“I wasn’t raised Buddhist, and I don’t think any of our members at the Rime Center were either,” says Lama Chuck Stanford. The fact that so many Buddhists in the United States are converts is something that has fascinated me for the past few years. When I ask him what he thinks Americans find so appealing about Buddhism, why it is that every Sunday there are so many first time visitors at the Rime Center, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. “My theory is that they’re spiritual seekers. If you’re Christian and you’re looking for a church, it’s not a matter of Christianity or not. You’re Christian, so it’s just a matter of which church you’re going to go to. But if you don’t know what you are and you’re looking for something, you come to a Buddhist center to try it out and see if it’s the right fit or not. Most people visiting the Rime Center are probably not Buddhists, they’re what I call spiritual seekers, trying something out to see if it resonates with them.”
Like so many of the people at the Rime Center, Lama Chuck came to Buddhism as a seeker. He tells me a story so many others have shared with me, about growing up with parents who weren’t particularly religious but were consistent about Church attendance. He tells me about how when he was a teenager, the faith he’d been brought up in no longer spoke to him, about how he lost interest and stopped going. And then he tells me about this spiritual void he felt after a few years and how he began seeking ways to satisfy that yearning. “I tried different faiths. I remember going to a Quaker meeting and I kind of liked that, because they just sit in silence and if someone feels like speaking they stand up and speak.” I begin to wonder if stillness and quietude are part of the draw of Buddhism. We’re all well-aware of the ever-growing demands for our attention and the overstimulation that engulf our day-to-day lives. And, while most religious traditions have a strong contemplative element, the trend for Christian churches in America has been to emphasize the use of technology, multimedia and high energy music in services. This is not a bad thing at all, unless what you’re desperate for is a bit of peace and quiet.
Some time after that Quaker meeting, Lama Chuck and his wife Mary started practicing yoga. He tells me that one day after yoga, he went up to a different room in the building to have a look, “and they had what we would call a shrine room, all these meditation cushions and a shrine set up. I asked what was going on there, and I was told that was where these Buddhists met. We had been meditating since the 70s, that was something I was really familiar with, I knew meditation. And, because I felt a spiritual void, I thought I’d start attending and finding out more about this. And so the more I studied, and the more I learned, the more I found the Buddhist worldview really fit with my worldview and I just continued down that path.”
Lama Chuck and Mary started practicing with this Buddhist group, but soon enough it became evident that the group’s views were a bit more sectarian than he would’ve liked. “So I thought, you know, there’s probably room for a non-sectarian group,” he tells me. And that’s how in 1985, he and his wife leased a class room from the Roeland Park Community Center and the Rime Center was born. Week after week, he would load up his car with some extra cushions they owned, they would set up a portable shrine and the group had a small but steady attendance for a couple of years. As the group grew, they went through a few facilities. They started inviting visiting teachers and offering educational programs. And then, in 1997, Kusum Lingpa, one of Lama Chuck’s Tibetan teachers told him he wanted to ordain him a Lama. “It was totally out of the blue. I hadn’t ever considered that as a possibility and I told him I would need to think about it. He said, ‘I’ll be back in one year and I’ll want your answer.'” At the end of that year, having thought about it and feeling prepared, he was ordained a Lama.
The way one officially becomes a Buddhist is by taking Refuge Vows. One of the things that happens as a result of taking vows is that practitioners are given a Dharma name. I remember the first time I met Lama Chuck, and I remember finding the juxtaposition of an eastern title and a (very) western name a little jarring. And then I learned that his actual Dharma name is Lama Changchup Kunchok Dorje and it all made sense. Most of us would probably rather say Lama Chuck than attemp (and fail) to say his Tibetan name. So he encourages people to simply call him Lama Chuck, and this is so characteristic of his vision for the Rime Center, which he strives to make as welcoming and accessible a place as possible. Sunday Services are unlike any other Buddhist experience you will find. He tells me that the order of service is very carefully designed to feel familiar and comfortable to newcomers. While most Buddhist groups simply sit and meditate in silence for extended periods of time, at the Rime Center there is a liturgy of sorts. Mantras are set to music so congregants can sing along, meditation is broken up into three ten minute sessions, and toward the end of the service there is always a Dharma talk. He tells me that the service is arbitrarily put together and that it includes Western elements, but that it remains faithful to Tibetan Buddhist practice.
I press Lama Chuck a bit further; I want to know why there are always new visitors at the Rime Center. I want to know how a non-dualistic, Eastern religion can be so appealing to our Western, materialistic and dualistic sensibilities. He pauses for a moment and says, “A lot of people are wounded, perhaps as the result of a divorce or any other painful experience. They’re suffering because of a break up, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, there is pain. They come seeking solace, and Buddhism is relatively free of dogma.”
The Buddha’s first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, begins with an acknowledgment of suffering. It is a truth as old as time. I’m finally beginning to get it. Yes, people are seeking quiet and solace, but what we are seeking the most is to be happy and free from suffering. And so, Lama Chuck tells me, “We believe that it’s through meditation that we cut the clinging and grasping that are the source of our suffering.”