Dharma takes root in the suburbs

By David Rattigan, Boston Globe Correspondent, October 14, 2004

Boston, USA -- On Monday nights at a yoga studio in Gloucester, eight to 14 people meet in meditation and to study and practice Buddhist teachings.

Members of the Cape Ann Dharma Study Group are not traditional Buddhists, people from Eastern countries where the religion is part of the culture. They are European-Americans who have adopted some or all of the principles and practices of Buddhism.

Patricia Myerson, 48, of Manchester-by-the-Sea, said she is attracted to Vajrayana Buddhism, referred to as ''the path of skillful means," not just because of its focus on compassion and wisdom, but because the meditation practices provide tools to achieve it.

''You can read all sorts of beautiful ideas, but the meditative practices in Buddhism are the first way I've found to make the ideas work in my own mind and my own life, in a very concrete way," said Myerson, one of the group leaders. ''It makes it possible to put the teaching into practice."

Through meditation, she said, a practitioner can develop awareness and mindfulness in his or her actions.

When stressed, ''you can slow things down," Myerson said. ''You can train your mind to respond out of care and concern, instead of reacting out of fear and habit."

The Gloucester group is one of a handful of small, nontraditional Buddhist groups forming in the suburbs. In addition to the more traditional Cambodian and Korean Buddhist temples found in Lynn and Wakefield, respectively, there are Buddhist groups that meet at Yoga for Health in Gloucester, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wakefield, and the Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, N.H. Members of these groups tend to reflect the demographics of the surrounding population, and those involved say that most are drawn to Buddhism as a religion, philosophy, or spiritual path in adulthood.

The range in practice among these groups is wide; some include study of the dharma, or Buddhist teachings, while others do no more than meditate.

Because there are hundreds of different Buddhist traditions and because many groups do not have much connection with other Buddhist groups or temples, statistics on American Buddhism vary widely. But according to Harvard University's Pluralism Project (which studies religion), there are between 50 and 99 Buddhist centers in Massachusetts. According to the project's website, estimates of the number of Buddhists in the United States vary from 2.4 million to 4 million.

Roy Goodwin, 47, of Lynnfield, said that while he became a Buddhist in adulthood, he made his first connection when he was younger.

''I was always drawn to it since I read, in the seventh grade, my big brother's copy of 'Siddhartha' by Hermann Hesse," said Goodwin. ''Ever since I came into contact with it, it resonated with me. The desire and vow to help all beings, like nobody's left behind, is very compelling for me."

He is a member of the Cape Ann group but previously was one of a handful of Western practitioners at the Mun Su Sah Korean temple in Wakefield, where the Korean abbot uses an English translator.

The largest and most established nontraditional Buddhist center in the North region is the Aryaloka (''noble realm") Buddhist Center, at 14 Heartwood Circle. The 12-acre meeting hall, meditation hall, and retreat was founded in 1985. Amala, the director of the center, said that about 100 people form the sangha, or community. They are mostly blue collar, live within a mile of the center, and are between the ages of 35 and 65. Virtually all came to Buddhism later in life, she said.

''Foremost to what people respond to in the dharma is that there is no glossing over of life," said Amala, 50, who grew up in a Protestant church, attended Quaker schools, and became a ''Buddhist at heart" in college at age 17. ''Buddhism and the dharma is about facing up to how life really is and coming to peace with it and finding a way to be happy and compassionate. The dharma is full of honesty and accepting of the fact that life is really hard. People appreciate that the truth is right up front.

''The other thing is that Buddhism is extremely practical, and gives a lot of tools for people to work on themselves to find their own way," Amala said. ''Nobody does it for you."

The newest such group is the Wednesday night program offered from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Universalist Church in Wakefield. Called ''Transforming Your Life: A Blissful Journey," the series of workshops began last spring and are led by Gen Choma, a Buddhist nun who runs the Ser Lingpa Meditation Center in Marion. Six to 20 participants may show up on a typical Wednesday, she said.

Some of them are familiar with Eastern philosophy, though some are not. Some have become Buddhist, she said, and some have not. ''They are interested in getting inner peace, regardless of what the religious tradition is," she said.

Many of those who attend the sessions offered by the nontraditional groups do not consider Buddhism their religion. ''We're a meditation and study group," Myerson, who grew up in the Jewish faith and observes Jewish holidays, said of the Cape Ann group. She said that some people in her group also attend church or synagogue.

Though acknowledging that some religious scholars disagree with his opinion, Padraic O'Hare of Newburyport, a professor at Merrimack College who has written extensively on contemplative meditative practice, said that Buddhist practice is not inconsistent with the theology of Catholicism or other religions.

''Wherever one finds life, that is the presence of the Holy Spirit, or the breath of the Holy One," O'Hare said.

''Wherever one can cultivate a free heart -- free of the seven deadly sins, or what the Buddhists call the knots of forgetfulness of beings -- that's the Holy One. We should worry less about labels and more about outcomes. The outcome is always more compassionate action, if the practice is really contemplative."

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