Interest in Dalai Lama shows Buddhism's reach

By JOHN CHADWICK,, September 22, 2005

New Jersey, USA -- When the Dalai Lama delivered his first lecture to an American audience, the year was 1979, and the place was in northwestern New Jersey, at an obscure Buddhist teaching center.

"We had maybe several hundred people," said Diana Cutler, who has lived at the center for decades. "He wasn't famous then."

That has changed.

On Sunday, the 75-year-old leader of Tibetan Buddhism and global human rights champion will address more than 32,000 people at Rutgers University's football stadium - one of Rutgers' largest crowds for a guest speaker.

The appearance, during which he will speak on "Peace, War and Reconciliation," has electrified the university, inspiring a series of events throughout the semester, including films with Tibetan themes, lectures on global conflict and exhibits of Asian art.

But the sheer number planning to attend also has served notice of a change going on outside the campus: Buddhism has entered the mainstream of the American religious landscape, spreading from remote monasteries and university lecture halls to suburbs like Ridgewood and Wyckoff.

"People don't find it so weird anymore when you say you're a Buddhist," said Amy Hertz, the vice president of Morgan Road Books, which last week published the latest Dalai Lama-penned book, "The Universe in a Single Atom."

Hertz said a previous book co-written by the Dalai Lama, "The Art of Happiness," was so popular that it sold a million U.S. copies in hardcover and turned up in scenes on "Friends" and "Sex and the City."

"When you see Buddhism popping up on TV, you know it's booming," Hertz said.

Yet a more telling change may be happening off-screen.

In North Jersey, American converts to Buddhism have been organizing their own distinctive communities, meeting in homes, churches and small halls. Although these sanghas, or practice communities, are barely a blip on the radar screen compared with the growth of Muslims or evangelical Christians, they're drawing a steady supply of people seeking an alternative to institutional religion.

"There isn't a leader telling you what you should feel or believe, and that's very appealing to many people," said Bernard Spitz, who founded a Zen Buddhist group in Ridgewood.

Spitz's group, which meets in the local Unitarian church, is small and informal and focuses mostly on weekly meditation classes that begin with the sound of a bell.

A Buddhist center in Wyckoff is taking the idea a step further, renting space in a medical building and offering everything from spiritual drumming to classes in natural healing to a youth group for Buddhist kids.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, everyone wanted to be a great monk or nun," said Paul Khan, the spiritual director of the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community. "But today our people have careers, families and responsibilities in the community. We want to meet them on the ground."

The number of American Buddhists has been estimated at 2 million, with Asian immigrants outnumbering converts by a 3-1 ratio.

The religion dates back 2,500 years, to India, where a wealthy young man left his home to seek an explanation for human suffering. He became the Buddha, or enlightened one.

Buddhists believe that life is filled with suffering, but that humans can alleviate suffering by controlling their desires, overcoming ignorance and leading moral lives. Buddhists meditate to achieve a state of nirvana, or a cessation of suffering.

"It's really about learning how to let go of our attachment to the self," said Joan Hoeberichts, who runs Heart Circle Sangha, a second Buddhist group in Ridgewood. "When you meditate, your connection to others becomes more transparent, and suffering is reduced."

Buddhism began making inroads into America through the counterculture of the 1950s and 1960s.

And one key destination for aspiring Buddhists was the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, the remote Warren County site where the Dalai Lama spoke in 1979. The center attracted several generations of young seekers eager to learn the religion firsthand from Tibetan monks.

"I came here at 22 and never left," said Joshua Cutler, who runs the center with Diana, his wife. "I had it in the back of my mind that I really wanted to pursue the teachings. I had no intention to do anything else."

But the Cutlers' current students have different priorities. They're typically adults trying to manage family and careers. They come every Sunday, seeking teachings that they can incorporate into their daily lives.

"My typical Sunday consists of church in the morning, and the Buddhist center in the afternoon," said Betty Levy, a practicing Catholic and a resident of Whitehouse Station near the Pennsylvania border.

Unlike an earlier generation of aspiring Buddhists, Levy didn't discover the center while on a spiritual trek. Instead, she met Diana Cutler while both women were waiting for their cars to be repaired at a local auto dealership.

And after three years of classes, Levy said Buddhism is making her a better Christian.

"In the Gospels, Christ is teaching how to live," Levy said. "And Buddhism helps give me the tools to live like we should - to put others first, to control anger and to be compassionate."

The Cutlers, now in their late 50s, still embrace a quiet, austere lifestyle that they learned from their mentor, a Tibetan monk named Geshe Ngawang Wangyal.

But they also said the new wave of students is an encouraging sign that Buddhism is gaining mainstream acceptance.

"It's gotten to the point where people stop me in the supermarket and ask me about the Dalai Lama," Diana Cutler said. "They want to know how he's doing and when he's coming back."

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: