Buddhists prepare for Dalai Lama's Toronto arrival

by Stuart Laidlaw, Toronto Star, Oct 28, 2007

He will speak on the Art of Happiness

Toronto, Canada -- One night about a month ago, as his wife and two young children slept, a burglar broke into Paul Ramses's Toronto home. He awoke immediately and full of fury, he yelled and screamed and chased the intruder from his home.

And then, ever the Buddhist, he calmed down.

"I hoped I hadn't scared him too much," the 45-year-old says now. "That response surprised even me."

He's been thinking about that incident a lot lately as he prepares for the visit of his spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to Canada this week – including a stop in Toronto Tuesday and Wednesday. The visit will complete a multi-country tour that has taken the Dalai Lama to the United States, Europe and Australia.

A public meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this month led to warnings from China that relations between the countries have been damaged, and reports of arrests in Tibet.

China, which invaded Tibet shortly after the 1949 revolution, considers the Dalai Lama a separatist. A similar public meeting is planned with Prime Minister Stephen Harper while the Dalai Lama is in Ottawa next Sunday and Monday.

This Wednesday, the Dalai Lama will speak about the Art of Happiness at a public event at the Roger's Centre.

It's a message Ramses is looking forward to hearing. Since beginning his conversion to Tibetan Buddhism 15 years ago, he has tried to live up to Buddhist teachings about finding happiness by making others happy, and feeling compassion towards others, including enemies.

"That's what I will try to take away from this," says Ramses, who expresses his faith more through the way he treats others than prayer or meditation.

That emphasis on leading a better life is what attracts many North Americans to Buddhism, says Frances Garrett, an assistant professor in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Toronto. The Dalai Lama, she says, has led by example.

"The Dalai Lama has had a big role in popularizing Buddhism in North America," Garrett says.

In fact, the Dalai Lama will find in Canada a burgeoning Buddhist community still trying to find its footing in Western culture.

While only five per cent of the population identify as Buddhist, it is one of Canada's fastest growing religions and has found its way into popular culture. Several entertainers identify as Buddhist, and the Dalai Lama himself has been referenced in several movies – mostly as a source of irony.

In the comedy classic Caddyshack, Bill Murray says he once caddied for His Holiness in the Himalayas, and was given life advice in lieu of a tip. The gag only works because people know the Dalai Lama, so find humour in the idea of him golfing – and stiffing his caddy.

But Buddhism hasn't infused the day-to-day culture in the same way, Buddhist scholar Clark Strand says, and it has him worried about the future of the faith in North America.

"Boomer Buddhists" have taken to the faith's practices like meditation, he says, as a tool for meeting their own needs – such as stress relief or as an antidote to the materialism they see all around them. Many picked up Buddhism in the hippie days of the 1960s and '70s.

But despite identifying as Buddhist, Strand says most such converts revert back to the faiths they grew up with when it comes to marriage, funerals or welcoming a baby into the world. "Buddhism has a tough time taking root in the hard religious soil of this country," says Strand, who founded a Buddhist monastery in Manhattan before moving his family to Woodstock, N.Y., a decade ago.

Strand converted to Buddhism in the early 1970s after growing up Presbyterian. He now leads a Buddhist Bible Study group in Woodstock, where converts re-read the Bible of their childhood – this time through Buddhist eyes.

The idea, he says, is to "graft Buddhism onto the rootstock of American culture."

Without such infusion, he warns, Buddhism risks being more of a "self-help program" than a true religion that influences all aspects of people's lives and community.

For that to happen, he says, Buddhism – which originated in India 2,500 years ago – must become more a part of the birth, marriage and death rituals many associate with religion.

"It's hard for people to make the leap completely to Buddhism as long as it does not have those kinds of ceremonies in place – and they don't, really, for the most part, in this country," he says.

Buddhism's emphasis on personal enlightenment, rather than faith in an all-powerful deity, has already found its way into some modern Christian religious thinking.

Tom Harpur, a former Anglican priest and author, has gone so far as to say that Jesus should not be seen as the literal son of God, but as a Buddha-type figure – an ordinary man who became divine by shedding himself of the desires and jealousies that limit human potential — that all people can aspire to be.

"There are some very important parallels," Harpur said in an interview. "We have much in common."

Harpur, who has met the Dalai Lama, says the most remarkable thing about him is that despite all he has been through – exile, persecution and demonizing at the hands of the Chinese government – he remains a compassionate and caring man, even toward his detractors.

"That's what's compelling about him," Harpur says. "He doesn't just talk about compassion, he lives it."