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The Enemy Within

The Oak Cliff Buddhist center draws young people seeking peace.
Mark Graham

The Enemy Within
Buddhisms peaceful message draws Dallas young

CHANGE YOUR MIND, change the world.

This is the radical thought of Buddhism--regarded by some as a religion and by others as a philosophy--and the message is finding its way to a growing number of young adults in Dallas who are searching for peace during a time of upheaval.

At an Oak Cliff Buddhist center, some of its youngest members believe the best way to effect positive change is to strike at the enemy within. They eschew arms and guerrilla tactics. They take their seat on the floor and wrestle with their thoughts and urges in a very private theater of war.

Elizabeth Turner sits on the sofa at the Karma Thegsum Choling, a Tibetan Buddhist center in Oak Cliff. She spins a prayer wheel and recites the mantra: Om mani padme hum. Every night before bed, the 18-year-old says, she prays for those who have died on both sides of the war in Iraq.

She says she doesn't like to watch the evening news with its body counts and fear-mongering.

"Everybody's worried about terrorism--when's the next hit, what's next, who's next, where and how," she says in a rush and then covers her ears as if to block the words. "More people keep dying in war, and more are signing up. They're risking their lives for us--which is cool--but they shouldn't have to face death."

Buddhism, with its emphasis on getting hold of disruptive thoughts and feelings through meditation, has given her a way to remain calm despite having a family member stationed in Iraq.

"It takes practice," she says with a studious air, pushing the pair of glasses up on her nose. A smile breaks: "But everything takes practice."

On any given Sunday, a dozen or so spiritual shoppers under the age of 30 stop in for a lesson on meditation and to hear the weekly teaching given by the spiritual head of the center, the charming and charismatic Venerable Lama Dudjom Dorjee.

Lama Dudjom, a meditation master and refugee from the Chinese communist invasion of Tibet, was sent to teach dharma--basic principles--to Westerners under the direct orders of the 16th Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism who died in 1981. The lineage is currently led by the 17th Karmapa, now 19.

The shrine room holds about 40 students who sit on samadhi cushions, legs crossed, and face the robed teacher who leads them into meditation and a talk on a selected topic. The room is a dazzling display of color with thangkas--Buddhist iconography painted on cloth--and images of the previous Karmapas.

In his office, Lama Dudjom says he is not in a position to take political sides or even speculate about national motivation. But he does know when thoughts go sideways. Acts of aggression are essentially the same. The reasons may vary, but their roots are lodged in the same ground: ignorance, hatred and desire. So, he reasons, if a person conquers the three poisons, society benefits.

"All human beings need to deal with their own mind," he says. By doing so, "we learn how we can clean up our own mess. Then the whole world will be in a better situation. Our society will change into a more enlightened society when there is no more anger, no jealousy, no hatred towards anybody--and that means yourself, too--no more blaming."

"Buddha's message is entirely timeless," says the center's director, Larry Keenan. "Buddha addressed the universality of suffering. And there is a lot of suffering in the world. The more you look, the more you find."

The idea that people can change the quality of their lives by thinking sounds easy, but when it comes to decisions that go beyond, say, changing your mind from onion rings to fries or choosing not to drop-kick some idiot in an Escalade through the goal posts of hell, things fall apart.

It gets a little complicated with war, for instance. A little tricky to think positive thoughts when people intentionally slam planes into buildings. It's hard to find that peaceful place when masked men are sawing through a young man's neck.

For Gerardo Mulas, who teaches yoga at the center, the temptation is to react to violence with violence. But, he says, that only perpetuates the problem.

"In today's world, turning the other cheek doesn't seem to work," Mulas, 30, says. "I'm not saying you should respond with aggression, but you should have the knowledge and tools to prevent a situation from worsening."

That starts by vowing not to kill, says 17-year-old dharma student Nathan Springer.

"Congress will tell you that war is inevitable or that it's a last resort," he says. "Bullshit. Nothing ever justifies taking another person's life. You cannot kill; you cannot sacrifice people for an idea."

 

Springer, an entering senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, was raised Buddhist but only began to seriously practice it two years ago as a way to manage his rage and bouts of depression as well as cope with his father's illness.

In lay terms, Springer says when something pisses him off, the challenge is to watch his mind and not react--like when the neighbor let his dog crap on the lawn.

"What immediately flashed in my mind was me jamming an ice pick into this guy's head," he says. "I'm exaggerating, but I was furious."

The thought was grimly comedic, but it only fueled his anger, he says.

"Suffering is hatred," he says. "It's those little thoughts in your mind that you feel. Suffering is giving into desires and lusts. Suffering is the Western world."

Buddhism has grown 170 percent in the last decade, according to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) produced by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. In addition to its startling growth, the study finds, it has one of the youngest demographics of all religions with the bulk of its members under 30 years old.

ARIS attributes this growth, in part, to the unprecedented drop in the number of people who identify themselves as Christian and a spike in the number of folks who switch religious identification (about 16 percent of the population)--and not to the nation's burgeoning Asian immigrant population.

