State of wisdom: Buddhist ways taking hold in Hoosier minds

By Robert King, Indianapolis Star, Dec. 11, 2004

Indiana, USA -- The Buddha, who lived about 2,500 years ago, is not considered a deity, but rather a source of wisdom. Vietnamese nun in a lemon yellow robe brought a greeting of peace from her eastside temple.

A Tibetan monk, clad in a sleeveless red robe that made him resemble the Dalai Lama, brought a sacred white scarf ? a gift of respect for a first-time meeting.

A Japanese sensei, robed in black, brought warm wishes to an audience of new friends.

In one of the rarest gatherings of its kind in the state, more than 40 Indiana Buddhists from at least four traditions within the ancient faith came together in Indianapolis recently for an evening of chanting and meditation.

The Indianapolis Zen Center, a group that practices a branch of Buddhism developed in Korea, used the occasion of the installation of its new guiding teacher, Lincoln Rhodes, to bring several of the region?s Buddhist groups under one roof at the Old Centrum auditorium.

?I don?t know that that has ever been done,? said Robert Blender, who holds the administrative position of abbot at the Zen Center. ?It is a manifestation of the growth of Buddhism in central Indiana.?

According to the Web site , Indiana has at least a dozen Buddhist organizations. They are scattered all around ? in Bloomington, Gary, Fort Wayne, Kokomo, Terre Haute and Vincennes. Indianapolis has four organizations, and Greenwood has one.

Indianapolis Buddhists say they don?t have any problems getting along ? sectarian lines simply aren?t drawn that deeply among the dozens of schools of thought that trace their origins back to the 2,400-year-old teachings of the Buddha. It just hasn?t been a priority.

?We?re starting to get to know each other,? said Ingrid Sato, who hosts the Zen Buddhist Friends of Awakening at her home.

Buddhism originated in India and spread to Tibet, China, Japan and Southeast Asia, taking slightly different emphases in each place.

Common to all is the goal of finding one?s true self and understanding that all people are interconnected, Blender said. That realization then lends itself to helping others.

?If I realize I am interdependent with you, there is no difference between you and I, and I help you as urgently as I help myself,? Blender said.

Some forms of Buddhism arrived in the United States a century ago with Asian immigrants, and its more recent discovery here began in the 1960s.

Rhodes, the Zen Center?s new guiding teacher, is among that later generation of Buddhist discovery. He had grown up going to a Christian church but found Sundays to be little more than a weekly dose of scary stories. He stopped going when he became an adult.

Rhodes, who earned a degree in biochemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quit his job as a teacher after meeting a Zen master named Seung Sahn. Rhodes became fascinated by the little man who spoke broken English but rose at 4:30 a.m. each day to prostrate himself on the ground 108 times.

He followed Sahn to a variety of places, including one promised teaching that turned out to involve three days of sitting in silence. Rhodes says there was much about Buddhism he didn?t grasp initially from Sahn.

?His basic way of teaching was to tell you to do it, and if you do it long enough you?ll understand why,? Rhodes said.

Rhodes, 60, said he has learned that suffering is guaranteed in life, but that all suffering comes from greed, anger or ignorance. He thinks that applies in the United States today.

As the new guiding teacher, Rhodes will pass on what he?s learned to local Zen members during three to four spiritual retreats a year. As the owner of a small construction business, he plans to continue living in Providence, R.I., and do most of his guidance through e-mail.

Blender, the center?s abbot, said the distance should not be a problem because ?Buddhism is pretty democratic,? with no real hierarchy and opportunities even for new students to give talks that might be regarded as teaching.

?With chanting and silent meditation, we don?t have a lot of teaching day to day,? Blender said. ?It?s more a group experience.?

Central Indiana might seem an unusual place for such practices to take root, but the area has a unique toehold in Buddhist America.

The Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington was established by Thubten Norbu, a retired Indiana University professor who is the brother of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Consequently, the Dalai Lama has visited the area several times.

?Every time he comes there?s an outpouring of people, and his presence and ability to share his wisdom and compassion touches people,? said Larry Gerstein, a Ball State University professor who lives in Fishers and practices Tibetan Buddhism.

Gerstein, 52, prays for an hour in the morning, lights incense morning and night and makes offerings of water or fruit on an altar in his home that features pictures of various Tibetan deities, a Buddha statue and sacred objects that include a bell.

He has seen the number of Buddhist organizations in central Indiana grow during the past decade.

Numbering the Buddhists is a little more problematic, he said, because the faith is easily practiced apart from organized groups.

The Zen Center has a mailing list of more than 300 people, but typically only about 50 show up for the best-attended meetings of the week.

The Friends of Awakening has about 80 people on its list but typically about 20 to 25 on Sundays. The Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington draws from 20 to 60 people for meditation services.

Although Indiana Buddhists note a real sense of growth in their ranks, Fred May ? education program director at the Dromtonpa Buddhist Center in Fountain Square ? said Buddhism does not actively seek new converts.

?We don?t go out and put signs up and say, ?Everybody come in,? ? May said. ?It?s up to the individual. You can?t make people do something. It wouldn?t be right.?

Rhodes, considering how far the Buddhist teachings have come, looks ahead to the day of a school of Buddhist thought that is uniquely American, crafted by children such as his daughter who have been raised in the faith.

?It?s gone all that time and all those places,? he said, ?and now it?s in Indiana.?
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