Buddhist fest lets Nashville in on the secret of inner peace

By RAY WADDLE, The Tennessean, Spet 1, 2007

Nashville, Tennessee (USA) -- This month, you are invited to change your mind. No, not from liberal to conservative, or CNN to Fox, or red to blue, or original to extra crispy, or one hue of anger to another. (In the culture wars, people don't change their minds; they just change channels.)

Instead, on Change Your Mind Day (a growing national Buddhist event, Sept. 15), Nashvillians are invited to become ambassadors of world peace by first experiencing it in their own heads.

The annual Nashville Buddhist Festival offers the public a free sample of meditative exercises that the religion has been patiently sharing with civilization for 2,500 years.

"The practice of meditation is not just people sitting around with aspirations of peace but experiences of peace itself," says Paul Felton, one of the festival organizers.

"Peace has to do with slowing down the mind. Meditation shows the mind how to experience peace directly. You discover the noise inside the head is just as bad as the noise outside."

Buddhism confronts the world with a nonviolent alternative: do no harm to any living thing. It's not perfect. Buddhism has its share of ethnic divisions and occasional outbreaks of warrior violence (think of Sri Lanka).

But it's an unfussy religion. Its practical meditation techniques aren't derailed by theological arcana or overzealous evangelism. It doesn't raise the question of God, or insist on an answer. Instead, from the time of the first Buddha, it focuses on mindful solutions to the everyday fact of suffering, caused by ego and desire.

Words are naive

So far, we're not up to it – too many dreams of apocalypse and fire, everyone claiming God on our side. Violence carries a secret, ever deeper fascination. "Whacking" somebody is part of the gleeful national vocabulary. The world contains, according to the newest count this week, 875 million firearms (270 million in the USA).

The Buddha preached: "Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching." The Dalai Lama says: "Hatred will not cease by hatred, but by love alone. This is the ancient law."

Impossibly naive words. The only thing more naive is the assumption that the shock-and-awe business of high-strung 21st century reality (nukes, car bombs, arms sales, torture cells, spouse abuse, dog-fighting) is a worthy, practical solution for future human security.

"By meditating, your sense of your place in the world, your sense of human dignity, open up," Felton says. "There's less defensiveness. You can relate more directly to the person in front of you."

The festival runs 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 15 at First Church Unity, 5125 Franklin Road.