Finding a New Path : Many Westerners--including celebrities such as Oliver Stone and Richard Gere--are embracing the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, hoping to reach enlightenment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the transformed living room of a two-story house on a quiet Los Angeles street, two Tibetan monks and a pair of converts sit on cushions before a mantel shrine.

The monks, clad in maroon and orange, chant in a groaning bass and clash cymbals as the Westerners follow along in their translated texts.

Lama Lhanang and Lama Chonam grew up as nomads on the Himalayan plains and now propagate the dharma, or Buddhist teachings, here under the direction of their guru, His Holiness Kusum Lingpa. With the financial help of filmmaker Oliver Stone, the Tibetan master has inaugurated a campaign to establish 100 Vajrakilaya centers--so named for a Tibetan deity--around the world. The first was founded here, near Olympic Boulevard and Highland Avenue, because the city is struggling, Lhanang says.

"In this city, there are many problems--fires, earthquakes, war between the black people and the white people," he says in his earnest, halting English. "With this kind of meditation, we make change, we make pure."

The dharma these monks teach entered this world through Shak1yamuni Buddha 2,500 years ago. It was brought to Tibet from India more than a millennium later, spreading to other Asian lands and melding with each culture. With China's occupation of Tibet in the 1950s and the crushing of Buddhism there, the foundations were laid for another transmission, this time to the West.

Increasingly, Americans and Europeans are nurturing Tibetan Buddhism on their own soil. They build sanghas , or communities of believers. They learn the Tibetan language and arts, organize meditation classes and arrange visits from the many lamas, or teachers, who now reside in the West. They bring Buddhist ethics into the workplace and embrace Buddhist notions of personal growth. A small but growing number is training to become lamas.

This quiet stirring has been fostered by the growing global prestige of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' spiritual and political leader and a 1989 Nobel laureate.

"People are looking more to Eastern religions and the Dalai Lama's message has been critical in bringing Buddhist thinking to the West," says West Los Angeles filmmaker Martin Wassell, who has produced documentaries about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. "He says we don't need these Buddhist temples, we don't need these Christian churches. What we need, he says, are the values of the human heart."

In Los Angeles, Tibetan Buddhism, also called Vajrayana, has taken on the proportions of a subculture. Established sanghas now cohabit with fledgling groups formed around a new wave of lamas, some of whom are younger and more Americanized than their shamanic counterparts.

The Tibetan way is also a smash in Hollywood and among the so-called cultural elite. They've signed on so eagerly, in Richard Gere's wake, that some dismiss the movement as a celebrity fad. Aside from Stone and Gere, the Power Buddhist/Free Tibet contingent includes Harrison Ford, Willem Dafoe, Sharon Stone, Steven Seagal and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Several Tibet-themed film projects are in the works, among them Universal's bio-pic of the Dalai Lama, with Martin Scorsese directing.

"I hope, personally, that America finds it," Oliver Stone recently told the Buddhist publication Tricycle. "Buddhism can only be good for this country. . . . It has a beneficent, self-realization energy that can only help America heal."

In the publishing arena, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) became a national bestseller and has sold 243,000 copies. (Its author, the Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, was recently accused in a civil suit of sexually abusing a student. His organization, the Rigpa Fellowship, denies any misconduct.) And "Inside Tibetan Buddhism," a much-anticipated tome from Columbia University scholar and Buddhist monk Robert Thurman, is expected in November from HarperCollins.

"The baby boomers seem to be really into it," says Wassell, a baby-boomer Buddhist himself at 46. "There's a lot of talk about this generation being materially satisfied, but the next level of need is not satisfied and that's the spiritual level."

Steven Batchelor, an English monk and scholar steeped in the Tibetan and Zen traditions, also believes that our disposable culture has left an internal hunger. "Buddhism is seen as one way that we might re-create a sense of spiritual meaning and purpose within a directionless society. Amid widespread despair, those who have found Buddhism have a sense of joy and inspiration."

Westerners, says Batchelor, whose most recent book is "The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture" (Parallax Press, 1994), often have an "intuitive," heart-pounding response to the mysticism that marks Tibetan Buddhism.

"There are a lot of E-rides in Tibetan Buddhism," says Chuck Goldman, 52, a Santa Monica attorney and disciple of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, who visits Los Angeles from his center in Santa Cruz. "It's an extremely imaginative, baroque kind of worldview."

