The Buddhists of Halifax - Eastern philosophy, Western lifestyle By Deborah Jones
Published: The Globe and Mail, May 11, 1991 FOCUS Pg 1
Halifax NS -- THE fragrance of home-made soup wafts through the townhouse as Ken Einhorn sips his coffee at the kitchen table. It is Sunday morning, and after a week of working night shifts as a producer-director at CBC Newsworld, Mr. Einhorn is enjoying time with his wife and two energetic preschoolers. It is an ordinary scene of middle-class North American life.
And, indeed, the Einhorns are a typical family in almost all ways but one. This becomes apparent when Mr. Einhorn talks about his childhood in New York. He grew up in a Jewish family, he recalls with a smile, but was always attracted to the Far East. "I used to say I was a Buddhist. For my bar mitzvah I asked for and received a sitar."
Mr. Einhorn's decision to leave Judaism and follow Buddhism has led him to this Maritimes enclave of British and Christian traditions.
Along with 800 other believers, he has made his home in Halifax, the world headquarters of a unique - and controversial - group of Tibetan Buddhists who meld eastern theology with western lifestyle.
A perfect merger of belief and mode of existence, they expect, will take several centuries and countless lifetimes.
Mr. Einhorn, 36, and his fellow Buddhists, who constitute the largest non-Asian Buddhist community in North America, have been drawn to Halifax over the past decade by the vision of the late Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
The rinpoche -a title, similar to reverend, meaning "precious jewel" - saw beyond Halifax's ubiquitous church spires, provincial politics and recessionary economy. He believed it would make a perfect base for the Vajradhatu International Association of Buddhist Centres.
Mr. Einhorn, who was recently appointed to Vajradhatu International's board of directors, says the rinpoche loved the coastal city from his first visit in the late seventies, and saw it as "a place we could come to, practice and flourish, and contribute to the community."
Halifax was seen as a retreat from right-wing American attitudes - the group was previously based in Boulder, Colo. - but certainly no market analysis determined whether the city was right for the tradition of Vajrayana,
one of three main orientations of Buddhism worldwide that is distinguished in North America by its acceptance of western values. On sheer faith in their leader, people left behind extended families, comfortable middle-class lives
and in most cases, good jobs, to move from Los Angeles, New York and Boulder, as well as communities in Canada and Europe.
"We'd call that divine inspiration," wryly notes Tom Sinclair-Faulkner, a non-Buddhist and professor of religion at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
The extraordinary newcomers have advantages most immigrants can only wish for.
Most are Americans; most are highly educated with PhDs or professional credentials; most are well-off (Canadian immigration regulations don't make it easy for the impoverished to move here).
Still, despite middle-class comforts and a transplanted support group within the Buddhist sangha -Sanskrit for community - the move for non- Canadians hasn't been easy.
Nova Scotia's perpetually despondent economy is "the biggest obstacle to moving here, and some people have moved back," says sangha member Jeremy Hayward, who arrived in Halifax in 1984 and who applies his Cambridge PhD in physics to editing books about Buddhism and science.
"A lot of people have a rough time of it," agrees Michael Chender, who transferred his international consulting business, Metals Economics Group, to Halifax from Boulder in 1988.
Some new businesses owned by Buddhists, such as a children's clothing boutique and a land-development company, have failed. Others entrepreneurial efforts are finding a niche, including the elegant Haliburton House Inn and a struggling book store owned by Bonnie Slater- Hurst, one of the first American Buddhists to arrive more than 10 years ago.
But what made the migration of Buddists most difficult were two traumas.
The sangha was rocked by the rinpoche's death from heart problems in 1987 at the age of 47 after years of prolific teaching and writing described lovingly by his followers as "crazy."
His life, they reveal, also included a cheerfully liberal consumption of alcohol.
"We expected him to live forever," says Mr. Einhorn, adding that the death pointed out a fundamental lesson of Buddhism. "One of the teachings is about impermanence."
As shocking as Chogyam Trungpa's death was, its impact paled beside the anguish and internal dissension created by Osel Tendzin.
Mr. Tendzin was designated by the rinpoche as regent to lead the sangha until his own reincarnation could again take over.
In 1988, Mr. Tendzin, a bisexual who was born Thomas Rich in New Jersey, was accused by some in the Buddhist community in the U.S. of knowingly passing on the virus that causes AIDs.
The scandal made headlines across North America.
Members of the Halifax group asked him to resign. Others feared that Mr. Tendzin's behaviour would leave the public with the impression that they were members of a cult.
Still others continued to support Mr. Tendzin as a sincere teacher.
The leadership controversy continued until he died of AIDs-related illness last August in San Francisco.
It was during the Tendzin controversy that Mr. Einhorn and his family decided to move to Halifax.
"There was a lot of doubt on our part," he recalls.
"There were questions about who the leader really is, who's our teacher."
Three months before the family made the move, he visited Halifax and one day found himself alone in a movie theatre experiencing misgivings about transplanting his family - a result, he says now, of what he calls "New York arrogance" about Halifax. "It was hard. I actually cried."
