Jewish. "You
can still meditate. Then you really become relaxed, peaceful
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
Gauvreau: "The important thing, there's a place, here,
for people to have contact with a living meditation master."