Through years of meditation, adherents seek to become one with what they call their perfect Buddha nature--the eternal self that takes a new form with each rebirth in the cycle of karma. They believe that recognizing this perfect self is the essence of enlightenment and a key to moving beyond the cycle.

"It's hard to understand this, because the Buddha is not something that exists outside you," Goldman says. "It's not a god, it's not Other. The Buddha is the true self."

For some, Tibetan Buddhism fits into an eclectic tool kit for earthbound living. "It teaches you skills for acting, being, feeling," says Carol Moss, 65, of Brentwood, a ceramist and political activist. Contrary to the Buddhist mainstream, Moss doesn't believe in reincarnation. Nor does she adhere only to Vajrayana, though she finds it tremendously useful.

"It uses the psyche in a very rich way," she says. "It uses your sexuality, your anger, almost like a Buddhist psychoanalysis."

Tibetan Buddhism offers grist for enlightenment seekers and pop-psych shoppers alike. It's got enough philosophy to transport deep thinkers to a cerebral nirvana. At its core, however, is a call to serve others, contained in the Bodhisattva Vow--a pledge of compassion.

Those who commit to it, bodhisattvas, strive to liberate not only themselves but all beings from the pain of rebirth. The highest state a practitioner can achieve, buddhahood, is also the state of perfect compassion.

Such unconditional love is a theme of Tibetan culture. So much so, adherents say, that while being persecuted and even tortured under Chinese rule, many Tibetans had more sympathy for their oppressors than despair over their own suffering.

"There's no way to become a buddha," says Todd Fenner, 43, a management consultant and Buddhist teacher who lives in Hollywood, "without saying to yourself, 'I will suffer anything, endure anything, in order to liberate every being.' "

An Empowerment

On the final day of His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche's recent series of teachings, about 150 students and well-wishers gather to perform longevity rites, a plea for the aged master to stay with them in this life.

They flank a driveway, awaiting his arrival. A maroon sedan wheels up, and the Rinpoche emerges. Tibetan horns blare and cymbals clash outside the Monterey Park office building where the events, collectively titled "A Constellation of Heart Treasures," are being held. The devotees join palms and lower their heads as Rinpoche shuffles between receiving lines.

An exiled Tibetan who came to the United States in 1979, Chagdud Tulku oversees 25 dharma centers around the world. Most of his work is done at the Chagdud Gonpa, his center in Junction City, near Redding.

Chagdud is the lama's name, Tulku signifies that he is a reincarnated guru, and Rinpoche is an honorific meaning "cherished one." For 10 days the guru has held forth on the basic tenets of compassion, karma and impermanence. He has given ritual blessings called empowerments , which are intended to make followers more receptive to the teachings.

A diverse coterie of Buddhists and not-quite-Buddhists have come to pay their respects. Middle-class Anglos and Asians from opposite sides of town have chanted alongside a handful of scruffy, monkish young men. An ad in the Whole Life Times has apparently drawn a smattering of New Agers. All have paid a minimum of $20 for a rare and potent experience.

"Earlier this week, there was a two-day empowerment here," says Carol Moss, "and afterward people were saying that they felt three feet off the ground."

Rinpoche slowly enters a meeting room and takes the makeshift throne. As the monks chant, several among the faithful touch their foreheads to the ground in prostration.

A procession of students presents the lama with gifts, surrounding him with figurines, silks, flags and cakes. Lama Gyatso, who tends to Chagdud Tulku's local followers, reads a statement of devotion to his teacher of 20 years in Tibetan.

At last, Rinpoche speaks in Tibetan, expressing his love for his students. And then, the bombshell: He will be moving to Brazil, where the dharma has had an enthusiastic reception.

It is suddenly clear that "A Constellation of Heart Treasures" is meant as a farewell gift to the sangha and as a rite of passage for Lama Gyatso. Rinpoche's longtime student Wyn Fischel, an American, will take the helm in Junction City.

Passing the Torch

When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the dharma will come to the land of the red faces.

Some believe this prophecy of a Buddhist master refers to Native Americans. Although religion scholars debate the validity of such forecasts, the dharma has proved to be mobile. And although no one tracks the comings and going of Tibetan Buddhists here, there's a feeling that something important is happening.

"It's a really incredible time that we are in," says LeRoy Griggs, a Santa Monica acupuncturist, pointing to the appearance of new lamas and recently translated texts. His sangha, devoted to the late Kalu Rinpoche, is itself growing, he says, possibly a sign of the guru's imminent rebirth.

