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By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 5/5/2004

Like many westernized folk who grew up attending Christian churches, I can't profess to know much about Buddhism--which certainly won't explain my recent decision to get a tattoo of an "Om" symbol. Artistically, I've always been attracted to the symbol's soft, mysterious loops. But I really dug one of its purported meanings: to be one with God. Having reached a stage in life when becoming a multimillionaire or America's next top model is clearly remote, efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

Wanting to learn more about the practice of Buddhism, this past Sunday I attended the fifth annual Buddha Day at St. John's Church in Charles Village, an event sponsored by the Buddhist Network of Greater Baltimore (who knew?). There, about 70 people were seated inside a cavernous room, quietly waiting to hear teachings on the Buddha. There were bronze statues of his likeness set upon tables with lit candles, incense, and vases of fresh flowers. And in the middle of Bodymore, Murderland, robed monks mingled, inexplicably serene.

At first, the peaceful atmosphere jarred my nerves. No tambourines? No drums? No podium or microphone? I'd considered myself spiritually well-rounded, having attended everything from Pentecostal to Presbyterian churches, as well as African-based spiritual services like those of the Yoruba. In every instance, people, even if they didn't get entirely riled up, at least made some noise.

"I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment, go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha," softly chanted a Buddhist teacher and practitioners as the service got underway. "Through the virtues I collect by giving and other perfections, may I become a Buddha for the benefit of all." Already, I was in over my head. I mean, striving for enlightenment and perfection was one thing, but becoming a Buddha? My grandmother, a proud deaconess, would roll over in her grave if I so much as mouthed the words.

I didn't chant, though the sounds were soothing, as was the teacher's message about Buddhism having "no rules in terms of what you should do or not do," the only rule being "not to harm any living being." The thrust of the practice, he said, was to learn genuine compassion, and that the Buddha's wish was for us all to be "free from suffering." Those lofty ideals must appeal to hundreds of Buddhists in the area who practice with several groups throughout the region, including the Shambhala Meditation Center in Mount Vernon (where I once went to meditate and fidgeted through a session).

The words about compassion and suffering weren't all that different from other messages I'd heard about humans learning to be more forgiving and loving toward one another--or the idea that there exists a Higher Power that wants more for us than we, with all manner of dysfunctional behaviors, appear to want for ourselves. That being the case, I still wasn't so sure that the Buddha held out much hope for people, especially youth, whose lives are riddled with poverty and crime, and whose only hope of success (let the music tell it) is pimped-out materialism.

But here I was getting all preachy, when the monk/teacher, blessedly, was not.

It was time, he said, to bathe the Buddha--a rite of spring that, if the attendees were all potential Buddhas like the earlier chant said, made me wonder if the service was about to, uh, go south. Turns out, we were asked to line up and, one by one, pour spoonfuls of water over a six-inch-tall Buddha statue, something that seemed harmless enough until I turned to hand my spoon to the next person in line and saw two dead ringers for the Delaney Sisters, something I hoped wasn't a "caught-cha" omen from my grandmother (especially when, next time I looked around the room, the duo was gone).

Later in the service the group chanted "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo," which, I learned, affirms the idea that our lives are precious and tied to universal forces; and, otherwise, certainly seemed to help Tina Turner end her hellish existence with Ike. I chanted that one with gusto, just because.

After more chants--including a rousing one that, to my satisfaction, got l-o-u-d--and more elaborations on the Buddha's spiritual wonders, the service wrapped up and guests prepared to share the universal sign of fellowship: food. But before people dug into brownies and organic lemonade, the teacher offered a last reminder of a sure way to connect with the Buddha as a source of help and refuge. "We must appreciate this life in order to make the most of its opportunities," he said. "Our lives pass by quickly . . . so we must understand impermanence [and] develop a mind of gratitude."

It wasn't novel thinking or a philosophy unique to Buddhists. But it was a nudge that most anybody on most any day could stand.

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