An open-minded approach arrives

By EBONY WINDOM, St. Pertersburg Times, September 3, 2005

Stressed? Selfish? Miserable? A Buddhist group open to all faiths offers enlightening answers in Pasco County.

HUDSON, Florida (USA) -- Folks come for various reasons. Some drop in just out of curiosity. For first-timers, sitting cross-legged and chanting can be awkward. But the weekly Ratnashri Tibetan Buddhist meditation group also draws the faithful, those who strive to discover their inner Buddha.

Tibetan Buddhism was born in Tibet thousands of years ago, but it just recently trickled into Pasco County, when Ratnashri Sangha of Tampa Bay, based in Clearwater, started offering meditation. The group does not have a building, so participants gather for meditation at the Hudson Regional Library. They borrow space to host Buddhist Empowerment and Teachings every other month. Anyone of any religious background is welcome to join in.

Only a handful are actually Buddhist. One man meditates there Saturday and then heads to church Sunday.

That's the whole point, says Richard Weissman, who leads the group.

"There's tremendous respect for all religions," Weissman said. So folks can embrace Buddhism and still go to church, synagogue or mosque.

Weissman, who was born Jewish, recently made the switch. Rather than conversion, it's called "taking refuge in the Buddha."

To become a Buddhist, "you're simply acknowledging that the Buddha is a human being (who) attained enlightenment when he was on earth."

Members get a new name, too. Weissman took the Tibetan name Konchog Thubten, which means "stable triple gem" in English. But he still goes by his birth name.

Weissman was voted president of Ratnashri Sangha of Tampa Bay. Then a revered Tibetan lama, Drupon Thinley Ningpo Rinpoche, who was in town teaching, suggested that Weissman start a meditation group in Pasco. There was a need for it, the lama said.

"In America there is plenty of external material wealth," Rinpoche's interpreter, Meghan Howard, said in an e-mail, "but people realize that this alone does not bring happiness. Thus, they understand that you have to work with the internal mind, that you have to focus on altruism and benefiting others. Tibetan Buddhism does that; it focuses on the mind."

So the Eastern religion is exploding in the United States, Weissman says. In this county, folks gather at the library for prayer, meditation and discussion.

Some sit in chairs, others on the floor. They take soothing breaths and repeat a simple phrase known as a mantra.

Group meditation is best, because "the more people partake, the more blessings are present," Rinpoche's interpreter says.

Rinpoche leads a sangha in Maryland. He also travels the world offering Buddhist teachings. This week, he'll be in Pasco County.

Kochog Jatson Dolkar, 63, remembers attending her first Buddhist gathering in Clearwater about 10 years ago. She was a member of a spiritualist church and knew little about Buddhism but out of curiosity decided to go.

Right away "everything just clicked," she said. "They were chanting in Tibetan, and it just felt very familiar. It's like reconnecting."

Years later, Dolkar, who was born in Arkansas, became Buddhist.

Then she swapped her name, Sarah, for the Tibetan one.

Cynthia Verzi, 60, did the same thing. To her close friends, she is Bikshuni Konchog Drolkar. But she doesn't walk around talking about Buddhism.

"I don't tell anybody about my faith," she said. "The big thing is how I act. This is more of a lifestyle journey, an inner path."

Ebony Windom covers religion news in Pasco county. She can be reached at 813 909-4609 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4609. Her e-mail address is


Ratnashri Sangha of Tampa Bay offers a Buddhist Empowerment and Teaching session from 7-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Advanced Healthcare Alternatives, 5404 Main St. in New Port Richey. Donations will be accepted. Call Richard Weissman at (727) 834-9308.