Kusum Lingpa completed a series of empowerments last month and will return to the Vajrakilaya center in May. And Dagmola Sakya, a Seattle grandmother and author of the autobiographical "Princess in the Land of Snows" (Shambhala Publications, 1991), has attracted a fledgling group here that one practitioner calls "a woman-oriented space." Her experiences infuse her teachings, from her childhood as a nomad to living in a 250-room Tibetan palace to raising five children in the United States.

"It feels now like there is a community here," says filmmaker Wassell. "The picture in my mind is of a bud that's about to burst into blossom."

But because Los Angeles is a busy, secular and materialistic city, it isn't the most fertile field for the ripening of such beatific seeds. As a result, Tibetan Buddhism has had to adapt.

Daylong rituals, which address issues ranging from wealth to death to "transference of consciousness," are sometimes boiled down to 30 minutes to suit tight schedules. And for followers who approach their work with compassion, 9-to-5ing becomes Buddhism in action.

The Shambhala Center just outside West Hollywood is an experiment in building bridges to people with varied goals. The center was established in the early '70s by students of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose aim was to make the teachings of Buddhism accessible to Americans. Most teachers at Shambhala are Westerners, and three-piece suits outnumber maroon robes.

"In order to evolve, you have to pay attention to what is happening around you," says founding member Sarah Sadowsky, a special-education teacher and real estate agent who lives in the mid-Wilshire area. "People have diverse aspirations. They may be interested in meditation and not necessarily Buddhism. The idea is that you work on yourself, open up your awareness."

As both a sangha and an institution, Shambhala's focus is on learning.

"In the beginning we had long hair and were making candles in the garage," Sadowsky says reflectively. "Somehow we got married and people died and had children and sort of learned how to relate the practice of meditation and the study of Tibetan Buddhism together. It became a natural understanding of how to live one's life."

For the Shambhala sangha, that way of life includes celebrating the Tibetan new year last month with a dinner-dance at the Bel-Age Hotel.

Unlike the Shambhala Center, most local sanghas are devoted to living gurus and have yet to wrestle with the complexities of what comes next. In the Western world, the torch is gradually being passed to non-Tibetans. As Westerners become lamas, the spirit of the dharma could take precedence over the letter of the Tibetan way.

Some aspirants earn the title Lama after successfully completing the traditional three-year, three-month, three-day retreat. In other cases, masters authorize trusted students to teach. In still other cases, youngsters are recognized as incarnate lamas and brought to a monastery for training. Grade school-age Wyatt Tulku, for one, is pursuing a career in the dharma in Junction City.

"In 10 or 20 years, we are going to see a lot more of these students in training becoming lamas," says Sangye Khandro, a visiting translator at Kusum Lingpa's center who lives at a dharma center outside Ashland, Ore. "It's inevitable as the older generation of lamas from Tibet passes away, and many of them are, unfortunately.

"In a sense, I'm one of the lamas at our center," says Sangye, the former Nancy Gustafson. "I've been teaching for many years. I don't call myself Lama Sangye, I don't need to put on robes or shave my head. It seems to me it's more skillful for me to be appearing like this, because people seem to relate to it."

Some practitioners also think of Todd Fenner as a lama, and he says he may formalize his role someday. A dozen Westerners are taking their three-year retreats in the Santa Cruz Mountains under the guidance of Lama Tharchin, reports Chuck Goldman. Two years ago, there were none.

"There will be a new generation of lamas, but I doubt they will wear this robe," says Lama Thupten Tulku, a 26-year-old Tibetan refugee. "Perhaps they wear the suit clothes, perhaps they wear blue jeans. They can certainly have the name of the dharma holder, and they can be enlightened--in blue jeans."

But accounts of American teachers, in robes or blue jeans, "filling the room with their compassion" are rare. For now, many Westerners believe that only the Tibetans can offer the real thing. Ironically, the Tibetans held the same deference for the Indian sages who introduced Buddhism to them more than 1,000 years ago, says Fenner, and that attitude persisted for centuries.

But in the Buddhist perspective of eons and cycles, those centuries passed in a heartbeat. Buddhism became profoundly, authentically Tibetan, fusing with a way of life. And so it must be with America.

"The old Buddhist ways of doing things are going to have to change," says Fenner. "Here you just have to integrate it into your life.

"But that doesn't harm your practice. On the contrary, working with people on an everyday basis affords you the opportunity to practice perseverance, wisdom, patience. If I deal with people well, I'm training myself for my future job, my job as a bodhisattva."

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