Wednesday, May 09, 2007

For some Chicago Buddhists, Dalai Lama just another teacher

Though many Americans believe the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of all sects of Buddhism, many followers view him as just another Cambodian monk. (Photo: Flickr/John Wigham)

May 08, 2007

By Jeremy Gantz

Medill Reports (Chicago, Ill., USA)

To most Americans, the Dalai Lama is the smiling face of Buddhism.

But to Manith Pov, a monk at the Cambodian Buddhist Association in Uptown, the spiritual superstar is just another monk outside of Cambodia's particular brand of Buddhism.

“The Dalai Lama follows the Buddha teaching too, but he takes a little path from the Buddhist book,” Pov said Tuesday. “My [Theravadin] tradition is more strict.” The 39-year-old monk, who practices a form of Buddhism most common in Southeast Asia, came to Chicago from Cambodia three years ago to serve the city’s Cambodian community, he said.

Pov complicates common American perceptions of the world of Buddhism, which is symbolized – some might say idealized – by the 14th Dalai Lama, who gave two sold-out teachings in Millennium Park Sunday.

That the world’s most recognizable monk is just another teacher to many Buddhists may come as a surprise to many Americans, among whom only about 1 percent are practicing Buddhists, according to Harvard University’s Pluralism Project.

No one sect dominates Buddhism, which encompasses Japan’s more well-known Zen meditation traditions and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan brand.

Each tradition has its own monastic schools and leaders. Bhutan, the world’s last independent Buddhist kingdom, has its own head lama, or religious teacher.

Even the Dalai Lama, although the undisputed political leader of Tibetans, is head of just one of four Tibetan Buddhist sects, the Gelugpa school.

The Diamond Way Buddhist Center in West Town offers a different Tibetan school of thought to Chicagoans. It is one of 500 meditation centers worldwide practicing the Karma Kagyu tradition, according to its Web site.

“It’s a different way of practicing,” Jakub Sowa said Tuesday. “The core of the teaching is the same, but it’s just a different method.”

Sowa, a 21-year-old Diamond Way student, said he first discovered the Karma Kagyu school in Poland, from which he emigrated to Chicago three years ago. He didn’t hear the Dalai Lama speak Sunday, but is looking forward to a visit later this month to Chicago by a prominent Kagyu monk.

But many Americans who discover Buddhism on their own, rather than through family, are more confused than intrigued by the often esoteric differences between the religion’s various traditions.

“Buddhism is a very flexible entity. There’s no separation like [there is] in Christianity,” Richard Brandon, president of the Chicago-based American Buddhist Association, said last week.

“The things that separate them are their languages, customs and ethnicities.”

Susan Gilkey, a doctor at Cook County Hospital who attended an “American Buddhist” service at the Lake Street Church with Brandon on Saturday morning, agrees.

“The [Buddhist] sects can make it difficult to break through to the content. Cultural overlays can sometimes hide the essence of Buddhism,” said Gilkey, 55, who planned to attend the Dalai Lama’s Sunday afternoon public teaching.

Asayo Horibe, president of the Evanston-based Buddhist Council of the Midwest, which works to foster connections between the region’s various Buddhist groups, thinks the Dalai Lama is appealing because he avoids dogma and instead focuses on universal themes.

His big attraction is that he’s not telling everyone to be a Buddhist. You have your own path. He’s giving people credit for having their own mind,” she said Saturday.

Although he follows a different Buddhist path from the Dalai Lama, Sowa, the Polish-born Diamond Way student, believes there can never be one overarching Buddhist leader.

You cannot really consider one teacher more important than another. Buddhist teachings are like a sea,” he said. “Teachers are like rivers that flow to the sea.”

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