Faces of Buddhism

Tucson is becoming a hotbed of Buddhist activity. Is the religion's popularity a significant trend or just a passing fad?

Part-time Tucsonan John Brady has made a habit out of trekking on foot up steep mountainsides and bouncing around SUVs on rugged dirt roads in the Himalayas, battling harsh conditions and struggling with language along the way.

He does all of this while searching for sacred Buddhist books called pechas. In Ladakh, the northeast region of India bordering Tibet, he's found some. They're at Lamayuru, a spectacular Buddhist monastery built in the 10th century at an altitude of 12,000 feet.

The great mahasiddha (mystic) Naropa is said to have meditated here, possibly reading or writing the Kangyur, as some of these pechas are called, which contain the actual words of the Buddha; or perhaps the Tengyur, those pechas that possess commentaries.

Some are oddly shaped books, 4 by 20 inches, often covered in dust; many are crumbling. Some are just plates of script, carved out of wooden blocks, or written in pure gold or charcoal ink, on palm leaves and rice paper stacked together.

Inside this storehouse of knowledge--knowledge that many Tibetan lamas claim offers the potential to change the world--are lines like the "Eight Verses for Developing the Good Heart," written 1,000 years ago by Dorje Senge of Langri Tang. It's translated into English as:

May I think of every living being
As more precious than a wish-giving gem
For reaching the ultimate goal,
And so always hold them dear.

When I'm with another, wherever we are,
May I see myself as the lowest.
May I hold the other as the highest,
From the bottom of my heart.

As I go through the day may I watch my mind,
To see if a negative thought has come;
If it does may I stop it right there, with force,
Since it hurts myself and others.

The goal of Brady--as executive director of the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP)--is to give the world access to these works. ACIP is a nonprofit organization started by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Geshe Michael Roach, who calls the Tucson area home, for the purpose of digitally preserving and disseminating ancient Tibetan, Sanskrit and Yogic manuscripts. ACIP employs nearly 100 monks, nuns, university students and Tibetan refugees throughout India, Mongolia and New York City. To date, they have transcribed more than 450,000 pages from nearly 5,000 separate works.

Dressed in saffron and yellow ocher robes, guys with names like Tenzing Dakden and Ngawang Namgyal sit in computer centers at Sera Mey Tibetan Monastery (where Roach trained) in Mysore, India, and at similar monasteries and refugee-settlement camps, where they feverishly transliterate and input the complex Tibetan fonts and language into English.

"These texts, some dating as far back as the ninth century, include rare works by several early Dalai Lamas," says Brady, who claims that his studies of these texts have changed his life. "They're scattered all over the world, mostly in monasteries in Tibet, Nepal and India, or hidden in private collections somewhere. We've made them available free to anyone who wants them."

Brady says that he worked in the corporate world for 20 years until a decade ago, even creating the gift-with-purchase program during the Christmas season for Estée Lauder cosmetics.

"The idea of making a direct, positive contribution to society was certainly missing with what I was doing. ... (It was a) very lucrative business, but definitely contributing to the problem environmentally and in other ways. I quit my job to run ACIP and have never looked back. The levels of reward in my universe are extraordinary."

Brady and his bunch of keyboarding monks, however, are not the only ones who have responded to Buddhism's teachings in this way. Ever since Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, left the comfort of a princely life to unravel the causes of suffering 2,500 years ago, millions of people have made use of these works to create a different reality for themselves and to address issues, from poverty to war. Roach, a Princeton-educated scholar who grew up in Phoenix, embarked on this spiritual path, immersing himself in the texts to make sense of why his mother, father and brother died. After more than two decades of study and retreat in India, he re-engaged the world, starting numerous projects in New York City--including ACIP--before coming to Southern Arizona.

The information--positing that there is a way to be free from suffering--has proved powerful enough to catapult Buddhism into the mainstream, even though the latest U.S. Census information puts the percentage of documented Buddhists in the country at only 0.5 percent. But the true numbers are shrouded in mystery: There's no centralized authority with which to register as a Buddhist, and most information is derived from anonymous respondents who self-identify in sample polls.

