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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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Dairyland Dharma
Madison's Buddhist community is small but vibrant, says our reporter, a former Presbyterian looking for inner peace
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Credit:Chris Roberts

On a snowy Friday evening, the softly lit, high-ceilinged sanctuary of the Madison Friends Meeting House is toasty warm.

A dozen casually dressed, middle-aged men and women have braved the weather and sit in a loose semicircle around a small, makeshift altar. On it are a candle, a vase of artificial flowers, a miniature statue of the Buddha and a photo of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist who is this group's inspiration and teacher.

The SnowFlower Buddha Sangha has been around for 18 years, but this is my first visit. A budding Buddhist myself, and a regular attendee of a different meditation group, I recently realized that I knew almost nothing about the wider Madison Buddhist community ' and very little about Buddhism itself.

So I began this (of necessity incomplete) sampling of the local scene. I was inspired by the upcoming visit of the Dalai Lama, who will arrive May 2 to visit the Deer Park Buddhist Center, in nearby Oregon. He'll also speak at the Kohl Center and offer classes at the Alliant Energy Center.

As I began reading about his life and philosophy, it became clear to me that the influence of this gentle monk transcends his role as exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. His visit here is a big deal, rather, because he embodies the love and compassion that is at the heart of all religions.

Compassion is not only a natural human inclination, the Dalai Lama says, but the source of our happiness. We are all interconnected, and our acts of kindness, love and justice ensure our own benefit and provide our deepest joys. Our own happiness arises, paradoxically, from placing the happiness of others before our own.

Okay, I wondered, but how does one find the inner resources ' the inner peace ' to actually live this way? Is there a place for Buddhism here in the West? In Madison?

At the SnowFlower Buddha Sangha meeting, we begin with a 25-minute sitting meditation. There are many ways to meditate, but I practice the way I have learned, attempting to focus attention on my breath. The idea is to quiet the mind and become aware of the constant arising and ceasing of thoughts and sensations ' to perceive things just as they are.

This is hard to do, because the mind is infinitely distractible, but by noticing my breath, I am sometimes able to catch up to the present moment. Oh, here it is. A little while later, when I realize my attention has wandered, I gently return to my breath. And again. And again.

Ringing bells indicate the end of the sit and the beginning of a walking meditation. We move in unison in a slow circle, shifting our inward concentration to our steps. After 15 minutes, more bells announce the beginning of a second 25-minute sit.

Afterwards Jim Roseberry, a quietly forceful man who has practiced Buddhism for 14 years, introduces the evening's topic of discussion: taking refuge in the Buddha. This, he explains, is the first of the Three Refuges, or foundations of Buddhism. The other two are the dharma, which translates as the truth of the way things are; and the sangha, which refers to followers of the path laid out by the Buddha.

The three refuges, basically, are the stuff you agree to accept as a Buddhist ' the wisdom, truth and virtue embodied in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

Roseberry, a Vietnam vet and teacher, admits that as an anti-authoritarian, he has a hard time with the idea of taking refuge in another person. 'But when I consider,' he says, 'that the refuge being spoken of refers to the Buddha-nature of love, compassion and understanding that exists inside all of us, I feel very drawn to the idea of finding refuge there.'

After Roseberry's remarks, a calm, unhurried discussion follows. Each speaker's words are preceded by a palms-together bow and are received without response.

Finally, we gather in a circle, seated on the floor, and briefly hold hands. I've never experienced a Buddhist practice that involves physical touch before, and I appreciate the closeness.

Afterwards I hear a few stories about Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's Center in France. Thich Nhat Hanh practices in the Mahayana tradition, sometimes called Northern Buddhism, which added to the original canon of the Buddha's own teachings. It is, in Roseberry's view, 'more active in the world' than the older, more conservative Theravada tradition, also called Southern Buddhism.

Like many Westerners, I originally came to meditation seeking inner peace at a time of personal crisis ' in my case, four months of clinical depression and anxiety that followed a long period of caring for my mother who had Alzheimer's.

From that depression, I learned one important thing: the source of my misery was my own obsessive, negative thoughts. Conversely, once I made the decision that, despite everything, I could be kind and loving toward myself, I began to heal. (Antidepressants, acupuncture and friends helped, also.)

During that time, a therapist taught me mindfulness meditation (also known as Vipassana or Insight meditation) as a tool for stress reduction. The Buddhist idea behind it ' that our minds create our reality ' jibed with my own experience.

But I was not in search of Buddhism when, a year and a half ago, I first began attending the weekly Sunday evening sits of the Madison Insight Meditation Group, which are held at the First Unitarian Society of Madison. I simply knew that meditation was good for me, and that group meditation worked best of all.

The Madison Insight group has been around for 12 years and practices in the Theravada tradition. Its teachers are meditation masters from Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, as well as Western lay or monastic teachers who studied with Asian masters.

Madison Insight's Sunday evening sits draw about 30-50 people on average, while the Tuesday group has 12-17.

Tuesday meetings take place at Jan and Norman Sheppard's Middleton house, whose front path is flanked by two stone statues of foo dogs, mythical gargoyle-like dogs of Asia who guard Buddhist temples. A four-foot statue of the Buddha stands by the door.

Inside, the house is elegant, spacious and tidy, and on one Tuesday evening, about a dozen of us are gathered in a loose circle in the meditation room, seated in straight-backed chairs or on meditation cushions known as zafus. Tonight's session begins with a brief chant in Pali ' the language first used to record the Buddha's teachings ' led by Jan Sheppard, a gracious, white-haired woman. During the 45-minute sit, I practice a kind of meditation known as metta, or loving kindness meditation, which is especially useful as an antidote for anger or anxiety.

I offer blessings ' for example, 'May I be happy and peaceful; May I be free of suffering' ' first to myself, then to a series of other people and finally to all living beings.

After a break, there is a discussion. Tonight we're talking about what drew us to Buddhism in the first place. Sheppard tells of observing the contrast between her father's and her brother's attitudes toward dying. Though both faced physically painful deaths, her father was fearful, while her brother responded with kindness, generosity and peace.

'It made me really know,' she says, 'that pain, aging and death are inevitable, but my response to them could be in my control.' She's referring to the Four Noble Truths, Buddhism's underlying principles that have to do with the universality of suffering, its cause, its cessation and the path leading to its cessation.

'When I discovered the First Noble Truth,' Sheppard says, 'which acknowledges suffering, I thought, 'Finally, here is a description of the way things really are.' And then the next Three Truths showed me what to do about it.'

For the most part, it seems, there is a separation between local Buddhist groups made up primarily of white Americans and those made up of Asians ' Taiwanese, Tibetans, Cambodians, Laotians, etc. ' practicing in their native languages.

The Buddhist temple at Deer Park, in Oregon, is an exception. Founded in 1975, Deer Park currently consists of the temples, one still under construction, plus two monastic residences, all built on a hill surrounded by 13 acres of woodland in rural Oregon. The center provides monastic training for resident monks and nuns as well as classes and outreach programs for the community.

Stepping inside the older temple on a recent Sunday morning, I gravitate to a spot in the back, behind rows of people ' a predominance of Caucasians, but also some Tibetans ' seated on cushions. A woman beside me asks if it's my first time, and when I nod, she hands me a red looseleaf notebook, telling me not to let it touch the ground.

The yellow walls are covered with colorful cloth paintings known as tangkas, and the high ceiling is painted blue. Up front, a gold Buddha sits inside a decorated pagoda. All around are prayer flags, candles, figurines and other iconography. A wall of windows faces a rural landscape.

We rise as several brightly robed nuns and a monk enter and make their way to the front. A young Tibetan monk leads a small, rotund, older monk in by the hand.

The older monk is Geshe Sopa, one of the Dalai Lama's teachers and the founder and spiritual director of this temple. He walks slowly ' toddles, actually ' and appears unimposingly small and round. But he has a kind of gravitas, and when he bows and smiles, the childlike joy on his face is something to behold.

Seating himself beneath a large picture of the young Dalai Lama, Geshe Sopa begins to chant, his voice deep and guttural. The nuns join in, adding a musicality to the sound. The man next to me tries as well, mumbling the Tibetan words printed in the red notebooks.

After the chanting, Geshe Sopa delivers the morning's dharma talk. Reading from the Buddha's teachings in Tibetan, then translating and expounding on them, he compares our spiritual ills ' of greed, aversion and delusion ' to physical sickness, and the Buddha's teachings to a doctor's medicine.

The cure has two parts, he explains, that work together. We must develop wisdom through meditation and study, and likewise accrue merit through our actions ' specifically by practicing charity, morality and patience.

At one point, Geshe Sopa struggles to pronounce the phrase 'super-mundane.' After questioning his audience and realizing he's been saying 'super mountain,' he ad-libs that 'all Tibetan mountains are super mountains.' Everyone laughs. 'The mountains here,' he adds with a sly smile, 'are small.'

On my way out of the temple, I pass a graceful structure of brick and stone, the unfinished new temple, not yet adorned with the many spiritually significant artworks planned for it when it opens next year.

Driving back to Madison with my friend Rita, who's been coming here for years, I'm surprised to hear her observe, without judgment, 'The longer I come here, the more I see the similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism.'

She's referring, in part, to a story Geshe Sopa related about a tenderhearted child prince who sacrifices himself to feed a starving lion and her cubs. Later, his spirit appears to reassure his parents that he is now in heaven.

I tell Rita I'm not a big believer in heaven, and she nods. Growing up Presbyterian, I add, I don't know much about Catholicism, and, of course, I quit the church decades ago.

But that's all fine. In my unlearned opinion, religions are not about icons or mystical stories, anyway; they're philosophies for ordinary life. What matters about Buddhism (and Christianity as well, if you ask me) is how its message of peace and compassion resonates ' or does not resonate ' in our daily actions.

My next visit is to the Madison Zen Center, a well-maintained, three-story, Victorian-style house in the Monroe Street neighborhood. Placing my shoes on a rack in the vestibule, I enter an open, uncluttered space.

