Buddism: Making Believers of Many

For more and more Metro Detroiters, this ancient religion is the answer to a prayer
Detroit News, Dec. 4, 2002
By Michael H. Hodges, The Detroit News

   ANN ARBOR — It’s a brisk November night, and Tibetan-born Gehlek Rimpoche is muscling through the wind as he walks the several blocks to dinner. Along the way, nearly every pilgrim on the sidewalk seems to know the broad-shouldered older man with the half-moon eyes and the stylish black suit.

   Some are deferential, “Hello, Rimpoche.” They give a slight bow. Others are more casual, delightedly calling out, ” ‘Che!”

   The object of this affection denies feeling like some sort of celebrity. “Not at all,” Rimpoche says with a laugh, even as he concedes that on a recent trip to Germany he was recognized on the streets of Cologne. Fame, after all, is a worldly concern of the unenlightened.

   At Ann Arbor’s upscale Chop House a short time later, Rimpoche, 64, dines largely unnoticed amid the crowd of local movers and shakers. Most would probably be astonished to learn that the dapper Asian gentleman tucking into his lamb chops (sauce on the side, please) is an incarnate lama, only a notch or two beneath his good friend, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and spiritual adviser to a nationwide Buddhist community that includes luminaries like Richard Gere and Victoria Tennant.

   Indeed, Rimpoche — the name is a Tibetan honorific used for reincarnated lamas — represents the suddenly mainstream face of Buddhism on these shores, a doctrine, experts say, now pursued in varying degrees of rigor by some 3 million Americans.

   Once dismissed as a plaything for Hollywood airheads, the average American Buddhist today is more apt to be a mother from the suburbs than a member of California’s gilded elite.

   Take Anne Damman of Birmingham, who’s been attending Jewel Heart for about a year and a half now.

   ”I’m not really that religious,” Damman says, “and I sort of stumbled on Jewel Heart. But I’d been looking for something to give me that sense of warmth. And it really just grabbed my heart.”

   Others, like John Madison — he plays viola for the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit — report that Buddhism can offer followers a spiritual shift that radiates throughout their lives.

   ”Buddhism is about calming and focusing your mind,” says Madison, who’s studied with Rimpoche for 12 years. “Those are so essential to performance. And the result,” he adds, smiling, “has been more success than I could have imagined.”

   The truth is, Buddhism’s starting to look as American as apple pie.

   ”If you’re standing in what you’d consider the normal mainstream of America,” says “Buddhism in America” author Richard Seager, “the profile of Buddhism has gone up considerably.”

   You want high profile? Last season, Tony Soprano’s mistress on the HBO series — a Mercedes-Benz saleswoman, no less — was a devout Buddhist.

   Time was, of course, when Buddhism was much more obscure, and Rimpoche just ministered to a small group of disciples above his garage. But those quiet days are gone.

   This week he’s been in Lincoln, Neb., Syracuse, N.Y., and Philadelphia.

   On Tuesdays, Rimpoche leads services at Jewel Heart’s downtown headquarters, an unpretentious Tibetan cultural center he founded in 1988 shortly after moving from India to the United States. Then he turns around every Thursday and jets off to do the same at Jewel Heart’s New York City branch.

   His best-selling book, “Good Life, Good Death” — coincidentally published weeks after the 9-11 attacks — has just come out in paperback, and is listed in the Border’s holiday catalog. If the incarnate lama looks a little tired this evening, chalk it up to the rigors of his coast-to-coast book tour.

   ”I have been spread very thin,” he admits.

   At present, the Jewel Heart community numbers about 2,000 here and overseas, all drawn, as he notes, by word of mouth. Rimpoche would like to see those numbers triple during the next five years.

   But don’t get the mistaken idea that Jewel Heart is out proselytizing.

   ”We’re not a missionary organization,” says Rimpoche, taking a sip of his cabernet sauvignon. He gives a puckish laugh. “We’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

   Rather, he says, his mission — as with all incarnate lamas — is just to “ease the suffering of the individual, to bring some comfort and joy.