The wheels of the Buddhist bandwagon were engaged after some of America's hottest personalities, including Richard Gere, became students of the Dalai Lama in the early '80s. Even Lisa Simpson declared she was Buddhist in an episode of The Simpsons, and Steven Seagal was recognized as a reincarnated meditation master by a Tibetan high lama. Many people in both the academic and Buddhist communities have continued to question whether Buddhism's extended "coming out" in the West during the past 50 years is a true spiritual trend, or merely a fad.

Whether it's all a trend or a fad, in Tucson, talks by Roach have packed venues, and his Holiness the Dalai Lama has visited the city twice--in 1993 and 2005.

Venerable Sumati Marut (aka Brian Smith) is sitting cross-legged on a round, black cushion placed front and center at a midtown yoga studio. The attractive Westerner just completed a two-hour talk on patience with a dozen attentive students.

The 50-something retired from his job as a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside to take up the robes of a monk, choosing Tucson as his home base to be near Roach. He gives talks around the country and is attracting a following in his own right.

Marut says the countercultural history of Tucson and the starkness of the desert environment are some of the conditions that may have fostered Buddhism's growth here. After all, many spiritual traditions have sprung from the desert.

Jim Dey, a friend of mine who is a high-tech transplant from Santa Cruz, Calif., eagerly arrived in Tucson to help spread Roach's angle on Buddhism by donating his labor to build a retreat center and university, called Diamond Mountain (DM), on 1,000 acres of wilderness in Bowie. True to the guru tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, Dey wanted to be physically close to Roach while immersing himself deeper in the mind practice. He is one of at least three dozen people who claim to have recently moved to Tucson to study under Roach, with the eventual goal of becoming teachers themselves.

"It was a carrot-and-a-stick thing: I couldn't support my family in California with the price of housing there, so I came here to help caretake DM and attend classes."

Dey says Buddhism is "not as mystical as one might think. Buddhism gives you 100 percent responsibility for what happens to you, for your own happiness. If you and the world around you don't feel significantly better, if you're not happier and more sane, then you're missing something. That should be true for any path and/or religion that you're on."

Dey admits he'd like to be a "dharma bum," a term derived from the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name that's been used ever since the 1950s to describe the carefree lifestyle of those pursuing truth through the study of Buddhist teachings.

But Dey is not a bum. He's an administrative "temp" who lives "frugally," unlike monastics, who traditionally rely on "dana"--the financial generosity of others--to support themselves. But with the lower cost of living in Tucson, Dey asserts he doesn't need much to live on, giving him the flexibility that he needs to be a dharma bum part-time until the right conditions gel.

"Would Neo want to be plugged back into the Matrix?" Dey asks. "Once you've seen for yourself that most of what you've been taught about finding happiness is false, you can't go back and pretend everything will be OK."

Dey's wife, Allison, has opened a Buddhist gift shop and spiritual community center on Sixth Street called Three Jewels. Even though it exists independently from DM, the center serves as a portal to link people to Roach's programs. Next to the children's toys, yoga mats and books about the life of the Buddha, you'll find 18 study courses designed by the controversial Roach sitting prominently on shelves in the lending library--they were formed mainly around the texts Brady helped extract. The mini-fridge a few feet away is stocked with fruit juice and sodas. Coffee and tea are always available for free as a way to entice the public to stop by. Whatever gets dropped into the plastic donation jar pays the rent and overhead.

Three mornings a week and on Monday afternoons, a handful of people arrive to engage in zazen (silent sitting) and walking meditation with Urban Zendo, a nonsectarian meditation group that was formed by local Zen students living downtown--myself included--to support Three Jewels. In the past six months, less than a handful of people have consistently shown up, but the group continues to meet anyway, having now formed the loose notion of a "sangha," or another Buddhist practice community.

A few are members of the Zen Desert Sangha (ZDS), located on Martin Street off of Fort Lowell Road. One of Tucson's oldest continual formal Buddhist centers, ZDS celebrated its 25th birthday in May.

