Searchers find life's meaning in Buddha Local converts tread enlightenment's path with visits to temple

March 03, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

In his search for meaning in life, Woodstock violin-maker Michael Kosman turned to the ancient religion and moral philosophy of Buddhism.

"It gave me the tools to find those answers in myself," says Mr. Kosman, who was raised in a liberal Jewish family and became a Buddhist in 1974. "At that time in my life I was struggling to understand what's up and what's down what's right and what's wrong."

It is a path that a number of Howard County converts have followed, joining immigrants from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Korea and elsewhere as part of the county's small but diverse Buddhist population.

"Buddhism is all about breaking down barriers," says Robert Denmark, 41, a former Unitarian Universalist who, along with four other family members, attends the Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling Tibetan Buddhist temple in Montgomery County.

"The goal is to treat people with equity and not set up those conflicts in your own mind."

His wife, Karen Lynn Morgan, says, "Buddhism is so old it's new again."

Because the U.S. Census Bureau no longer gathers statistics on religion, there is no exact count of the number of Buddhists in Howard County -- where there are no Buddhist temples -- or in the United States as a whole.

Helen Tworkov, founding editor of New York-based Tricycle: The Buddhist Re view, estimates that there are 500,000 to 8 million Buddhists nationwide.

She and others say that as the turn of the century approaches, the religion founded in India more than 2,500 years ago increasingly speaks to the spiritual desires of Americans such as its Howard County adherents.

"There's a real search for some kind of sanity that's not being offered in the conventional approach," Ms. Tworkov says.

There is anecdotal evidence for a deepening attention to Buddhism.

Mary Griggs, general manager at Borders Books and Music in east Columbia, says she has seen a boom in interest in the store's 366 Buddhist titles, including texts such as "Wherever You Go, There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

People buy the Buddhist books to find out " 'why things are

happening to me,' " Ms. Griggs says.

The source of such inspiration dates to the sixth century B.C. in India, when Siddhartha Gautama, son of a wealthy ruler, became the Buddha after his enlightenment in a forest.

His teachings, called dharmas, stress that suffering is part of life but can be overcome through mental and moral self-purification, which involves meditation.

Buddhists follow five precepts: abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual immorality, intoxicants and lying.

"Unlike Christianity and Islam, it's not based on a book," says Kevin O'Neil, president of the American Buddhist Movement in New York City, an umbrella organization for 365 Buddhist groups in the United States.

Richard Payne, dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, Calif., says, "It's not a system of dogma which has to be accepted; it's a way of viewing the world."

As in Christianity, there are various Buddhist traditions whose practices and beliefs were shaped by the cultures in which the Buddha's teachings took hold.

Buddhism crossed to the United States on a relatively large scale more than 100 years ago, when immigrants from China and Japan arrived to work on the railroads, Mr. Payne says.

Another wave of Buddhism arrived during the "Tibetan Diaspora" in the late 1950s, when China invaded Tibet, he says. The takeover forced Tibetan monks to flee, and some came to the West to spread their teachings.

Buddhism was popularized during the 1950s in Beat-era literature and in the 1960s and 1970s, when many U.S. soldiers returned from Vietnam having been exposed to Buddhist practices.

Some Americans were initially attracted to Buddhism as something of a fad, but Buddhism has become well-established in the United States, Mr. Payne says. Among the well-known followers is actor Richard Gere, who follows Tibetan Buddhism.

In Howard County, home to an increasingly multicultural population, the local Buddhist community is a tapestry of Buddhist traditions.

Thet Brunner, 34, born in Myanmar, attends a Burmese temple in Silver Spring and sometimes a Cambodian temple in Virginia. She goes to the temple to practice her religion and for cultural contact with other Burmese.

Mrs. Brunner moved to Elkridge four years ago with her U.S.-born husband, Paul Brunner, a Roman Catholic. They have two children. Although their religions differ, Mrs. Brunner says, "This God is the same."

Others in the county are American-born converts to Buddhism, such as the Denmark family.

Mr. Denmark, an accountant from Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, originally visited the Tibetan temple in Silver Spring three years ago and was deeply touched. He says the humanistic elements of Buddhism have helped him to become more giving in his relations with others.

"The Buddhism philosophy encourages kindness and compassion," he says, adding that he thought that was important for his three children.

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