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Portlanders enthusiastically embrace Buddhism as Dalai Lama's visit looms

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Humor is frequently a part of the Thursday evening service conducted by Yangsi Rinpoche, president of Maitripa College in Southeast Portland. Services draw a mix of ages but few Asians.For the record, yes, Yangsi Rinpoche carries a cell phone in the pocket of his red robe. But no, Rinpoche, originally from Nepal, declared at the age of 6 to be the reincarnation of a previous Tibetan master, trained more than 20 years in a Buddhist monastery, does not have a smartphone. And he doesn’t text.

Such are the life compromises for a Buddhist holy man in 21st century Portland.

On May 9, the Dalai Lama arrives in Portland for a three-day environmental summit expected to attract followers from around the globe. As a side effect, the visit will shed new light on Portland’s remarkably vibrant Buddhist community.

Although many Christian congregations across the Portland metro area are shrinking and some are closing their doors, Buddhism here is exploding. In 2000, there were 19 Buddhist congregations in the Portland area, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. Today, there are 37. And that doesn’t include the many small Buddhist study groups meeting in people’s homes, typically a point of entry for converts, which number more than 400 according to one assessment.

Portland ranks sixth nationally among cities for the number of Buddhist congregations per capita and 13th for its number of practicing Buddhists.

But don’t expect a sea of Asian faces in most of those 37 Buddhist temples. Unlike Hinduism and Islam, Buddhism in the United States and Portland is dominated by converts. Only one in three U.S. Buddhists are Asian, and three in four are converts.

The Dalai Lama’s visit is hosted by Maitripa College in Southeast Portland, one of a handful of degree-granting Buddhist colleges in the U.S. Maitripa, which attracts students from around the globe, is here mainly because the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition, which oversees Tibetan Buddhist temples and organizations worldwide, decided in 2004 to place its international headquarters in Portland.

Rinpoche, 44, is the college’s president and the spiritual leader for a large number of Portland-area Tibetan Buddhists. Asked why Portland was selected as the foundation’s headquarters he offered a story with a very Buddhist twist.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Buddhist services draw a mix of ages, including student Mikki Columus.The foundation’s board members, according to Rinpoche, were looking at San Diego, Denver, Boston and New York — all cities with large Tibetan Buddhist communities — as possible headquarters. A Buddhist ritual reserved for important decisions was chosen for making the selection.

Each city’s name was written on a piece of paper, and each paper was placed in a small ball of dough. At the last moment, one of the board members said he had once driven through Portland on Interstate 5 and he had a good feeling about the city, so Portland’s name was added to a dough ball.

The dough balls were placed in a pot which was shaken until one piece of dough flew out — the one with Portland written inside. Nobody suggested best two out of three, or that a more rational selection process be used.

“The decisions (are) beyond our intelligence,” Rinpoche says. “Really, it’s based on trust.”

Portland loves prayer flags

Maitripa College trains chaplains to act as spiritual caregivers and masters of divinity, much like Christian colleges do. Students do not have to be Buddhists, though most are. The college, Rinpoche says, is an attempt to marry Buddhism with mainstream western culture.

That marriage might help explain why Portland has become such fertile ground for Buddhism. Rinpoche says that when he first arrived in Portland he’d walk neighborhood streets, spot the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags gracing front porches and assume the homes belonged to Buddhists. He soon learned differently, but he says he doesn’t see any disrespect in the flags being used as decorations.

Rinpoche thinks people associate the flags with the outdoors in general and Mount Everest mountain climbers, not religion. Healthy living and the outdoors are what may be the initial open doors leading many Portlanders to the practice of religion, he says.

“People are so much into healthy lifestyle. That leads to yoga practice and meditation practice, and they want to push further and further,” Rinpoche says.

Some stop at yoga or meditation, and some become practicing Buddhists. Either way is fine with him.

“It’s not if you take this you’re supposed to take everything,” Rinpoche says. “There’s no contract.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  Jim Blumenthal teaches a class titled Engaged Buddhism at Maitripa College in Southeast Portland. The school offers a masters of arts in Buddhist Studies and a Master of Divinity degree. Blumenthal also teaches in the school of history, philosophy and religion at Oregon State University.Many of the Tibetan prayer flags Rinpoche spotted were bought at the Tibet Spirit shop on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, where Lhekshy Gyatso has been selling all manner of Tibetan and Buddhist spiritual items for 13 years. Gyatso opened his shop just months before the Dalai Lama’s last visit.

The prayer flags, Gyatso explains, have mantras written on them that represent blessings to the world. The wind carries the blessings off the cloth and into the air.

“Some people just buy these as art but they have meanings behind them. That’s OK. Any of these icons and mantras, anybody who can see or touch or buy, they’re getting some blessings,” Gyatso says.

Gyatso doesn’t appear to take the label of businessman too seriously. He’s written “contentment” on an old newspaper clip tacked to a bulletin board near his chair in the back.

“That helps me not be so greedy,” he says.

Services draw all kinds

Greed may be the last thing on the mind of the 40 or so who came to Maitripa’s public service last Thursday evening. The nearly all white group was evenly divided between men and women, students of the college and those who are not. Most striking were the ages, evenly divided between young adults, the middle-aged and seniors, a rare sight in Portland churches.

A woman in her 60s sat in the back with her husband, both first-timers. She said they had been studying meditation for health reasons and tonight represented a possible next step. When Rinpoche led Buddhist chants the couple tried to join in, not with the full-throated vigor of many of the others, but still, joining in. Later she said they would be back.

