Interest in Dalai Lama shows Buddhism's reach

By JOHN CHADWICK,, September 22, 2005

New Jersey, USA -- When the Dalai Lama delivered his first lecture to an American audience, the year was 1979, and the place was in northwestern New Jersey, at an obscure Buddhist teaching center.

"We had maybe several hundred people," said Diana Cutler, who has lived at the center for decades. "He wasn't famous then."

That has changed.

On Sunday, the 75-year-old leader of Tibetan Buddhism and global human rights champion will address more than 32,000 people at Rutgers University's football stadium - one of Rutgers' largest crowds for a guest speaker.

The appearance, during which he will speak on "Peace, War and Reconciliation," has electrified the university, inspiring a series of events throughout the semester, including films with Tibetan themes, lectures on global conflict and exhibits of Asian art.

But the sheer number planning to attend also has served notice of a change going on outside the campus: Buddhism has entered the mainstream of the American religious landscape, spreading from remote monasteries and university lecture halls to suburbs like Ridgewood and Wyckoff.

"People don't find it so weird anymore when you say you're a Buddhist," said Amy Hertz, the vice president of Morgan Road Books, which last week published the latest Dalai Lama-penned book, "The Universe in a Single Atom."

Hertz said a previous book co-written by the Dalai Lama, "The Art of Happiness," was so popular that it sold a million U.S. copies in hardcover and turned up in scenes on "Friends" and "Sex and the City."

"When you see Buddhism popping up on TV, you know it's booming," Hertz said.

Yet a more telling change may be happening off-screen.

In North Jersey, American converts to Buddhism have been organizing their own distinctive communities, meeting in homes, churches and small halls. Although these sanghas, or practice communities, are barely a blip on the radar screen compared with the growth of Muslims or evangelical Christians, they're drawing a steady supply of people seeking an alternative to institutional religion.

"There isn't a leader telling you what you should feel or believe, and that's very appealing to many people," said Bernard Spitz, who founded a Zen Buddhist group in Ridgewood.

Spitz's group, which meets in the local Unitarian church, is small and informal and focuses mostly on weekly meditation classes that begin with the sound of a bell.

A Buddhist center in Wyckoff is taking the idea a step further, renting space in a medical building and offering everything from spiritual drumming to classes in natural healing to a youth group for Buddhist kids.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, everyone wanted to be a great monk or nun," said Paul Khan, the spiritual director of the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community. "But today our people have careers, families and responsibilities in the community. We want to meet them on the ground."

The number of American Buddhists has been estimated at 2 million, with Asian immigrants outnumbering converts by a 3-1 ratio.

The religion dates back 2,500 years, to India, where a wealthy young man left his home to seek an explanation for human suffering. He became the Buddha, or enlightened one.

Buddhists believe that life is filled with suffering, but that humans can alleviate suffering by controlling their desires, overcoming ignorance and leading moral lives. Buddhists meditate to achieve a state of nirvana, or a cessation of suffering.

"It's really about learning how to let go of our attachment to the self," said Joan Hoeberichts, who runs Heart Circle Sangha, a second Buddhist group in Ridgewood. "When you meditate, your connection to others becomes more transparent, and suffering is reduced."

Buddhism began making inroads into America through the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s.

And one key destination for aspiring Buddhists was the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, the remote Warren County site where the Dalai Lama spoke in 1979. The center attracted several generations of young seekers eager to learn the religion firsthand from Tibetan monks.

"I came here at 22 and never left," said Joshua Cutler, who runs the center with Diana, his wife. "I had it in the back of my mind that I really wanted to pursue the teachings. I had no intention to do anything else."

But the Cutlers' current students have different priorities. They're typically adults trying to manage family and careers. They come every Sunday, seeking teachings that they can incorporate into their daily lives.

"My typical Sunday consists of church in the morning, and the Buddhist center in the afternoon," said Betty Levy, a practicing Catholic and a resident of Whitehouse Station near the Pennsylvania border.

Unlike an earlier generation of aspiring Buddhists, Levy didn't discover the center while on a spiritual trek. Instead, she met Diana Cutler while both women were waiting for their cars to be repaired at a local auto dealership.

And after three years of classes, Levy said Buddhism is making her a better Christian.

"In the Gospels, Christ is teaching how to live," Levy said. "And Buddhism helps give me the tools to live like we should - to put others first, to control anger and to be compassionate."

The Cutlers, now in their late 50s, still embrace a quiet, austere lifestyle that they learned from their mentor, a Tibetan monk named Geshe Ngawang Wangyal.

But they also said the new wave of students is an encouraging sign that Buddhism is gaining mainstream acceptance.

"It's gotten to the point where people stop me in the supermarket and ask me about the Dalai Lama," Diana Cutler said. "They want to know how he's doing and when he's coming back."