A Buddhist temple beckons in Sarasota

by BILLY COX, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Sept 10, 2011

SARASOTA, Fla. (USA) -- Since moving from obscure digs to its more prominent locale off Washington Boulevard north of downtown Sarasota, the Kadampa Meditation Center has been getting a lot of attention, often from visitors without a clue.

"Someone walked in recently and wanted to know if we were a Chinese restaurant," says Buddhist monk and Administrative Director Dornyi, who goes by one name. "Fortunately we don't get a whole lot of that."

Inside, representations of Buddha - some so heavy they needed to be installed with forklifts - anchor the temple's showcase meditation room, where members and visitors attend lectures, prayer sessions and meditation classes.

It also has 11 residential rooms that are all booked up. Boarders, ranging from age 21 to 82, consume vegetarian meals prepared on site. There are no TV sets or radios here; residents with personal computers confine them to their rooms and apply headphones to minimize noise.

Since its grand opening here in June, says Dornyi, walk-in traffic at the 10,000-square-foot temple has increased appreciably from its former incarnation on Lockwood Ridge Road, where a 2,500-square-foot house once accommodated meditation sessions in its living room.

The new temple is a far cry from its roots in 1998, when a handful of Sarasotans began attending meditation classes at a Unitarian Church on Fruitville Road. "To me," says original member Sandy Tracey, "something of this size and splendor still seems like a dream."

Situated on a one-acre spread, The Kadampa Meditation Center was erected with a million-dollar assist from the International Temples Project, guided by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Now living in Ulverston in the United Kingdom, the 80-year-old Tibetan monk and scholar founded the New Kadampa Tradition, which traces its lineage to a 14th-century Buddhist teacher. More than 200 centers have sprung up internationally, and the Sarasota branch has seen its membership rise from a dozen to roughly 200 over the past few years.

Most were not born into Buddhism, but were drawn into it, often by life-altering events.

Resident teacher Gen Kelsang Demo, a 32-year-old nun, was raised in a Catholic tradition.

The Seattle native's spiritual pilgrimage began in the 1990s as she struggled with the loss of two people with whom she was close. Buddhism's tenets of detachment and acceptance resonated with her, and she wound up studying with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso at his home base in the U.K.

Nine years ago, she decided to fully immerse herself in the discipline, which not only required a vow of celibacy and receiving a new name at her ordination as a nun, but shaving her waist-length hair as well. "What that does is, it distinguishes a way of life between what you were and who you are," says the former Brianna Groshon. "It's like letting go of vanity."

Likewise, 29-year-old monk Dornyi - whose legal name remains Andres Villalon - found answers in Buddhism following some profound soul-searching.

He had quit his job with an insurance company on the 29th floor of the World Trade Center in August 2001. His older brother, who worked at the World Financial Center nearby, watched one of the hijacked airliners ram a WTC tower on 9/11.

"Between the shock and the sudden realization of life's impermanence," he says, "I had to take a step back to reassess everything. What are our values? What are my values?"

Raised Catholic, like Gen Demo, Dornyi now wears the maroon and saffron robes of Kadampa. But he says, "We're not really interested in proselytizing, or making people converts. Meditation is universal and a complement to whatever faith you belong to. We have practicing Catholics come, Jewish, Muslims - we're open to everyone."

Gen Demo says she appreciates all questions, even those whose answers might seem self-evident.

"One time a man who was going through a divorce asked if there was a way to take revenge on your ex-wife in a karmically sound way." Gen Demo chuckles; at least he asked, after all.

"Well, he was looking for a loophole. So I wound up doing a series on karma," she said.