Buddhists take relaxed posture toward growing interest

By Debra Duncan, VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH, January 21, 2007

Pittsburgh, MN (USA) -- The small white house along Route 908 in Harrison Township, Allegheny County, looks like any other home in the area except for the pure white Buddha statue standing against a bright red curtain visible through the front picture window.

This is the Pittsburgh Buddhist Center, which opened in September.

Resident Monk Nehinne Ariyagnana, a Sri Lankan native, greets a visitor at the front door in a traditional long orange robe. He is addressed as Bhante, a title of respect given a chief monk.

Ananda Gunawardena, of Wexford, Allegheny County, who is also from Sri Lanka, translates for Bhante, who is still learning to speak English. An associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Gunawardena and his wife moved to Pittsburgh eight years ago from Houston.

Buddhism is the world of peace and quiet.

Bhante said he believes Buddhism is growing among Americans, who are drawn by the power of meditation to counter stressful lifestyles. It is estimated that there are 3 million Buddhists in the U.S.

Bhante began making monthly visits to followers in Pittsburgh last year from his station at a Breezewood temple, meeting with his followers in a place loaned to them from a group of Vietnamese Buddhists who meet in the Waterfront area.

Bhante came to believe that the 70 families from Sri Lanka in the Pittsburgh could benefit from his guidance. The house in Harrison Township was purchased through two donors from Altoona. Bhante now meets with a diversity of the local population, from Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh students to the engineers and scientists working for Westinghouse or at high-tech companies.

Buddhism is the primary religion in Sri Lanka, an island off the southern tip of India. The Harrison house is the first temple in Western Pennsylvania of the Theravada branch, which is also popular in Nepal, Thailand, Burma and Laos. It is the oldest branch of Buddhism, which is the fourth largest religion in the world.

Zen Buddhists, who have a temple in Sewickley, are a more modern branch and are found in China and Japan. The Dalai Lama, one of the best known Buddhists because he often travels in the United States, is an exiled leader from Tibet.

Buddha means enlightened one.

It was Siddhartha Gautama, of northern India, born in 560 B.C., who founded the religion and became the supreme Buddha.

As a young man, he began his search for universal truths about life and death and for ways to avoid suffering and find happiness. He rejected material wealth and sensual pleasures. Later in life, the religion teaches, he came to an enlightened state.

In order to achieve happiness in their lives, they try to eliminate all conflict. They strive to think positive thoughts about others, eliminating jealousy and envy, and try not to harm any living creature. Monks begin 10 years of training at the age of 12.

Buddhists believe that humans are reborn after death until they obtain a state of Nirvana, where there is no longer any suffering and no need to be reborn.

If they have lived a good life, then they are reborn into a higher level, which brings better health or wealth, perhaps. If they have lived a bad life, they might come back as snakes.

Meditation is a linchpin of Buddhism. It helps to relax the mind and focus on what is important, believers say.

Wednesday night was a weekly meditation meeting at the center. Dan Rihn, of Tarentum, and Mike O'Brien, of Shaler, participated along with the two resident monks and Gunawardena.

Bhante and the other resident monk at the center, Kamburupitiye Munindawansa, kneel and bow low to the floor before the Buddha statue. They chant and sing. The other participants sit on pillows on the floor, legs crossed and hands together. They listen to a CD, where a soothing speaker talks of loving others and yourself -- and not feeling guilty. After all, to err is human, they said.

Rihn learned about Buddhism while serving in Vietnam and has attended other Buddhist temples in Pittsburgh.

"I've studied Buddhism, so this is great having them here," Rihn said.

O'Brien found the center on the Internet. He previously attended an Oakland Tibetan Buddhist center.

Buddhists are a peaceful, loving community, O'Brien said.

For Rihn, there is no mystery behind what draws him to the Buddhist way.

"The meditation helps settle me, it helps you focus and control your mind."

The local temple's weekly meditation sessions and monthly discussions on Buddhism by scholars and speakers are open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.pittsburghbuddhistcenter.org/