Local traditions reflect distinctions in American Buddhism

By JOEL GEHRINGER, Lincoln Journal Star, August 21, 2006

Lincoln, Nebraska (USA) -- It’s about an hour after services ended at Linh Quang Buddhist Temple, and members are still hanging around the building. Some are socializing and making plans for the rest of their Sunday, others are cleaning and doing yardwork.

About a dozen teenage boys are gathered in the temple’s backyard, practicing jumps, kicks and tumbles for an upcoming traditional Vietnamese performance.

The Rev. Thich Phap Tri, the temple’s resident monk, roams around talking to members and finishing up yet another day’s tasks.

Nearly all of the estimated 600 families involved with Linh Quang immigrated to Lincoln from Vietnam, and for them Buddhism is more than a religion. It’s a way of life.

“It’s kind of like being Catholic,” said Linh Quang member Thinh Duong. “For Vietnamese, you’re born into the religion. Your grandparents and parents are Buddhist, so you are Buddhist too.”

Some families choose to go to the Temple every week, and some stay home, Thich Phap Tri said. That’s fine, not that he encourages it. But even within the community at Linh Quang, no one’s forced into conversion.

“We’re kind of open about that stuff,” Duong said.

Four nights later on the other side of town, Ray Paul sits in a small gathering room meditating.

He’s not sitting on a cushion or chanting to himself, he’s just sitting quietly and thinking, as are the other dozen members at this week’s Jewel Heart Nebraska meeting at the Chateau Development Leasing Office.

Paul was once a member of the Unitarian Church, but after reading “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, he found an interest in Buddhist principles.

When he moved to Lincoln from Texas in June 2005, he found Jewel Heart, and has been with the group ever since.

“I like the idea that Buddhism is rather proactive,” he said. “I’m more or less responsible for my spiritual path. I get to choose what I believe and what I accept as truths.”

The Jewel Heart attendees are all similar to Paul — American-born citizens who developed an interest in the teaching of Buddha after growing up in some other religious tradition. About half of them are experienced Buddhists and half are learning these lessons for the very first time.

The meeting isn’t much of a service, it’s more of a class. Sure, there’s a shrine at the front of the room and some mantras are recited, but the main goal of the meetings is education.

Because, as Paul notes, he and the others want to learn more about the avenues they’re discovering.

“I’m a lot happier,” he said. “I believe that’s one of the benefits of this path.”

Since the arrival of Buddhist ideals in the United States in the early 20th century, the religion has spread through these two very distinct means.

The first — East Asian immigrants looking to continue their cultural practices and traditions with fellow immigrants in a new land —begot centers like Linh Quang. The movement wasn’t unlike the establishment of ethnic churches by European immigrants in the late 1800s.

But the religion also spread through interested Americans, most notably those of the beatnik generation. Suddenly, people of traditional Judeo-Christian backgrounds were taking interest in Eastern philosophies, such as Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. When those groups of people took serious interest in joining the religion, groups like Jewel Heart were born.

And though the two Buddhist traditions essentially practice the same religion, they rarely cross paths. The religious goals and ideals are similar, but their cultures and reasons for existence are a bit different.

The typical member of Linh Quang is a Vietnamese immigrant who was raised Buddhist and wants to preserve and participate in the familiar customs.

Meanwhile, the typical Jewel Heart member, according to Jewel Heart Nebraska President Kent Porter, is someone who might be interested in the religion but has very little previous exposure.

Porter said his organization has no formal relationship with Linh Quang.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t or wouldn’t have a relationship, we just never have,” he said.

But Porter said he can understand why different groups developed over time — in essence, people are comfortable with the familiar.

“There’s definitely different cultural roots,” he said, “and when Buddhism goes from one culture to another, it takes the flavors of that culture.”

Naturally, Thich Phap Tri would disagree. Part of the reason Linh Quang exists is to preserve  the culture of Vietnamese Buddhism. But he also noted there’s nothing wrong with the existence of separate organizations.

As long as the teachings are true, he said, different cultures are good for Buddhism in Lincoln, or anywhere for that matter.

“There is no difference,” he said. “No matter where you are from or what country you’re from, it’s all the same teachings. If people do what Buddha is teaching, I consider them a Buddhist.”

Local Buddhist organizations

Linh Quang Temple, 216 West F St., a Vietnamese Buddhist temple. The Rev. Thich Phap Tri leads the congregation. 438-4719

Tinh-Tam Council of Buddhist Study, an organization for those wishing to learn about Buddhism and apply its principles to everyday life. The group is led by Dau Nguyen. 474-0702.

The Nebraska Zen Center, 3625 Lafayette Ave., Omaha.  The center offers daily meditation, Sunday services, and classes on Zen.  It’s headed by Rev. Nonin Chowaney. (402) 551-9035, www.prairiewindzen.org.

Jewel Heart Nebraska. A Tibetan Buddhist study group, Jewel Heart meets at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays at Chateau Development office, 3100 S. 72nd St. It’s one of six U.S. Jewel Heart chapters under the spiritual guidance of Gehlek Rimpoche, an incarnate lama. 435-7679, www.jewelheart.org.