The Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 6, 1998 pA1.
DALAI LAMA'S N.J. VISIT BOOSTS HIS LAND AND
FAITH; MANY AMERICANS RECEPTIVE, AWARE
Full Text COPYRIGHT 1998 Bergen Record Corp.
By DAVID GIBSON, Religion Writer
In many ways, the fates have been kind to the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Buddhist
leader arrives in New Jersey on Thursday, midway through a two-week U.S. tour,
revered not only as the 14th reincarnation of Tibet's supreme religious
authority, but also amid a wave of Buddhist chic.
Officials at the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Warren County say they
had to cap attendance for the appearance of the maroon-and-saffron-robed
ascetic at 6,000 because they cannot accommodate a larger crowd. Regular
attendance at the Buddhist monastery's prayer and meditation services has
jumped from 20 participants to as many as 70.
"They are Americans interested in learning about Buddhism and applying
Buddhist principles to daily life," said Natalie Hauptman, a Buddhist scholar
who serves as the center's spokeswoman.
Those new American adherents - perhaps 100,000 around the country - have
contributed to a spike in the Buddhist community in the United States, which
had been largely the domain of Asian immigrants.
To satisfy the growing demand, publishers have churned out stacks of books on
Buddhist teachings, and Tibetan Buddhism's combination of Himalayan culture
and political martyrdom have added to the fascination with the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama's beneficent visage is even plastered on billboard-sized Apple
computer ads around the world (although not in Hong Kong, where Apple thought
it wiser not to annoy the Chinese Communist authorities. Beijing annexed Tibet
in 1959, sending the young Lama fleeing to India).
"Everybody has heard of Buddhism, and more are interested in it than at any
time in my lifetime," said James Shaheen, publisher of Tricycle, a Manhattan
Buddhist quarterly. "A lot of it comes down to the Dalai Lama. He's an
intriguing man and profoundly religious, and that is attractive."
Yet this popularity surge in America contrasts sharply with the difficulty the
Dalai Lama faces in Asia, the birthplace of Buddhism, and home to 99 percent
of the world's 300 million Buddhists.
His problems there are twofold: One is the challenge to his pacifist approach
to the Chinese occupation, and the other is the broader problem of the
declining numbers of Buddhists worldwide.
Several factors have contributed to the drop in followers, including inroads
made by more aggressive religions. Buddhists generally do not seek converts,
and the Dalai Lama actively discourages the practice.
Christian missionaries are one culprit, in the eyes of some. "Every day we are
losing our youth to Christianity," a leading Malaysian Buddhist priest warned
an international gathering of Buddhists last month.
In India, where Buddhism was born 2,500 years ago, Hinduism has come to
dominate the religious landscape, and Buddhists today make up less than 1
percent of the population. Many of those - about 100,000 - are exiled
Political difficulties also have contributed to the decline. About 100 million
Buddhists live in often precarious circumstances in China, and political
volatility in countries such as Myanmar, formerly Burma, and Cambodia has led
to the destruction of Buddhist temples and monasteries.
Buddhism has serious internal problems, too. Although Americans tend to see
Buddhism as a serene discipline practiced by monks sitting lotus-style in
contemplation of the eternal, the reality can be sharply different. In fact,
Asian Buddhism has always been divided along national lines, with competing
sects fiercely loyal to their own interpretations of the religion. In recent
years those differences have flared into often bitter doctrinal disputes.
Even the Dalai Lama has not escaped controversy.
Exiled to India at 24, he has always preached non-violent resistance, an
approach that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. But after nearly five
decades of harsh Chinese occupation, many Tibetans are growing impatient.
Several monks are staging a hunger strike at the Dalai Lama's Indian home to
protest China's rule, and last week, just before he left for the United
States, the Dalai Lama visited with a young monk who immolated himself in an
act of desperation. The monk died two days later.
"For many years, I'd been able to persuade the Tibetan people to eschew
violence in our freedom struggle," the Dalai Lama said. "Today, it's clear
that a sense of frustration and urgency is building up."
Arriving in New York a few days later, the Dalai Lama was greeted by protests
from a coalition of monks upset with him for banning reverence of a popular
deity. The 1996 ban was aimed at ending veneration of the deity, called Dorje
Shugden, whose "mischievous" nature it was feared could be used to justify
But the Dalai Lama's action only led to greater dissension among Tibetan
Buddhists. Last year, three monks were brutally slain next to the Dalai Lama's
residence in a crime authorities believe resulted from the internecine
Serious as these problems are, they have not dented Buddhism's popularity
here. Last year saw the release of two movies about the exiled god-king,
"Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet," and celebrities from Richard Gere to
Steven Seagal are regularly asserting their oneness with the Dalai Lama.
Across Middle America, too, "Free Tibet" bumper stickers proclaim at least a
political if not religious identification with the Lama.
Although precise numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that up to 2
million people in the United States practice one of the various strains of
Buddhism. And since the Dalai Lama's last visit to New Jersey, the number of
Buddhist teaching centers in the United States has gone from 429 to more than
The American fascination with Buddhism began in the 19th-century when
Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau started popularizing Buddhist
teachings. By the 1950s, Buddhism was attracting Beat Generation types such as
Jack Kerouac and Catholics such as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
But it took the hard-driving culture of the 1990s, plus a current of
disenchantment with institutional religion, to send Buddhism mainstream.
"Buddhism is non-theistic and non-dogmatic and therefore open to people of all
faiths," said the Rev. Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit professor of theology and
Japanese at St. Peter's College in Jersey City. He is considered a Zen master
as well as a Catholic priest.
"It gives people a sense of community and a sense of personal growth," he
said. "That's attractive. People want the quiet, contemplative aspect."
In addition, Americans see Buddhism as not requiring formal conversion and
adherence. "That tends to be the Buddhist tradition," said Hauptman of the
Warren County Buddhist center. "That's why Buddhism has been able to go into
so many cultures, because it blends in with the indigenous traditions."
Yet that approach also raises questions about the nature of "American"
Buddhism, and at several stops so far on this visit, the Dalai Lama has been
talking about what U.S. followers need to do to remain authentically Buddhist.
It is a topic that is likely to come up during Thursday's visit to New Jersey.
"American Buddhism is just beginning," Kennedy said. "It is still heavily
under the influence of Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism. But it must happen. It
will just take a while.
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