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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Dalai Lama's visit near, Cedar Valley residents still learning from Buddha

March 15, 2010

WCF Courier
March 14, 2010

CEDAR FALLS - The day is drawing to a close. Five men and three women,
united by a common interest, gather to take another step on their spiritual

The weekly get-together functions as part book club, part oasis for
meditation. The Buddhist Path meets Thursdays at the Unitarian Universalist
Society of Black Hawk County on Cedar Heights Drive.

To launch the session, members share what they call Buddhist moments,
stories from the past week when theory became reality. One man talks about
refusing to indulge in idle talk that likely would have dampened his spirit.
A woman talks about wanting to focus on the present despite a hectic

Application is central to Buddhism, said the Rev. Eva Cameron, a Unitarian
Universalist minister who follows the philosophy.

"Every religion has things you can do, practice, know. ... But unless it's
going to somehow transform your life, to me, there's not much point," she


Buddhism began in India and spread throughout Asia and beyond.

It remains a distinctly minority religion in Iowa and the United States.

America is home to at least 1.6 million Buddhists, less than 1 percent of
the U.S. population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Scholars report difficulty obtaining reliable head counts, however, and
other studies suggest twice as many adherents in the U.S.

Counting Buddhists in the Cedar Valley is also difficult, Cameron said.
Cedar Falls and Waterloo do not have a Buddhist temple or education center,
and some residents travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City or Lansing for these

Regular meditation retreats in Cedar Falls have attracted up to 40
participants. Cameron, however, recognizes some may just be curious.

Monks may wear traditional robes. But many Buddhists - upholding commitments
to avoid liquor, violence and sexual misconduct - can easily blend into
Judeo-Christian communities, said James Robinson, an associate professor of
religion specializing in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Northern

"You could live in small-town Iowa and no one would know," Robinson said.

Those who practice and study Buddhism note an ongoing interest in the Cedar
Valley. Classes on the philosophy and eastern religions are popular among
college students and public, Robinson said.

The Cedar Valley is also anticipating a visit by the 14th Dalai Lama, a
renowned Buddhist monk and the exiled spiritual and political leader of
Tibet. He will speak May 18 at UNI, but tickets for his main address sold
out in less than three hours.

Cameron and Robinson agree the Dalai Lama's appeal extends beyond those
interested in Tibetan Buddhism as a religion. His keynote address in Cedar
Falls is titled, "The Power of Education."

"The Dalai Lama has somehow figured out ways to speak to the hearts of
people who don't really understand Buddhism," Cameron said.

Though many in the audience will likely be unfamiliar with the tenants of
Buddhism, Karen Eckhoff, 51, of Waterloo is serious about the religion she
says teaches her to practice compassion. Most people appear to respect her
choice. She doubts many firmly grasp the concepts.

"Most people really don't know what it is," Eckhoff said.

In 2004, Eckhoff took a vow to become a Tibetan Buddhist. She regularly
practices meditation and studies under a lama - or teacher - but insists she
has a lot to learn.

"There are so many variances and levels of what Buddhism is," she said.

Nuts and bolts

Buddhism, like other religions, is made up of various schools and sects. The
major ones are Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Vajrayana, or Tibetan
Buddhism, developed out of Mahayana.

Each school varies somewhat in its teachings. Buddhism also varies by
country and culture, Cameron said, sometimes integrated with tribal
religious beliefs.

Basic tenants exist.

Buddhism rests on what are known as the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha - a
prince turned holy man born some 500 years before Jesus Christ - coined four
ideas that are foundational.

The first truths attributed to the Buddha, who the faithful believe attained
enlightenment or perfect understanding, establish that all of life is
suffering and that suffering comes from desires or attachments.

"Everyone sort of wishes they had more stuff than they actually have, or
different stuff," Cameron said. "That's the nature of human life.

"The next question sort of becomes, what do you do with that?"

Buddhism teaches that ending desire will end suffering. He also prescribed a
method. This set of values, which include having correct thoughts, speech
and actions, is known as the Eightfold Path.

"These are very simple concepts and really deep," Cameron said.

