May ?<I?\ Be Of Benefit

By Waylon H. Lewis, Dec 19, 2006

Boulder, CO (USA) -- I?.m a ?<Dharma Brat,?\ the nickname (said to be a mishmash of ?<Army Brat?\ and Kerouac?.s ?<Dharma Bums") for the first generation of American Buddhists to grow up from the get-go with the terrible technological brilliance of the West and the esoteric wisdom of the East.

When you grow up Buddhist, you notice that everyone?.s always sitting around. They call it meditating. As a child, I remember wanting to yell at a building-full of meditators at Karme Ch?ling, in Vermont, ?<What are you afraid of! It?.s a gorgeous day! Get out there and live!?\ Only later did I realize what hard work it was. Working with your mind. Becoming friends with oneself. Seeing through the incessant blah bla blah that speeds by so fast that, like a spinning tire, it looks solid. We look solid, that is: we think we exist. From there comes the urge to preserve and protect. From there comes the us vs. them mentality. From there comes ego, which is something I know all about.

But if I didn?.t holler at them there Buddhists, they sure did at me. When you?.re a child living at a Buddhist retreat center in the middle of nowhere (the exact middle: Barnet, Vermont), what happens is you get told to shush a lot. I was a just a kid. I ran and jumped instead of walking and laughed and yelled instead of talking. That didn?.t go over so well with the meditation crowd.

Now I?.m an old man of 32. I?.m an adult, mostly. Folks don?.t tell me to shush, anymore. They do, from time to time, suggest I put fewer photos of myself in my own magazine. I shrug, helplessly. I?.m hopeless. For better and worse, I yam who I yam and I ain?.t who I ain?.t. And one thing I ain?.t is someone quiet, or shy. I?.m all about me. Not very Buddhist, I know.

And that?.s where, as a young man, Buddhism hit home. Because Buddhism says...well, first of all, Buddhism says "don?.t believe anything Buddhism says unless you can personally experience it and find it to be true." And secondly, Buddhism says, "You?.re nobody. I?.m nobody. I don?.t exist." Then, in the Heart Sutra (the most beautiful, rhythmic sutra I know) Buddhism goes on to say that "though I don?.t exist (form is empty,) I also am myself (emptiness is form)?aand that?.s not only okay, that?.s great." It?.s great because only through my own personal experience of our world and my life, can I develop compassion for others. And for myself. Finally, it says the thing that gave my life direction: "Be a ??bodhisattva.?." Use my understanding of my lack of self?amy awareness of my self-involved self, my compassion for my insufferable self?aand then and only then go out and help others. Save the world. Change the world. Be an example. Be a good person. Live a good life, yes?abut live a life that?.s not only good for myself and my loved ones, but for everyone, and the world.

??Cause lots of Americans live the conventional idea of a good life: go to school, join a frat, get a job, work hard, make money, buy a big home with a big garage to put my big car in, and retire rich but dissatisfied. And lots of others live a life that?.s good for others: go to school, join the co-op, become a teacher, change children's?. lives and work day and night every day of the week for a few decades, and retire poor. But not enough people do both: live a good life that also happens to be good for others. Get rich doing something you love that the world actually needs. Make your mission in life about service.

And that?.s not merely a Buddhist idea. You?.ll find that in just about any religion and culture worth its salt.

And that?.s what "the mindful life" is meant to be all about. And that?.s what I aim to do with my life. I want to get rich doing whatever I happen to be good at, so long as what I do is good for others and the world. I want to get famous and spread the word. May my every action be of benefit to all sentient beings, as the twice-daily Buddhist aspiration goes. In Buddhism, someone who?.s enlightened is called a Tathagata?aliterally, one who?.s crossed the river. But it?.s better to be a Sugata?aone who?.s crossed the river and enjoyed doing so. No kidding. So enjoy your life. And the best way to do so is to help a world in need. Be eco in your everyday habits. Practice meditation, just a little bit. Align your career, your passion and your skills.

Speaking personally, it?.s a fulfilled life, if not always an easy one. I work all the time. Just a few years back, I had a reputation for being a wild n?.crazy guy. Now, I spend quality time with my laptop. My idea of a good time is to quit work at 11, watch a West Wing, and sleep. But I?.m not playing a teeny-weensy violin. I?.m fortunate. I know what I want to do with my life. I want to be of benefit.


