The New York Times

NY Region

February 12, 2002

A Tough Time To Talk of Peace


In the war against terrorism, the Buddhists of New York are suffering some collateral damage. Messages of peace and compassion that once seemed attractive to New Yorkers are now anathema, Buddhists are discovering. As Buddhists prepare for several days of festivities this week in celebration of Losar, the Tibetan Buddhist New Year, and Tibetans from communities along the East Coast and Canada converge on the city, some sad and sober reckoning is going on.

Barely six months ago, Buddhism Tibetan and Zen was on a phenomenal upsurge in the New York area, attracting eager students to rural monasteries and urban meditation centers. Then came the attacks on the United States and the American war in Afghanistan. Nonviolence is no longer in fashion, particularly in New York, where the scars go deep and wounds are still fresh months after the destruction of the World Trade Center.

"We're just getting shoved off the radar screen," said William K. McKeever, president of the Deer Park Initiative, a Brooklyn clearinghouse for information and research on all schools of Buddhism, which adherents see as a philosophy rather than a religion.

For Mr. McKeever, who left the Asia Society last year to start his group in response to the growing interest, the distinctions between serious Buddhists and dabblers are becoming clearer. "The trendiness of Buddhism, and of the Dalai Lama, it's hard to know how deep that was," he said.

Nancy Siesel/The New York Times
Before Sept. 11, Buddhism was surging in New York, drawing eager students to places like Tibet House for meditation services.

But his group and other centers in New York have felt "an unfortunate backlash," he said. Well-meaning colleagues have warned him not to approach donors for contributions in this climate. Buddhists, without a church hierarchy, a formal membership system or congregational organizations, depend heavily on donations and fees.

Robert Thurman of Columbia University, a Buddhist monk and a scholar of Buddhism, said a fear of terrorism had paralyzed or "rendered seditious" peace movements or even expressions of nonviolence. That includes pleas from the 14th Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the fastest-growing Buddhist school in the Western world, for a measured response to the atrocities of last September. Within days of the attack on the trade center, the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 to escape the Chinese Army, wrote to President Bush urging discussions. The letter received little attention.

Buddhists were shocked when, on Oct. 20 at Madison Square Garden, Richard Gere, Hollywood's best- known Buddhist who is a serious student of the faith, was booed off the platform at a rock concert where Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, among others, were performing for the benefit of victims of the September attacks. Mr. Gere had advocated compassion in the face of aggression.

Most troubling to many Buddhists in New York was the unexpectedly lukewarm response to a planned visit to the city in April by the Dalai Lama. He had intended to visit the trade center site and lecture on Buddhism as part of a tour of Europe, Canada and the United States. On Thursday the tour was canceled at the recommendation of his government in exile in Dharamsala, a Himalayan town in India.

In August 1999, 200,000 people converged on the East Meadow in Central Park to hear the Dalai Lama. His appearance came at the end of a visit during which he delivered a series of philosophical discourses over three days at the Beacon Theater. "Others read about the event or saw it on television," Mr. Gere and Khyongla Rato wrote in the afterword to a book based on that visit, titled "An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life" (Little, Brown & Company, 2001). "Consequently, millions of people generated good thoughts as a result of that morning in Central Park."

Hundreds of thousands flocking to hear the Dalai Lama? "I bet that wouldn't happen today," Mr. McKeever said. Advance ticket sales this year for a three-day series of teachings by the Dalai Lama that had been set, optimistically, for Radio City Music Hall, had been disappointing.

That now-canceled event, sponsored by Tibet House, was important to Buddhists here for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the Dalai Lama, 66, has been in poor health. Last month he was treated for acute stomach pains. An intestinal infection was thought to be the cause. His office said he had recovered, but it added that he suffered from exhaustion and had canceled his tour to rest.

For exiled Tibetans, the loss of their charismatic leader would be catastrophic to their cause, even more so now that China has joined an American-led war on terrorism. Tibetans fear this will lead to greater repression in Tibet, which the Chinese Army occupied in the 1950's, driving the Dalai Lama into exile. New York has been a center of pro- Tibetan activity and a major source of funds for the International Campaign for Tibet, an umbrella group.

The campaign's director, Bhuchung Tsering, said that while his worst fears that China would succeed in painting Tibetans as terrorists have not materialized among knowledgeable people, he has nonetheless seen Buddhism marginalized. "If there is a lesson to be learned," he said, "it is that the United States and the international community need to pay greater heed to nonviolent movements like ours while we have the presence of able leaders like the Dalai Lama. Otherwise, the alternatives are clear."

Mr. Tsering was in New York last week to try to block a Chinese move at the United Nations to bar Tibetan exiles from an upcoming world conference on development. On Friday, China succeeded in banning the International Campaign for Tibet from the meeting. Last year, the Chinese failed to have Tibetans banned from a conference on racism.

But not all Buddhists are discouraged. Although figures on the number of Buddhists in the United States are elusive (estimates range from three million to six million), immigrants continue to add to its strength.

At Tibet House, Ganden Thurman, the director of special projects and son of Robert Thurman, said that he saw no drop in support among New Yorkers who had discovered Buddhism and accept the idea that violence should always be a last resort. For them, there is more need for Buddhist philosophy now, not less, he said. "Given current circumstances and an unending war against another `-ism,' people will be wanting some solace," he said.

Some Buddhists are already finding ways to help. At the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery and study center in Woodstock, N.Y., Lois DePiesse, the organization's secretary, said that people who lived near ground zero had been coming for short retreats in greater numbers, "needing to find time out of New York City, looking for a quiet place to settle their fears and re-evaluate their lives."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company