Buddhism in practice

Buddhism, a science of the mind, permeates everyday life and offers
instruction on how to view circumstances and situations, Dolma Tsering said.
She is a graduate student studying business at UNI but was born in India.
Ethnically, Tsering is Tibetan and a lifelong Buddhist.

Karma - a belief that one's actions determine the nature of one's
existence - is central to Buddhist thought, Tsering said. Many Buddhists
believe in reincarnation, and that life and death are cyclical. Individuals
continue to be reborn, though Buddhism allows a way out once enlightenment
is achieved.

As a Buddhist, Tsering, 28, sees suffering - whether through disease or
misfortune - not as the will of a god but as a consequence of previous

"Instead of blaming others for what's wrong with you, we blame ourselves,"
Tsering said.

The perspective is helpful to Tsering because it breeds a sense of
responsibility, acceptance and understanding. The view also reinforces
solidarity with mankind, she said.

"You are not the only one," Tsering added.

Forgiveness and compassion are also key elements, said Dhondup, who has only
one name. So are the value, equality and interdependence of all living
things. Children are also taught to consider the needs of others first, says
the UNI graduate student from Tibet.

Cultural Buddhists practicing religious rituals while living abroad require
a certain amount of flexibility. Tsering and Dhondup keep simple altars in
their dorm rooms, which include a picture of the Dalai Lama. Both also try
to keep up with morning and evening prayers and water offerings, which can
be tricky given a college student's schedule.

Many Tibetans, including Tsering's parents and Dhondup, fled their homeland
because of an ongoing dispute with Chinese authorities over governance and
human rights.

Tsering says she hasn't encountered any hardships practicing Buddhism in the
U.S. Much of her religion is internal.

"It always goes with you," she said.

The appeal

Tsering and Dhondup grew up with a Buddhist outlook. Most other Cedar Valley
residents developed an interest in the eastern ideology later in life. Some
who attend Buddhist Path call themselves Buddhist, while others are content
to integrate aspects of the philosophy into their lives.

Buddhism presumes to offer the most successful path to end suffering,
Robinson said, but concedes the value and encourages tolerance of other
belief systems.

For Eckhoff, it was a matter of finding a religion that matched her own

"I find that this works really well for me," she said.

As a Tibetan Buddhist, she strives to embrace virtues, such as generosity
and truthfulness, and abandon harmful tendencies, like excessive speech.

"I'm really, really lousy at that one," Eckhoff laughed.

Stacilyn Chananie-Hill, 34, of Evansdale turned to Buddhism after studying
Asian religions and philosophy in college. Raised in a Mormon household,
Chananie-Hill approaches Buddhism as way of thinking and a lifestyle.

"There was something about that that really spoke to me, that was really
appealing," she said.

She traces her inspiration to a Buddhist monk she met while both were being
treated for cancer. Chananie-Hill says she struggled with a sense of
bitterness while the monk - diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor - exuded a
positive attitude.

"And I never saw someone who had such light and love," Chananie-Hill said.

She visited a Tibetan monastery, Kagyu Samye Ling, in Scotland in 2008.
Chananie-Hill marveled that other Buddhists diligently offered prayers of
compassion for everyone, even those who caused harm and pain to others.

Chananie-Hill eventually took the concept to heart while campaigning in Des
Moines for marriage rights for homosexual couples. She said Buddhism helped
her respond to opposition and avoid unproductive dialogue.

"You leave your loving and compassionate mark, and Buddhists do that knowing
it will spread," she said.

Ralph Burr, 61, of Cedar Falls, started attending Buddhist Path meetings out
of curiosity. Over the years, he said he learned to focus on his reaction to
situations rather than circumstances. These days, its gotten easier to let
the stress just "roll off," he said.

"Ultimately, it's how we respond to it that makes the difference," Burr

Cameron's father is a Buddhist teacher and translator. As an adult, she
began to lean on Buddhist teachings when facing cancer and divorce in the
same year.

Buddhism offers her tools to focus on happiness and joy, Cameron said. She
could dwell on her problems but instead tries to focus on what's good and
what's right.

"And so for me, that knowledge, that understanding, that means I get the
choice every day over and over again."
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