Ex-con blossoms with Buddhist enlightenment

By MATTHEW DANELO, Beaumont Enterprise, June 4, 2009

Port Arthur, TX (USA) -- Tom Harlan had his roots in the mud but now says he's blooming above the water.

"The lotus, it symbolizes how people can grow through Buddhism," Harlan, 55, said Monday while resting on a bench in one of the lush gardens at the Buu Mon Buddhist Temple in Port Arthur.

A former criminal, Harlan said he once embraced hatred and violence. Now he spends much of his time trying to exemplify the peace and grace of a lotus blossom.

The plant, which roots itself in mud and grows in about three feet of water, is an important symbol in Buddhist culture - a culture that will be celebrated this weekend at the 11th Annual Lotus and Bamboo Festival at the temple.

"(The lotus) symbolizes the move to enlightenment and spiritual growth," Danny Dubuisson, community relations director for the temple, said Monday.

According to Dubuisson, the lotus' rooting in mud symbolizes human depravity. Its stem grows through purifying waters, paralleling the cleansing effect of Buddhist teachings, and blossoms in the shining sun of enlightenment.

Harlan's tattoos, which cover the majority of his body, tell a similar story. The artwork depicts a man who once thrived on hate and vengeance, but has now found peace.

Physical reminders of Harlan's past are permanent; his Louisiana penitentiary number is inked on one wrist and a swastika the size of a poker chip peeks out just above his left knee. Harlan claims to now be the spiritual opposite of his former self.

"I stopped harboring ill will to all living creatures," he said of his transformation.

Now he goes by his Buddhist name of "Sapurissa," and is an active member of the Buu Mon Temple, where he finds peace in cultivating the temples' gardens.

The four gardens at the temple have seen past festivals draw more than 2,500 people, many of them gardening enthusiasts who come to purchase a lotus plant of their own. Single roots start at around $45, and two year-old plants with a blossom start at $95.

The festival also recently grew in size when it was combined with Buddha's birthday celebration. For that portion of the festival - from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Sunday - attendees will celebrate the 2,553rd year since the birth of Buddha, a celebration otherwise known as Vesak.

Ultimately, many Southeast Texans attend the festival at the only Buddhist temple between Houston and Lafayette because it reminds them of their own spiritual journey.

Harlan pointed out that other plants, like water lilies, bloom above the water, but only the lotus plant can rise a foot above the water's surface and has leaves that are waterproof.

"Look," he pointed out. "When you pour water on it, it just stays there. The leaf protects the (hollow) stem."

Harlan scooped up some water with his thick, weathered hands and let it drip into one of the broad leaves. The liquid beaded on the surface, unable to permeate the inscrutable hairs protecting the structure of the leaf.

"The plant is resilient," he said. "Like people."


If you go

What: 11th Annual Lotus and Bamboo Festival.

When: 9:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Buu Mon Buddhist Temple, 2701 Procter St., Port Arthur.

Cost: Free

Contact: (409) 982-9319; www.buumon.org


Schedule of Events

Saturday

10 a.m. - Welcome speech.

10:45 a.m. - Guided tour of the temple and gardens.

Noon - Lunch.

1:15 p.m. - Lecture: Organic gardening.

2:15 p.m. - Lecture: Tea and its preparation.

3:15 p.m. - Lecture: Texas Bamboo Society.

4:15 p.m. - Lecture: Texas Bamboo Society.

All day - Explore gardens.


Sunday

9:45 a.m. - Lecture: Texas Bamboo Society

10:30 a.m. - Buddha's birthday celebration.

12:30 p.m. - Lunch.

2 p.m. - Lecture: Plant Pruning.

3 p.m. - Lecture: Texas Bamboo Society.

4 p.m.- Guided tour of the temple and gardens.

All day - Explore gardens.

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