Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Buddhism
A growing number of Coastal Virginia residents are seeking spiritual nourishment from Buddhism. Here’s why.
Photos by Tom Robotham
Just as the great ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so also this teaching and discipline has one taste, the taste of liberation.
~ The Buddha
I’ve been drawn to Buddhism for most of my life—so much so that I sometimes call myself a Budeo-Christian, a term I’ve never encountered elsewhere but seems fitting. My interest in it began somewhat superficially when I fell in love with the 1970s television series Kung Fu but deepened one day when I was scanning my father’s bookshelves and came across a volume called The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts—a man who was instrumental in introducing many Americans to Buddhism in the 1950s. I read it in one sitting.
From there I began to read more widely—but it wasn’t long before I realized that books could take me only so far. Though countless volumes have been written about the subject and the teachings of the Buddha himself are available in a variety of texts, Buddhism—unlike Christianity and Judaism—is not a religion of the book. Indeed, many people argue that it is not a religion at all but simply a way of life and thought. It is rooted, ultimately, in practice rather than words, with the goal of liberation of the mind.
At the heart the Buddha’s teachings are the Four Noble Truths. The first is that life inevitably brings dukkha, a Sanskrit word that is variously translated as “suffering” or “dissatisfaction.” I interpret it as anything from severe pain—emotional or physical—to the subtle but gnawing sense of unease or yearning that we all feel at times. The second truth is that suffering is caused by our clinging to feelings, both negative and positive—anger, let’s say, but also attachment to bliss, joy or exhilaration. The third truth is that dukkha can be overcome. Finally, the way to overcome it is by following the Eightfold Path: right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration. There’s an abundance of writings about what these things mean, but in the Buddhist tradition, true insight comes from within each individual after long periods of meditation as well as guidance from an experienced teacher.
With that in mind, I was pleased to learn about the Zen Center of New York the summer after my first year of college. At the time it was located in the Bronx (it’s now in Brooklyn)—a long trek by public transportation from my home in Staten Island. But when I discovered that Peter Matthiessen—another favorite writer of mine who became a Zen priest—would be leading a one-day retreat there, I knew I had to attend.
The morning session was devoted to guided meditation, or zazen in the Zen tradition—a practice that involves nothing more than sitting still on a floor cushion, counting your breaths and, ideally, allowing thoughts to come and go without fixating on them.
I had never done this before, but by morning’s end I felt more serene than I ever had in my life. When we broke for lunch, we were instructed to eat in silence, a practice that I found to be quite moving, given that I’d developed the bad habit of generally wolfing down my food in front of the television.
Indeed, this practice highlights the very heart of Zen and Buddhism generally—to strive to be mindful in every moment—to be fully present, in other words—rather than going through motions of this or that while our brains are consumed with reflections on the past or anticipations of the future.
After lunch we did a brief walking meditation, then returned to our cushions in the meditation hall for a talk given by Matthiessen. Much of it was about the history of Zen and its principles, but one comment he made stands out foremost in my mind. “Zen Buddhism is not at odds with other religions,” he said. “In fact, among the people who come here regularly for zazen are a Catholic priest and some nuns. They find that it enriches their Christian faith.”
The Dalai Lama once made the same observation: “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a better Buddhist,” he said. “Use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”
Many people, of course, do actually convert to Buddhism. But because it is not dogmatic, its basic disciplines can be practiced, with great benefit, on many levels, from sitting for 15 minutes each morning on a cushion in your home to becoming a monk and devoting your life to it.
On a bright January morning, as I began my research for this article, I paid a visit to the Dong Hung Temple in Virginia Beach, a lovely institution run by a group of Vietnamese monks who are committed to teaching newcomers about the Buddhist way—anyone who is interested, that is. Buddhists don’t try to convert people of other religions, as evangelical Christians do. The lack of judgment was underscored in one particular moment that morning. I’d chosen to visit that day because the temple was hosting an all-day introductory retreat. It began with guided meditation, as my retreat in New York had, and on a mid-morning break I went out to my car to smoke a cigarette. This is not something a devout Buddhist would do. One of the vows one takes when becoming a Buddhist is to avoid intoxicants of all kinds. (The others are to not kill, steal, lie or engage in sexual misconduct.)