The "Roshi" or "old master" at ZDS is a small, gray-haired man wearing black slacks with Birkenstocks and oversized glasses. You'd never guess that Roshi Pat Hawk was both a Zen master and a Roman Catholic priest. He became familiar with Zen when it gained popularity in the United States during the 1950s, thanks to the beat poets Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, who encountered it through the writings of Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki. Roshi Hawk started teaching at ZDS in 1988 when the individuals who founded it asked that he guide them. He says Buddhists benefit from an active, engaged community.

"People practicing Buddhism need to be surrounded by support so they don't go off the deep end, especially now that meditative traditions in the West have been taken over by psychology," he says. "That support has to be somebody competent who has gone through transformation themselves so they know when to push and when to back off, because it is a very difficult path and not at all attractive or colorful."

Hawk notes ZDS is continuing to grow, albeit slowly, for the same reason Marut mentions: People are trying to make sense of their lives in a world full of conflict, poverty and environmental devastation.

As popular as Buddhism is, Hawk feels it's not necessarily an indicator that Buddhism is alive and well. The core group of students who are referred to as "members" at ZDS has held steadily at about 30, even though the mailing list is much longer. Just a fraction of the people exposed enter into the monastic life or take it on as a layperson. Hawk has Christian and Jewish students who study Buddhism but aren't necessarily giving up or changing their primary religion. Neither is Hawk. This classification ambiguity contributes to the difficulty in gathering statistics about whether Buddhism is actually spreading, or if it's just more visible.

Hawk says the important thing is to "be on the 'Way' and not sit down under an exclusive street sign," considering that the traditional Buddhist cocktail of intense study and meditation doesn't mix with the busy, independent American personality.

"If the form of the practice doesn't hold together--meaning if Buddhism tries too hard to accommodate American needs, like getting rid of devotional practices, rituals and the tradition of working with a teacher--it will lose its fundamental purpose," Hawk asserts.

He sounds a bit contradictory, but on one level, he has captured the essence of a Zen koan--stories, statements or dialogues that demand you abandon logic to figure stuff out for yourself.

The ethnic Buddhist community in the U.S. views the survival of the dharma (the basic rules underlying life and existence) in a more pragmatic way. Lan Nguyen arrived in Tucson from Bac-Lien, a town south of Saigon, in 1980, along with dozens of other mostly Buddhist refugees from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. She's standing in front of a market near Grant Road and Stone Avenue with about 15 other women, children and men.

Each is holding a bag or shopping cart full of bananas, cookies, cans of Coke and Asian pears to give "alms" or "offerings" to the 30 barefoot and golden-robed Vietnamese monks and nuns who are circling the building to mark the occasion of the Buddha's birthday in May. Only two attendees speak English, and all are associated with the ornately decorated Minh Dang Quang Buddhist temple just off of Oracle Road, where on Sundays, Nguyen attends services spoken in Vietnamese.

"I heard about this group from other Vietnamese in California. Otherwise, there wouldn't be anything here. (Word of mouth) is how many people found out about it, which is good, because it is a place to go and learn how to be a good person," she says.

Sister Thich Nu Lien Thuy, a resident nun, feels the temple uniquely provides for the refugees and ethnic Buddhists from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia who have relocated to Tucson. The need is so great, her group has opened several other temples in Phoenix and Chandler, where 400 people have come to events. (One of the Buddhist temples in Phoenix's west valley also has the dubious distinction of being the site of Arizona's worst mass murder. In 1991, two rampaging teenagers killed nine people at Wat Promkunaram in Waddell.)

Sister Thuy is young, with a round face and shaved head. She directs a handful of nuns to gather the fruit and alms that will be offered in gratitude to all sentient beings during a ceremony in the shrine room. Most who are milling about the sparsely decorated kitchen, flooded with fluorescent lights, have similar stories about male family members being captured during the Vietnam War, or "re-educated" by the communist government after the conflict's completion.

Finding refuge in Buddhist teachings and scriptures advocating forgiveness and inner peace was the only way to survive the difficulties, she says. Smiling, Thuy shares a piece of her story.

"When I was 13 years old, my father was taken away by communist troops. They told us he would be back in two weeks, but he wasn't. I prayed every night for his return and said I would become a Buddhist nun if he did. He showed up eight years later, and he agreed that that's what I should do."

