Buddhists find peace message a tough sell

Surge of interest in meditation, Zen cools in wake of Sept. 11

February 24, 2002|By Barbara Crosette | Barbara Crosette,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - In the war against terrorism, the Buddhists of New York are suffering collateral damage.

Messages of peace and compassion that once seemed attractive to New Yorkers are now anathema, Buddhists are discovering.

Six months ago, Buddhism - Tibetan and Zen - was on a phenomenal upsurge in the New York area, attracting eager students to rural monasteries and urban meditation centers. Then came the attacks on the United States and the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Nonviolence is no longer in fashion, particularly in New York, where the scars go deep and wounds are still fresh months after the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"We're just getting shoved off the radar screen," said William K. McKeever, president of the Deer Park Initiative, a Brooklyn clearinghouse for information and research on Buddhism, which adherents see as a philosophy rather than a religion. For McKeever, who left the Asia Society last year to start his organization in response to the growing interest, the distinctions between serious Buddhists and dabblers are becoming clearer.

"The trendiness of Buddhism, and of the Dalai Lama, it's hard to know how deep that was," he said.

`Unfortunate backlash'

But his group, as well as other centers in New York, has felt "an unfortunate backlash," he said. Well-meaning colleagues have warned him not to approach donors for contributions in this climate. Buddhists, without a church hierarchy, a formal membership system or congregational organizations, depend heavily on donations and fees.

Robert Thurman of Columbia University, a Buddhist monk and a scholar of Buddhism, said a fear of terrorism had paralyzed or "rendered seditious" peace movements or even expressions of nonviolence. That includes pleas from the 14th Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the fastest-growing Buddhist school in the Western world, for a measured response to the atrocities of September. Within days of the attack on the trade center, the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 to escape the Chinese army, wrote to President Bush urging discussions. The letter received little attention.

Buddhists were shocked when, on Oct. 20 at Madison Square Garden, Richard Gere, Hollywood's best-known Buddhist who is a serious student of the faith, was booed off the platform at a rock concert where Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, among others, were performing for the benefit of victims of the September attacks. Gere had advocated compassion in the face of aggression.

Dalai Lama tour

Most troubling to many Buddhists in New York was the unexpectedly lukewarm response that was shown to a planned visit to the city in April by the Dalai Lama. He had intended to visit the trade center site and lecture on Buddhism as part of a tour of Europe, Canada and the United States.

The tour has been canceled at the recommendation of his government in exile in Dharamsala, a Himalayan town in India.

In August 1999, 200,000 people converged on the East Meadow in Central Park to hear the Dalai Lama. His appearance came at the end of a visit during which he delivered a series of philosophical discourses over three days at the Beacon Theater. "Others read about the event or saw it on television," Gere and Khyongla Rato wrote in the afterword to a book based on that visit, titled An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life (Little, Brown & Co., 2001).

Hundreds of thousands flocking to hear the Dalai Lama? "I bet that wouldn't happen today," McKeever said. Advance ticket sales this year for a three-day series of teachings by the Dalai Lama were canceled. That event, sponsored by Tibet House, was important to Buddhists here for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the Dalai Lama, 66, has been in poor health. He was treated recently for acute stomach pains.

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