Building community New territory Not about navel-gazing

Ed Rietman used to drive his wife crazy with his chronic road rage. It flared every morning when the Nashua physicist battled Route 3 traffic – sometimes for two hours – to get to his job in nearby Chelmsford.

Nowadays, Rietman tools down the right lane during rush hour, content to travel at whatever pace is set by the car ahead of him. His philosophy is that he gets there when he gets there.

“I’m completely transformed,” he said.

Rietman attributes his new attitude to the Buddhist meditation practice he began five years ago.

Each morning, the 54-year-old wakes at 4:30 a.m., does at least 30 minutes of yoga, and then meditates for another 30 to 90 minutes. He uses the introspective time to become aware of his breath, his thoughts – and his behavior toward others. He never meets with a like-minded group, nor does he feel the need to. When he wants company on the Buddhist path, he reads a book by the Dalai Lama.

Other New Hampshire Buddhists also practice at home in private. But their solo journey is not always by choice. Many crave the support of a community and would appreciate having a mentor to turn to when their practice hits a roadblock.

The biggest challenge for Granite State Buddhists may be devising ways to break their isolation.

A possible lift may come this week, as a group of 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in India hold various activities throughout Nashua. Gomang monks have visited the state for several consecutive years. They draw huge crowds wherever they go, as people, even non-Buddhists, seem compelled by their sheer presence.

Beverly Westheimer, a local Buddhist who helped organize the monks’ visit to Peterborough two years ago, laughs when she tries to describe what living with them for three weeks was like.

Somewhat at a loss for words, she recounts an incident involving the monks’ painstaking creation of the colorful sand mandalas for which they are known. These sacred sand paintings, created over a five-day period, are incredibly delicate and intricate. One of the monks stopped working to sip coffee and sneezed, destroying part of the mandala. The other monks’ first reaction was to have a good laugh about it, even though it took them two hours to recreate the destroyed portion, she said. Not even a trace of anger flickered over their faces.

While the Tibetan monks come to the United States to establish friendships and teach others about their culture, they may just be sprinkling the seeds for a stronger statewide Buddhist community in years to come.

While Buddhist traditions vary just like Christian ones, common threads exist. The concept of a creator God is considered irrelevant. Through various techniques, such as meditation and the deliberate practice of virtues, it is believed that any person can become enlightened like the Buddha.

Unlike Christians, whose churches dot the New Hampshire landscape, Buddhists have just one physical destination in the state devoted to their religion: the Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, a futuristic-looking building with two geodesic domes.

Low on resources, in terms of both membership and property, small groups of Buddhists across the state meet where and when they can, usually in churches on a weekly or biweekly basis.

When Lorianne Schaub and her husband, Chris, moved to New Hampshire from Massachusetts, they realized that if they wanted a Buddhist community, they would have to start one.

The two had lived at a Zen center in Cambridge, Mass., for a time, becoming dharma teachers – lay Buddhist teachers – in the process. They started the Southern New Hampshire Zen Group from their Hillsborough home five years ago.

The overwhelming reaction of practitioners who showed up at their door was shock, Schaub recalled. They asked, “Why are you here?” and “How did Zen end up in New Hampshire?”

To reach more people, the Schaubs relocated the meetings to Manchester. The group now meets for chanting and silent meditation in a Catholic contemplative house. New people walk in expecting to see Buddhist statues, and encounter statutes of Mary instead, Schaub said.

Even with the relocation and a mailing list of 200, only an average of five people attend each week. Talks attract about 10 people, retreats about 20. The Schaubs hope to add satellite groups in Nashua and in their new hometown of Keene to make attendance easier. Eventually, they hope to raise enough money to buy a condemned building and transform it into a center, the way it was done in Cambridge.

The isolation the Schaubs are facing is due, in part, to the nature of the state. In many ways, New Hampshire Buddhists contend with the same challenges of those in the Midwest, Schaub said. Suburbanites and those living in rural areas sometimes have a long drive into urban areas. The trip makes it hard to commit to activities, especially when family responsibilities are added to the equation.

It is much easier to find a supportive network in larger cities such as Boston or Los Angeles, where Buddhist residential centers have existed for decades and multiple colleges add a steady stream of young followers to the mix, Schaub said.

She referred to such environments as “healthy forests,” with enough of the “saplings” a religion needs in order to grow, stabilized with the guiding presence of the “mighty oaks.”

When it comes to Buddhism, New Hampshire doesn’t have a lot of mighty oaks. It’s not like nearby Lowell, Mass., which has local television and radio shows where people can tune in and learn more about Buddhist teachings and practices.

That city has a wealth of Cambodian immigrants for whom Buddhism is part of their cultural heritage. In New Hampshire, followers of Buddhism typically come from different religious backgrounds. In what has been called “American Buddhism,” they take the new and integrate it with the old. Some continue to believe in God. Some never did to begin with.

For example, Rietman’s friends call him a “practicing atheist.” Some members of the Southern New Hampshire Zen Group are Christian, some are Jewish – and with some, Schaub said, “we don’t know what they are.”

Buddhism is not about being anti-Christian, or anti any other religion, Schaub said. She likens it to vanilla ice cream: one can eat it plain or mix it with various ingredients to make a sundae.

Cynthia Schroer of Nashua, the chief organizer for the Tibetan monks’ weeklong visit, doesn’t like to define herself as Buddhist. “Just being human is wonderful and uncomplicated,” she says.

But Schroer, her husband, Adam Pattantyus, and their daughter, Justine, have all taken refuge vows, the ceremony that formally declares one is on the Buddhist path.

Raised a devout Catholic, Schroer says that for her, it is not a matter of choosing one way over another.

“My Catholic upbringing and the teachings of Jesus live in me,” she said. “Buddhism has given me the tools to actually live the Christian message: How do you love your enemy? How do you turn your other cheek?”

Schaub, who calls herself “spiritually promiscuous,” was also raised Catholic. She became a born-again Christian in college. While attending an evangelical Bible camp, she intuitively taught herself how to meditate, and later studied Zen in graduate school. She has been practicing for about 14 years. While those in her group look to her as a “venerable teacher,” she knows Zen masters located in bigger cities have decades more experience.

That is why it’s important for her group, which is an affiliate of the international Kwan Um School of Zen, a Korean branch of Buddhism, to have regular contact with a Zen master based in Cambridge.

If New Hampshire’s Buddhist community is to grow, people must get beyond the beginning stages of practice, she said.

A sense of community can play a vital role for beginning Buddhists, according to many area practitioners.

Meditation, in particular, is challenging.

People sitting still for the first time sometimes encounter negative feelings they previously buried by staying busy.

“They discover things they didn’t want to see about themselves,” said Gene Taylor of Penacook, one of the founders of the Dzogchen Center practice group in Concord.

Powerful memories and feelings, even a sense of self-hatred, can bubble up.

“A lot of people have a difficult time loving themselves. The sources of that are not always easy to deal with,” Taylor said.

Take those feelings, multiply them tenfold, and you get a sense of the self-hatred felt by prison inmates meditating for the first time, said Dave Carr of Dover.

Carr, a practicing Buddhist of 10 years, founded a prison outreach program at the Aryaloka Buddhist Center several years ago. What started as a simple correspondence with an inmate grew organically, and Carr now devotes up to 15 hours a week to teaching meditation and Buddhism to inmates.

Carr does the work for free and considers it a natural extension of his Buddhist beliefs. He’s working to set up a group for released inmates so they will have a place to go where they can talk about their practice and what works for them. This sort of “kicking the tires” is part of the Buddhist tradition of questioning each teaching and testing it out for oneself, he said.

The only downside to Carr’s work with inmates is that it limits the amount of time he gets to spend at Aryaloka. Carr misses the community, saying it takes a special person not to need the support one feels being around like-minded others.

Both Taylor and Schaub agree.

“The Buddhist community in New Hampshire is laying down strong roots,” Taylor said. “It’s something that will remain and grow in New Hampshire. There will be a lot more opportunities for practice in the coming five to 10 years.”