My search for a place to learn meditation led me to a local Buddhist center. It’s a squat building in an older, shady neighborhood that was typical in Orlando’s great un-air-conditioned epoch.
Inside, a small reception area shares a linoleum-floored foyer with a galley kitchen. When I entered after the dinner hour on a recent evening, gentle recorded bell music was playing. A tall, narrow man with a white pony tail — imagine an older Ichabod Crane who had found a place on the outskirts of Nirvana with a nice view — was waiting at a table. I signed in and gave him $10.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “First time? All we ask is that anything with an image of Buddha in it not be placed on the floor — books, prayer pamphlets, that sort of thing. As a matter of respect. And please do stand when the monk enters and exits the room. You’ll stay for soup after, right?”
My host motioned to the large room in the rear. I expected to find a bunch of mats and pillows on the floor — and there were maybe half a dozen. But most of the room was occupied by rows of chairs, set up as if for a recital. The walls were full of Buddhist images — gurus long dead, small statues and the like — and there was a raised platform, perhaps three feet high, on which the monk would sit cross-legged and address us.
People began to filter in, many more than the six or eight or ten I expected. Young women. Older men. A harried-looking woman in business dress with a briefcase. A lonely looking Hispanic man. An entire family of five, more the kind of group you would expect to see at one of the local theme parks. A kindly old woman with a cane. They all stopped in the foyer, removed their shoes, and took up places on the floor or in the chairs. Some were obvious veterans, staking out a spot and assuming their favorite meditation postures for a few quiet moments before the “service” began. Others looked around in silent wonder at this newness, not quite knowing what to expect. In all, there were probably three dozen people in this little out-of-the-way Buddhist center east of downtown Orlando.
The monk, as it turned out, was a smily, pudgy fellow of about 24 who had been born and raised in Washington, D.C., he told us. He giggled a lot at the twists and turns life had made to get him to where he is. It occurred to me that his easy natural laugh didn’t show a deficit of seriousness so much as a bit of nervousness, or just out-and-out happiness. He was absolutely without pretense. It did not seem to feel odd to him, in this sacred place where the oral traditions of eons would be shared, to pick up a remote control to stop the music on the CD player over by the wall so he could begin his lesson.
He led us in two meditations, with a Buddhist lesson in between. The lesson described the courageous sacrifices (travel, bandits, etc.) of two ancient practitioners of this particular branch of Buddhism, the Kadampa sect.
During the meditations, I may have fallen asleep briefly, but I was mainly aware and focused on my breathing. There were distracting thoughts — I had been told to expect those — but not the disturbing flood of them I had been warned about. At the end, I felt peaceful and warm.
I didn’t know about the soup in advance, or I would have skipped dinner at home. I had a cup of tea and chatted with others who were enjoying their soup. It smelled good.
I’ll probably meditate more, but I don’t know if I’ll go back to that center. They welcome everyone, but the focus is more on Buddhism than meditation, and I’m looking for the reverse. Everyone there was looking for something, I suppose. It’s not a place you stumble on; you have to find it.
But what I was left with, as I went to my car, was this: There are so many people looking. So many.♦
[For information on the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism, click here.
To learn more about the Vajrapani Kadampa Buddhist Center in Orlando, click here.]
© 2013 Adam Barr