Ööööòhm goes my mind, like TV static, white noise, more sludge than Zen. I can’t mentally ride a mantra, apparently. My eyes open—
The silence has gravity that weighs the room down. Everything looks heavy, as if consciousness has grafted itself onto the small group of meditating Buddhists here at Losel Shedrup Ling of Knoxville (LSL-K), the Tibetan Buddhist center in Bearden. It’s slow motion; 20 minutes seem like an hour. Slowly the hum of electricity rises, droning through the silence. It’s coming out of the walls, out of the light fixtures. Filling the room with sonic fuzz. But it’s still peaceful, here in the eye of a suburban storm. Next door it’s business as usual at Mystical Markings tattoo parlor. The parking lot is near capacity. There are too many distractions for me, but no one moves. Right across Kingston Pike, the dinner shift at Naples Italian Restaurant is in full swing.
“Just relax into it,” I was told before the meditation began. It’s a field of pure potentiality, of total emptiness. That’s the kind of thing that Buddhists are wont to say. Like any cogent philosophy, always working to divine meaning from the ineffable.
“And emptiness is not the same as nothingness.” Ööööòhm , in the silence in my mind in Bearden——
“Is Hamlet understood ? No doubt, certainty is what drives one insane.— But one must be profound, an abyss, a philosopher to feel that way.— We are all afraid of truth.”
"Dharma is like Shakespeare,” says Jeffrey Davis, an associate professor at UT’s Educational Interpreter Program. He’s also been studying the Dharma for over a decade. “Shakespeare translates to any time, any culture, anywhere,” he goes on. “I believe that Dharma is like that. That’s how powerful it is.”
It’s also terribly abstruse, the study of Dharma, especially to an outsider like me, someone who has been raised a Catholic. The word itself comes out of the Brahmanical tradition in India, first coined to convey the idea that we should pay attention to all practices of righteousness, no matter their origin. “The teachings are very practical and very reasonable,” says Traci Black, LSL-K secretary. “Some practices are more esoteric than others. Some seem foreign to Western concepts of the world. One should practice what makes sense to them and what inspires them to be a better person.”
Everything has its esoterics and eccentrics, if you invest enough time into it.
The LSL-K center was founded in 1993 as a way to promote religious tolerance in Knoxville. Some members will even say that they don’t consider themselves Buddhists, not yet anyway. They’re just following the path, allowing it to take them where they need to go. Theirs is an ecumenical approach to Buddhism that’s progressive even among progressive Buddhists, which has lead some high-ranking Lamas to describe LSL-K as practicing non-partisan, or unbiased, Dharma.
I want to know God’s thoughts , Einstein once said, the rest are details…. The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.
Today, distilled forms of Eastern mysticism, especially yoga, are en vogue , even in Knoxville. The Metro Pulse calendar lists more than a dozen yoga classes each week, ranging from a yoga-pilates fusion class to a prenatal yoga class. Bellydancing seems popular, too. The exotic is as popular as ever, with people eager to jump into new cultural practices, picking and choosing what fits best, kind of like a cultural buffet.
“We get a few interested people each week,” says Greg Congleton, who works as a Business Analyst for TVA. He’s been with LSL-K for the better part of a decade. “Some of them stay. Many don’t.”
Talk of concepts like the Buddhafield and Dharma and Nirvana and Karma are good attention grabbers. We know these words, because we’ve seen them used in movies and regurgitated by phony spiritualists. But those are just words, placeholders for something that is so much bigger to the Buddhists.
In 1991, Congleton organized a reading of Jack Kerouac’s jazz-poem “Mexico City Blues,” which many consider to be his most realized Buddhist work. A crowd gathered at the Laurel Theater to hear R.B. Morris, Iron John Webb, Steve Dupree and Congleton read sections of the poem. They were joined by musicians Terry Hill, Dave Nichols, David Philips and Harold Nagge.
To hear Congleton talk about his journey into the Buddhafield, you’d think he was in a chemistry lab, conjuring his own kind of peace out of the Dharma. “[I see] Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, as a spiritual technology,” he explains. “The emphasis is on practice, as in practicing medicine. Belief and faith grow out of the practice…. I can see growth in my own compassion, however small.”
“There had to be a better way to use my life,” Black says, in a sense agreeing. “I quit work, and we moved to Union County near Norris Lake, and I spent a few years totally overwhelmed with being a parent and staring at trees. At some point I figured out that I was going to need some answers.”
Uncertainty is a big part of the journey , or at least that’s how it appears. There’s more talk of the soul as emptiness, a state of pure possibility. The revelers at LSL-K chant, in unison: By discussing the Dharma, may I obtain the state of full enlightenment and be able to benefit all sentient beings. I go for refuge until I am enlightened.
"If I were to tell you that I’m a linguist, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I do in two or three sentences,” Davis explains. “Dharma is a science. It’s not even really a religion. Dharma is a way of life, a philosophy. It encompasses all the sciences. All arts and sciences. The best way to say it is that Dharma is the antidote for all the suffering in life.”
I'm perched on a pillow at LSL-K, unable to figure out what I need to do with my hands. I don’t know what to expect, maybe some mantras and a healthy dose of new-age abracadabra? We’ve come together for a White Tara ceremony, which I’m told is part of the bodhisattva path that works to shift the tone of the planet from fear to total compassion. The words are lost on me. These large, sweeping claims of total bliss, it’s all part of the Buddhist mystique. To the newcomer, the whole ordeal might seem primitive, maybe even naïve in the modern world. But it’s all theater, as the ceremony begins:
The subduing of the mental afflictions was rivaled by none. Thus the sound of her name [Tara], which means the heroine, the swift-acting liberator, is renowned throughout all of the pure-realms of the buddhas. She takes the form of a woman, and she perfects the Dharma leading to enlightenment. Such a commitment had never been made before. And all the buddhas and bodhisattvas praised her, as if in a single voice.
The walls are lined with worshippers. The dreadlocked trustafarian type, sporting oversized earrings. There’s the ex-hippie, dressed casually in a button-down shirt. Tie-dye socks are cool, too. There seems to be a place for everyone, even the guy in the khakis and the Cosby sweater. It’s crowded, and hot with bodies. A few practitioners from Asheville—jokingly dubbed new-age-ville by traditionalists—have made the trip.
Outside, still in the parking lot, is a man dressed in colorful robes. He speaks through a translator. He’ll tell you that Karma has brought him here, that we have been calling him. His name is Norlha Rinpoche, perhaps one of the most important Lamas living in America.
The incense burns thick sheets of smoke. Rinpoche chants. Worshippers pray:
The Lama has finished the necessary preparations. So it’s now time for us to perform the offering of the pure-realm, which is the offering of—basically the entire universe—filled with all desirables, things that are pleasing and beautiful. We are offering that for empowerment.
The chanting continues, beautiful with its undulating patterns and angular harmonies. The Lama goes deeper, into the Buddhafield, perhaps. His voice stretches, as if he’s searching for the right tone, constantly tuning himself. Honey-scented water is poured on my head. We drink it, and immediately spit it into a large vase:
To purify your continuum, visualize in the sky the mother of all buddhas, surrounded by buddhas and bodhisattvas. In their presence, think that you yourself and all sentient beings go for refuge, from now until you obtain enlightenment. Give rise to the supreme bodhisattva, the unsurpassed enlightened attitude, and the determination to train in the bodhisattva conduct.
Then, Rinpoche speaks: “There are many who think that Chögyam Trungpa was crazy. But many Americans appreciate that it was crazy-wisdom. He understood the difficulties that some Westerners have when they meet with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.”
He’s talking about a pioneer, a Buddhist monk who mastered English and worked to break down cultural, historical and ideological barriers that make the transmission of Dharma so difficult. Although he never lost his faith in the traditional origins of Buddhism, Trungpa brought unorthodox Dharma practices to the West, opening doors for many students who would, as Rinpoche insists, go on to live successful lives.
“Everybody’s crazy,” Rinpoche says, “Outwardly [Trungpa] did the worst kind of things. He immersed himself in Hippie culture, did LSD and drank a lot of alcohol and many other things. That’s what people were doing. Everyone was crazy. But that’s what he did; he went inside of it, inside the culture, and brought everybody out.
“In the West, our minds are very active, and we don’t want to go so slowly. We’re used to things happening instantaneously. And that can be a problem with the Dharma. Tibetans are different, and don’t mind waiting a really long time.”
At the age of 47, Trungpa died of cirrhosis of the liver.
“I had heard that there were many Native Americans who died and were tortured in this area,” Rinpoche goes on, changing the subject. “I also heard about the people who died during the Civil War. This made me particularly compassionate, because I saw for myself the ugly things in Tibet during the Communist invasion. I saw many frightful things with my own eyes….
“I wish to build a stupa [a Buddhist shrine], to help balance the four elements. And a meditation hall. If we can do this, I will definitely divide my time between New York and the Knoxville area.”
The land for Knoxville’s proposed stupa came, in part, from a donation of property from professor Davis. There are a few hundred acres in Happy Valley near Abrams Creek that have been donated to Lama Rinpoche, all of it for a stupa that is still in its earliest stages of planning.
“This land will be more of a retreat place, a place for meditation,” Davis says, sitting on his porch, perched high above Happy Valley. “This land faces south, and that’s very significant. South, it means growth. Dharma hasn’t spread much into the Southern states. There’s a lot in California, Colorado, the Northeastern states. Asheville is as far as it goes…. There’re heavy-duty layers of Karma that we don’t know about.”
We talk about the Civil War, slavery and Native Americans. “They cursed us,” he says, quite unexpectedly. “Rinpoche says they cursed us and our people for many generations because of what we did to them. Think about it, how powerful that is. I had never heard that. They cursed us?
“But, despite any bad Karma, there’s good Karma. [Rinpoche] loves southerners. It must be that we were calling him, calling the Lama. And the leaders of the LSL center are to be thanked and blessed. They’ve been so pure in their devotion, just to the study of Dharma.”
“The first principle of Buddhism is that everything is connected,” Dan West says, after joining us on Davis’ porch. He’s a relatively new Buddhist, but his knowledge of the seminal teachings is not novice by any stretch of the imagination. “It’s so profound.”
We walk up to the site of the stupa, where they plan to build a cabin for Rinpoche. Out in the distance is the ridge above Cades Cove. Follow that same ridge down into Gatlinburg. Knoxville’s behind us, almost out of mind.
“The Karma here is kind of weird,” West says. “It feels different for me here. I do feel lost here often. It’s uncanny for me, because I’m never lost. I have a good sense of direction. But it’s the general atmosphere of the place. I’ve been here 13 years, and I still don’t feel very comfortable in Knoxville.”
“It’s a vibration,” Davis says. “When I brought [Rinpoche] to the airport, it was five in the morning and it started to snow. And he started going into that deep chanting that you only hear on CDs. It’s almost like a frog, a bullfrog. He’s 68. You just don’t hear 68-year-old men do that. He later said, ‘It’s because of the elements here, very good water elements. Everything’s flowing from the mountains.’”
I'm back at LSL-K for its book discussion group, which meets every Tuesday. There’s no Rinpoche today, and only a dozen arrive to discuss the Dharma. The more exotic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism will attract many new faces, such as the times when Rinpoche visits. Tonight there is no Buddhist theater; only a few meet to, as one practitioner puts it, “keep the lights on and the toilets cleaned.”
Here, it’s not the religion of the future, as Einstein once posited. It’s a gestation of our common humanity, of our fears, of our innate uncertainty. Everything that makes us human, everything that causes us to doubt our beliefs. Everything that Rinpoche stands for, they’re reaching for it in this room. The voices come together, guiding each other, sometimes at beautiful haphazard. A man with a distinguished country twang gets things started: I’m new at the Buddhist path, I don’t even know the terminology or anything. What I’m wondering is, if we were virtuous enough to obtain a human body and are doing a pretty decent job, then why don’t we continue to progress up and up? Why would we revert back to a bestial state?
— The key is training your mind. If you train your mind sufficiently, you can move up…. You have a huge collection of positive and negative Karma. You have the inherent capacity to do evil. Your state of mind at the time of death, whether positive or negative, is going to have a determinate effect how your vast Karma ripens at the time of your rebirth.
— It just seems strange to me that there’s a Dali Lama in the human race and a Charles Manson. They’re all under the heading of human.
— If you’re like me, you’re probably raised in the Christian tradition, and there’s the parable of Jesus where he talks about sewing seeds. You can throw the seeds in weeds, throw the seeds in rocks, throw the seeds in the ground—and in each case, you’re going to get a different result. Karma’s pretty much the same way. The conditions in which you’re reborn are supposedly determined by lots of past actions. You’ve had infinite past lives, so if you’re not focused on practicing the Dharma in one way or another—and I don’t think you have to be consciously practicing the Dharma—and leading a compassionate life, that’s going to have an impact on your birth.
— In Buddhism we’re taught that we all have the potential to reach enlightenment. For people like the Dali Lama or Norlha Rimpoche, it’s all about the now. It’s ‘I shall return.’ The Buddha himself had been reborn innumerable times…. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the next lifetime.
— You don’t pray not to be reborn. You pray to be reborn in the Dharma.
— I haven’t been able to figure it out myself, quite honestly…. It’s almost indescribable. The human language can’t describe it. We use metaphors and parables.
— It always gets to the point where it doesn’t matter. I’m still looking for the good argument intellectually.
— We don’t know what’s going to be next. We can all sit around and hypothesize, and we may come to some kind of truth. Ultimately, we’re all seeking truth. But it was already discovered two thousand years ago, some truth. How was this transmitted? Where did it come from? It’s here to help guide us to whatever comes next.
— There’s no end. So it’s like peeling an onion. Infinite regress. There’s no original cause.
— What is the mind? Where does the mind reside?
— Why are there 108 stitches on a baseball?
It doesn’t end. Topics range from quantum physics to the Mayan discovery of zero to estimates of the birth rate in China. Back in Happy Valley, the sun is setting behind the ridge of the Appalachians. The world goes on. Our minds remain restless, even when we try to control them. Ööööòhm stays in my mind. Maybe it’s not a bad thing.
“Whenever we try to pin it down,” one LSL-K member muses after a solid hour of discussion, “we just don’t get it right.”
“It’s all metaphor,” says another.
“It’s all poetry.”
The one-l lama,
The questions never end, either, no matter how far one travels down the bodhisattva path. It’s the path that leads all sentient beings toward Buddhahood:
“Would it be accurate to say that the Dharma is the handed down wisdom that teaches us how to find peace?” asks West.
“I think that’s an eloquent way to put it,” Davis says. “The key thing is that it’s unbroken. It’s like a pure thread.”
“Would you consider the Bible Dharma?”
“I would, but there’s dogma and there’s Dharma. When I read the Bible, I’m getting love and compassion. Christ was a bodhisattva, no doubt about it. To me it’s the essence of the teaching. Personally, I think Christ-consciousness could be compared to Buddha-consciousness. But I’m not a qualified teacher…. Christ is bodhisattva. Shiva as the Yogi is bodhisattva. I don’t think it’s all that different, really.”
“Everything is connected,” West says, again.