Non-Asian Buddhists give the religion a closer look

by Yicong Liu, Silver Chips Online, Dec 10, 2004

Washington D.C., USA -- Sitting bow-legged with glazed eyes, she slips into a subconscious state. Her breathing calms; her hands rest lightly on her thighs. There is commotion in the background. Running water trickles down the sink. The soles of rubber shoes can be heard squeaking against the tiled floor, but the girl does not flinch. Meditating atop a table, in a trance-like stupor, she begins her search for mental peace.

Brown-haired, blue-eyed junior Katie Frank is a practicing Buddhist, one of several non-Asian Buddhists at Blair.

Buddhism originated in India and spread to the U.S. most prominently during the Vietnam War. Over the years, the religion has diffused to a diverse population. According to Comparative Religions teacher Cherie McGinn, practitioners of many branches of Buddhism can be found in the D.C. area. She estimates approximately 100 Buddhists at Blair. While Buddhism has been most popular in Asian countries, non-Asian Buddhists at Blair have also adopted an avid faith in its philosophy.

Buddhist principles

Buddhism is grounded on two basic concepts: consequences to every action, often known as karma; and impermanence, the idea that nothing, neither pain nor pleasure, lasts forever. Because of the absence of a distinguished God or deity of worship in Buddhism, explains McGinn, some people debate whether it is a philosophy or a religion. In general, both level and rituals of practice vary among Buddhist sects as well as among individual followers. Typically, practicing Buddhism involves rituals like meditation, chants and study.

For Frank, a Shambhala Buddhist belonging to the Tibetan Buddhism sect, her major practices are meditation and study. As a practicing Buddhist, Frank is experienced enough to maintain her subconscious meditation state for as long as half an hour. At home, Frank meditates for this length of time in front of her shrine, a red-clothed table filled with religious items. Pictures of Buddhist leaders sit on the table, adorned with five bowls containing items devoted to each of the human senses. Frank and her family burn a bowl of incense while they meditate. This holiday season, Frank will be celebrating Children's day, an event when children go to sleep and receive presents from parents the next morning, much like the well-known Christmas gift-giving ritual.

Black and Buddhist

Frank's experience with being a non-Asian Buddhist has been mostly peaceful, but that has not always been the case for senior Ryan Dean, an African American practicing Buddhist.

Back in second grade, when Dean's best friend's mother first found out he was Buddhist, she forbade him from setting foot into her house. Dean was regarded as a "sinner" by those of the Christian faith. By those of his same religion, the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, Dean is known as "fortune baby," a child born into the faith.

Nichiren Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that is named after the Japanese initiator Nichiren Daishonin and is particularly popular in this local area. Nichiren Buddhism principles are epitomized in the lotus flower example. The muddier swamps become, the more splendid the lotus flower grows, which illustrates the simultaneity of the positive and the negative. Thus, the most unfavorable conditions could cause an eclectic range of results, some of which are as beautiful as the lotus flower.

To practice Nichiren Buddhism, Dean chants with a set of wooden beads tucked around the middle finger of each hand. The beads, he explains have three appendages on one end, symbolizing the head and arms of a human body, and two appendages on the other end, symbolizing the legs. As a whole, the beads represent the unity the human body.

Being black and Buddhist in a predominantly Christian society has not been easy for Dean. His beliefs collided with those of the other children raised in Christian households in as early as grade school. "I used to have arguments with kids on the playground [over religion]," he says. "All of them only knew what their parents said."

In high school, as general knowledge and tolerance grew amongst students, Dean's beliefs served as an advantage and set him apart from the masses.

Senior Lisa Howe, also a fortune baby, only started seriously practicing during her freshman year. Howe devotes 30-minute sessions every morning and evening to chanting, a ritual that she says is refreshingly effective and therapeutic.

Last April, Howe was involved in a severe automobile accident which totaled her car. Depressed, Howe sought comfort in her chanting rituals. "I saw myself get happier and happier," she says. "I started to appreciate things and understand reasons why things happen."

The hidden attitude

According to McGinn, one reason why Buddhism is so attractive is because those who practice can choose their level of involvement. Dean says he has maintained his Buddhist beliefs because Buddhism does not require any grandiose leaps of faith.

Because Buddhism is arguably more of an attitude and mindset for life than a religion, according to McGinn, it's often hard to tell when someone is a practitioner.

Such is the case for Howe, whose friends and classmates react incredulously when they first hear of her Buddhist background. She has heard the comments many times, "Do you shave your heads and wear orange robes? What about rubbing the fat Buddha's tummy?" Despite this, Howe enjoys breaking down the Asian monk-like stereotype that seems to have evolved with Buddhism in the U.S.

Most importantly for Dean, a Buddhist attitude has also allowed him a broader, different perspective of the world. "My foundation was cause and effect, whereas everybody else's was God," he says. "I can think from an even playing field with no bias."