Prostrating Buddhist monk draws admirers
KOLKATA, India Monday, January 15, 2007 (Reuters) - Crowds of Indians have
been lining the route of a Buddhist monk who has been prostrating himself on
a year-and-a-half-long pilgrimage from Tibet to India, witnesses and
religious leaders said on Monday.
Gyaltsen Lama, who is in his twenties, entered the eastern Indian state of
Bihar this month and told Buddhist leaders and police he was going to end
his journey at Bodh Gaya, where Buddha is believed to have attained
enlightenment in 6th century BC.
Click to learn more...
"He is just 22 days away from completing his extraordinary journey," said
Bhikkhu Bodhipala, chief priest of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, a
place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from all over the world. "He is very
Clad in a saffron robe, Gyaltsen left Tibet in July 2005 and crossed Nepal
before reaching Bihar.
He lies horizontally on the ground with his hands outstretched, utters a
sacred Buddhist verse before getting up to walk to the point where his hands
had extended. He then repeats the same exercise, covering a distance of 7 km
(4 miles) a day.
"He is very young but is determined to complete the journey," said Ramesh
Singh, a witness from Bihar's Muzaffarpur district where Gyaltsen was on
Monday, still 180 km (110 miles) by road from his destination. "We are all
praying for him," he said by phone.
Scores of people, including Hindus and Buddhists, have been lining the roads
every day with food offerings.
Gyaltsen told locals he hoped to pray at the centuries-old Mahabodhi temple,
a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built near the Bodhi tree under which
Buddha attained enlightenment. 


Bodyguard exemplifies self-sacrifice
Kathy Wesley
The Columbus Dispatch
Columbus, Ohio | January 7, 2007 - Standing at the left hand of the Dalai
Lama, about 10 feet from his brocaded throne, was a man who could have been
any mother's son.
Six feet tall, trim and clean-cut, his short but well-groomed black hair
matching his dark suit, he stood attentive, brown eyes scanning the crowd of
500 people, waiting for some flash of movement betraying untoward
Like a hunter looking for prey, he was serious - a sentinel - a man who,
despite his casual, unbuttoned white shirt, was nonetheless dangerous and
As I studied his face, I could imagine his baby picture - fat cheeks that
one day would be the strong and slender face I now observed, his wild dark
hair flopping over mischievous eyes. I saw his toddlerhood, carrying sharp
sticks to his mother's dismay; his high-school graduation photo, smiling
This young agent of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service would
die at any moment, willingly, for the man sitting on the throne. Tears
welled in my eyes as I considered this possibility.
The Dalai Lama is called an embodiment of compassion - a human who, after
gaining control of his own karmic destiny through deep meditation, chose to
return again and again as a Buddhist teacher to carry on the Buddha's work.
He is also said to be the appearance in this world of Chenrezig, the
bodhisattva of compassion, whose altruism is legendary in the Buddhist
And yet, what made me cry was not this knowledge. Rather, it was the
realization that this young man's life - his elementary-school report cards,
his first kiss, all the thoughts of deep longing he ever held in his soul -
could end in a moment, as he dove in front of an assassin's bullet to save
the Dalai Lama.
The man was trained to die. He was carefully taught to sacrifice his life
for a higher ideal.
Every step of that path - learning how to spot danger in a milling crowd,
how to hold and shoot a gun, how to seem invisible and very present at the
same time - was leading his warrior's soul to a hero's funeral.
Yes, that was it. A warrior. Willing to end his life to save another's.
Who are the important people in this world? Presidents, prime ministers and
kings? How are they different from this noble man?
And what did I have in my life that I would be willing to die for?
It is said that when Chenrezig was an ordinary man, he stood before a Buddha
and took the Bodhisattva Vow. The vow, the entry point into the serious
practice of Mahayana Buddhism, pledges that until someone reaches
enlightenment, she or he will work for the benefit of all the suffering
beings in the world. In fact, his or her entire path will consist of putting
other beings first, dedicating all spiritual practice to the eventual
liberation of the entire world.
When Chenrezig took his vow, he added an important stipulation. Until all
beings had been liberated from suffering, he said, he himself would stay in
the world of suffering, called samsara, working to free them.
It is said that when he did this, all those in the assembly bowed toward his
courage, honoring what they themselves could not attempt.
So it was that this young agent touched my heart. Standing on the left hand
of the man said to be the embodiment of Chenrezig's compassion in this
world, he was both the compassion of Chenrezig and the courage I someday
hope to achieve.
Lama Kathy Wesley is resident teacher at the Columbus Karma Thegsum Choling


Tough-love remedy for an unruly teen: Two years. With monks. In Cambodia.

By Christine Clarridge, Seattle Times, Dec 5, 2006

Seattle, WA (USA) -- Chou Sa-Ngoun was desperate. Her teenage son was skipping school for weeks at a time, using drugs, getting arrested, staying out all night, hanging out with the wrong kids.

It's unrestrained exuberance for Chou Sa-Ngoun as she hugs her son Michael on Saturday for the first time in two years. Michael returned last month after living for two years with monks in Cambodia. In a ceremony Saturday at Wat Khemarak Pothiram temple in White Center, Michael was freed of the monks' vow not to touch women ?a including his mother.

Nothing she did seemed to make any difference. Grounding didn't work. Neither did yelling, crying, taking away privileges, counseling, switching schools, probation or stints in juvenile hall.

She called the Army, but was told her son, Michael Sa-Ngoun, was too young to enlist. She begged for temporary placement in a foster home, but law-enforcement and social-service agencies said there wasn't much more they could do for him, or to him. He wasn't really that bad, they said.

"They said he's just being a teenager," she said. "They said they couldn't do anything until he did something more serious. But by the time he did something more serious it could be too late."

Finally, at the end of a family trip to Cambodia in 2004, Chou told Michael that they were leaving him behind. She, her husband and Michael's two younger siblings returned to their Tukwila home while Michael remained in a remote village to be raised and taught by monks in a Buddhist temple.

After two years of living as a monk in Cambodia, Michael, now 17, returned home Nov. 12 with a high-school diploma, job skills and a commitment, he said, to leading a "good life."

"I just felt different one day," he said shortly after his return. "I learned that you have to give up wanting things and accept what you are given. I learned about the afterlife and was taught that if you keep doing good, you'll have a good afterlife."

Chou doesn't know whether the change in her son will be lasting, particularly since he's back in the city where he once ran with the wrong crowd and was seduced by temptation. But she's hopeful the past two years living a life few Western teens will ever know will have a permanent and profound effect on her oldest child.

"I had tried every single thing I could think of," she said. " I thought this was the only way to save my firstborn."

Grounding didn't work

Michael began getting into trouble at school when he was 12. Then he started skipping school weeks at a time with the encouragement of some older neighborhood kids.

"I would drop him off at the front door [of the school] and he would leave out the back," Chou said.

He lied to his parents all the time, his mother said, made straight F's, ignored his chores and his curfew, and sometimes didn't come home at all.

Chou tried grounding him, taking away computer access and video games, and even locking him out of the house. But he always found ways around the restrictions.

One time, the school called her at her job at a medical clinic and said Michael was absent. She came home to find he'd broken into the house with a friend and was on the computer looking at porn and drinking beer.

In 2002, Michael got caught stealing merchandise from JC Penney. The next year he was charged with residential burglary and convicted of second-degree vehicle prowl and stealing a car.

One day, the police asked her to pick him up, but she refused. They kept him for one night but brought him around the next day. When she wouldn't let him in, he broke screens trying to find a way into the house. Another time, he came home badly beaten.

Looking back on those times, Michael says the only things he cared about were money and girls. Beyond that, the tall, thin young man has a difficult time explaining that part of his life.

"I guess I just didn't care," he said. "I was following the crowd, doing what was easy and fun."

Leaving him behind

When Michael was 14, Chou began planning a trip to Cambodia, her mother's homeland. Her husband ?a Michael's stepfather ?a suggested they leave Michael behind for a week or two.

"I thought that the hardship would be good for him," said Sanny Sa-Ngoun, a carpenter who was raised in Cambodia.

Neither parent had living relatives in Cambodia, but a friend from Bellevue suggested they leave Michael in the care of Buddhist monks in the town of Krolong, a tiny village in the Kampong Cham region with no electricity, no plumbing and no phones.

In November 2004, the family flew in to Phnom Penh and spent the first few days visiting great temples and cities. They eventually made their way to Krolong.

With a little more than a week of vacation left, Chou told Michael they were returning to the U.S. without him.

He raged at first and planned to flee, but didn't have money, a plane ticket or a place to go. Before his family left Cambodia, he went on a hunger strike and pleaded for another chance.

Chou told Michael that the only way he was coming home was if he lived for a time in the temple and changed his ways.

Michael realized he had no choice. He donned the orange robes of the Buddhist monks, allowed his head to be shaved and mouthed the vows.

He says now that he was resentful. He felt like he'd been abandoned in a strange country, where he didn't speak the language and hated the food. He missed the trappings of his former life: television, computers and his friends.

In the first weeks and months, Chou listened for a change in his attitude and voice whenever he called home. When she didn't hear it, she told him, "Just a little while longer."

A new world

Buddhist monks are similar to priests and pastors in some Western religions. Taking vows of celibacy, simplicity and service, monks conduct religious ceremonies and rituals and give blessings. They have often traditionally been the most educated people, passing their knowledge from one generation of monks to the next. They often filled the role of educators in many smaller villages.

The temple will take in any young man, regardless of race, background or financial ability, who is willing to study Buddhism as a monk. There is no financial cost or expected payback, but the families of many do make financial contributions to the village or the temple. Because the Sa-Ngouns did not want their son to take food from the mouths of others, they sent $100 for village use.

The Krolong temple and school, which was at the physical and spiritual center of the village, represented an entirely new world for the teen from Seattle.

In silence, Michael rose at 5:45 each morning. He drew buckets of water and laid out two rugs, two place settings and two towels for his teacher and the elder monk, whom he called "Grandpa."

He then set a place for himself, called the two and they ate their meal of rice and meat or fish together. He rested for 10 minutes and went to work outside on whatever needed doing around the temple and school grounds.

He and the other young monks learned to mix mortar, lay stone and build fences. They had friendly competitions to be the best. He began to understand and speak the Cambodian language, and then to study the Buddhist prayers and teachings.

"I learned to try to be free from wanting things, and I learned a lot about older people, how to talk to them and thank them," he said.

He washed at the water pump, and then he and the other monks would take containers and go from door to door among the villagers asking for food in exchange for blessings.

They could not refuse food or ask for more. "We took what was given to us," Michael said. That food was placed in a community dish and made up the monks' final meal of the day, which was eaten together at noon.

One night he had a dream that the 12 evil spirits that were part of his Buddhist teachings tried to keep him from living a good life. He was scared, he said, and when he woke up he found that he didn't see the temple, the village or the country as a prison anymore. He understood why his parents did what they had done.

"I got to thinking about it and figured out I was wrong. I was actually pretty bad," he said.

When he spoke to his mother the next time ?a about nine months into his stay ?a he told her he wanted to stay in Cambodia a while longer.

She arranged for him to receive study packets from a high-school correspondence course. He took tests online at an Internet cafe in a larger town where he was taken by a villager on motorcycle.

A few months ago, he received his high-school diploma. He told his mother he was ready to return.

Back home again

He arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last month still wearing his flowing orange robes. He still honored the monks' vows that, among other things, forbade him from touching women and kept him from hugging his mother.

He stayed up the whole first night watching TV, then slept, then watched some more TV. It looked to him like things had changed. "All the construction," he said.

The American food he'd missed so much tasted plain. And he's been overwhelmed by all the noise and activity.

He's been invited to say chants and prayers and give blessings at the Buddhist temples in Olympia, White Center and in people's homes.

"People bow down to him and ask for his blessing," his mother said. "That's how they show their respect."

In a traditional cleansing ceremony that the whole family participated in at the White Center temple on Saturday, Michael was freed from his strict vows, took off his robes and emerged wearing street clothes. The ceremony marked a rite of passage, his journey from Buddhist teachings back to his Western world.

He doesn't plan to renounce what he's learned. But he is now able to hug his mother and find a job.

His first goal is to petition the court to seal his juvenile records because that part of his life is over, he said, "and it's embarrassing." He hopes to land a job in a restaurant, and a portion of what he earns will be sent to the Cambodian temple ?a not because it is expected of him, but because he sees the needs, he said.

"They have very little," he said.

Michael and his family realize that the true test of his experience is yet to come, when he fully re-enters the world of teenagers and temptations.

But he said he's certain that he does not want to return to his old ways.

When he goes back to Cambodia, he wants it to be for a visit and not a sentence.

"I do feel wiser and more at peace," he said. "I thought that what my mother did was harsh, but I learned a lot about life and consequences. I saw poverty and learned how lucky I was."

"It was hard," Chou agrees. "But I saw where he was going and I said, 'I can't let this happen. I can't give up. If this is the only way to save my son and give him a future, then this is what I have to do.'

"I'm very proud of him now, and I'm very hopeful."


On top of the ROOF of the WORLD
An infectious smile and the right lines. Meet Miss Tibet who made it to the
top 15 at the Miss Earth Pageant in Philippines
Namita Kohli
Delhi Newsline
Sunday , January 07, 200
New Delhi, January 6: For an average 21-year-old, Tsering Chungtak is
equally at ease with mouthing quotable quotes as she is eating aloo chaat
from the local vendor. With her easy confidence, infectious smile and
peace-be-with-the-world lines, the recently crowned Miss Tibet could give
the Sushmitas and Aishwaryas some competition.
Just back from the month long Miss Earth pageant at Philippines, (and making
to the top 15), Chungtak is still over the moon.
"It was a lifetime experience. I wasn't prepared and went at the spur of the
moment, but then, it was worth it," says the plucky young lady, a second
year student of Sociology at Hindu College. Talking about doing things for a
lark, Chungtak recalls how she went for the Miss Tibet contest without
informing family or friends.
Held annually at Dharamsala, the contest has been stuck in controversies for
the past two years: last year there was only one contestant while the year
before the winner had to withdraw from the Miss Earth pageant due to Chinese
pressure. While the "modern Tibetan song and dance routine" clinched the
title against the five-odd contestants at Miss Tibet, the international
pageant was no mean feat: competing against 90 participants, the photo ops,
press conferences and hectic partying.
"It was so tiring. But bonding with different girls made it enjoyable," says
Chungtak who made "great friends" with Miss India and Miss Pakistan at the
pageant. "At night, all three of us would crave for rajma chawal," she
giggles. What about Miss China? "Oh, she was so warm. But we couldn't
understand each other's language." After a brief pause she adds, "I realised
that the Chinese people are also like us. I felt like she was my sister."
A closed society for years, the new Tibetan generation is now becoming more
open, fuelling a debate on tradition versus modernity. Did she have to face
any opposition? "There are many who feel that contests like this shouldn't
be held. Fortunately, my family, including my brother, have been very
supportive," says the Shillong girl, who believes in a "blend of tradition
and modernity." The "opening up" has also predictably, led to a tremendous
curiosity about Tibetans and Chungtak feels that contests like these help
reach out to more people. "Everyone kept asking me about Tibetan culture.
They had seen the film Seven Years in Tibet and want to know more," she
And here, Chungtak is no beauty without a cause. At the contest, she voiced
the environmental concerns in Tibet and "China's callous disregard for Tibet's
environment." Even though she hasn't been to Tibet and is quite at home in
India, Chungtak says she wants to "contribute to the Tibetan society" in her
own way.
So what are her plans? "I am doing some ramp shows. But I want to study and
have a job." What about Bollywood? "I would like to do Tibetan films. And
given a chance, I would like to spread awareness about my culture."
Till then, she's happy to be the unassuming aloo chaat girl.

Buddha Meets Hollywood

By Susanne Weingarten, Spiegel Online, Dec 20, 2006

Los Angeles, USA -- When Richard Gere meditates in India, even the Dalai Lama makes time for his famous acolyte. Religion has become the opiate of choice for the U.S. acting profession. Some stars need it to massage their egos. But for a heart-throb like Gere, meditation may be the path to overcoming his narcissism.

<< Dalai Lama, acolyte Gere: "You have no idea how much monkey stuff is going on in your mind, how cluttered it is" (DPA)

When Richard Gere reflects on his youth, he pictures a depressive, brooding, lost young man with a leather jacket and long hair. Someone toting around a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist tome Being and Nothingness. Someone harboring thoughts of suicide who checked himself into a New York psychiatric clinic at the age of 21.

When others recall the young Richard Gere, sex comes more readily to mind than existentialism. In his home city of Syracuse he had girls "diving at him from across the street," Gere's sister Joanne recalls. He was a "gorgeous hunk," gushes one theater director who had shared a dressing room with Gere at the Provincetown Players in the late 1960s. Like the rest of the troupe, he looks back with gloomy nostalgia at the supple ex-gymnast with the irresistible erotic aura. That's how easily self-image and external perceptions can diverge.

The erotic aura no doubt helped make Gere a movie star in the first place. His 1980 breakthrough - American Gigolo - featuring the actor playing a high-class Beverly Hills toy boy, is basically about Gere's phenomenal sexual impact on his environment.

But it was a glimpse of his inner self that made Richard Gere a Buddhist. The depressed young man had sought meaning in life and a way out of despair. He finally found both - not in the writings of Sartre but in Eastern religion. "Back then doubts were eating away at me," Gere noted a few years ago. "And Buddhism as a religion seemed like the therapeutic way to deal with that. I know it was the right decision. For the first time, I felt I had really found myself."

After the Dalai Lama, the 57-year-old Gere is the Western world's best known Buddhist. Nevertheless, to this day many find it hard to reconcile his Hollywood success with his faith. "Monk or macho?" asked Playboy, displaying characteristic subtlety.

When Hollywood greats discover their spirituality and begin extolling the virtues of introspection in a world that rewards superficiality with dizzying fees, skepticism toward professed piety comes easy. Many stars indulge in faith-hopping, desperately chasing the latest trend (and the promise of everlasting youth, perpetual success and eternal life). The winds of psychospirituality blow constantly through Hollywood. First it was Buddhism, then came Scientology, followed by the New Age guru Deepak Chopra. And for the past few years stars have embraced the questionable merits of the Kabbalah movement, the current doctrine du jour of the cinema city.

Most popular of all are the guilt-free spiritual fads that survive without taboos or a stern, vengeful God, and refrain from preaching the renunciation of all worldly pleasures. Piety has no place here, nor does submitting to the commandments of a higher being, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, it fulfills a largely therapeutic function, as Gere's case illustrates. It focuses on the individual, emphasizing high self-esteem and well-being. Religion can then become an active lifestyle component, alongside the psychotherapist, the Yoga instructor, the nutrition adviser and the personal trainer. In Hollywood, fulfillment is viewed solely through the prism of commercial success. And success means staying mentally and physically fit.

Scientology and Kabbalah in particular have repositioned their brand of religion as a training camp for the spirit. These two movements promise disciples total wish-fulfillment, even in the most profane of realms. They pledge to deliver better sex, bigger fees and greater professional success. Both appeal to the ambition - not to mention megalomania - of many Hollywood stars.

In an industry that espouses "Nobody knows anything" as its sole precept, these prospects of fulfillment satisfy a need - something Gere also understood. They offer stability in a world where success and fame hinge wholly on intangible factors, and everyone is only as good as their last film. And they are empowering: the individual gains the ability to influence his or her own development, no doubt a persuasive notion to these high-strung artists.

The story goes that Gere took to his bed fully clothed after he was fired as the lead actor in The Lords of Flatbush in the mid-1970s. Then he experimented with meditation for the first time.

Now he sets aside at least three-quarters of an hour a day for his ritual, rising at 4:30 a.m. if necessary because, he says, this introspective interval ensures him "a relaxed, stress-free life," adding that "Almost all forms of meditation are a form of looking at the mind. At the start you are almost amazed how much noise is going on there. You have no idea how much monkey stuff is going on, how cluttered it is. You look at that and you're acknowledging what the mind is, you're taming it, and when you have done that you have learned the power of concentration."

Gere has never exploited his belief system to serve his career, unlike, say, the L. Ron Hubbard adepts Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Instead he comes across as a man who has used religion as a deliverance from his egocentricity, rather than as a tool for spiritual justification and selfaggrandizement. Gere is a narcissist seeking to overcome his infatuation with his own image.

Gere has always been fascinated by the "idea of emptiness" in Eastern religions. "That I was going to disappear was a positive thing to me", he has said. "I would be negated and there would be no more pain because there would be no me. And, I think I'm still hoping that will happen, but I see it in a slightly different way now."

In a city of inflated egos Richard Gere has spent decades cutting himself down to size. This forceful renunciation of self may merely be narcissism in its purest form, in which modesty conceals vanity. On the other hand, Gere's attitude is a whole lot more palatable than the messianic complexes of many Hollywood A-listers.

Apparently Gere's disappearing act has been successful. Journalists who meet him are wont to describe the man as "elusive as smoke," even as a "great big nobody." He is notorious for avoiding interviews, particularly when the questions probe his private life. (Following his divorce from the model Cindy Crawford, he has remarried and has a young son). He prefers turning the conversation toward politics and Buddhism. "You are free when you are no longer at the center of your own life," he professes.

Which does not mean he feels the urge to abandon his Hollywood career. "In this lifetime" his job happens to be acting. "In other lifetimes there are other jobs," he says. Richard Gere, reincarnated as an accountant?

And the fame? All Hollywood stars claim they have little interest in being a celebrity, and are committed only to their craft. Very few sound credible - not even other Hollywood Buddhists like Sharon Stone, Tina Turner, Orlando Bloom, Steven Seagal and even Oliver Stone. But coming from Gere, this assertion rings true: his celebrity status might really be a source of discomfort. He seems keenly aware of his limited role in the big picture. A few years ago, he said he felt more comfortable now that he could put his fame to a good cause.

His private therapeutic journey has taken the American Gigolo on a sociopolitical crusade; now he can demonstrate that life no longer revolves solely around him. As a disciple of the Gelugpa School of Buddhism that holds sway predominantly in Tibet, Gere has embraced the cause of the repressed Tibetans. Several times a year he visits Dharamsala in northern India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, where he practices his faith under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama himself - such are the perks of global stardom. But he's also a political activist.

In 1987 he helped found the "Tibet House," a cultural institute in New York City. Later he set up the Gere Foundation, which aids Tibetan refugees and promotes an autonomous Tibet. Gere comes across as a knowledgeable lobbyist when he attends conferences, makes speeches and writes op-ed pieces. He is unwelcome in China after repeatedly condemning the ongoing Chinese occupation - once even during the Oscar awards in the early 1990s.

Gere is "an amazing man," says director David Siegel, who shot the religious family drama Bee Season with the actor in 2005. "He spends a huge amount of time at the service of helping others."

Why, of all faiths, was it Buddhism that helped Gere to the enlightenment and wisdom that his friends believe he's attained today? Why not Christianity, the religion he was raised with? The son of an insurance agent and homemaker in upstate New York, Gere grew up in a middle-class family. He was one of five children whose parents sang in the choir of the Methodist Church they attended every Sunday. That's light years from Dharamsala.

But Gere considered Christian institutions "corrupt." His religious upbringing seemed far removed from the teachings of Jesus Christ, more concerned with preserving the Methodist establishment. Discovering meditation was tantamount to finding his "real life." He said, "Every time I sit down and wrap my legs over my knees, I see this image of myself and I say, 'Where the fuck did this come from?' I have no idea." But Gere believes in karma, a deep inner bond that led him to Tibetan Buddhism.

Switching religions is more commonplace in the United States than in Europe. California, the "Coast of Dreams," which draws those who feel constrained in other, more religiously claustrophobic parts of the country, has demonstrated a great tolerance for all forms of spiritual adventure. The first commandment in the Golden State is to seek out the belief system that suits you best. If the appeal of your parents' religion has faded, California offers an alternative.

The insurgent Beat Generation writers of the 1950s were responsible for introducing Buddhism onto the American religious scene. It suited their antiauthoritarian, revolutionary streak that Buddhism had no patriarchal God presiding over all things; so did its doctrine that everything is part of a grand order of things.

Of course, the Beats could never have foreseen the sway that Buddhism would hold over hierarchical and strictly conservative Hollywood. But at least the Dalai Lama seems to have grasped the involuntary absurdity of the film industry. When he first met Gere in the early 1980s, he asked the star whether he actually felt the emotions he portrayed on screen. Gere replied that this made them appear more credible. His holiness burst out laughing. Evidently the acolyte is still mystified by his master's amusement.



Priest brings Zen to San Francisco's neediest souls

by Justin Berton, San Francisco, Jan 5, 2006

Buddhist teaches meditation, holds memorials for homeless

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Inside the community room of the Raman Hotel, a single-room occupancy hotel at Howard and Sixth streets, Jana Drakka set up a makeshift altar for a tenant named Guillermo who had died a week earlier.

"Memo," as his fellow residents and caseworkers knew him, was a 76-year-old World War II veteran as well as an alcoholic who had ricocheted among the city's streets and homeless shelters.

He had spent most of his last three years at the Raman, one of city's low-rent SROs, and the 16 people who had gathered at his memorial reflected the tail end of his life: eight tenants from the Raman and eight social workers who had met him at rehab clinics, nursing facilities and a halfway house for parolees on the mend -- but not a family member in sight.

At the altar, Drakka, an ordained Buddhist priest, dressed in a layered kamboa, dropped pear incense onto a piece of charcoal and offered a prayer. "Memo," she said in her lithe Scottish accent, "we're here to give you a proper send-off."

In the past three years, Drakka has performed about 100 such memorials inside SROs in the Mission, Tenderloin and South of Market districts. No one keeps an official count of how many people die inside the estimated 500 hotels each year, said Sam Dodge, director of the Central City SRO Collaborative, but living conditions there are often stressful and uniquely fit for death.

The majority of the 30,000 residents are elderly and without health insurance, Dodge said; drug addicts, who often hole up in the cheap rooms, are more likely to overdose in an SRO than anywhere else in the city. In the past two months alone, at least nine people have died in Mission District hotels, said Christina Olague, coordinator of the Mission SRO Collaborative.

The caseload can keep Drakka busy. At 54, the priest has become the unofficial on-call chaplain to San Francisco's SRO constituency. In addition to the memorials, she conducts weekly meditation groups at five locations in what's believed to be the nation's first meditation network aimed directly at a homeless population.

Drakka was hardly born a Mother Teresa. Before she found Zen Buddhism, she was addicted to cigarettes, used drugs and was homeless. She also used her distinctly Scottish voice, which can be both grave and soothing, in a job as a telephone clairvoyant, charging $3 a minute for glimpses into the future.

But that was a past life.

"People will give you anything if you can tell them what's coming tomorrow," Drakka said before Memo's memorial. "Now, I much prefer helping people be in the present."

After Memo's send-off, Drakka changed out of her robe in the lobby restroom and boarded a bus to the San Francisco Zen Center at Page and Laguna streets. "That one was well attended," Drakka said afterward.

"Sometimes it's just me, a caseworker and a Coke machine."

Initially, Drakka wanted to be a nun. She grew up in Falkirk, a town in central Scotland, but became disappointed in Christianity when she realized she couldn't become a priest; the fact that she was lesbian didn't help. As a teenager, she smoked cigarettes, drank, took LSD and tried heroin.

By 30, she had moved to Amsterdam and engaged in the hedonistic lifestyle that city is known for. But it wasn't any fun being a lesbian in a place so open about sexuality, she joked. "I'd come from a place where we had to hide, lest we get put on a blacklist."