She applied for and was granted a religious-worker passport in the mid-'80s to serve the Vietnamese refugees who landed in the United States. Friends and neighbors chipped in to pay the fee.

"When people came to this country, they got physical help relocating, but there wasn't anyone or any place to go to address their spiritual needs. (Now if) they have a problem with alcohol or anger, or their kids get into mischief, they know they can come here, and we calm them down and teach them to have respect for their parents and grandparents. Sometimes, they just need someone to talk to who can understand what they're going through."

The temple recently began offering an early Sunday service in English for Westerners, to be more inclusive. People from the temple regularly visit nursing homes and prisons to serve people who cannot come to them. Dao Chuan, a 71-year-old Western monk from the temple, is the on-call Buddhist chaplain at Northwest Medical Center, Tucson Medical Center and Tucson Heart Hospital. He recently performed a "refuge" ceremony for seven inmates, at the Arizona State Prison Complex on South Wilmot Road, who officially wanted to enter the Buddhist path. He's even on the agenda to give the invocation at the Tucson City Council meeting in July--city officials said the Buddhist invocation will be the first in years, if not ever--with a representative from a different Buddhist group scheduled to do so in September.

Unofficially, there are now more than 20 different Buddhist groups in Tucson alone. The configurations seem endless.

On a Sunday afternoon, a tall, stout man in a white shirt and blue jeans sits at small, square table at Bentley's on Speedway Boulevard. He's sketching a design for a "stupa," a sacred monument that houses relics of enlightened teachers. There are way too many of these relics at his home, and he's likely to collect more by hanging out with people like the man sitting across from him, a visiting lama from Tibet wearing a red robe.

Cliff Leftwich, a former vice president of Pima Community College downtown, has been practicing Buddhism for more than half of the 37-year-old Khenchen Prachhimba Dorjee Rinpoche's life.

Rinpoche (meaning "precious one," a formal address to a high lama) barely speaks English, but he has come directly to Tucson from his monastery in Kham, Tibet, to support the work of Leftwich, who helped establish Dharmakirti College, a scholastic practice and teaching center in the Drikung Kagyu and Rimé tradition. It's not affiliated with Diamond Mountain or Roach. It's existed like a "terma," or hidden teaching, since the mid-1990s, but was formally incorporated in 2000.

With a wide smile under his long, black goatee, Rinpoche playfully switches the pointed felt hat he's wearing from the yellow side to the red. He does it, he says, "to keep the knowledge inside my head and to remember my teacher." In between jesting, he chants from a book he's written--a memory of a previous incarnation of himself as Padma Dagnag Lingpa, a high Rinpoche who can be traced back to being a disciple of Padmasambhava, credited with bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet in the ninth century.

Having resided in Tucson for one year now, Rinpoche wants to pass on as much information as possible, because he feels Buddhism may not survive as a living spiritual tradition, even though organizations like ACIP are working to preserve its history.

His concern, Leftwich says, is real. Rinpoche's predecessor died in his late 30s, and Rinpoche wonders: If he, too, were to die early, who would do the work he's doing?

"The problem is that good and bad things are mixed, and it takes a lot of wisdom and compassion to find the right path in the midst of it," Rinpoche says. "... It takes a very good heart and sincere motivation to help sentient beings. ... If there were sufficient enough people with these qualities ... the difficulties would change--there would be more peace and less conflict in the world."

If you peruse the bulletin boards at coffee shops and other dharma-friendly vortices like the yoga studios throughout the city, you'll see seductive fliers for offerings ranging from "Overcoming Anger" to "Meditation for Drunks, Rock Stars and the Rest of Us." All are programs sponsored by various Buddhist groups who at their core are using the same information contained in the texts John Brady has been working to preserve.

Brady is in Asia working to save the original messages that could assist in saving and spreading Buddhism in the West, but a teaching revealed by the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche--the Tibetan most credited with paving the way for Buddhism in the United States--posits that Buddhism will eventually die out. He claimed a degenerate or dark force will arrive, and the teachings, teachers and dharma seekers will be adulterated for personal gain and power.

Khenchen Prachhimba Dorjee Rinpoche says he doesn't think Chogyam Trungpa was far off.