Buddhism blossoms in Northern New York

By CHRIS BROCK, Watertoen Daily Times, MARCH 22, 2009

Ex-Marine finds good karma in Zen philosophy and spreads word

New York, USA -- Brian M. Donoghue's life changed a dozen years ago when he walked into a Boston bar and met up with some good karma.

The former U.S. Marine ran into a buddy who had served in the Marine Corps with him.

"We were big drinkers and partiers," Mr. Donoghue said.

But on this day, his friend ordered a cafe latte.

"I was taken aback," Mr. Donoghue said. "For him not to order a pint of Guinness was a shocker."

Besides savoring the hot drink of milk and coffee, there was something else different about his friend. "I was intrigued by how peaceful he was," Mr. Donoghue said.

All this eventually led Mr. Donoghue to ask his friend, what's up with that?

"He was into Zen Buddhism meditation," Mr. Donoghue said. "He said, 'You need to relax and stay in the moment.'"

He found it was good advice. Mr. Donoghue began going to a Buddhist temple in Barre, Mass. The 1982 graduate of Immaculate Heart Central School moved back to Watertown in 2007 and is training to become a substance abuse counselor.

Late last year, he founded North Country Dharma, "Watertown's New Age Community." Dharma is the cosmic order that includes the natural and moral principles that apply to all beings and things. A dharma center is where such principles are taught and shared. Mr. Donoghue also described it as a "Buddhism community think tank."

Separately, four other Watertown residents late last year began a twice-monthly sangha, or assembly where people gather to simply meditate in the Buddhism tradition.


Over coffee at the Paddock Coffee House, Mr. Donoghue explained why North Country Dharma was formed.

"I found people who had the same thoughts as I did about living simply and mindfully," he said. "We decided, 'Let's get something going here.'"

Buddhism was formed in India by "the Buddha" (Siddhartha Gotama), who lived circa 563 to 483. It teaches that positive thinking and self-denial will enable the soul to reach Nirvana, a divine state of release from misdirected desire.

Mr. Donoghue said bleak news on the nation's economy may be a reason why Buddhism is seeing growth in the Watertown area.

"You get consumed with all the negativity in the country and that won't get you anywhere," he said.

Mr. Donoghue served two stints in the Marines; from 1983 to 1986 and from 1991 to 1995, with combined service both times in the Far East and Middle East.

He said he realizes the teachings of Buddha are a far cry from life as a Marine.

"We're brought up to kill, kill, kill," he said, "that our way of life was the only way of life. It caused a lot of anger and fear in my life that caused me to lash out at something. Buddhism turned that around. I was being programmed by an idea."

He has seen a growing number of people sharing his views.

"People seem to realize there's more to life than material attachments," he said. "There's a lot more positive stuff going on. You have to stop, slow down and enjoy it."


North Country Dharma seeks to establish a central location where practitioners can share fellowship and educate each other about direction and resources. Currently, some of those involved in the dharma meet on the first and third Sunday of each month with those who attend the sangha. The gatherings are at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church on Gotham Street hill. The dharma members also meet at members' homes.

"We're trying to find people to host us, or to rent a room or space," Mr. Donoghue said. "We've had some doors slammed in our faces. People fear what they don't know."

Mr. Donoghue said some people are intimidated by Buddhism.

"I was too," he said. "I've had people tell me, 'You are whacked buddy. You need to go back to church to get some holy water.'"

Mr. Donoghue said he doesn't call himself a Buddhist, as in describing someone as a Catholic or Methodist. "I just practice Buddhism," he said.

According to the Australian-based Buddha Dharma Education Association, Buddhism is not "a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly understood, for it is not a system of faith and worship owing any allegiance to a supernatural being." It is described more as a philosophy.

Mr. Donoghue has an invitation to travel to Georgia to study at a Buddhist monastery and this spring to study with a Zen master in Vermont. Zen is a variety of Buddhism.

"A lot of Buddhist monks and teachers are interested in what we're doing," Mr. Donoghue said. "What we're doing is not for any other goal than to bring awareness and peace to the community."

Buddhism doesn't reject religious faiths. Mr. Donoghue was raised Catholic, which he hasn't rejected.

"But I've had Christians tell me I'm going to hell," he said. "They don't know we embrace Christ's teachings as well."

"Buddhism and meditation brought me to a higher awareness," he said. "I'm more enlightened. It brought the teachings I was raised with more in perspective and cast out the things that were more negative."

Mr. Donoghue looked down the hallway of the cafe, and recalled an incident a few weeks previous when he was walking into a downtown bank.

On his way in, Mr. Donoghue met a gentleman and to make small talk, commented on the weather, telling the man, "Great — more snow."

The man responded, "It is what it is."

Mr. Donoghue said to most people, that comment would have went over their heads, but not to someone like himself, who seeks out all opportunities to be mindful.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Mr. Donoghue said about the snow situation and life in general. "I might as well embrace it. It is what it is."

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