In June, 1989, Mr. Einhorn left a successful career in network television in New York City as associate director of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, to move to Halifax.
He says getting a producer-director job with CBC Newsworld "was icing on the cake. I love the television business, it's been my life, it's been my career."
Today the Einhorn family lives near the Karma Dzong Buddhist Church.
Aside from a few quibbles, such as the dearth of tea rooms to visit after a late-night movie, they find themselves returning "home" to New York less and less often. "I go through some moments of being pissed off," but for the most part Mr. Einhorn says he likes Halifax.
Ms. Slater-Hurst, who owns Soho Books, has a long-term perspective on the rinpoche's move to Halifax. "His vision was not very narrow in terms of time.
He was looking at 100 to 300 years to establish a centre of international Buddhism." THE Buddhists have been accepted in Halifax, though, inevitably, there is polite curiosity about their lifestyle - especially in light of the AIDs scandal - and their plans to adapt to the city.
Mayor Ron Wallace learned in the early eighties that Halifax was designated as the Buddhist group's world headquarters.
"We were a little surprised but rather pleased that Halifax has become a little more interesting," says Mr. Wallace, a Roman Catholic.
"We no longer are a city made up of Scotch and Irish and English with Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Protestant churches."
"I really have never heard anybody say, 'what a weird bunch they are,' " says Dr. Sinclair-Faulkner from his university office. "We Nova Scotians are very settled in our ways.
We've had comparatively less immigration than the rest of the country. Sometimes it's a little hard to break into the circle. The other side is that we're less volatile and more likely to tolerate differences."
Mr. Chender, sipping Earl Grey tea with his wife Julie in their elegantly appointed townhouse, says their reception has been positive. "Some people might! feel put off or threatened but what we've experienced has been very gracious."
The move to Halifax was also about leaving.
For most of the American Buddhists, that meant leaving behind a country in which right-wing reactionary attitudes were thriving. "Trungpa Rinpoche felt that Canada in general and Halifax in particular, or possibly the Maritimes,
provided a tolerant environment in which Buddhism could develop," says Reginald Ray, a Buddhist specialist who teaches at at the University of Colorado and at the famous Naropa Institute, founded by Chogyam Trungpa, in Boulder.
"People could be Buddhists and not experience a great deal of prejudice. I don't want to be critical of the U.S., but obviously there's some criticism implied in that comment," says Prof. Ray, a member of the Vajradhatu Buddhist sangha, which has 3,500 to 5,000 members in North America and Europe.
Mr. Chender is more blunt. "The rest of the world is going insane from speed and violence and greed. There's a quality here of kindness, gentleness and a certain appreciation of earthiness that seems to be a good mix with the Buddhist approach."
Whatever Halifax represents to the newcomers, the influx of 800 relatively wealthy strangers strongly committed to a non-traditional religion has had some repercussions in this city of less than 130,000.
In the local real-estate industry, it's become a given that sellers with up-market properties check out the Buddhist sangha for prospective buyers. "If I list a property that might appeal to Buddhists, I call a local Buddhist real-estate agent! right away," says Alice Adams, adding that Buddhists like waterfront or park-like settings.
It is also assumed that Buddhists do business with other Buddhists. "The ones I've met have been super-nice people, but they do deal with other Buddhists generally," she says.
The assumption that Buddhists keep to themselves prompted grumbles about them not joining community activities. A few people expressed concern that they were taking over Halifax. These comments were reported in a national U.S. news magazine, and received with incredulity by the Halifax Buddhists. "Our intention is to be part of the culture here, not to try and stand separate from it," says Dr. Hayward, sitting in a Karma Dzong office in which the scent of incense pervades the air.
Still, there has been controversy. A local newspaper was reprimanded by the Atlantic Press Council after complaints were filed about a story that stated that Maritime Capital Investments Ltd., owned by a Buddhist, hired only Buddhists. The company, which Mayor Wallace credits with some of the best building restoration in the city, has since gone into receivership, a measure of how difficult the Nova Scotia economy can be.
Much community interest in the Buddhists was piqued by the lavish lifestyle the rinpoche enjoyed before his death. Between his arrival in 1986 and his death a year later, he lived with his wife and children, servants and students in a palatial mansion called Kalapa Court in a wealthy neighbourhood (the mansion has since been sold). He always travelled in a limousine.
A few other sangha members set up co-operative households, unusual in Halifax. The well-publicized AIDs controversy added to the curiosity.
Some members of the Buddhist sangha were hurt by this bad publicity. Several declined requests for interviews. Those who did talk stressed the diversity of their group, composed mostly of traditional families living ordinary North American lives. "It's important to realize the Buddhist community is really a group of hundreds of individuals," says Mr. Chender, balancing his one-year old daughter on his knee.
Says Prof. Ray, "Most of the Buddhists I know are pretty conservative. They don't drink much, they have conservative approaches to sex."
Many members of the sangha are products of the sixties, who found the rinpoche and Buddhism through spiritual quests. "I was a searcher," says Mr. Einhorn, who as a youth embarked on his search through India, Iran, Afghanistan, back to New York and, eventually, to Halifax. "I'd looked into the Hare Krishnas at one point, and it was a hard sell. With Buddhism I was able to work, have a career and make money. I didn't have to ask permission to have children. It was a question of looking at your life and leading it the best you know how."
