Living the enlightened life
By Tony Chiorazzi, The Daily Trojan, March 24, 2005
Buddhist students at USC find purpose, peace and meditation, aided by a Sri Lankan monk.
California, USA -- They sit silently and cross-legged in a circle. The room is dimly lit and all eyes are closed. The time is 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night in Room 205 of the University Religious Center, and 11 members of the USC Buddhist Association are in the middle of their weekly meditation session.
<< Reflection. The USC Buddhist Association meets weekly at the University Religious Center. Part of their meetings is dedicated to meditation, but the meetings begin with a discussion about Buddhist teachings, led by the Ven. Muruthamure Pannaloka.
Media Credit: Henry Hsu | Daily Trojan
"This form of meditation is called vipassana or insight meditation," said the Ven. Muruthamure Pannaloka, Buddhist religious director of USC. "Vipassana meditation is very powerful because it makes you look inside yourself." And, Pannaloka said, looking inside ourselves can be one of the scariest things we can do because of what we'll find: racing thoughts, unsettled emotions and plenty of negativity.
Still, there is a solution.
"Meditation is the best way to obtain happiness," he said. "Buddha taught us you can't get happiness by simply satisfying the senses. You can only get happiness by purifying the mind - to purify the mind you have to practice meditation."
The USC Buddhist Association
The UBA describes itself as an organization that serves "as a meeting place for Buddhist students, staff and faculty from all traditions and sects, both Asian and Western ... and for friends and students of Buddhism and Asian cultures." Apart from weekly teaching and meditation meetings, some of the other activities that the club sponsors include camping trips and organized visits to Buddhist temples in Los Angeles. The biggest event of the year is the upcoming celebration of Buddha's birthday on May 1.
"Buddha's birthday is the most sacred and holiest day of the year for Buddhists," Pannaloka said. Buddha's birthday celebration, which brought more than 250 partiers last year, will be held in Culver City. All are welcome - Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. The event will include speeches by Buddhist monks, cultural dancing, singing and chanting. Transportation from USC to the event will also be provided.
"The fact that USC even has a Buddhist Association is one of its best-kept secrets," said Phebe Greenwood, a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering. "I have run into so many Buddhists here who don't even know that there is a Buddhist community on campus."
Greenwood, who came from a non-religious background, first found herself drawn to Buddhism after reading the "Dhammapada" (a book of Buddhist sayings). She said that after reading the book something just clicked, and she knew Buddhism was right for her.
"I realized that everything I was reading in the 'Dhammapada' was already similar to something that I had experienced for myself," she said.
One of the most important lessons Greenwood said she has learned from Buddhism is to ask "the bigger questions such as 'who am I' and 'why am I here?'" she said. "You can't learn that in college or even from a philosophy course ... you learn that from a religion."
One of the most powerful forms of meditation that the UBA practices is called loving-kindness.
"Loving-kindness meditation is where you envision yourself thinking very warm, loving thoughts to your own person," said John Maxwell, a senior majoring in art history and president of UBA. "Then expand that thinking to everyone in the room and then expand it to all the life forces in the building, and keep on expanding to the entire campus. You expand it to all of L.A., to all of California, to the entire United States and then the entire world."
Maxwell said that part of the power of Buddhism is that it realizes how influential thoughts can be.
"In Buddhism, if you can imagine something in your mind, you are that much closer to making it really happen, and that is a part of what the loving-kindness meditation is all about," he said.
Meditation is also something that Wyatt Fenner, a sophomore theater major with an emphasis in acting, finds valuable about Buddhism.
"Meditation is a real experience for me," Fenner said. "I was raised Catholic, and I never had a sort of mind-body experience in Catholicism like I have had during meditation sessions with the Buddhist Association."
Fenner said what he has learned from Buddhism is how to calm his mind and control negative thoughts.
"Buddhism really allows you to take a step from outside forces that might be affecting you in your daily life and kind of realize that you control your mind, thoughts and feelings, and if you don't like them, you can change them," he said.
Buddhism, God and salvation
Do Buddhists believe in God?
"If by that question, one means the popular, Western concept of a creator 'God,' then in that sense, we don't accept God," Pannaloka said. "But we have deities or demigods, and they do have limited spiritual or supernatural powers and can protect or help people in different ways, but a demigod is nothing like the God of the West," he said.
In Buddhism, there is no savior.
"Your salvation is up to you. If you do bad things, you will get bad things. If you get good things, you will get good things. Therefore, unlike other religions, we don't have so much forgiveness," Pannaloka said.
If Buddhism doesn't believe in God or salvation, then how can Buddhism still be thought of as a religion?
"Because like all religions, Buddhism gives people who practice it a way of finding answers to the deeper questions of life, such as 'who am I' or 'what is the meaning of life?'," Jonathan Landaw and Stephan Bodian wrote in "Buddhism for Dummies."
Challenges and Misconceptions
One common misconception about Buddhism, Pannaloka and Maxwell said, is that Buddhists pray to the statue of Buddha.
"We don't pray to the statue of Buddha; we don't even pray to Buddha," Maxwell said. "When we bow or sit in front of the Buddha, we do this out of respect and to pay honor to him."
Maxwell said Buddha represents a human ideal for Buddhists. He was a man who went through many physical and mental ordeals to be able to finally gain enlightenment. Maxwell said by sitting in front of the Buddha and contemplating his feats, Buddhists strive to emulate and realize his same successes.
Another important misconception about Buddhism, particularly among many Americans, is that Buddhism is simply about meditation, said Lori Meeks, professor of religion. For most Buddhists, meditation is just one part of being a Buddhist. Meditation for the majority of Buddhists is about using it as "a vehicle through which they can detach themselves from desire or internalize Buddhist truths, like that of emptiness. Meditation is not about releasing stress," Meeks said.
So what is the future of Buddhism at USC?
"That rests with the people who are involved," said Andrew Zaw, a graduate student in public health and UBA member. Zaw said that one Buddhist teacher once taught that one day even Buddhism would run its course and fade away.
"None of the other religions ever taught their religion would one day fade away because that would be too dangerous, but that's the truth; that's life," Zaw said.
The reality for Zaw is that if students at USC are not interested, then Buddhism will fade away, but if students are interested, then Buddhism will survive. So, does that mean that the future of Buddhism at USC has a fair chance of continuing to thrive?
"Nothing is certain," he said.