This growth is remarkable because most Buddhist groups operate in relative silence; they don't proselytize, canvas neighborhoods or rent out stadiums for mass conversions.

For 24-year-old Nicolas Copeland, the idea that he could change the way he responded to the world was revolutionary.

Not long ago, Copeland was a kid in trouble. He spent a few years after high school in a kind of stupor--getting drunk, fighting and dropping in and out of college. While working at a pizza parlor, Copeland met a kid who was everything he wasn't: calm and open.

Then one day his friend played an audio book of the Dalai Lama. Copeland started reading books on Buddhism and meditating. "I had a lot of anger and insecurity, and I was really impatient, so I'd punch walls," he says. "Through meditation I learned to calm myself down and stay focused."

Copeland, who is politically active, says he has to pay attention to how wrapped up he gets in the election-year issues and coverage of the war in Iraq. If anything, the war has given a certain urgency to his meditation practice, he says.

"Since September 11, there's been a lot of violence--but it can happen anywhere," he says. "It's important for us to realize that it's happening around the world. We need to take advantage of our time here."

While teens and young adults struggle with the difficult and sometimes contradictory emotions that are stirred up during wartime, the ripples of war reach the very youngest at the center.

Every other Sunday, Yolanda Barner-Thomas leads a children's class at the Buddhist center for about a half-dozen young students of the dharma.

While most of the children talk about their teachers and how other kids treat them at school, Barner-Thomas says, some of the kids seem confused about the war and why people are hurting each other.

"I don't try to give them any answers," she says. "We talk a lot about peace, tolerance and especially religious tolerance and the importance of not hurting anyone.

"I try to teach them compassion for all sentient beings--whether it's an ant crawling toward your sandwich or a driver in a car that just cut you off or a kid bullying you at school," she says. --J.D. Sparks

Fat Chance

KIDS WHO GRADUATE in the top 10 percent of their high school class get automatic admission into the state university of their choice. It's called the 10 percent rule. Been around since '97 when the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down affirmative action at the University of Texas. But now some people say it's a flawed law. Last Thursday, the Texas Senate held a hearing on whether it should be modified. If nothing else, it'll be an item next year for the Legislature.

Within some high schools--mostly the large, suburban high schools--the academic competition is fierce. So fierce, many kids with stellar grades culled from rigorous curriculum have GPAs that fall just short of the golden 10 percent. For instance, of the 849 kids who graduated this year from Plano West, one-third graduated with honors, says registrat Karen Upham. "There's no comparison between the top 10 percent of the smaller schools and the top 25 percent of larger schools, in terms of the academic rigor involved," Upham says.

 

The assumption is that the kids from podunk towns or kids from urban centers aren't as prepared for college as the suburban kids who didn't crack the top 10. But, at both UT and Texas A&M, the 10 percent kids have consistently outperformed everyone else in their class, regardless of SAT score or high school attended, according to studies conducted at UT and A&M. And, this year, the incoming class at UT will be more diverse than any other since the courts struck down affirmative action in '96.

Senator Royce West, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education, says he'd like to see some form of the 10 percent rule withstand the legislative session.

"No, we don't need to repeal it," he says. "But do we need to look at some cap?" --Paul Kix

Naming Rites

FEARGAL McKINNEY, owner of the best pub in Dallas, the Old Monk, needed a beer--so he left his bar and went to EastSide, across the street. McKinney's swillery was too crowded, even for its owner. It's not unusual for the Old Monk to be so jam-packed, since the serious drinkers in town flock there. Its success has given McKinney, an effusive Irishman, the money, time and experience he needs to do something foolish: open another bar. So he has leased the former O'Dowd's space on McKinney Avenue, across from Hard Rock Cafe.

"We've got some names for it," he says conspiratorially, leaning into the table so that, presumably, the waitstaff or the couple four tables over can't steal his ideas. "Here's the first name. Tell me what you think," he says, pausing for effect, smirking, eyes wide. "The Idle Rich."

We need hear no others. "The Idle Rich" rolls off the tongue; that is to say it is lyrical. It is multilayered, in that it not only suggests the leisure class but also, to the Irish, can mean a beggar (all classes welcome, in other words). It can be easily shortened: We decide regulars will dub it "the Idle."

Most important, though, is the name's history and connection with Dallas. The original Idle Rich Bar operated out of a gorgeous, Moorish building near Farmers Market downtown. It was a longtime hangout for cops, cop reporters and other working-class men and women. It closed in 1996, when, says the building's owner, the clientele was nothing but a few drunken cops who, once overserved, would empty their revolvers into the moose head above the bar. What remains are an architectural firm and an oil-on-wood painting called "The Detectives," which shows six men and one woman posing at the Idle bar.

McKinney takes another drink. "Besides that," he says in his Irish lilt, "it's a pretty damn good name."

Now, several months later, The Idle Rich has opened on McKinney Avenue. On the side of the building, it says simply, "The Idle." --Eric Celeste


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