The Buddhist nun's tale

Bridges: Baltimore woman finds the path to inner peace in conversion to Buddhism.

Columbia

April 05, 2002|By Jean Leslie | Jean Leslie,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"In 1995, I was 41 years old and I thought I was living the way I wanted - no children, never married. I wondered, `Why wasn't I happy?'

"Then a young, very sincere, dedicated teacher of Buddhism came to Hampden in Baltimore City. It was quite amazing, and I was very inspired. What inspired me was his integrity, the way that he had actualized Buddhist teaching into his own behavior. I fell in love with Buddhist teachings.

"I had been raised a Catholic and attended parochial school. Although we didn't go to church every Sunday, we held certain values. I realize now that at this time, when I wasn't spiritually oriented, I was not a happy person."

The speaker, Kelsang Osel, with her salt-and-pepper hair cropped short and dressed in the maroon and yellow robes of a Buddhist nun, shared her spiritual journey Wednesday at Building Bridges, a monthly gathering of clergy sponsored by Columbia Cooperative Ministry.

"The idea is to call congregations to come together and to talk to one another. The object is to know and to trust one another," said George Martin, facilitator of the Columbia event. "Building Bridges started when some pastors wanted to look at the reactions to the church burnings of 1994. And we began building bridges between the congregations."

Each Building Bridges meeting begins with participants giving a miniature version of their spiritual journey, including a brief introduction and details about their personal lives and their congregations.

Introductions include work ranging from a church's ministry, help at funerals - "Resurrection Ministry" - and the pastoral care at Howard County General Hospital to working with immigrants and prisoners.

Then the speaker explains his or her spiritual journey. "In the more than five years we have been meeting, about 40 different clergy have told their spiritual stories," Martin said.

Osel said her attraction to Buddhism "stems from teachings that I find personally compelling. I have also learned to appreciate Christianity - the ethics are much the same. Jesus' example is remarkable and inspiring for Buddhists."

She added: "The Buddhist path is where one seeks to improve inner peacefulness through prayer and meditation. Without inner peace, world peace is not possible. In the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, we seek enlightenment because we want to help others. As an enlightened being, one is in the most effective position to help people."

According to Osel, Shakyamuni Buddha - the founder of Buddhism - lived 2,500 years ago and gave 84,000 teachings in different levels of difficulty. Osel practices and teaches Kadampa Buddhism, a branch in the Mahayana tradition.

According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a Nepalese rajah, was given the title Shakyamuni Buddha ("the awakened"). Gautama left a life of luxury at age 30 and devoted himself to years of contemplation and self-denial, finally reaching enlightenment while sitting beneath a tree. He spent his life teaching disciples about his beliefs (embodied in the Four Noble Truths) and the goal of achieving the enlightened state of nirvana.

At the Building Bridges meeting, questions on Osel's spiritual journey involved popular Western perceptions of Buddhist beliefs, such as the Buddhist lack of a deity.

"We believe there are many enlightened beings," Osel explained. "Buddha and Jesus were enlightened beings. The Buddhist concept of enlightened beings is that they are omniscient, but not omnipotent. We do not believe in a sole creator of the universe."

She said another popular misconception is that Buddhism denies the reality of suffering.

"Life is suffering in various degrees and kinds," Osel said.

"Things we typically think of as happiness are actually things that will ultimately give rise to pain. Happiness comes from developing inner peace, love and forgetting ourselves to care for others. This can bring one to full enlightenment."

This month, she sold her townhouse in Baltimore and moved to the Kadampa Buddhist Center in Baltimore's Charles Village, which is the site of daily, weekly and monthly devotions, group prayer, meditations and discussions.

"We are small," Osel said. "But we respond to requests for classes."

Osel was ordained a Buddhist nun five years ago. "From a Buddhist perspective, I am an aspiring Buddhist," she said. "I will be a genuine Buddhist when I have developed my meditation to the point that I have a `spontaneous realization' to free all living beings from suffering. My journey is just beginning."

Buddhism classes

Kelsang Osel teaches Kadampa Buddhism for the general public at 7:30 p.m. each Tuesday in the Owen Brown Interfaith Center basement. A donation to cover costs is suggested. Building Bridges, for clergy and interested laity, meets on the first Tuesday of most months at 10 a.m. in Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Information: Columbia Cooperative Ministry home page, www.inetstrat.com/ccm for details.

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