Real Enlightenment

American laziness is characterized by the way we always need to have something to do, Gelek Rinpoche likes to tell his students at Jewel Heart Buddhist Center in Ann Arbor. Being constantly on the go keeps us from being alone with ourselves, and shields us from looking inward and contemplating our lives.There is little time to establish a true connection with our thoughts or our surroundings as we fly down a freeway at 70 mph gabbing on the car phone, late for work, our mind already focused on all the errands we need to run once our workday ends, or how we can't wait for the weekend to begin, just so we can complain about how short it is. Buddhism seeks to overcome such harried American laziness by focusing on the here and now. Using meditation as a means of personal transformation, it teaches us to look inward to cultivate deeper relationships with ourselves, each other and our universe. And more and more Americans are checking it out.I might have been one of those Americans, as I had developed an interest in this 2,500-year-old Eastern religion while I was in college. But once I joined the work force, my interest waned as I became, well, too busy to investigate further. I am certain it is no accident that I found myself writing this article. Finally it was time to sit down, do nothing and overcome this laziness once and for all. The allure of Buddhism is probably best described, at least for Americans, in terms of results. And during the course of writing this article, I really did see changes in myself. I began to drive less aggressively. I swore less often. I wrote a long-overdue letter to my great aunt in California. And another to a friend up the street. Maybe it wasn't exactly enlightenment, Buddhism's ultimate goal, but these are all activities that make life more peaceful, more pleasant, more real.In the course of my interviews, I found many people who confirmed my experience. They meditate, and sometimes supplement their Buddhist practice with prayers, chants, readings or lectures. They can't point to a direct link -- that all-American goal -- but somehow, after a while, they say they feel calmer, happier, more respectful toward others. Anger dissipates. They begin to notice -- really notice -- the world around them.Like me, they are drawn to a body of thought -- some call it a religion, some a philosophy, some just a way of life -- based on personal responsibility rather than blind faith. They identify with the Buddhist message of kindness and awareness; and they are awed by its simplicity. The basic teaching of Buddhism, one teacher tells me, can be boiled down to two words: "Be nice."Buddha in the NewsThe mass media point to the recent release of the films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, both of which focus on Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, as evidence of Buddhism's rising popularity in the West. Attributing an interest in Buddhism to these sociopolitical accounts, however, seems a bit like suggesting that the movie Gandhi spurred a Hinduism craze.Behind the scenes, though, the entertainment industry has certainly boosted Buddhism's visibility. Movie stars such as Richard Gere make well-publicized pilgrimages to visit the Dalai Lama, for instance, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch has espoused Buddhist philosophy ever since discovering Tibetan Buddhism while on a snowboarding vacation in the Himalayas. However, Buddhism's presence in Western popular culture is not a new phenomenon. As a matter of fact, its teachings first drew serious attention here when the beat writers showed an interest in it during the late 1950s and early 1960s.But with few Buddhist centers in the United States at that time, many of the beats looked -- and traveled -- East for their inspiration. Today such an expedition is not necessary.In the Detroit area alone, there are at least five centers catering to various schools of Buddhist teaching, and talk abounds of the new Buddhism of the West.Roads to the PathRinpoche, a former Buddhist monk from Tibet and spiritual leader of Ann Arbor's Jewel Heart, is a leading teacher of what he calls American Buddhism. This teaching, he says, is no different from Tibetan Buddhism. It is simply taught in America."Really what Buddhism tries to do is to have your life governed by love and compassion actions rather than hate and attachment," Rinpoche explains. "I think the love and compassion principle can definitely make a great contribution to any society. This is something very special." There are primarily two Western schools of Buddhism -- Zen and Tibetan -- and there are noticeable differences between the two. When I visited the Detroit Zen Center in Hamtramck, for instance, I was quietly directed to a mat and instructed in the basics of sitting meditation. I sat for two 20-minute sessions, broken by chanting and the very physical act of performing prostrations (a deep bow at the waist to a squat to a bow to the floor).There was no talking among the relatively unassuming gathering until the priest took questions after a short lesson. I left feeling sore but peaceful. Tibetan Buddhism, on the other hand, is less regimented, and its emphasis on individualized practice may explain why Jewel Heart draws a hip, artsy crowd. Well-coiffed and leather-jacketed attendees chat or sip coffee as they sit casually on their meditation mats waiting for Rinpoche's discussions. But the sociable atmosphere cannot discount the deep learning experience that takes place there. Rinpoche's talks are renowned for their simple wisdom, which has gained the teacher such devotees as scholar Bob Thurman, musician Philip Glass and the late poet Allen Ginsberg. While the center offers meditation instruction, most students there practice on their own. Whatever the school, however, the eightfold path that the students seek is the same: right understanding, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness, right thought, right speech, right effort, right concentration. And whether at Jewel Heart, a Zen temple, a meditation center or at home, Detroiters are finding their own personal ways to follow the dharma.Zen and the 4/4A primarily self-taught, self-professed quasi-Buddhist, poet and playwright Ron Allen turned to Buddhism after reading Alan Watts' The Way of Zen Buddhism. After suffering what others may call a nervous breakdown, but what Allen calls spiritual transformation, he spent some time as a devout Christian, having prayed his way to wellness. But the limits of Christianity wore thin. The "elitist" notion of salvation, for instance, did not sit