Along the way she began studying as a Wiccan priestess, honing the female intuition she said she'd felt since childhood. Shortly after she moved to San Francisco in 1989, she answered a newspaper ad seeking a person with "good psychic energy."

Looking back, Drakka said, she was always uncomfortable taking the money. Her clients, she soon learned, were usually poor and uneducated, and they sought news about when their finances would magically improve. "I finally realized it was disempowering," she said. "Pretty soon, these people are calling you, relying on you to tell them everything with what's going to happen in their lives. ... It wasn't really helpful."

At home, Drakka was caught in her own cycle of troubles. She was in an emotionally abusive relationship so devastating that she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. The breakup left her homeless, living mostly in a friend's basement. Amid the tumult, she started reading a book that radically shifted her path:

"Street Zen," the biography of Issan Dorsey, the former San Francisco drag queen and drug addict who later became abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro.

Dorsey's biography, Drakka said, turned her toward Buddhist practice and eventually to a residence at the Zen Center.

Fourteen years later, Drakka still lives at the center, where she meditates three hours a day and lives on a $500 monthly stipend. "I'm glad I didn't come to Zen until I was 40," she said. "I woulda missed a lot."

Pamela Walker, a resident of the Mission Hotel for the past seven years, met Drakka at one of the priest's first memorials. Last year, Walker's husband, Richard Maggard, died, followed by the death of her best friend, Rene Goria, 80, also a resident of the hotel.

"I've been in chaos this year," Walker said one morning after a meditation group hosted by Drakka. Walker had cataracts removed from both eyes this summer, and she hasn't been able to work for several years. "Things have been so crazy, it's hard to keep my head on an even level. But these meetings, they help me free my mind."

Walker, who has been attending the meditation groups since July, she said she now meditates once a day in her room at the Mission, even though it can be difficult with the noise of rumbling buses, delivery trucks and street hustlers on South Van Ness Avenue below.

"But what am I going to do?" Walker asked. "Not meditate?"

The idea to host the first mediation group came in October 2004, from Laura Guzman, the director of Mission Neighborhood Resource Center. Guzman tried to contact the Dharma Punx, a group of young, urban meditators. But Guzman said her call went unreturned, so she called the Zen Center, where Drakka agreed to give it a try.

When Drakka arrived at the homeless clinic, as Guzman recalled, she found about 15 homeless people and SRO residents in the conference room who'd never meditated before. Drakka brought a meditation bell and a Buddha statuette, and said, "We're just going to be quiet for a moment and see what happens."

Two years later, Drakka has 40 regulars attending five meditation groups. In October, at the National Harm Reduction Conference in Oakland, Anibal Mejia, a therapist at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center, presented a white paper on the effects of Drakka's work. Meditation, aside from lowering blood pressure and stress levels, can also promote a practitioner's self-awareness, according to a study published last year by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who studied data collected from a dozen Buddhist monks, including the Dalai Lama.

Mejia said that since Drakka has worked at the center, he's seen clients reduce stress and become more productive, especially methamphetamine addicts and alcoholics. In one case, Mejia said, a former meth addict credited meditation as the impetus for his return to the straight life.

"With this population, holding a focus is not an easy thing to do," Mejia said. "But it is a very effective thing. ... Jana helps us. We're just looking for something to make today a little better ... and build from there."

For the memorials, Drakka tries to learn about the dead from caseworkers and residents. One man, she was told, sat on a milk crate every day and drank vodka, not saying a word to anyone. So she included his love of drink in her homily. Many of the dead are veterans, she has noticed, and others are junkies or suicides.

"When I saw the dreadful conditions and the isolation the people lived in the hotels," she said, shaking her head one day, "it's what got to me. And the name is usually all they know about a person."

On a rainy Friday afternoon, just two days after Memo's service, Drakka returned to the Raman Hotel. This time, a man named Charles, 76, had died in his sleep. Drakka wore her formal robes to the service and carried a shoulder bag with white irises poking out of the top. Charles had four children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

He'd been homeless for about 10 years, according to a caseworker, and had lived in the Raman for the past year. When they found his body, the medics said he could have died from a stroke or heart attack, but no one was sure.

Unlike most of the memorials, family members attended this one. An ex-wife brought a framed photo of Charles from his driver's license, which had been enlarged to 8 1/2 by 11 inches. His well-lined face was topped off by a head of salt-and-pepper dreadlocks.

After the ceremony, the family members and residents mingled near the old television set, and Drakka repacked her items and thought about her week ahead. She had meditation groups to run, and she'd attend a memorial at City Hall for all the homeless people who had died in 2006.

Oh, yes, she recalled: She'd received a phone call earlier in the day from the Mission Hotel.

"This one, a suicide," she said.