Buddhists retreat for celebration

By CHRISTIE BLECK, The Towne Courier, July 31, 2005

PERRY, MI (USA) -- Practicing Buddhism can be accomplished anywhere, but the rural setting, nature trails, meadows and woods in a remote part of Perry, however, create a tranquil retreat for those practicing the ancient religion.

It was at the Dhammasala Forest Monastery Meditation and Retreat Center on Beardslee Road where local Buddhists met July 23 to celebrate Asalha Puja, the celebration of the Buddha's first talk after he achieved enlightenment, and the Rains Retreat, which marked the beginning of a three-month period of intense retreat, meditation and teaching.

Terry Terry of the Lansing communications-media firm Message Makers, who also is president of the Dhammasala layperson board of directors, practices Buddhism, which, he said, has gotten him through some "tough stuff."

In Buddhism, Terry said, followers are taught that unhappiness comes from wanting things to stay the same.

"This is the way things are, and this is the way the universe is," he said. "Deal with it."

Buddhism gives practitioners a unique way to deal with change: meditation, which can be a little difficult, he said.

"You try holding the same thought for five minutes," Terry said. "Good luck."

The roots of Buddhism can be traced to Siddhattha Gotama, a prince who lived 2,500 years ago in northern India. He became known as "Buddha," or "the awakened one."

Followers say the goal of Buddhism is to attain purification of the mind through virtue, concentration and wisdom. The religion has Four Noble Truths, Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path. When a person reaches the goal, called Nibbana, he or she achieves freedom from greed, hatred and delusion.

One of the monks at Dhammasala is Khemasanto, 58, a former Midland resident with a pleasant demeanor who always wears a brown robe, the basic Buddhist monk attire. He greeted visitors at the July 23 celebration and talked about his religion in the monastery temple, which houses a shrine to Buddha and is what Khemasanto called "a monument to remember the teacher by."

(Before entering the temple, a visitor must remove his or her shoes. In proper monk etiquette, visitors aren't allowed to shake a monk's hands or sit with their feet pointed at a monk.)

Khemasanto enjoys the peace at the remote 26-acre monastery. Born Catholic, he said it is difficult to say why he became a Buddhist.

"That's a hard question," he said. "That's something you don't know, really. I was attracted to it when I was very young."

Khemasanto said he doesn't mind the spartan lifestyle of a monk, who isn't allowed to drive or cook (monks rely completely on food offerings), nor does he miss worldly pleasures. "The more you do without, the freer you are," he said.

Although the grounds at Dhammasala are beautiful on a warm, sunny summer's day, Khemasanto said he also enjoys the beautiful view during the cold winter months. (This is when he and the other monks are allowed to wear boots, for obvious reasons.)

Khemasanto teaches meditation, chants, receives visitors and talks to groups.

"It's a real simple life, and a very happy life," he said.

Khemasanto said a prospective monk must undergo a "monk boot camp."

"For some people, it's too quiet," he said of the monk life. "They get lonely for movies, friends, running around."

A monk, Khemasanto said, has to be patient, learn to endure hardship and overcome wanting. Overcoming the desire for goods is something he's achieved, he said, which simplifies his life: There are fewer things to change or fix.

"The less you get, the less you want," he said.

At the Asalha Puja event following precepts and chanting, visitors brought dishes consisting of meat, shrimp and vegetables plus desserts for the monks in the temple, who ate first.

One of those in attendance was Chiung Cheng of Taiwan, who lives in East Lansing.

"It's very fundamental, Buddhism," Cheng said. "Like, nothing added."

Cheng learned to meditate at Dhammasala. "It all helps you focus your mind," she said.

For Cheng, meditation also has its practical side.

"The calm you obtain will have a feedback in your life," she said.