A Buddhist path also did not require abandonment of cultural heritage. "We identify ourselves as both Buddhist and Jewish," say Michael and Julie Chender, explaining they identify with their Jewish cultural roots but practice the Buddhist religion.
"Practice," or "sitting practice," is exactly what being a Buddhist is about. Aside from the usual requirements of many religions - raising funds, serving on volunteer committees, teaching others - Buddhists are urged to meditate each day, preferably for at least one hour, by sitting cross-legged on the ground with a straight back.
Regular "sittings" are scheduled at the Buddhist centre's meditation hall, a spacious room with distinctly eastern brass-and-orange decor and Buddhist shrines and art. Most Buddhists also have a room - or at least a space - with a shrine for meditation in their own homes. For the children, there is a Bodhi school, which offers programs in Buddhist traditions such as flower-arranging.
What distinguishes the Vajradhatu Buddhists from the wider community, as well as from other Buddhist paths, is their aim of spreading the meditation core of their practice through the world in a secular manner. The Vajradhatu form of meditation is based on what they call Shambala teachings. It promotes the simple belief in being a good person, to oneself and to others, and living in the present.
Chogyam Trungpa borrowed the name from the legendary Shambala Kingdom of Tibet. In his book Shambala, the Sacred path of the Warrior, the rinpoche writes that the image of the kingdom represents enlightenment through meditation and the recognition of basic goodness and dignity within all people.
While people in the sangha stress their religion is not a proselytizing one -"We don't stand on street corners," quips Joe Litvin, a psychologist who moved to Halifax eight years ago from Berkeley - the group is ambitious in its goal to better the world via Shambala Training.
"The legitimate tradition of meditation is what the world needs. If you look at the state of the world, it's a pretty sorry place," says Dr. Litvin, a regional co-ordinator of Shambala Training and counsellor with a Halifax outplacement agency.
Peter Lieberson, a composer and a new board member of Vajradhatu International, is executive director of Shambala Training International. The organization is separate from the Buddhist centres throughout North America and Europe, and its meditation centres are open to everyone. "The program is designed so people not necessarily interested in Buddhism can learn the discipline of meditation," says Mr. Lieberson. "Shambala Training teaches you to appreciate what you have in your life. It sounds very simple, but I don't think it's something we do very often. There is a tendency for the mind and body not to be together. You can see this: people will be in a restaurant reading a newspaper and pouring soup in their lap," he says, smiling.
Sipping soup with mindfulness is a tiny aspect of the goal of Shambala Training.
The social vision of Chogyam Trungpa - to help people on their own terms - is embodied in the Shambala teachings, says Mr. Lieberson, "not through religious conversions, not through a grand social scheme, but through individual practice. It's not enough to present a social vision. If the minds of! the people involved in the social vision aren't tamed, they simply duplicate the individual patterns of the past and you'll have the same problems. A social vision, with individual practice, is the whole idea of what Shambala is about."
While the sangha promotes Shambala Training to improve the world in the long term, for the short run it has largely straightened out its problems of recent years. It began the last New Year on Feb. 15 with a new board of directors and, most importantly, a new leader: Chogyam Trungpa's 28-year- old son Osel Mukpo, who was born in India and raised in the west. After he completes studies at a monastery in Nepal, he is expected to return to Halifax to live. Mr. Mukpo recently spent several weeks travelling to the centres of the Vajradhatu International Association throughout North America.
The group's newspaper, a 28-page tabloid, the Vajradhatu Sun, with 2,000 subscribers in the West and Asia, recently moved to Halifax from Boulder. Its editors aspire to make the Sun a world-class newspaper with broad appeal to non-Buddhist readers, and plan to change its name to the Shambala Sun next year.
"The rinpoche's ambition was that the paper manifest enough insight, intelligence and creativity to be of interest to a sophisticated non- Buddhist audience in the same tradition as the Christian Science Monitor," says editor Melvin McLeod, a sangha member and a long-time journalist with the CBC who works full-time with Newsworld.
The sangha has also begun to join in Nova Scotia life. Members have started programs for children and recycling drives. The Naropa Institute of Canada, a smaller version of the college in Boulder, is offering an eclectic range of courses from t'ai chi to massage and a celebration of local culture through festivals.
The Halifax sangha of 800 adults and children is small compared to the nearly 52,000 people who called themselves Buddhists in Canada's 1986 census. As well as being composed largely of westerners, the sangha is distinguished by the unusual fact that most members joined, rather than were born into Buddhism.
"Probably for some it's a little difficult to make out what all these westerners are doing adopting Buddhism," acknowledges Mr. Chender with a smile.
The westerners have no doubts. They're working toward a new, gentle, mindful world order. Says Dr. Hayward of Chogyam Trungpa, "He saw there would be increasing international problems. The move to Halifax was made! so a Buddhist community could be firmly established, so it could be a beacon of non-aggression."