STAUNTON — Erik Curren of Staunton had worked in public relations, seen the fast life and wanted to regroup. A little more than 11 years ago, he investigated Buddhism, became intrigued and began to practice. He loved Tibetan Buddhism’s integrity, the ability to meditate and the practice of “thinking for yourself,” he said.
But then he heard something that perplexed him. A schism had occurred between several lamas — Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders.
“When I found out about this controversy a lot of doubts arose in my mind,” Curren said. “I started thinking, were these Buddhist teachers following their own precepts?”
Armed with his doctorate in communications, Curren set out to investigate and write a book, “Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today.” For several years he traveled through India and Nepal, meticulously interviewing and weeding through reams of documents.
“I had assumed that all Tibetan lamas were just like the Dalai Lama, teaching that they were nonviolent people living simple lives, and they did not engage in politics,” Curren said. “But I was wrong.”
Curren found deceit and treachery among religious leaders and followers.
With Buddhism growing in the U.S., having more than 1.5 million followers, he wants the “new” Buddhists to be aware. To be good shoppers and investigate their teachers.
His teacher, the lama leading the fight to correct the alleged wrongs in choosing a new leader is Lexington-based Shamar Rinpoche, the supposed second in command of one of the four branches of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the leader, the karmapa, of his branch of Tibetan orders, the Kagyu, that was to be chosen. It was up to Shamar and three other top lama’s to meditate, investigate clues and find the reincarnation of the karmapa. Serious conflicts arose, with two karmapa’s chosen.
“It is very good for people to know what is happening,” said Shamar, who runs eight Buddhist centers in the U.S. “Erik’s book is very good to reveal the true facts.”
They will have peace of mind, he said. But Shamar also warns that many of the Buddhist administrators are involved in hypocrisy and politics and that “it is good to understand what is the good side of the religious administration and what is the bad.”
Shamar was 7 when he escaped with his uncle, the last Karmapa, from Tibet. It was 1959, his father had passed away and his mother was already in India. The boy went by horseback with around a dozen others and made the journey to India, escaping the Chinese rule of his native land.
Buddhism is the fifth largest religion in the U.S. with more than 1 million adherents.
“A lot of Christians and Jews use some Buddhist principles to get deeper into their own experience,” said Sallie King, a professor of religion at James Madison University. “Buddhists’ attitude is that they don’t care about converting. They’re happy if Christians and Jews incorporate their principles.”
Because of this, the spread of Buddhism is growing.
“I hope that people will take the road of spiritual maturity, where people balance faith with logic and reason, where they don’t give up their common sense to some guru.”
Nancy Beal and Doug Hendren of Harrisonburg, who practice Tibetan Buddhism and were at the 1995 conference in India where many of the atrocities that Curren writes about were spoken of, are glad to see a book on this topic.
“Any publicity that awakens peoples’ knowledge is good,” Hendren said. “We live in a time when religion is being used for political purposes.”
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