   ”Our aim at Jewel Heart is not to convert anybody to anything. What we do is bring ancient knowledge to contemporary life. That,” he says, “is our main thing.”

   He folds his hands. “People need a spiritual path, and we offer that without locking them into boxes.”

   So if you just want to attend Jewel Heart’s Tuesday night services, enjoy the lyrical singing and take in Rimpoche’s lessons, that’s fine. You don’t even have to meditate.

   If you want to dive deeper into the ancient rituals, Jewel Heart can help there too. But nobody’s egging you on.

   Indeed, this is precisely what’s attracted so many Americans, suggests Sylvia Boorstein, co-author of “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist.”

   Alone out of almost all the world’s religions, Buddhism, she says, “offers a discipline that does not require a belief system.”

   Instead, it provides insight that can lead “to a more relaxed heart,” Boorstein says, “and a way of living life with more passionate equanimity than I knew 25 years ago, before I started. A less frightened life,” she adds, “one more in love with being alive.”

   Far from demanding exclusive allegiance, Buddhism has, Boorstein says, “amplified my passion for Judaism.”

   But then, notes Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor at Colorado’s Naropa University, “Buddhism has always been less credo-based than practice-based.” (Based in Boulder, Naropa, she says, is the only fully accredited Buddhist institute of higher learning in this country.)

   ”When Buddhists are asked what they believe,” Simmer-Brown adds, “they often go blank for a minute. But if you ask how they live their lives and what they do every day, they can say a great deal.”

   Rimpoche could say a great deal about his own life, which has involved uncommon suffering, spiritual doubt, redemption and grace.

   Born into an aristocratic Tibetan family, this descendant of the 13th Dalai Lama escaped by foot across the Himalayas when Chinese troops stormed across the border in 1959.

   It was probably just as well. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution nine years later, his mother was arrested as a “foreign imperialist agent,” and tortured. “Every bone was broken,” Rimpoche says, his animated face suddenly going blank. “And she died.” Once in India, the Dalai Lama took Rimpoche under his wing and made sure he finished his religious studies with the former’s own tutors.

   Still, like many disciples, Rimpoche had to pass through a crisis of doubt.

   ”I don’t know if you’d call it a loss of faith,” he says, “but I was looking for some sort of special kick. I tried everything. Drugs. Alcohol. Sex. Nothing worked.”

   Eventually, he says, “I realized I was looking for uncontaminated bliss.” And so, a little like the Prodigal Son, Rimpoche returned to the fold, faced the shock and scorn of those who felt he’d abandoned them, and recommitted himself to his duties.

   Still, even an incarnate lama is allowed to feel momentary anger, though he’s presumably got the spiritual resources to neutralize it and return to inner peace. Rimpoche still feels rage, for example, when he thinks of Mao Tse-tung, who brought such trauma to Tibet and Rimpoche’s own family.

   That horror was vividly brought back a year ago when Rimpoche, like the rest of America, watched the desperate jumping from the World Trade Center towers. Suddenly he was 19 again, frightened and scrambling through the Himalayan snows. That evening, he heard there’d been a massive explosion in Kabul, and all he could think, he confesses, was, “Good! Get that Osama.”

   But Rimpoche’s better side quickly reminded him that his own book on spiritual peace was hitting the bookstores in a couple weeks. Chagrined, he realized, “You better practice what you preach.”

   That evening Rimpoche had to address a couple hundred stunned and grieving congregants at Jewel Heart.

   And so, speaking from the homey “throne” on which he sits cross-legged for services, Ann Arbor’s incarnate lama looked into the faces below him and reassured his flock, “Yes, we have to get Osama. But we also have to get our Osama, hiding in the mountains of our heart.”

   He strikes his chest with his fist.

   ”If we can get at our own anger and evil,” he said, “then we really win the war.”

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