Despite my experience at the Thai temple, most of the Buddhist institutes and monasteries around the U.C. Berkeley campus are set up for the purpose of teaching westerners dharma. Many offer a variety of classes, workshops, and retreats to encourage ordinary people to incorporate Buddhist practice into their lives. While meditation sessions may be free, the classes usually are not and most have various skill levels to ascend. At one, the full series of meditation courses from beginning to advanced would cost about $700—which is why I had to chuckle when I bought a book there and flipped it over to see the word “freedom” in the title had been misprinted as “feedom” on the back flap.
This particular center is perhaps the most prominent of its kind due, in no small part, to the canary-yellow building it occupies very visibly against a green hillside less than a block from campus. Its roots in the area stretch back to the early 1970s, making it part of the earliest formal efforts to expose Americans to Eastern religion in California, if not the country. In particular, it claims to be the first institution in the United States to provide education about Tibetan Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism has its own unique qualities, the most notable of which might be the tradition of locating the reincarnated souls of departed spiritual leaders in children who, after passing a series of tests, are groomed for their special roles. The most famous example is Tenzin Gyatso, who was identified as a child as the 14th incarnate of the Dalai Lama. The center I’m visiting today was founded by another spiritual leader who was similarly chosen, though he represents a different school within Tibetan Buddhism, a distinction that seems more socio-political than theological.
Tibetan Buddhism is also distinguished from other types of Buddhism by its distinctive paths to enlightenment that are based on the last burst of writing about Buddha’s teachings, called “Tantras,” recorded around the seventh century. In tantric thinking, the body is comprised of 72,000 channels through which subtle energies, called “winds,” flow. Some of the primary passages in this network meet up at intersections called “chakras.” One of the main goals of spiritual practice is to loosen the circulation of the body’s currents to create heat and light that helps melt the boundaries we see as separating ourselves from others and the world. Practitioners employ various methods to kick up these winds. They might visualize a seated Buddha with absolute focus and repeat a short series of words called a “mantra.” Unlike prayers chanted in unison, a mantra is usually a phrase spoken privately again and again. These exercises are meant to encourage extraordinary shifts in awareness—though it’s difficult to communicate how with words. For example, a mantra can drive all perceptions into a single point, producing a level of insight so profound that the Buddha suddenly has your face. But these are advanced techniques—and I can see why a student might want the help of a teacher to traverse this mysterious terrain.