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Rochester area's Buddhists value meditative life

by Mark Hare, Democrat and Chronicle, August 28, 2008

Rochester, NY (USA) -- Cecily Fuhr had the kind of serendipitous introduction to Buddhism that is typical of many of its American practitioners.

<< Tibetan Buddhists meet in Rochester’s White Lotus Society Center on a recent Sunday morning for discussion. In meditation, “it’s so relaxing to not have this stream of thoughts rushing by,” says one participant. (DIEGO JAMES ROBLES staff photographer)

A graduate student in literature at the University of Rochester in the early '90s, she happened to walk past the big old house at 7 Arnold Park, home of the Rochester Zen Center.

"There was a sign that mentioned meditation," she says. "And I thought, 'I'm pretty stressed out,' so I knocked on the door." It wasn't long before she was a member. After graduation, she worked at the center for a couple of years before going to law school in Seattle. But she missed Rochester and the Zen Center and moved back. Next month, Fuhr, 40, of Rochester, is joining the center's staff of 15.

"It's the meditation," she says of Buddhism's appeal. "If that doesn't work for you, you probably aren't going to hang around for long."

Many of those who practice at the Zen Center, or at the nearby White Lotus Society on South Goodman Street, say they cannot point to an "aha moment." Rather, they say, it was a sense of stillness, of finding a home, that drew them to Buddhism.

The Rochester Buddhist community is small. There are about 200 local members of the Zen Center, which has a like number of out-of-town members, many of whom joined years ago when the United States had few Zen centers. Many still visit to meet with a teacher or for sesshin, or retreat.

Zen Center members practice a Japanese stream of Buddhism; the White Lotus community practices a Tibetan form. Their beliefs are the same, but the practices are different.

Zen is simpler, less elaborate. Practitioners sit in silence in the zendo, or meditation hall, facing the unadorned wall. The idea is to minimize distractions.

The shrine room at the White Lotus Society, by contrast, is decorated with many statues of Buddhas, a throne from which visiting lamas (or teachers) speak, and colorful wall hangings depicting deities and symbols — which are intended to aid the visualization that is part of Tibetan meditation. Rather than block out distractions, Tibetan practice incorporates them.

The Rochester area has several ethnic Asian Buddhist temples, but those practicing what is becoming an Americanized Buddhism mainly congregate at the Zen Center and White Lotus Society.

Rochester has played an important role in the growth of Buddhism in the United States.

In 1966, some influential Rochesterians who had been practicing Buddhism on their own brought Roshi Philip Kapleau here on an author's tour following the release of his landmark book, The Three Pillars of Zen.

Kapleau, who had been an atheist, served as an Army officer in World War II, and then as chief court reporter at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. During those years, he struggled to understand the causes of and reason for such vast human suffering.

"There are pictures of him at Nuremberg sitting alongside Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, scribbling notes with his head down," says Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, Kapleau's successor as teacher at the Zen Center. Kapleau's quest for answers led him to study Zen in Japan for a dozen years.

He was impressed with the Rochester community and decided to found a center here in 1966, says Audrey Fernandez of Brighton, one of the center's founding members. Kapleau remained in Rochester until his death at 91 in 2004. He died resting in the center's garden.

In the days before the center, Fernandez was part of a small group of Buddhists who met and meditated at the home of Doris and Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography. Few Rochesterians knew anything of Buddhism at the time, Fernandez says. "I'd hear people refer to the center as the Zen medication center."

Carlson's fortune helped start the center, but he was not impressed with his wealth. "He always believed he would be reborn in a Chinese houseboat," Fernandez says, "with no possessions at all."

The path to Buddhism

Both the Zen Center and White Lotus welcome children. Indeed, in the third-floor White Lotus "Sunday school" room, there are posters with responses to the question, "What does it mean to be Buddhist?" One youngster wrote: "Don't count on things to make you happy. Count on yourself." But for the most part, it is adults who come to practice Buddhism; sometimes from another faith tradition, sometimes from no religion at all. Often, they come alone without family members. It is the practice, the gradual understanding that comes with meditation, that is Buddhism's drawing card. Many Buddhists do not see their practice as a religion at all, but as a philosophy or lifestyle. Buddhists do not believe in a Creator God, but many will say that the question of God is simply irrelevant — that Buddhism is about learning to pursue what is good and avoid what is evil.

Buddhists do not proselytize and they say Buddhists' practices are compatible with the practices of other religions. Indeed, mysticism — the quest for a oneness with God, sometimes through meditation — is embedded in most of the great religious traditions.

Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic monk, explored the mysticism of early church writers and later visited Japan in the 1960s to study Zen traditions. "He wanted to spend time with Buddhist monks and share experiences of monastic life," says the Rev. William Shannon, a retired professor of religious studies at Nazareth College and co-author of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia.

Many Christians are unaware of the mystical elements in their own faith, Shannon says. "In the seminary, we spent a lot of time studying moral and dogmatic theology, but we spent more time learning how to keep the parish books than we did on mystical theology."

Frank Howard was raised in the Episcopal Church but says he always had Buddhist tendencies. "As a boy, I liked going to church," he says, "but only before other people arrived."

