East of Austin

Why Is This Buddha Smiling?

Daryl Reed
photograph by Minh Carrico
Highway 183 is truly an enchanted place -- for some, even blessed. Maybe you've been there recently to complete your gift-buying tasks as part of the festive holiday season. Or perhaps you enjoy -- or endure -- commuting to and fro on 183 every day. Whatever your relationship is to 183, you probably don't realize that nestled in between the nondescript strip malls, elevated highways, and bumper-to-bumper traffic (by the Target at the intersection of 183 and Ohlen Road, in fact) there is a center for an Eastern religion practiced by millions of people all over the world.

Yes Virginia, there is a Buddha in Austin, Texas.

While many of you probably suspected as much, you may not be aware of the details. There are a number of Buddhist congregations (sanghas) in the Austin area, with as many as 200-300 regular members. Most have strong ties to, or are part of, local Asian communities -- the one on 183, for example, is predominantly Taiwanese, while the one near Leander is Vietnamese. Dharmadhatu, the oldest and largest sangha in Austin, however, is predominantly made up of Westerners.

Although Buddhism may seem very foreign and "mystical" in the West, its basic concepts are straightforward and involve things such as relating to your thoughts, making friends with yourself, and learning how to become peaceful. Most Buddhist practitioners subscribe to the philosophy of four noble truths:

There is suffering.

Suffering has a cause.

Suffering has an end.

There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

These truths may be something you can relate to while you're stuck in traffic on 183.

"This isn't anything weird," says Daryl Reed, Dharmadhatu's coordinator. "Buddhism's not some big esoteric thing. It's much more mundane and practical. There are people who come to the center with a lot of conceptions. After about 10 minutes, they realize, this is just a bunch of folks."

Reed, who is the morning announcer for the classical station KMFA-FM, says meditation can make those instances out on the highway easier to handle. "It's working with what you have right in front of you. It's letting go of personal territory. It's not about beating yourself up. It's also about community, being able to bounce things off each other. That's why it's called a path that you have to walk on one step at a time. It's not a superhighway. It's not a microwave religion."

Jane Cobb, a member of Dharmadahtu, began her path in Buddhism at age 19. "Out of curiosity, I read a book called The Empty Mirror, about a Westerner who goes to Japan and lives in a Zen monastery for a while. About four years later when I was in college, I studied Japanese and went to Japan. Eventually, I began to practice a non-sectarian type of meditation known as Shambhala."

Three years ago, she made the full commitment to being a Buddhist practitioner after taking her three refuge vows. A psychotherapist, Cobb says being a Buddhist practitioner helps her with her clients. "I find my job to be very humbling and rewarding. I feel like my Buddhist practice is very related to what I do. When I do a good job as a therapist, I realize that their pain and suffering is not so different from mine. I find that meditation helps me to be a better therapist. I believe so much in people being able to carry their own wisdom. At the same time, I also feel like I have a long way to go with this."

While many have found Buddhism later in their lives, Austin's Ken Van Dine began his interest at age six while growing up in Chicago in a predominantly Catholic family. "I used to draw pictures of Buddha with a No. 2 pencil, glue them to cardboard and prop them up like they were a statue. My mom would ask me why, and I would say because I think they are beautiful."

A couple of years later, Van Dine convinced his family to visit the Museum of Natural History to see an exhibit and film about the Dalai Lama. He decided then and there that he wanted to meet him some day. The years went by. Then in 1990, during a visit by the Dalai Lama to Houston, Van Dine got his wish. "It was if time stood still," he says.

An AutoCAD operator/draftsman for a civil engineering company, Van Dine says, "The whole basis of everything Buddhist is that one should strive higher for realization of the benefit of all sentient beings. Everyone who is a Buddhist practitioner begins and ends there. It really changes your life."

Van Dine begins and ends every day with meditation in front of his altar. "Altars include pictures and statues of enlightened beings, because they are windows to enlightenment. The familiar Buddha with a smiling face -- this is a state known in Western tradition as `calm abiding.' It's not idol worship, although it's very easy for the Western mind to look at it and think that."

At the same time that Dharmadahtu centers across the country are becoming more "Western," some of the ethnic congregations are embracing technology. The International Buddhist Progress Society (IBPS) at 8557 Research Blvd. -- they're the one by the Target who are predominantly from Taiwan -- has launched its own web site at http://www.comland.com/~ibps/ Their U.S. headquarters site, based in southern California, is at http://www.ibps.com

Man Ya, a Buddhist nun, leads IBPS's Austin congregation. She says modern Buddhism is very different from years past. "In the traditional Buddhism, there were monks and nuns who tried to cultivate the high path while having no contact with the outside world. Nowadays, we want Buddhism to be part of every day life. There has been a tremendous change in what has gone on traditionally and what is going on today."

IBPS member Yung Liao agrees, noting that her group's branch of Tibetan Buddhism, Fo Kuang Shan, realizes the significant role of lay people like himself rather than just focusing more on clergy. "We also are connected to our newfound country, the United States. For example, our children are in Austin schools and want things like Christmas trees. Therefore in addition to our practice of Buddhism we also adopt local traditions."

Fo Kuang Shan plans to carry its current, open philosophy over to its new temple at 6720
N. Capitol of Texas Hwy (north of the intersection with RM 2222), when it is completed by April or May, 1997. According to its literature, it will provide "the people of Austin a place and many opportunities to learn and practice Buddhist teachings as well as to discover the richness of cultural diversities." Covering about 20,000 square feet of construction area on an 11-acre site, it will include a main shrine, meditation hall, dining hall, conference room, classrooms, offices, and living quarters.

For more info on Buddhism in Austin, contact: The Dharmadahtu/Shambhala Center, 443-3263; The International Buddhist Progress Society, 836-7459; or The University of Texas Buddhist Society at http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~buddhist/

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle