Buddhism in the American Midwest


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Backwater--the edges of time...
I'd like to share this article that I found this morning in the Indianapolis Star:

Gathering is unique link for Buddhists
Followers from throughout state say event reflects growth of religion in Indiana.

Rhode Island resident Lincoln Rhodes, installed as the new guiding teacher of the Indianapolis Zen Center, plans to use e-mail to keep in touch with local Buddhists. -- Steve Healey / The Star

By Robert King
November 7, 2004

A Vietnamese nun in a lemon yellow robe brought a greeting of peace from her Eastside temple.

A Tibetan monk, clad in a sleeveless red robe that made him resemble the Dalai Lama, brought a sacred white scarf -- a gift of respect for a first-time meeting.

A Japanese sensei, robed in black, brought warm wishes to an audience of new friends.

In one of the rarest gatherings of its kind in the state, more than 40 Indiana Buddhists from at least four traditions within the ancient faith came together Friday in Indianapolis for an evening of chanting and meditation.

The Indianapolis Zen Center, a Northeastside group that practices a branch of Buddhism developed in Korea, used the occasion of the installation of its new guiding teacher, Lincoln Rhodes, to bring several of the region's Buddhist groups under one roof at the Old Centrum auditorium.

"I don't know that that has ever been done," said Robert Blender, who holds the administrative position of abbot at the Zen Center. "It is a manifestation of the growth of Buddhism in Central Indiana."

According to the Web site www.buddhanet.net, Indiana has at least a dozen Buddhist organizations. They are scattered all around -- in Bloomington, Gary, Fort Wayne, Kokomo, Terre Haute and Vincennes. Indianapolis has four organizations, and Greenwood has one.

Local Buddhists say they don't have any problems getting along -- sectarian lines simply aren't drawn that deeply among the dozens of schools of thought that trace their origins back to the 2,400-year-old teachings of the Buddha. It just hasn't been a priority.

"We're starting to get to know each other," said Ingrid Sato, who hosts the Zen Buddhist Friends of Awakening at her Northwestside home and attended Friday night's ceremony.

Origins in India

Buddhism originated in India and spread to Tibet, China, Japan and southeast Asia, taking slightly different emphases in each place.

Common to all is the goal of finding one's true self and understanding that all people are interconnected, said Blender, the Zen Center abbot. That realization then lends itself to helping others.

"If I realize I am interdependent with you, there is no difference between you and I, and I help you as urgently as I help myself," Blender said.

Some forms of Buddhism arrived in America a century ago with Asian immigrants, and its more recent discovery here began in the 1960s.

Rhodes, the Zen Center's new guiding teacher, is among that later generation of Buddhist discovery. He had grown up going to a Christian church but found Sundays to be little more than a weekly dose of scary stories. He stopped going when he became an adult.

Rhodes, who earned a degree in biochemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quit his job as a teacher after meeting a Zen master named Seung Sahn. Rhodes became fascinated by the little man who spoke broken English but rose at 4:30 a.m. each day to prostrate himself on the ground 108 times.

He followed Sahn to a variety of places, including one promised teaching that turned out to involve three days of sitting in silence. Rhodes says there was much about Buddhism he didn't grasp initially from Sahn. "His basic way of teaching was to tell you to do it, and if you do it long enough you'll understand why," Rhodes said.

Rhodes, 60, said he has learned that suffering is guaranteed in life, but that all suffering comes from greed, anger or ignorance. He thinks that applies in America today.

As the new guiding teacher, Rhodes will pass on what he's learned to local Zen members during three to four spiritual retreats a year. As the owner of a small construction business, he plans to continue living in Providence, R.I., and do most of his guidance through e-mail.

Blender, the center's abbot, said the distance should not be a problem because "Buddhism is pretty democratic," with no real hierarchy and opportunities even for new students to give talks that might be regarded as teaching.

"With chanting and silent meditation, we don't have a lot of teaching day to day," Blender said. "It's more a group experience."

Central Indiana might seem an unusual place for such practices to take root, but the area has a unique toehold in Buddhist America.

The Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington was established by Thubten Norbu, a retired Indiana University professor who is the brother of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Consequently, the Dalai Lama has visited the area several times.

An "outpouring" for visits

"Every time he comes there's an outpouring of people, and his presence and ability to share his wisdom and compassion touches people," said Larry Gerstein, a Ball State University professor who lives in Fishers and practices Tibetan Buddhism.

Gerstein, 52, prays for an hour in the morning, lights incense morning and night, and makes offerings of water or fruit on an altar in his home that features pictures of various Tibetan deities, a Buddha statue and sacred objects that include a bell.

He has seen the number of Buddhist organizations in Central Indiana grow during the past decade. Numbering the Buddhists is a little more problematic, he said, because the faith is easily practiced apart from organized groups.

The Zen Center has a mailing list of more than 300 people, but typically only about 50 show up for the best attended meetings of the week. The Friends of Awakening has about 80 people on its list but typically around 20 to 25 on Sundays. The Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington draws from 20 to 60 people for meditation services.

Although Indiana Buddhists note a real sense of growth in their ranks, Fred May -- education program director at the Dromtonpa Buddhist Center in Fountain Square -- said Buddhism does not actively seek new converts.

"We don't go out and put signs up and say, 'Everybody come in,' " May said. "It's up to the individual. You can't make people do something. It wouldn't be right."

Blender, the Zen Center abbot who was raised Jewish, took an interest in Buddhism after reading about it. Now 40, he said most people find Buddhism on their own as they seek to understand what life is about.

"I think any spiritual tradition, whether talking about Christianity or any other, there is the commonality of having some sort of existential question," Blender said.

Friday night, Buddhist traditions originating in Japan, Korea, Tibet and Vietnam united in one chanting voice that echoed through the cavernous Old Centrum auditorium -- a Methodist sanctuary with ornate Christian accents.

Rhodes, considering how far the Buddhist teachings have come, looks ahead to the day of a school of Buddhist thought that is uniquely American, crafted by children like his daughter who have been raised in the faith.

"It's gone all that time and all those places," he said, "and now it's in Indiana."

Call Star reporter Robert King at (317) 444-6089.
hey Bluejay-

the Buddhism Club here is planning a trip to the Indy Zen Center this spring, i think. i know there's a little Zen temple in Bloomington, which i've been to. very neat place, appropriately unassuming and urban-rustic.

that's absolutely beautiful, and i'm wishing i knew it was there all along. :(

the place i went to, though, was a little Zen center in a converted farm house. small, very easy to miss if you're looking for anything like a church or pagoda (which i was). i'll see if i can find a web site on it, and post a link.
No, the TCC and the Zen Center of bloomington are separate establishments, both rather nice but the TCC is bigger, what with the Dalai Lama's brother and all.

I was lucky enough to go on a field trip to the Zen Center for a university course, we got to do shikantaza meditation for a while with the Roshi, and he talked a little about buddhamind, "just sitting," enlightnement, etc. The center and the course were both amazing.
I was most intrigued by the portion below. How do others here feel about this?...

"Rhodes, considering how far the Buddhist teachings have come, looks ahead to the day of a school of Buddhist thought that is uniquely American, crafted by children like his daughter who have been raised in the faith."