A reason to breathe

by Meredith Heagney, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH, June 20, 2008

Many people who convert to Buddhism are attracted to its peaceful, meditative practices

Columbus, Ohio (USA) -- Julie Henderson barely has time to breathe. She spends 32 hours a week in class and clinical settings as a student at the Mount Carmel College of Nursing. She puts in another 24 hours as a nursing aide at Mount Carmel St. Ann's hospital. Henderson has to study, too.

<< Julie Henderson, left, meditates at Karma Thegsum Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in Franklinton. She said Buddhism helps her focus amid a hectic schedule.

And the 32-year-old Hilliard woman is the mother of two boys, ages 2 and 4.

So she picked up something that forces her to breathe. She discovered Buddhism.

"It just gives me a calm and peacefulness," she said. "A confidence in knowing I'm doing what is right."

Nearly three of four American Buddhists are converts to the religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The Buddhism boom started in the 1960s, when people questioned traditional sources of authority and looked to new places to make meaning of life, said Liz Wilson, department chairwoman of comparative religion at Miami University.

A lot of Americans consider Buddhist practices an add-on to another faith, Wilson said. The Pew survey found that less than 1 percent of adult Americans identify themselves as Buddhist.

The Buddhist community has grown because the religion speaks to people's emotional needs and offers peace of mind in a world lacking stability, said Lama Kathy Wesley, resident teacher at Columbus Karma Thegsum Choling, the Tibetan Buddhist center in Franklinton.

In 1977, when the center opened, there were only a handful of Buddhist groups in central Ohio, Wesley said. Today, there are 17. This year, the community launched a Web site, buddhismcentralohio.org, to provide a list of groups and an explanation of different traditions.

Different Buddhists have different motivations, Wesley said. Some consider Buddhism a philosophy, rather than a religion, and focus on its self-help or stress-management qualities.

Others are more religious in their practice, looking to the life of the Buddha for inspiration in how to live their own lives. Many Buddhists have shrines in their homes to the Buddha, Wesley said.

Stan Keely of the Northeast Side is one of those Buddhists. His multi-tiered living room shrine includes incense, candles and a bowl of rice. It's an offering to all beings, he said.

A crystal ball is included to symbolize reflection and self-examination. If the ball is shown wisdom, it will reflect that; if it is shown anger, it will reflect that, too.

Keely, 63, normally spends an hour a day meditating in front of the shrine, keeping his focus on his breath. The retired medical researcher reads books written by Buddhist teachers and goes to the Shambhala Meditation Group of Columbus on Sundays for group meditation.

He's been on three month-long retreats, one in Vermont and two in Colorado, to hear teachings about Buddhism and meditate on mountains.

After a lifetime of spiritual searching and a couple of near-death experiences, Keely realized Buddhism fit him best. He grew up a fundamentalist Christian.

Buddhism has made him more aware, he said, and more sensitive to the suffering of others. In the past, he could be quick to anger, he said, but Buddhism trains you to work against knee-jerk reactions to life's events, good or bad.

"I think I see things a bit more clearly than I used to," he said. "I think I'm more patient."

Henderson, who was raised Lutheran, has been turned off by what she called the judgmental elements of Christianity. She credits Buddhist meditation with easing much of the stress in her life.

She hopes to raise her two young sons as Buddhists. Her husband is an atheist, she said.

One of her favorite practices is Chenrezig meditation. Chenrezig is a being that lived for the benefit of others. Henderson sits in a half-lotus and visualizes herself as Chenrezig, believing that his love, kindness and compassion will rub off on her.

Not bad qualities in a nurse-to-be, she figures.

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