First 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 temporary residents.

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 here.

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 Fe.

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.''