The monk leading the retreat, Thich Chuc Thanh, happened to notice me sitting in my car and asked if I was leaving. “No,” I responded. “Just having a smoke.” He simply pressed his palms together and bowed to me.
When I returned to the meditation hall, I was struck by how lovely it is, as I had been earlier in the morning. At the front is a kind of altar adorned with a variety of beautiful objects and dominated in the center by a large, golden statue of the Buddha.
Chuc Thanh resumed his position on a floor cushion in front and continued with the day’s proceedings. There was something called a metta meditation (metta meaning loving-kindness), which focused on a gorgeous chant delivered by a resident monk from Sri Lanka; a Q&A; a period of walking meditation; and some Dharma talks—essentially Buddhist teachings. But it was Chuc Thanh’s presence that stands out most vividly for me—especially his laughter and joyful wit.
Buddhism has two main branches—Theravada and Mahayana—and many other branches within each of these, with varying traditions and practices.
“We practice Haha-yana,” he said, eliciting laughter from the 65 visitors who were seated on the expansive meditation-hall floor, some on cushions, some on chairs. The joke was meant to underscore a serious point: that the Dong Hung Temple draws on various Buddhist schools of thought in an effort to find whatever works for Americans.
But there were moments of poignancy as well. Several times that day he encouraged us to repeat the words, “I love you; I’m sorry; forgive me; thank you very much”—words that can be useful before mealtime as we contemplate the damage most of us have done to our bodies at some point, and in many other circumstances. Essentially, in other words, it is a kind of prayer of gratitude for our bodies, for our lives, for other people, and for nature—as well as an expression of humility in the knowledge that when we succumb to distraction we often do harm to ourselves and others. He talked a good deal about mindfulness as well—the importance of cultivating awareness of what we are putting into our bodies and our minds.
Thich Chuc Thanh
Two days later I returned to the Temple for a private conversation. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot Chuc Thanh exited the monastery residence and greeted me with a bow, then motioned for me to follow him to the meditation hall. When he entered, the Sri Lankan monk was kneeling in a corner, chanting quietly before a candle in his mellifluous voice. Chuc Thanh led me toward the altar stage and said, “Let’s sit here.” Normally when I arrange interviews I’m anxious to get right to it, but he simply crossed his legs and sat in silence. I did the same. When the other monk left about 10 minutes later, we began to talk, first about his background.
Chuc Thanh, now 41, was the youngest of nine children born to parents who were farmers in a small Vietnamese village. In 1992, inspired by his sister who had become a Buddhist nun, he decided to devote himself to monastic life. (It is noteworthy, by the way, that Buddhists do not distinguish between the status of men and women; nuns, he told me, take on the same roles as monks—a reflection of the Buddha himself, who welcomed women into the sangha—or community of Buddhists—as equals to men.)
In 2007, after his teacher migrated to this area to start a temple for Americans, Chuc Thanh followed him. Initially, they met resistance from area residents who worried that having a Buddhist temple in their neighborhood would cause trouble. The monks were fortunate, however, that a group of lawyers in New York heard about the controversy and fought in court on their behalf. The current facility, located just off Virginia Beach Boulevard near Newtown Road, opened in 2011 and is currently undergoing a significant expansion of facilities.
Chuc Thanh said relations with the community are better now.
“They see that we are here in peace,” he said. “We’re humans; we’re not aliens,” he added, laughing boisterously. “But I understand. We all have fear of what we don’t know. On the outside we are different, but on the inside we are the same. You need happiness. Other people need happiness. We all need love. But a lot of time people treat other people hard. They want to be treated nicely but don’t know how to treat other people. The Dharma helps us to see the connection between us and others. And when we help other people we help ourselves.”
