VULTURES ON A CAROUSEL: Taking a Peek: The Local Tibetan Buddhist Community

Home Archived Opinion VULTURES ON A CAROUSEL: Taking a Peek: The Local Tibetan Buddhist Community

Michael Rutschky

Published: October 11, 2006

Pensacola is known for being a major notch in the South’s Bible Belt.  I read once that our city actually has more churches per capita than anywhere else in the nation.  If I ever had to give directions to anywhere around town, it’d probably come out: “yeah, it’s down there between the church and the Whataburger.”  (In fact, I wonder if we might also happen to have the most Whataburger stores per capita.)  But aside from the plentiful selection of Christian denominations, Pensacola is also home to practitioners of other religions, including a small population of Tibetan Buddhists.  That doesn’t mean that the people are from Tibet, but rather the type of Buddhism they practice derived there.

An acquaintance that I’ve made through MySpace told me of a Lama that would be visiting the area for a few days and would be spending his time at the Palyul Tibetan Buddhist Center in Gulf Breeze giving lectures and answering questions.  I had never met an actual Buddhist monk before, and the chance to hear one speak wasn’t something I was about to pass up.

When I got to the Palyul Center, about 30 people (including myself) crammed into a tiny room in the back of the building.  Rather than being filled with chairs, the room, which was decked out in beautiful Tibetan Buddhist decorations, contained little tiny cushions to sit on throughout the lecture.  So we sat.  About 20 minutes later, a little Asian man in yellow and red robes walked down the side of the room and took a seat at the front.  This was the Lama, Khenchen Tsewang Rinpoche.  Immediately the entire room stood up, dropped to the floor and bowed, then stood up again, bowed again, continuing on for a few repetitions.  I, of course having no knowledge of what was happening, must have looked like some lanky buffoon losing at a game of Simon Says.

After the bowing stopped, someone at the front of the room called out a page number and the entire room began a slightly melodic chant.  Then the person up front called another page, and the room started another chant.  It’s amazing that something as simple as people chanting can be so striking and beautiful.   After about 10 minutes the Lama began his lecture.  Up until this point the whole thing felt similar to going to a church or temple of any other religion, and it would be understandable for someone new to the religion to think that the Lama was to deliver a sermon on God or the afterlife.  In actuality, the majority of the lecture dealt with the nature of the human mind and the lack of inherent existence in all things — topics which are focal points of Buddhism.  Incidentally, I was surprised to hear the Lama speak with a better English vocabulary than most American college students.

After the lecture I managed to have a few words with the Lama on our way out the door.  I told him that the lecture was delightful and asked him about his visit.  He said that he would be leaving soon to go to Montreal, then to San Francisco.  Apparently this is what he does with his life – he just travels to different places around the world to help people understand their own capacity for compassion and wisdom.  “I’m kinda homeless,” he said, not meaning to imply that he was in any sort of trouble.  I had never seen anyone so relaxed and content in spite of having a life empty of the things I take for granted.  He gave me a warm smile and we said goodbye.

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