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Awakenings

How formerly obscure Tibetan Buddhism became one of the West's fastest-growing religions

Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West

By Jeffrey Paine

Norton, 278 pp., $24.95

Jeffrey Paine opens his riveting narrative about Tibetan Buddhism's emergence in the West with an account of Thomas Merton's brief but prophetic encounter with "the dharma." In 1968, the last year of his life, America's most celebrated Catholic writer stopped in India on his way to an interfaith conference in Bangkok. The Trappist monk was a serious student of Asian religions, a translator of the Tao Te Ching, and had written extensively about Zen. Yet Merton had dismissed Tibetan Buddhism as a sect riddled with superstition. After a series of unscheduled meetings with several Tibetans, however, Merton, without rejecting his Catholicism, vowed to return to pursue a yearlong retreat as preparation for advanced Buddhist spiritual practices. " 'The Tibetan Buddhists are the only ones at present,' " he wrote in "The Asian Journals," " 'who have a really large number of people who have attained to extraordinary heights in meditation and contemplation.' "

Long before Merton visited India, Buddhism's signals were picked up by the "antennae of the race": An unusual number of artists and writers, from Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg to Peter Matthiessen and Philip Glass, registered its frequencies. Earlier still, historian Arnold Toynbee had written that the arrival of Buddhism in the West "may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century."

The most famous of the Tibetans whose presence so utterly changed Merton's mind was Tenzin Gyatso. As just about everyone knows by now, the 14th Dalai Lama fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. Yet, nearly a decade later, few people outside India were aware of him or of the unfolding tragedy of the Tibetans, whose culture was being systematically destroyed by the communists. Paine points out that in 1968 there were only two Tibetan Buddhist centers outside Asia: in Scotland and Vermont. By 2000, nearly every sizable American city had one, with eight in Washington, D.C., 25 in Boston, and about 40 in New York. One of every 35 French citizens is a Buddhist. Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with the Tibetan variety drawing the most converts.

Paine, formerly editor of the Smithsonian Institution's Wilson Quarterly, offers several reasons for Tibetan Buddhism's many recent successes. First, uprooted from its country of origin, it has been encouraged by circumstances to become ecumenical and universal. Second is its emphasis on individual responsibility, enabling those who succeed at their practice to communicate directly what they have learned. Then there's the heightened mental capability nurtured by meditation. Scientists recently began documenting the physical benefits of prolonged meditative practice. A religion defining itself as "a science of the mind" has made a timely arrival in the empirically oriented West. Finally, and most immediately, the Chinese occupation created a cadre of uniquely qualified teachers who welcomed new students and were willing to travel.

Paine's immensely readable study tells its stories through a series of cameos and profiles of several great Tibetan Buddhist teachers and their disciples. Here we meet the charismatic Lama Yeshe, one of the first Tibetans to take on Western students. His legendary selflessness and inexhaustible exuberance electrified his students. Though he died before the age of 50, the organization he created continues to thrive, with hundreds of centers worldwide.

Paine's chapter on Chgyam Trungpa, founder of the first two Tibetan Buddhist Centers in the West, as well as the first Buddhist university in the United States -- the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. -- performs a much-needed service. By most accounts a great and dynamic teacher, Trungpa was also an alcoholic whose more outrageous actions confused and hurt some of his disciples. Paine's balanced portrait, chronicling both Trungpa's excesses and his achievements, offers a model of transparency.

Among the accounts of Tibetan Buddhism's Western followers, the story of Alexandra David-Neel stands out. In 1912 she became both the first Western woman to win an interview with the previous Dalai Lama as well as the first Westerner of either sex to receive advanced Tantric teachings directly from a Tibetan. Paine's vivid recital of David-Neel's travels through India, China, and Tibet makes for fascinating reading.

Paine's speculations on the synergies between Buddhism and film might explain its attraction for many Hollywood notables. Emphasizing the deceptive nature of appearances surely appeals to people who slip in and out of identities without attachment. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Paine observes that "American art will no longer attempt to evoke the divine or the ideal but concentrate solely on human realities." A nontheistic practice, Buddhism nevertheless underscores people's capacity to become buddhas, to achieve enlightenment.

And this is where the matter of re-enchantment comes in. Donald Lopez, among other senior American Buddhist scholars, has cautioned against projecting onto this lost Shangri-La one's own longings for mystery. Fortunately, Paine's sensibility is steeped in Western rationalism. He recounts elegantly, yet without fuss, stories of human transformation that consistently incite our capacity for wonder. He relates the change Buddhist practice has wrought on death-row inmate Jarvis Masters, who recognized through it his power to alter the plot of his own story and the history of Diane Perry's metamorphosis from a working-class English girl to a Buddhist nun named Tenzin Palmo, who stayed in solitary retreat for 12 years.

These authoritative sketches reflect Paine's fluency with the essentials of some of Buddhism's thorniest ideas, from emptiness to bodhicitta -- perhaps the central concept in Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes translated as "loving-kindness." Is it possible to love your enemy, turn the other cheek, put another before you, and embrace death with equanimity? The Dalai Lama's example seems to embody an unequivocal answer to at least three of these questions and remains a primary cause for our enchantment. Whether it's possible to return love for hate and win your country back for your people remains, however, the subject for another volume.

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