“It’s a very green religion,” she said. “You don’t have to believe in a God.”

A 31-year-old man said he was walking past the Maitripa storefront on Southeast 11th Avenue in February and decided on a whim to come in and observe the service. He said he’s mostly been moving around since he was 18, though he has family in the Portland area. Raised Pentecostal Christian, he’s been coming weekly to Maitripa.

“This doesn’t feel like religion,” he says. “It feels more like a life philosophy.”

Leah, 36, is here for her second service, having moved to Portland six weeks ago. A communications consultant for environmental nonprofits, she came to Portland “because it feels like a community of people trying to live with their eyes wide open.”

The first thing Leah did upon arriving in Portland was buy a ticket to see the Dalai Lama. Tonight she is pleased to see so many worshipers in their 20s and 30s at the service. She sounds like she’ll be back.

Many brands of Buddhism

Different forms of Buddhism are practiced among different Asian ethnicities, with no unifying administration between them. The Dharma Rain Zen Center in Southeast Portland is bursting at the seams with children and their Buddhist convert parents who practice a Japanese form of the religion. So full, in fact, that Dharma Rain recently bought 14 acres of land off Northeast 82nd Avenue where it will build a multibuilding Buddhist complex that will even include an apartment complex.

The center’s overflowing Sunday school program has been capped at 80, and abbot Kyogen Carlson says some of those Sunday school kids aren’t even the children of congregants. Their parents simply like the Buddhist precepts the school emphasizes.

“They learn to be with each other in a kind way,” Carlson says of the children and the curriculum.

Carlson is well aware that some of the local Asian immigrant Buddhist congregations are facing hard times. He’s heard from a few of them wanting to know how Dharma Rain is managing to attract so many families.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Children at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association in Northeast Portland learn how to read, write, and speak Tibetan after meditation services. Several hundred Tibetan Buddhists from across the Portland metro area worship at the NWTCA community center, in contrast to the declining congregations at some Asian Buddhists temples.Meanwhile, Zen Community of Oregon started with a handful of converts as a small home-based group 15 years ago. Today they have a temple in Clatskanie, about an hour and 15 minutes from Portland, where they hold services, weeklong silent retreats and a monastery for training monks.

In 2010, Zen Community purchased an old church in Northeast Portland that originally was Methodist, later Ukrainian Orthodox, and later still had a mostly black congregation that fell upon hard times.

Between the Clatskanie facility and the temple in Northeast Portland as many as 120 congregants gather for services each week, almost all white converts with a median age around 40. Board member Patrick Green says Zen Buddhism has plenty of appeal to an audience of young adult Portlanders, even from a generation noted for its ironic attitude.

“I think young people are looking for authenticity,” Green says. “People are getting constantly marketed to, and young people have very well-honed BS detectors. What we have to offer at the monastery and at Heart of Wisdom (in Northeast Portland) is authentic, earnest investigation of the Buddhist teachings.”

Green isn’t concerned about irony among Portland’s young. “I think underneath that exterior there’s a real yearning for what is authentic and real,” he says.

Zen Community has shown it won’t be consumed by dogma. The congregation has decided to keep the Ukrainian Orthodox cross on top of its bell tower.

“It was a way to honor the history of that place,” Green says. “We’ll take blessing from where it comes.”

“Empty inside” is how Thubten Munsel describes her life before she became a Buddhist nun in 1981. Munsel is evidence that not all Buddhist converts are experimenting or in for the short term.

After a divorce and the death of both her parents from cancer, she traveled to Southeast Asia and began attending retreats and then monasteries. She says she was looking for peace of mind, but not religion.

But here she is living in Southeast Portland 32 years later, dressed in her customary red robes, head shaved, still holding to the 348 vows she took years ago, substitute teaching at a local preschool.

“I’m content. I’ve found peace of mind,” Munsel says.

Practice vs. religion

While some ethnic Buddhist churches have found it hard to attract second- and third-generation citizens, the Portland Tibetan community has thrived. Dechen Bartso, president of the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association, says there are more than 500 ethnic Tibetans here, up from just a handful of families who arrived in the 90s. Sunday morning services typically will draw 50, all Tibetans, and the association currently has 80 youngsters in its study program, which includes Tibetan language and history.

Bartso is a little puzzled by the numbers of white Portlanders converting. She has heard the Dalai Lama caution against converting to Buddhism and suggest that instead, people should embrace their own heritage while exploring how to live by Buddhism’s precepts. At the last Portland Buddhist festival she noticed that about two-thirds of the participating dharma centers were from predominantly white congregations.

“The more important thing is on a day-to-day basis to be aware of your thoughts, actions and words,” Bartso says.

A growing interest in meditation is behind much of Buddhism’s popularity in the United States, says Sharon Suh who teaches about Buddhism and society as the Seattle University theology and religious studies department chairwoman. But Suh cites a national study that says only one in four Asian Buddhists meditate. Which means, according to Suh, that the Buddhism many converts are practicing differs significantly from the traditional Asian Buddhism, which focuses more on religious ritual.

The idea of a simple, contemplative life is attractive to converts immersed in a 21st century full of technology and distraction, Suh says. In addition, Buddhism isn’t demanding of its believers, she adds, and has no central authority with a chiseled-in-stone dogma. For many converts — but fewer Asian Buddhists — it is seen more as a practice than a religion, she says.

Another attraction, according to Suh, is that Buddhism isn’t anti-science or technology.

“Every monk I know carries a cell phone,” says Suh, herself a Buddhist.

For information about the Dalai Lama’s public events, visit:

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