well with him. Nor did the concept of heaven and hell.Now Allen meditates daily. "For me, meditation is another way of connecting with the wholeness of everything, the oneness," he says. Interestingly, he also regularly contributes poetry to a Methodist worship service, although he no longer considers himself Christian. He still believes in God, and feels the all-inclusive nature of Buddhism has allowed him to accept such a concept. "It's about a principle of love that I can apply to my life today, without taking the whole baggage that comes with it," he says. One of Allen's plays includes a scene called "Zen and the 4/4," in which an arguing couple reverse their positions midway through the dialogue. The scene emphasizes Buddhism's notion of duality within the individual and the need to relate on a higher level. Finding a spiritual path that feels right hasn't really made Allen's life easier, he says. But it's richer. "It's something that gives you a way of finding deeper value in life."Incidental HappinessI meet Justin Clark at the Zen Center, where he occupies the cushion next to me in the meditation circle. I am especially drawn to him because he is not too self-conscious to get up and go to the bathroom during the service. Clark, a college student, tells me he showed up at the Detroit Zen Center eager to impress the priests-in-training with his knowledge. He duly informed the student who answered the door that first time of all the Zen classics he had read. "Ah, books," the student responded, laughing. "Here we give you a mat to sit on." "That was a big moment for me," he remembers. So he sat. And sat. And sat. All the while wondering, "When am I going to demonstrate that I know this, that it's a way of life?" The results, he realized, were not going to hit him over the head. But once he noticed them, they were profound. "It's not the kind of happiness you get when you go out looking for happiness," he explains. "I do that a lot, where I'm depressed or I'm bored so what I'll do is I'll go out and, maybe I'm not consciously doing it, but I'm looking for something. So I'll go out and buy some shit or smoke some dope or go out and party." He's found such happiness is short-lived. True contentment comes when he meditates or attends to his business, rather than avoiding it. "The happiness that results from that is real, because you're not looking for it in the first place," he insists. "It's genuine. It's incidental."Room to GrowThe morning I am to meet Mary Madonis I am beset by a series of minor mishaps, including a flat tire. When I arrive for our interview, late, I inform her my morning has been decidedly non-Zen. "That sounds like a very Zen morning," she informs me. So much for my getting it.Madonis has only recently formally committed to Buddhism. Interested in its teachings since college in the 1960s, she had no place to study or practice Buddhism during her days as a young intellectual. So she read and meditated on her own.Raised in an "extremely rigid, extremely intolerant" Catholic environment, Madonis rejected her first religion early on. "I was not otherworldly oriented," she explains. "I couldn't get behind the Catholic message of all that we're doing here is preparation for the next. I'm very grounded in this world and I'm interested in living a correct life, a right life." And Buddhist teachings struck a chord. "The Buddhist message stood up against all examination, and I thought, I could love this. I could give my heart to this. This is something I could respect myself for being," she says. After suffering a knee injury that ended her career as a union carpenter, Madonis decided it was time to seek out a spiritual community, which she found at the Zen Center. She has no doubt that she has chosen the correct path. "When I first read the precepts of Buddhism, I cried. 'That's my life right there!' I said. 'I don't have to change myself, I don't have to become somebody else or have to lock any piece within myself off.' I sit here just as I am, and with room to grow," she says. "It's so gentle and so right and so real."Window on a WorldI approach Nick Raftis' house with trepidation. Raftis studied with Gelek Rinpoche before the teacher came to Ann Arbor, and he now sponsors Jewel Heart's Birmingham lecture series. He also has a Tibetan monk living with him. The guy is serious. I'm afraid I won't be -- I don't know -- Buddhist enough for him.Raftis greets me at the door with a pipe in his mouth. "Does smoke bother you?" he asks. Dakpa, the monk, is watching CNN. I begin to relax.Raftis says he was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism's individualized nature. "Everybody's got their own idea. So you need to kind of tweak it to your own needs."To wit, his approach to meditation: "It's not like I have to go somewhere and sit down in a spot. I can put a tape in the car, do it while I'm walking, on the toilet. You can do it anytime. So the idea is to integrate that into your daily existence." Raftis, who admits he's short-tempered, says his employees at his engineering firm probably wouldn't believe he's become more tolerant over the years. But he's certain he has. "If you ask the people who work with me, they will say 'no.' But they never saw me before. So I think I've come a long way. You have to, because Buddhism is about creating a certain View, capital 'V,' a certain window on the world that you look out through." Is it really possible to integrate this mindfulness into strip-malled, suburban America? Raftis just gestures to his sprawling home full of original Peter Max paintings and laughs. Later he reads me a quote from the 14th Dalai Lama: "There is no need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Buddhism can be practiced anywhere, anytime, Raftis insists, about to launch into the simple profundity so characteristic of his chosen path. "You don't have to change a thing except your mind."Laziness ConqueredSitting at my computer on a recent Sunday evening, racing to make a Monday morning deadline, I felt overwhelmed. I had planned to go to the weekly service at the Zen Center, and had actually been looking forward to it -- meditation, prostrations and everything. Maybe I should skip it, I thought. I can go next week. Or the week after. The article was going nowhere. But I had to keep writing. Inner peace could wait.I thought about Nick Raftis' observation: "You don't have to change a thing except your mind."I shut down the computer, put on my most comfortable clothes and headed to Hamtramck, ready to close my eyes, clear my head and get busy.


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