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A Flawed Life Inspires Rebirth as a Buddhist

Times Staff Writer

An admission that he once led “a fairly degenerate lifestyle” might be surprising and hopeful from a man who believes he is destined to become a Buddha -- an enlightened one who lives in perfect peace and harmony.

Like many others, Steven Wass said he looked in all the wrong places for fulfillment. It seemed inevitable, he said, that he would experience a life devoid of peace and happiness. Then at the age of 28 or 29, he picked up a book on Buddhism.

Today, Wass is known as Gen-la Samden Gyatso, a “realized” Buddhist teacher, who is deputy spiritual director of the New Kadampa Tradition, which describes itself as Buddhism designed for Westerners.

Adherents of the New Kadampa Tradition believe it is just the ticket for people living in mega-urban regions like Southern California, where frantic lifestyles and a consumer- and entertainment-driven culture promise much but can leave one unfulfilled.

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“It seems in Los Angeles there’s a lot of busyness,” Gen-la, 45, said in an interview this week at the Khandakapala Buddhist Center, which opened two years ago in what used to be a Pentecostal church at Blake Avenue and Altman Street in the Elysian Valley area known as “Frog Town.” In the background, the shouts of children playing at a nearby school could be heard. The center is a few blocks from the Golden State Freeway.

“I believe in an environment such as this [Los Angeles], we can develop peace of mind,” he said.

Inside the meditation room, a plush carpet and cushions have replaced church pews. Instead of a pulpit, a statue of a sitting Buddha, its left hand upturned as a sign of an enlightened one, is the focal point.

Gen-la was in Los Angeles earlier this week on the last leg of an eight-city American tour to speak about how to find the inner source of peace and happiness. Before he left for Japan, he joined in planting a bodhi tree in the center’s Peace Garden. The tree is a symbol of inner peace and enlightenment.

Most religions contain such goals. Buddhists speak of “mindfulness” as a path to inner peace and fulfillment. Christians speak of “practicing the presence of God.” Jews say they are blessed when they help others and redress injustice in real ways.

Their approaches and beliefs differ. But few would likely take issue with Gen-la’s observation that many people search in the wrong places.

“In today’s society, because there are so many things offered, people are more and more confused. They don’t know what to turn to,” he said. “I think we can sense people are more and more desperate. They turn to one thing that is offering so much and it doesn’t work. And they turn to another thing. Still, it’s not working for them.”

Buddhism, Gen-la said, pointed him inward. “As far as I’m concerned, all those wrong places are outside the mind. Stop looking outside the mind. You’re looking in the wrong place. There’s only one place you’re going to find what you’re looking for -- and that’s within the mind itself.”

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He knows from firsthand experience. Wearing a saffron and purple robe, this English monk with pale blue eyes and an untroubled face grew up with three sisters in a middle-class family in Spalding, in Lincolnshire, and attended the Church of England. He ran a coffee bar and studied languages before he began to follow the Dharma path 20 years ago.

Until then, he said, he felt unfulfilled. He smoked. He drank. He led “a fairly degenerate lifestyle,” he said.

“I look back and I do consider my behavior to have been quite reckless and maybe to some extent harmed both myself and other people,” he said. A smile crossed his face as he thought of those seeking his counsel today.

“No! I wouldn’t have advised anybody to have turned to me 20 years ago.”

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The New Kadampa Tradition is aligned with Mahayana Buddhism, which is one of three major schools of Buddhist thought. The Mahayana School developed in India during the first century. Kadampa Buddhism was founded by Atisha, an Indian Buddhist Master who lived from 982 to 1054.

Kadampa Buddhism was introduced in the West in 1977 by Kadampa Buddhist Master, Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. It has more than 400 centers worldwide, including five residential centers and 30 branches in California. The Los Angeles center has eight branches. The movement’s mother center is located in the English Lake District, near Manchester.

Most Kadampa Buddhists, including the vast majority of its teachers, practitioners, monks and nuns, are Westerners.

Los Angeles resident teacher Gen Kelsang Lekma said the center attracts a cross-section of Southern Californians. “It’s a typical L.A. crowd, which means they’re from all over the world, too, Canadians, Brazilians, Peruvians. You find the odd one or two born in California. They’re a bright group,” she said.

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“They’re searching because they’re dissatisfied. That’s a common theme when you meet people. They want something more than from what they thought L.A. was going to give them.”

Meditation classes are held Wednesday evenings, chanted meditation on weekday mornings, and guided meditation classes Sunday mornings.

Mindfulness -- the Buddhist axiom for attaining enlightenment -- can be achieved through meditation and by integrating the virtues of patience and compassion, with the help of enlightened teachers, Gen-la said.

In his view, everything originates in and depends upon the mind, including physical and emotional illness. “As soon as I began to understand this, I felt a tremendous freedom to be able to create for myself and for others something better,” he said.

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That may be all well and good if one lives in a bucolic countryside and contemplates beneath a bodhi tree. But, he was asked, doesn’t living in a fast-paced technological society make such efforts all the more formidable?

Daily frustrations of living in an urban area offer an opportunity to practice patience, he said. Homeless beggars offer an opportunity for compassion.

Gen-la said he and others could offer Buddhist teachings, advice, and tips on how to meditate. But the rest was up to the student, he said.

Still, he said, he believes that at some point in the future everyone would attain the enlightened state, or what adherents call the Buddha mind. The desire for fulfillment, what Gen-la calls one’s potential, is in each person.

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“It’s always been there. It’s always been there,” he repeated for emphasis.


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