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South Florida's Buddhists diverse

February 22, 2010

Dalai Lama may get the most attention, but South
Florida already has many Buddhist groups
James D. Davis
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 20, 2010

The Dalai Lama, who will speak at local colleges
Tuesday and Wednesday, may be the world's
best-known Buddhist. But South Florida is already
fertile soil for various forms of the religion.

There's a Vietnamese temple in Davie. A temple in
Tamarac built by Taiwanese Buddhists. Centers for
Zen and Tibetan Buddhism in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

One of the biggest pieces of religious real
estate in South Florida is the 126-acre Florida
Nature Culture Center in Weston, owned by Soka
Gakkai International, drawn from Japanese Buddhism.

The Buddhist leader -- whose speeches at Nova
Southeastern and Florida Atlantic universities
are sold out -- has helped catalyze the region's
spiritual development, Mai Nguyen believes.

"It used to be that not enough people were on a
spiritual path," said Nguyen, director of
ChakraSamvara Center in Miami Beach. "Now we have
a massive number of centers and lamas and
rinpoches and monks. The Dalai Lama cleared out a
lot of negatives for us. When he comes here, people work together."

And work they do.

In April, ChakraSamvara and the Wat Buddharangsi
Temple in Miami will cosponsor an exhibit of a
10-foot-tall Buddha, sculpted from a single piece of translucent jade.

Lama Glenn Mullin, who helped popularize Buddhism
through his Mystical Arts of Tibet organization,
will speak on Thursday at Books & Books in Coral
Gables. Mullin also will teach from Friday
through March 1 at ChakraSamvara Center on Miami Beach.

On Tuesday, members of the Broward Lotus Sangha,
a group of Vietnamese Zen practitioners, will
throw a "tailgate party brownbag lunch" before
the Dalai Lama's speech at Nova Southeastern --
then hold a tea party at a Starbucks afterward.

Though they come from various movements, many of
them voice admiration for the Dalai Lama. And perhaps more: affection.

"He's smart and witty, one of a kind," said
Khanya Moolsiri of Cooper City, secretary of Wat
Buddharangsi. "He has a charisma, wisdom,
knowledge, and something like a glow around him."

Beyond the temples and study centers, Buddhism
wields considerable influence. People who
wouldn't don a saffron robe may try yoga or
meditation. Bookstores stock volumes like the
Lotus Sutra, "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai
Lama -- and, of course, "Buddhism for Dummies."

"Someone could be Buddhist today, then Catholic
on Sunday," said Nathan Katz, founder of the
Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida
International University. "The time of fixed
religious identity is in its death throes."

Tibetan Buddhism found a local home a
quarter-century ago, when students asked two
monks in New York to start a teaching mission in
Palm Beach County. They met in a succession of
houses, churches and gymnasiums, then created the
Palm Beach Dharma Center in Lake Worth in 1999.

About 100 to 150 devotees chant, study and
meditate four days a week, and learn from their
two Tibetan teachers -- both titled rinpoche,
meaning "precious one" -- sharing them with
speaking tours and a monastery in the Catskills.

For member Tim Tavis, a major appeal of Tibetan
Buddhism is the mystical element -- the idea of
deities and shamans that can aid in a spiritual quest.

"For me, it's like climbing a mountain with all
kinds of climbing aids," Tavis said.

The Soka Gakkai center in Weston is part of a
movement that claims 12 million members in 192
nations and territories. They include 2,500
members in South Florida, twice as many as when the center opened in 1996.

The Weston center hosts national and
international conferences. It also holds Sunday
worship services, with people chanting before a
copy of the Lotus Sutra, which Soka Gakkai
adherents see as the core teaching from the
Buddha. They also hold twice-monthly youth rallies called "Rock the Era."

"In Soka Gakkai, the primary focus is on the
individual," said Ellen Soto, the center's peace
and community relations coordinator. "Every
person has Buddhahood, an enlightened condition.
You just have to awaken to it."

The Broward Lotus Sangha, which belongs to a
Vietnamese strain of Zen Buddhism, began meeting
informally around 2000, then incorporated in 2007.

The 50 or so regulars, who meet in west Broward,
include Asians, Latinos, Jews, Christians,
agnostics. "We're multicultural, multiethnic,
multisexual," said Martha Martinez, the sangha's president.

Miami's Wat Buddharangsi was founded in the
1980s, but the elaborate temple didn't open until
2003. It's dominated by a gold-covered Buddha
statue 23 feet tall, one of the largest in the
United States. The temple draws up to 500 for big
observances like the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha.

Members like Khanya Moolsiri also hold daily
devotions. At a home shrine made of dozens of
Buddha statuettes, Moolsiri chants, lights
candles and incense and sends out wishes for the
health and happiness of everyone.

"Even for animals," Moolsiri said. "When everyone
and everything is happy, you're the same. The No.
1 rule of all religions is to teach people to be
good. To teach the community to live in harmony."

Even people who don't practice Buddhism will
likely come to see the Dalai Lama, who has
visited South Florida twice before. The monk
stands simultaneously as an exiled martyr, a moral teacher, a hero to emulate.

That's fine with Buddhists, too.

"You know, Buddhists don't care if you're
Buddhist or not," said FIU's Katz. "If you're
Christian and the Dalai Lama touches you, and you
re-create some of what he teaches, that's
perfect. That's the highest teaching there is."
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