The walls are white, the woodwork artful and polished. Around the corner is the meditation room, austere and empty except for a small altar and identical sets of thick, pillow-like mats topped by plump brown cushions that line three walls.

Zen comes out of the Mahayana school by way of China, Japan and Korea, and was the first Buddhist style to become popular in the West. The Madison Zen Center was founded in 1974 and follows the Japanese Zen tradition. It has no teacher of its own, but is affiliated with Rochester (N.Y.) Zen Center, whose abbot comes several times a year to offer teachings and lead retreats.

Drop-in meditation sessions, or zazen, occur at the center six days a week, and 25 dues-paying members contribute two or three hours of work a month toward the center's upkeep. In Zen, everyone works, including masters.

Zen has an aesthetic ' tidy, spare, orderly, spacious ' as does the experience of zazen. We sit facing the wall, backs to one another, for three 25-minute periods, broken by two brisk five-minute walks in unison. Unlike at other sits I've attended, here no one fidgets at all.

The person designated as 'timer' begins each round with a single sharp, startling crack of wooden clappers struck together and later walks around the room with the 'wake-up stick' ' kyosaku ' whacking acupuncture points on the shoulders of meditators who request it by raising their hands, palms together, above their heads.

The session ends with energetic chanting in English, the most forceful sound I've heard in any Buddhist setting. After a series of final bows, everyone bends down to brush their mats clean and plump their cushions just so.

People clear out quickly, all of them glowing like athletes after a workout. Although my back aches, I feel more clearheaded than when I arrived.

Two weeks later, on a cool, sunny Sunday morning, the New Year's celebration at the Cambodian Buddhist Society temple in rural Oregon is in full swing. I walk past rows of parked cars to a grassy lawn where people mill around chatting as musicians play traditional instruments in a colorfully decorated temporary pavilion.

Inside the long, rectangular temple, several hundred people, many in their Sunday best, sit on the ground. The abbot, the venerable Seng Soy, and his junior monk chant Buddhist texts in Pali. A nearby altar is adorned with statues of the Buddha and other simple decorations.

After the chanting and a brief sermon in Cambodian, we line up outside to offer rice to the monks. A friendly woman gives me her pot of rice, and I spoon some of it into the monks' bowls, dropping several dollar bills into their sacks as they bless me for the coming year. These donations might go toward the building of a planned archway, or may be used to help support Seng Soy's temple in Cambodia, where the junior monks lack housing and are too poor to afford robes.

Finally, dishes of homemade food are laid out buffet-style on two enormous outdoor tables, and we fill our plates and eat. As I hunker down with my food, tapping my foot to Cambodian pop-rock songs played by a band of high-schoolers, I realize that what I'm witnessing is Buddhism as a social and spiritual institution, where the temple is a focal point for bringing a community together.

To understand the significance of this, it helps to know a little history. In 1975, when the U.S. military pulled out of Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia and forced the population ' mainly villagers and farmers ' into slave labor camps.

Some of the people celebrating here today are survivors who escaped in 1979 by slipping over the border into Thailand, only to languish for another five years in refugee camps before finally coming to the U.S. The fact that they are gathered here to celebrate at all is a testament to their indomitable spirit.

One Tuesday night, after our regular Madison Insight meditation group, I drive home with my friend Thia. She asks what I've learned in visiting these groups, and I tell her that, even more than before, I realize that Buddhism is a vast subject. There are many paths, not just one ' many tributaries to a river whose surface I have barely skimmed.

Our local scene, I say, is mainly grassroots, a bit threadbare, and very sincere. I add that it is hard to say exactly how many Buddhists practice locally ' there are at least a half-dozen other area groups, plus individuals practicing on their own ' but I would estimate it's over 1,000.

Still, Buddhism is not exactly poised to sweep the nation. Even the Dalai Lama, when asked about the future of Buddhism in the West, said that a plurality of religions is a good thing, and that America is basically a Judeo-Christian nation.

Nonetheless, for those of us inclined toward self-examination, Buddhism offers a way to open our awareness to each moment and, in the process, let go of unhelpful ideas and behaviors. Furthermore, it provides a social model of tolerance, compassion and acceptance, which might be useful in bringing peace to a shattered world. But no one's claiming it's easy.

Thia nods in silent agreement. Awhile later, not for the first time, she begins marveling ' or is it complaining? ' about how meditation practice has upended her life. 'I never know what's going to happen next,' she says, shaking her head.

It's true. In the space of two years, she has abandoned a settled, complacent life and replaced it with an uncertain, sometimes painful, yet ultimately liberating one.

'This Buddhism,' she says with a rueful laugh. 'It's pretty powerful stuff.'

The Dalai Lama visits

His holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, arrives in Madison May 2 for several public speaking events. Tickets for the Alliant Energy Center events are $175 and $125. The Kohl Center event is sold out. See www.deerparkcenter.org for more information.

May 2: Coliseum, Alliant Energy Center, 1:30 pm

May 3: Coliseum, 9:30 am and 1:30 pm

May 4: Coliseum, 9:30 am; Kohl Center, 2:30 pm

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