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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Lecturer and retreat leader Kentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche, left, is greeted by members of the Utah Sangha Ja Na Ling at the Salt Lake International Airport.

We are emptying our minds. Or trying to (one of us is thinking entirely too much about the dull ache forming in the center of her back). We are sitting cross-legged on small cushions in an apartment in the Avenues, and we are focusing on our breathing. In the center of the circle a dog named Dawg breathes easily, his head on his paws.

And then, from somewhere outside, there is a bark. Dawg suddenly lifts his head, alert and suspicious. At least one of us begins thinking about dogs, watches Dawg get up and move across the room, begins thinking about the view from the window.

It's not easy, this long journey toward enlightenment. But in rooms across Utah — in this Avenues apartment where the Utah Sangha Ja Na Ling meets on Monday evenings; in Midge Hinline's Tibetan Buddhist Practice Center in La Verkin; in formal settings like the Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City and the less formal straw-bale building that houses the Asian American Meditation Center near Snowville — Utahns are hoping to find their Buddha nature.

These are, for the most part, people who have come to Buddhism as adults, and they make up a relatively small percentage of practicing Buddhists in the United States. Perhaps 80 percent of American Buddhists come from Asian countries or are the children or grandchildren of those immigrants. These "ethnic" or "inherited" Buddhists have been Buddhists since birth.

It's anybody's guess how many people total in America practice Buddhism or call themselves Buddhist — there's no central hierarchy, no lists kept, no clear definition of what a Buddhist is (there are Mormon Buddhists and Jewish Buddhists, and some people contend that anyone calling himself a Buddhist should be counted as one). There are maybe several million total, although the "several" could be somewhere between 4 million and 6 million or more.

It's clear, though, that the number of Buddhists in America grew "exponentially" between 1975 and 2000, says professor Charles Prebish, who holds the Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University and is an expert on American Buddhism. The growth is largely a result of the wave of Asians who immigrated here in the last quarter of the 20th century. But there have also been people like Prebish himself, Americans drawn to teachings of compassion and mindfulness. He calls these people "converts"; some call them "volunteers."

Between the convert Buddhists and the ethnic Buddhists, Prebish says, there has been a "glaring divide." To the converts, meditation — their own meditation — is key. In the Buddhism practiced in temples such as Wat Dhammagunaram Buddhist Temple in Layton, as in Buddhist temples in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, it is mainly the monks who meditate, not the lay congregation.

But, nationwide, this divide is closing, Prebish says. "What seems to be a new buzzword is 'hybridity."' The converts who meditate are now more likely to think beyond their own mats, and the ethnic Buddhists now sometimes meditate. At the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, where 90 percent of the congregation is Japanese-American, there is now a meditation hour every Sunday morning, in addition to the regular service and the kinds of Lagoon outings, fundraisers and holiday celebrations found in any religious community.

Buddhism at its most profound is about the meld of mindfulness, community and ethical conduct. Many Westerners pick and choose what they want out of Buddhism, says longtime Salt Lake Buddhist practitioner Richard Glade. To focus on meditation alone, as some Westerners do, instead of focusing on "what is really about a change of heart, a change of lifestyle, a change of view, is a little like taking the seeds out of the orange and throwing the rest away."

Glade, who is a Salt Lake psychotherapist, leads meditation and teaches Buddhist precepts at a group that meets downtown on Wednesday nights. He was asked to teach in 1990, at the request of three senior Tibetan teachers, "with the idea that we would remain aligned with traditional practice without making a fancy show of it," he says.

One "change of heart" that Buddhism can lead to is bodhicitta: compassion toward all sentient beings and its related loss of attachment to the idea of "self." Or, as Glade puts it, "seeing others' suffering as as important as your own." Suffering, as Buddhists see it, is a result not of external events but the "grasping" we do toward a specific outcome, our inability to be present in the moment no matter what that moment holds, and our lack of understanding that everything is both impermanent and interdependent on the lives of others.

Meditation is the first step, one that can bring a "pliancy" to the mind, "kind of like tilling the field," says Khentrul Lodro Thaye Rinpoche, who is considered a reincarnation of a "realized being." But simply meditating to calm your mind — trying to "stop your thoughts" — can lead to a "flawed" meditation: one that may bring peace but not clarity.

On a chilly June morning, Rinpoche sits cross-legged in the living room of Kim Pedersen and Cynthia Shumway, talking about Tibetan Buddhism as he fingers a string of wooden beads. Originally from eastern Tibet, he now travels the United States to give talks and retreats. The members of the Utah Sangha Ja Na Ling are his students: At his suggestion they read books such as "The Four Noble Truths" by the Dalai Lama, and they go online once a month to to listen to his Internet teachings.

This weekend, the Utah Sangha has brought him to Utah for two days of teachings at the Inner Light Center, 4408 S. 500 East. (The event is open to the public, with a suggested donation of $35 per day, and runs from 9 a.m. to noon, and 2 to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday; 1 to 7 p.m. on Sunday. The public may attend either or both days. Cushions are recommended.)

"If they don't have a qualified teacher, many think they're practicing Buddhism, but they don't understand the important points," Rinpoche says, adding that a qualified teacher "knows The Path in its entirety and profundity."

Americans, he says with a calm, easy smile, tend to be impatient about reaching enlightenment.


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com