I’m not sure that I realized until a couple of years ago that there are various sects of Buddhism. It didn’t occur to me that Buddhism wasn’t just a single, undivided religion. My perspective was evidently limited; I mean, I was well aware of the fact that Judaism had multiple branches, so why wouldn’t Buddhism have fractures somewhat in the 2,500 years since the Buddha awoke?
When I first became aware that there was more than one type of Buddhism, it seemed to me that Buddhist sects were as plentiful as the denominations of Christianity. I was mistaken (gasp!) on that point as well. As it turns out, the variety of names used to describe the same schools of Buddhism makes them seem more numerous that they really are. Theravada is the Lesser Vehicle is Hinayana, for instance (though I understand that Hinayana is a pejorative that is little used in common parlance). My limited understanding tells me that there are three schools of Buddhism—Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana—though Vajrayana is really an offshoot of the Mahayana school. Vajrayana is alternatively referred to as Tibetan Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism. And within Vajrayana there are the Kagyu, Gelug, New Kadampa, Nyingma, Sakya… *Sigh* See what I mean?
So why does any of this really matter? After all, it took me years to realize I was a Buddhist in the first place; wouldn’t it have made sense to live with that epiphany for a time before trying to refine myself into a specific kind of Buddhist?
At the same time that I was coming to understand I was a Buddhist, I was feeling a keen need for community. A couple of years of study and meditation solidified my association with the Buddha and rooted my spirituality in the Dharma (truth, in Sanskrit, I believe), the collection of Buddhist teachings. The third of the Three Jewels—the Sangha or community—was absent, however, and the solitary spiritual exploration I had worn for more than two years was beginning to look a bit threadbare. My religion may have changed, but the basic human need to belong, to be with others similarly minded, was not.
Don’t keep us on the edge of our seats, Dean! Tell us what happened next. Okay, you dragged it out of me. I did what any semi-compulsive (semi?) academic researcher would do—I scoured the Internet. Seriously, I googled “Buddhism New York.” Did you know there are, like, a bajillion Buddhist monasteries and centers in New York? Not a million, not a billion—a bajillion. How to sift through the multitudes? The first cut was pragmatic—it needed to be relatively near to my home, so I could actually visit and participate in the community. Otherwise, I could just have affiliated myself with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France. (Turns out, Thây has a center in New York, too—Blue Cliff Monastery—though it’s a bit too far away.)
The next cut turned out to be simpler than expected. My focus centered on Tibetan sects almost exclusively. There’s just something about Tibet, isn’t there? It has drawn me in, tugged at my heart, for decades. The precariousness of the life of occupation, the plight of the exiles, the depth of the people’s spirituality in the face of adversity, the majesty of the Himalayas, the charisma of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama. All of these things had occupied my mind, commanded my concern, stoked my moral outrage, long before I had an inkling I would be a Buddhist. The depth of the Tibetan people’s spirituality and fortitude in the face of adversity convinced me that they must know something that I should learn.
Compassion is a common foundation of all Buddhism, though I sensed a particularly strong devotion in Tibetan Buddhism to showing compassion to all beings, to seeking enlightenment not out of self-interest but in order to benefit others. Could it be a coincidence that I had been raised to believe that very thing?
From that point on, the results of the search were in the hands of serendipity. Somehow, some way, I settled on Kagyu Thubten Chöling, a monastery in the Karma Kagyu lineage in Wappingers Falls. (Karma Kagyu is but one of several branches of Kagyu. If I had been pressed, I couldn’t have distinguished one from the other.) I became a member and shortly afterwards signed up for KTC’s Dharma Path program to formalize my education in the Dharma. Last weekend, I was fortunate to see KTC’s abbot and guru, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, give a talk. Lama Norlha Rinpoche is getting old and has been ill in recent years, so I am told; he moves slowly, monks and nuns nearby to assist him if needed. Frail though he may be, he radiates peace and holiness, a palpable sense of wisdom, compassion, strength, love. I can honestly say that I would have done anything he asked from the moment I first saw him.
Can’t explain it; don’t need to.
That afternoon, Lama Norlha Rinpoche conducted a Buddha Amitabha empowerment; an empowerment is a ceremony in which the guru initiates his followers into the practice of a given tantric deity. I understood going in that participation in the empowerment required taking refuge. I thought that meant that one had to have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which I had. I learned upon arriving that it was more formal, an actual formal offering of refuge by Lama Norlha Rinpoche. He offered to take responsibility for guiding my spiritual growth and protecting me, and I gratefully accepted, along with 20 or so others.
When I boarded the train in Tarrytown that morning to attend the event, I had no clue that the afternoon would end in so moving a fashion. The lightest touch of his fingers on my head left me feeling shaky for a couple of hours, like I had mainlined pure caffeine. Long after my jangling nerves had settled down, through this very moment, I still feel the warmth of realizing my journey toward enlightenment was no longer a solitary trek. I’m in community. The Sangha includes me.