Howard, 60, a lawyer and Brighton resident, says he was troubled as an adolescent by the capriciousness of death. "So, my strong awareness of my future death generated great fear. Fear and frustration because if one is fearful of death, suicide is not an option. I was in an existential dilemma — both life and death were racked by anxiety and I saw no escape. Life seemed to be a cruel joke."

As he began to study what the Buddha taught, that all phenomena, including death, are impermanent, he took comfort. He found a spiritual home. Now, as a White Lotus board member, he often leads the Sunday gatherings with a dharma (from Buddhist texts) talk.

Howard practiced at the Zen Center for years, but he says the richness of the Tibetan style is a better fit for him and his wife, Gretchen. Howard says a poet once described Tibetan Buddhism as "Mexican Catholicism on steroids."

Whether or not they describe Buddhism as a religion, Buddhists say that its core beliefs and the practice of meditation do meet important needs — be it for spirituality or for a discipline that allows clearer thinking.

"I was a little leery of joining anything that might be a cult," says Larry Keefe. "But I kept coming back. I read Roshi Kapleau's book, and I thought this is really hard. But I plowed through it and realized this is a really serious treatment."

Keefe, 61, of Victor, says sitting, or meditating, is the key. "You sit there and you don't move. That's part of the practice. You learn to control your mind as well as your body. A lot of it is learning to contend with distractions, sleepiness, annoyances, cramps, itches. You sit through them; they come and they go. You learn to go into the pain and be there with it."

"For me, Buddhism is very transformative," says Richard Hamling, 59, a mental health counselor from Shortsville, Ontario County. "It's gradual. The hard work is seeing things as they are and not having them clouded by ego and other distortions. Buddhism offers us a better view of life as it is. I hope I'm a little more patient, more tolerant."

Buddhists believe that all suffering stems from desire, from the quest for happiness. Learning to shed desire and accept even suffering as fleeting is key to Buddhist practice.

Susan Kochan, the CEO of Brand Cool Marketing in Pittsford, says she turned to Buddhism to deal with "the kind of all-pervasive suffering you cannot fix — knowing there is going to be war and torture and people not caring for the planet." Kochan, 45, says Buddhist practice is like a tool kit that helps people cope with life and become better practitioners of any other faith.

Kochan and Jan Cook, 57, an executive coach who lives in Penfield, were recently ordained as teachers in one of several Tibetan sects.

Cook, who is also Unitarian, says, "I've been a social activist my whole life since I first learned about suffering. I tried many things. I became part of a women's circle and we met once a week for a while and developed our own services." But when she first heard Anam Rinpoche, the lama who ordained them, "I left crying. It was so wonderful to find a tradition that love is so central to."

For Bernie Radzisz, an information technology manager for Kaddis Manufacturing, Buddhism must be experienced to be understood. Radzisz, 55, from Ogden, meditates at least 45 minutes a day, he says. "You can't just read the cookbook; you have to taste the food."

In meditation, "you are living in the moment," he says. "It's so relaxing to not have this stream of thoughts rushing by."

In America

Buddhism originated 2,500 years ago in India. Its founder, Sakyamuni Buddha, was a pampered prince who began to seek a path to enlightenment only after he left the palace and saw for himself the full range of human suffering.

The Buddha did not consider himself to be a god, but instead developed teachings and practices intended to lead practitioners to the same enlightenment. Buddhism "has always adapted to every culture it has spread to," says Frank Howard of White Lotus. It evolved new practices in Tibet, China and Japan, and is doing so in the West. But Howard cites the Dalai Lama as saying that a distinctly American or Western Buddhism could take 1,000 years to develop.

Just as Buddhists believe that people are reborn, not reincarnated, but that they continue to move from one life to another until they achieve enlightenment, so Buddhism itself is reborn in new cultures.

"The fact that we meet on Sunday mornings is an American adaptation," Howard says. "We do not observe many of the Tibetan holy days" and have dropped some Asian practices. "We just have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water," he says.

In Japan, says Roshi Kjolhede, those who wish to be admitted to a Zen monastery must knock ritualistically on the door three times. The first two times, the door will be slammed in the applicant's face. Only after he has proved his determination and seriousness will the door be open.

"We can't do that here," Kjolhede says, "or people would leave and never come back." Americanization is also evident, he says, in that "we have full recognition of the equality of men and women." That's not so in Japan or China, he says. At Zen teaching gatherings, Kjolhede says, there are often more women than men.

In time, says Wendy Haylett, 55, of Perinton, the structure of American Buddhism could adapt some of the architecture of mainline churches. "I love the community service that Catholic and Protestant churches engage in."

Haylett is a regular participant at the White Lotus Society, but says "I'm not sure if I'm a Tibetan Buddhist." After World War II, she says, many of the Japanese who were interred in camps were afraid to openly practice Buddhism, so they "disguised their Buddhism" and began to build churches that looked Protestant. "They had liturgies and hymns and called their teachers ministers," she says by way of illustrating Buddhism's adaptability.

Cook, the executive coach, says another way to measure Buddhism's gradual movement into American culture is the popularity of what are essentially Buddhist techniques in business.

"Many companies have started stress reduction programs" rooted in meditation techniques, she says. "The wisdom of contemplative practices has come to be seen as useful in workplace and in medical settings. Buddhism has a very sophisticated understanding of the human mind."



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