A fundamental of Buddhism, he reiterated, is to learn to let go—to free ourselves from clinging, since Buddhism teaches us that all earthly things and circumstances are impermanent—and yet, everything is interconnected. We’re all part of a unified whole. We fail to recognize this because our egos give us a distorted sense of self, and thus lead us astray.
During our conversation, Chuc Thanh talked especially about toxic emotions like anger.
“I inherited anger from my parents,” he said. “My father was an alcoholic, and he abused my mother.”
I asked what he does when his anger reemerges.
“I say, ‘Welcome. Hello, Mom—you are here with me.’ When you do that, the anger has no more power. It’s gone.” As I interpret that, he was suggesting that it’s important to acknowledge emotions, rather than to fight to repress them or snuff them out.
He used another analogy to elaborate. His mother, he said, carried anger toward his father for 20 years after his father’s death.
“Whenever someone mentioned my father, she became like a porcupine!” Finally in 2010, she came for a visit. At one point, when she went to the restroom, the toilet backed up, and she cried out for help. Chuc Thanh called a plumber to have it fixed. The next day, when he mentioned his father, she grew angry again.
“I said, ‘Mom—remember the toilet. Your anger is like that; it keeps coming back up. Be like the [functioning] toilet. Drain the tank. Let it go.’ She started crying, and now her anger is gone.”
He was not suggesting that achieving this state of inner peace is easy.
“It’s hard,” he said. “That’s why we need to practice. And we need a good teacher to support us and love us—to guide us toward the right path. But I cannot do it for you. The Buddha said you must do it for yourself. We all have Buddha nature within us. We all have that potential—that seed of Enlightenment.”
This is an essential point that separates Buddhism from other religions. Buddhists often bow to statues of the Buddha, but this does not mean they are worshipping him in the way that Christians worship Christ.
“Bowing is a sign of respect for a great teacher,” he said. “But the Buddha did not think of himself as the controller of the sangha; he was simply part of it.” At the time this was a radical idea—and indeed is still regarded as such in some other religious circles that emphasize hierarchy.
The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama in India more than 500 years before Jesus, was part of a wealthy family of noble status, and as legend has it was pampered as a young boy but confined to the palace grounds because his father did not want him to see the suffering in the outside world. One day, Gautama slipped out anyway and encountered people who were aging and suffering from infirmities of various kinds. There is not room in this article to go into an extended version of the story, but the gist of it is that this made him want to find a way for people to free themselves dukkha. After joining one group of ascetic monks and nearly starving himself to death, he re-nourished himself and found, through extended meditation, what Buddhists call the Middle Way. From that point on, after his Enlightenment, he spent the rest of his life teaching all who wanted to learn from him. Having been born Hindu, he drew on those traditions and indeed—like Jesus of Nazareth, a lifelong Jew—did not set out to establish a new religion but rather to cleanse the old. One radical step in that direction was to reject the Hindu caste system and welcome all people regardless of social status.
Over the centuries after his death, Buddhist monks who came after him spread the religion—or way of life and thought—throughout the Asian world, and eventually to the West as well, all through peaceful teaching rather than conquest.
And yet, in spite of these contrasts to other religions, it shares with other religions many core values—especially unconditional love of humanity and creation.
During our conversation, Chuc Thanh reminded me of another principle found in both the teachings of the Buddha and the teachings of Jesus. When I asked him to clarify Buddhist belief in rebirth—the notion that we live many lives, the quality of which depends upon karma, the residue of our actions from previous lives—he went into a lengthy explanation but ended with another important point.
“The Buddha teaches us to live now. Don’t worry about the future.” It struck me as remarkably similar to a famous passage in the Gospel According to Matthew in which Jesus says, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Incidentally, the well-known Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote a book called Living Buddha, Living Christ in which he considers such parallels. I recommend it highly.)
The gentleness of Buddhism attracts Americans from all walks of life who’ve failed to find in other religions the inner peace and fulfillment that they seek. One of them is Michael Curry, well known in this area for his tenure as director of the American Theatre in Hampton.
Curry, 65 and now retired, was born just south of London and regularly attended an Anglican Church with his mother, a devout Christian.
“She was never the type to hit you over the head with it, but she observed all the traditions, and it was a great comfort to her. I think that’s why I’ve always had an interest in religion in general.” When he went off to a boarding school where religious services were a regular part of student life, he became principal reader of the Biblical lessons. At the same time, he was curious about other religions.
“I had a good friend, and together we would go explore other religions. One time we went to a Buddhist temple just out of curiosity, and I found it very comforting. I think that’s probably where it started for me because—as I always tell people—with Buddhism there’s no blame and there’s no shame; there’s no guilt. There’s always a teacher, but there’s no judgment—no thou shalt nots.”
Curry’s aversion to judgmental religion was reinforced when his immediate older brother became an Anglican priest—a staunchly conservative one. His brother was adamantly opposed, for example, to the idea of women becoming priests. He also regarded theater as a sin, as many conservative Christians do, or used to, and when Curry told his brother that he planned to become an actor, his brother gave him a series of “fire and brimstone” sermons.
A counselor at boarding school had a different take. “One day he called me in and said, ‘Well, boy, what do you want to do with your life?’ When I told him I wanted to be an actor, he said, ‘You have two choices other than going into the theater. You either become a priest, or you become a lawyer.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘Because they’re actors.’ That stuck with me—because he’s right. The Catholic Church, especially, with the incense and so on, is a kind of theater.”
Curry’s comment stands out for me because the theatricality of religious services is something that resonates deeply with me as well, as I’ve noted in previous articles in this series. To me, the assertion that priests are actors is not negative—not a claim that they are pretending—but rather an acknowledgment that they are performers who are skilled at lifting people’s spirits. And certainly altar areas are akin to stages with elaborate “sets” that enhance the experience.
In the 1970s, Curry left England for America, in part to get away from his brother’s attempts to lay guilt trips on him. He carried his interest in Buddhism with him but didn’t start practicing until he brought a group of Tibetan monks to Hampton for the first time for an elaborate production, the centerpiece of which is their creation of a sand mandala—an astonishingly detailed and colorful circular design that requires the highest level of craftsmanship on the part of the monks. After it is finished and displayed, the monks ceremoniously wipe it away as a symbol of the impermanence of all things. (The annual tradition continues to this day, incidentally, although Curry has retired.)
By 2008, Curry had become so serious about Buddhism that he went to a monastery in India. After he boarded his last flight, the flight attendants asked everyone to stand because the Dalai Lama was about to board.
“He sat in the back of the plane,” Curry recalled, “and I thought, I need to meet him, so I went to the restroom. That was the first time I shook his hand.”
The Dalai Lama was headed for the same monastery, and during the three-week retreat, Curry and his fellow travelers had an audience with him.
“Just being in his presence is pretty powerful,” Curry said. “One of the people in my group was a woman—a professor at Emory University—and she just burst into tears. The Dalai Lama put his arm around her and said with a gentle smile, ‘It’s Ok—I’m not a monster.’ He listens, and he remembers. But he also has a wicked sense of humor, as do a lot of the monks I’ve met.”
Curry has seen the Dalai Lama several times since, including one time at an event in Atlanta at a large arena.
“There were 30,000 people,” he said, “and you could hear a pin drop.”
Curry told me he still feels some fondness for the Church of England, particularly because it meant so much to his mother who felt that religious devotion brings order to our lives.
“I just didn’t like—and still don’t—the judgment thing—the you’re going to hell kind of thing. I remember asking the chaplain at our school, who was a wonderful teacher, ‘Why am I being judged? I’m 15.’ He said, ‘Don’t’ allow yourself to be judged by yourself.’ At first I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ But then I understood, and I started listening to myself. I decided that there has to be more to this than the Gospel stories.”
The lack of judgement was a common theme in the conversations I had in preparation for this article. One of the people I met during the day-long retreat is Shannon Bjoraker, a nurse who lives in Virginia Beach.
Bjoraker’s father was in the Air Force, so the family moved a lot while she was growing up but eventually settled in Wisconsin, where she stayed through college and nursing school. She moved here recently to be closer to her sister and niece.
As a child, her mother took her to a Baptist church, but her father had no interest, and when she was 12, they stopped going for the most part. In college, however, she became interested in religion again while attending a Catholic university.
“I tried the Catholic thing for a while,” she said, “but it didn’t really fit. I didn’t find much joy in it. That, and I had an encounter with a priest who was kind of inappropriate with me.”
Bjoraker had also read about Buddhism, among other world religions, and was drawn to it. Then, five years ago, when a friend began meditating regularly, she joined her. Motivated to go deeper, she attended a Shambhala Center in Wisconsin. (Shambhala is based on Buddhism but tailored for Americans.)
Finally, three years ago, she took her Buddhist vows. (That doesn’t mean she became a nun—only that she committed herself to the Buddhist way.)
“Everything about it just resonated with me,” she said. “I like that it involves a practice—a method—and that it doesn’t cling so much to things that you have to have a lot of faith in. I think there’s a lot of beauty in Christianity, but as a kid I was raised to believe in heaven and hell. I couldn’t understand a god who would create people so as to put them to these weird tests. It just didn’t make sense to me.
“Buddhism seems logical to me—and it’s effective. I used to have a lot of anger issues. That was one of my reactive states: to get mad at people and to burn bridges. I still get angry, but it tends to pass more quickly.”
Bjoraker said that recently she has also felt a lot of sadness, probably because of a sense of loneliness.
“I’ve been crying a lot—but that’s OK. It’s a process of unfolding. I’m starting to see it as a spiral; you come around again to where you were but in a different way.”
Her comment reminded me of something I had just read in a new book called Why Buddhism is True, by Robert Wright.
“When I’m feeling very sad,” he writes, “I sit down, close my eyes and study the sadness: accept its presence and just observe how it actually makes me feel.… This careful observation of sadness, combined with a kind of acceptance of it, does, in my experience, make it less unpleasant.”
Wright’s comment echoes not only Bjoraker’s, but Chuc Thanh’s observation about “welcoming” anger when it arises as a way of depleting its power.
Bjoraker told me that her practice varies. Sometimes she’ll just sit and breathe; sometimes she’ll recite a chant. But there are intervals where she won’t do it at all.
“These past few days I haven’t wanted to meditate; sometimes it hurts just to sit still. We live in an age of distraction, and for the last few days I’ve been distracting myself and not really being mindful in certain ways. Sometimes I get annoyed with myself because when you take time off it’s harder to return to it.”
This is a common experience for a lot of people. Unlike some breezy New Age approaches to meditation, serious Buddhist meditation can lead to unsettling realizations, bubbling up from our unconscious minds. For those who are serious about it, though, this is all part of the process. Nothing worth doing, after all, is easy at first.
Bjoraker started going to the Dong Hung Temple just six weeks ago, either on Sundays or Wednesdays for services.
“The rituals are different from those at the Shambhala Center,” she said. “But I like that there are monks here. I figured, they probably know their Buddhism,” she added with a smile. “They live this every day and do this as brothers, while also trying to learn English. That suggests to me a deep seriousness of purpose.”
Like Curry, she’s drawn to Buddhism because it’s not about “sinners and saints.”
“Sin in Buddhism, as I understand it, is translated as confusion: we act in hurtful ways because our minds are not clear.”
On the other hand, like me, she’s struck by the common values underlying many religions—principally, kindness and loving thy neighbor as thyself.
Like most serious Buddhists, Bjoraker is a vegetarian, although she has been since she was 13. “I just felt wrong eating meat,” she said. “It felt weird to have this piece of animal flesh on my plate. My practice of Buddhism has just reinforced that.”
She also rarely drinks alcohol anymore and is trying to do without caffeine as well.
“I feel like that also affects my thinking. I used to think I didn’t have the strength to do things if I didn’t have caffeine. I felt dependent on it. Now I drink low-caffeine tea. There’s a nice ritual to it—it’s another way to practice.”
People are drawn to Buddhism for a variety of reasons. Mark Palamara, coordinator of the temple’s English language programs and services, joined primarily because he wanted to quit drinking.
Palamara told me he was raised in “a solid and loving, American, middle-class family” in Pennsylvania and that both his mother and father were “devout Catholics.” Prior to entering fifth grade, the family moved to South Carolina, and his parents enrolled him in a small Catholic school.
“That’s where the questioning of the faith actually started for me,” he recalled. “I remember one time a young priest came to visit us. He must have been some kind of a renegade or something because he said, “You don’t have to go to confession; you can talk to God yourself. I took him up on that!”
By the time he got to college, he said, he “had pretty much lost faith in any kind of religious practice.” When he got married right out of college to a woman who was not Catholic, he drifted even further from it. At the same time, he respected his family’s wishes that his children would be raised as Catholics, and when his only son was born he made a “half-hearted attempt” to return to the church.
Palamara and his wife both worked in the insurance industry and moved here for new job opportunities in 1989. A few years later, his son decided he didn’t want to go to church anymore. “I pretty much agreed with him and stopped going myself.”
Palamara finally retired in 2009 and soon entered into a period of intense introspection.
“Frankly didn’t like what I saw in the mirror,” he said. “One of the biggest issues was that I was consuming way too much alcohol. I was coming to the conclusion pretty quickly that that was not the path to go down in retirement.”
Before long he entered Alcoholics Anonymous but couldn’t wrap his mind around a central tenet of the program: that you must “surrender” to a higher power.
“That just didn’t fit me,” he said. “I couldn’t come to grips that there was a deity and that I had to rely on that deity to help me get through this.”
At a loss, he began doing his own research and started reading about Buddhism. He was drawn to the fact that one of the five “precepts” or vows is a promise not to consume alcohol.
Soon he had found the Dong Hung Temple online, called and made an appointment to meet with Chuc Thanh.
“To be honest, I think I was buzzed at the time,” Palamara said. “But I told him exactly what I needed. He agreed with me that meditation could help, and I launched into a period of study with him.”
Initially he didn’t think meditation would be enough, so he briefly joined AA again. He wanted to be among like-minded people with similar struggles. But after getting his one-year chip, he stopped going.
“That was 2011. I transferred all of my discipline to my Buddhist practice, and I haven’t had a drink since.”
One of the things that helped him stay sober was spending a lot of time at the temple assisting the monks with a variety of chores. Recently, though, he cut back on that to spend more time with his wife. He now does a lot of work for the temple from home, corresponding with people who send inquiries and planning English-language events like the one I attended.
As for his practice, Palamara told me he tries to “keep it simple.” He meditates at least twice a day and finds it especially beneficial to do so right before going to bed.
Palamara said he’s drawn, especially, to the idea of karma
“What I’ve learned is that karma is actually an action word,” he said. “Those actions produce energy, either positive, neutral or negative. I try to make sure I generate that positive energy through the day so I have something to share.”
That was the common thread I discovered throughout my research: Americans who grew up in other faiths are drawn to Buddhism because they find in it a path to inner peace and unconditional love.
There are two other Temples in the area: another Vietnamese temple, Chua Giac Hoa Temple in Chesapeake, and Wat Pasantidhamma, a Thai temple in Carrollton. Chuc Thanh also coordinates a group at ODU for students who are interested in learning about Buddhism. Finally, there are numerous “mindfulness” groups in the area—laypeople who lead in their homes meditation sessions that are based on Buddhist disciplines without the religious elements. But for Palamara and many others, the Dong Hung Temple is a unique gem in our region.
After a lifetime of searching, Palamara has found a spiritual path that seems to dovetail with his reading of science—especially quantum physics.
“I honestly think we’re all just energy and we are all one, and we’re just in this continuum. While this body is temporary, the energy will continue, either positively or negatively. I’m just here to put the best spin on it that I can in this particular lifetime.