Buddhist tradition thrives in Austin

By Joshunda Sanders, AMERICAN-STATESMAN, March 28, 2010

Area's diverse Buddhist scene is home to dozens of temples, meditation groups and centers

Austin, TX (USA) -- One of the most popular ambassadors of Buddhism in the West, the Dalai Lama, met with President Barack Obama in February.

<< Using a combination of Buddhist teachings, psychology practice and other influences, T. Flint Sparks offers inquiry participants feedback and guidance.

The meeting, which riled Chinese leaders, happened right after Tiger Woods mentioned a return to his Buddhist roots in a public apology for his extramarital affairs. Then Fox News analyst Brit Hume sparked even more discussion on

Buddhism when he suggested that Woods might be better off converting to Christianity.

The national attention on Buddhism has been echoed in the establishment of new Buddhist groups and temples in the Austin area over the past decade. The faith tradition emerged in the sixth century when the wealthy Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in what is now Nepal, renounced his social status to lead a life pursuing the comprehension of human suffering.

Dozens of types of Buddhism are now practiced all over the world by more than 360 million people. An estimated 1.5 million people identify themselves as Buddhist in America. Americans became more aware of Buddhism and the dharma, the law that orders both the cosmos and individual conduct as well as the teachings of the Buddha, in the 1960s.

Last month, the Interdependence Project, a Buddhist-influenced community group and activist organization whose mission is to foster the intersection of contemplative practices and social change, started a chapter in Austin (it's also in Portland, Ore., and New York). The project, led by psychologists Michael Uebel and Uva Most, started with an art opening at the Pedernales Lofts on East Sixth Street. That led to interest from dozens of Austinites to start an informal meditation group, Uebel said.

The project adds to Austin's diverse Buddhist scene, which offers dozens of ethnic temples, mindfulness or meditation groups and centers that follow specific traditions. Local Buddhist teachers, priests and laypeople say there has been a visible Buddhist presence in Austin since at least the 1990s, but there are no reliable estimates of the number of Buddhists in Austin because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't track information about religious affiliation.

Mark Adams, 42, a psychotherapist who runs his own private practice and counsels veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, said that he came to meditation about a year ago when he became interested in mindfulness, or the practice of being more aware in everyday life. While working with his patients, he said he became more interested in his own self-care as an extension of caring for others.

Like others who have participated in the Interdependence Project, Adams said he doesn't feel as at home in more structured Buddhist communities.

"I visited some other places and nothing seemed to stick," Adams said.

Adherents of Buddhism, a non-theistic tradition, follow a path of mindfulness and nonviolence toward others. Buddhism emerges out of at least two major lineages: Theravada, which is atheistic and the predominant religion of Southeast Asia, and Mahayana, which translates to "Great Vehicle" and emerged from India. Tibetan and Zen traditions that are also part of the larger Buddhism pantheon each have their own slightly different emphasis on the same general principles.

Nawala Lakkhana and Pandit Eluwapola Gnanaratana Thero, Sri Lankan monks at the 5-acre Austin Buddhist Center in Southeast Austin, say they practice Theravada Buddhism at the 4,500-square-foot space, which was built in 2007. About 50 families go there for meditation, said Dilum Chandrasoma, a philanthropist whose family has been in the Austin area since 1966. It's one of a handful of temples in Northwest and Central Austin and smaller sanghas — or Buddhist communities — that meet in far Southeast Austin and have a mostly immigrant following.

Although Chandrasoma says the Austin Buddhist Center is open to all who want to meditate there, it caters mainly to Sri Lankan immigrant families. More prevalent in Austin are the more informal groups that practice loosely connected Buddhist principles of mindfulness and contemplation without a specific religious affiliation, like the Interdependence Project.

According to the Pew Forum for Religion in Public Life, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., only one in three American Buddhists lists their ethnicity as Asian; the number of Buddhists in America made up less than 1 percent of 35,000 adults surveyed in the Pew Forum's 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Chris Lance, director of the Austin Zen Center, said the center's community of about 70 members — who meditate and attend events at the three-home campus near the University of Texas — are largely Western converts to Buddhism. The center's main building is a two-story green home with several incense-scented rooms where cushions and chairs line the walls around altars where bronze Buddha statues sit.

The Austin Zen Center was founded in 1995 by psychotherapist and Buddhist priest Flint Sparks. Sparks, who comes from Southern Baptist roots, began the Zen center by starting a meditation group. Around the same time, Peg Syverson had arrived in Austin around 1994 and had started a meditation group as well. Sparks left the Zen Center in a full-time capacity, and he and Syverson now run Appamada, a Buddhist group that meets in Central Austin.

Webber, 63, has been meditating at the center since 2002. She lived down the street in a duplex, but at the beginning of the year moved into the Zen Center. The retired landscape designer started looking for a place to meditate after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "I became aware of what could come out of the blue on a sunny day," she said. "I thought I needed to be more prepared."

Now there are other, smaller Buddhist communities that round out the experience of Buddhism in Austin. They include the Chittamani Buddhist Center, the Shambhala Meditation Center and several other smaller local Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired groups that meet to meditate, discuss the philosophies of nonviolence, the benefits of compassion and mindfulness, and conduct volunteer work.

But not everyone in these communities necessarily defines themselves as a Buddhist. As Most said after a recent informal meditation sit at the Interdependence Project, "Philosophically, Buddhism doesn't demand that you choose, like other traditions. You don't have to do anything with Buddhism except let it resonate in your life. It manifests in non-Buddhist ways in the culture, like being vegan or anti-war."

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