In the transformed living room of a two-story house on a quiet Los Angeles street, two Tibetan monks and a pair of converts sit on cushions before a mantel shrine.
The monks, clad in maroon and orange, chant in a groaning bass and clash cymbals as the Westerners follow along in their translated texts.
Lama Lhanang and Lama Chonam grew up as nomads on the Himalayan plains and now propagate the dharma, or Buddhist teachings, here under the direction of their guru, His Holiness Kusum Lingpa. With the financial help of filmmaker Oliver Stone, the Tibetan master has inaugurated a campaign to establish 100 Vajrakilaya centers--so named for a Tibetan deity--around the world. The first was founded here, near Olympic Boulevard and Highland Avenue, because the city is struggling, Lhanang says.
"In this city, there are many problems--fires, earthquakes, war between the black people and the white people," he says in his earnest, halting English. "With this kind of meditation, we make change, we make pure."
The dharma these monks teach entered this world through Shak1yamuni Buddha 2,500 years ago. It was brought to Tibet from India more than a millennium later, spreading to other Asian lands and melding with each culture. With China's occupation of Tibet in the 1950s and the crushing of Buddhism there, the foundations were laid for another transmission, this time to the West.
Increasingly, Americans and Europeans are nurturing Tibetan Buddhism on their own soil. They build \o7 sanghas\f7 , or communities of believers. They learn the Tibetan language and arts, organize meditation classes and arrange visits from the many lamas, or teachers, who now reside in the West. They bring Buddhist ethics into the workplace and embrace Buddhist notions of personal growth. A small but growing number is training to become lamas.
This quiet stirring has been fostered by the growing global prestige of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' spiritual and political leader and a 1989 Nobel laureate.
"People are looking more to Eastern religions and the Dalai Lama's message has been critical in bringing Buddhist thinking to the West," says West Los Angeles filmmaker Martin Wassell, who has produced documentaries about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. "He says we don't need these Buddhist temples, we don't need these Christian churches. What we need, he says, are the values of the human heart."
In Los Angeles, Tibetan Buddhism, also called Vajrayana, has taken on the proportions of a subculture. Established sanghas now cohabit with fledgling groups formed around a new wave of lamas, some of whom are younger and more Americanized than their shamanic counterparts.
The Tibetan way is also a smash in Hollywood and among the so-called cultural elite. They've signed on so eagerly, in Richard Gere's wake, that some dismiss the movement as a celebrity fad. Aside from Stone and Gere, the Power Buddhist/Free Tibet contingent includes Harrison Ford, Willem Dafoe, Sharon Stone, Steven Seagal and Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. Several Tibet-themed film projects are in the works, among them Universal's bio-pic of the Dalai Lama, with Martin Scorsese directing.
"I hope, personally, that America finds it," Oliver Stone recently told the Buddhist publication Tricycle. "Buddhism can only be good for this country. . . . It has a beneficent, self-realization energy that can only help America heal."
In the publishing arena, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) became a national bestseller and has sold 243,000 copies. (Its author, the Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, was recently accused in a civil suit of sexually abusing a student. His organization, the Rigpa Fellowship, denies any misconduct.) And "Inside Tibetan Buddhism," a much-anticipated tome from Columbia University scholar and Buddhist monk Robert Thurman, is expected in November from HarperCollins.
"The baby boomers seem to be really into it," says Wassell, a baby-boomer Buddhist himself at 46. "There's a lot of talk about this generation being materially satisfied, but the next level of need is not satisfied and that's the spiritual level."
Steven Batchelor, an English monk and scholar steeped in the Tibetan and Zen traditions, also believes that our disposable culture has left an internal hunger. "Buddhism is seen as one way that we might re-create a sense of spiritual meaning and purpose within a directionless society. Amid widespread despair, those who have found Buddhism have a sense of joy and inspiration."
Westerners, says Batchelor, whose most recent book is "The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture" (Parallax Press, 1994), often have an "intuitive," heart-pounding response to the mysticism that marks Tibetan Buddhism.
"There are a lot of E-rides in Tibetan Buddhism," says Chuck Goldman, 52, a Santa Monica attorney and disciple of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, who visits Los Angeles from his center in Santa Cruz. "It's an extremely imaginative, baroque kind of worldview."