The Tibetan Buddhist center occupies a once-majestic fraternity house; steps up the hillside to the front door offer a small taste of trekking the Himalayas. At the top, I pause to catch my breath. Above the gracious porch, squares of cloth in primary colors hang like scarves drying on a laundry line. From up here, I can see for miles toward the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been so busy looking inward, hemmed in by the tight confines of my own being, that to look out at such great distance feels like emancipation. I almost don’t want to turn away and go in. But I must. They are letting me sit in on a class that starts soon.
Just beyond the ample foyer sits the base of a grand staircase. The wood floors are beautifully worn. I try to imagine how much beer was consumed in this space during its previous incarnation. The ghosts of keggers past have been cleared in favor of a reception desk and a couple of comfy chairs. Off to the right sits a dining room with long, family-style seating. The wavy glass in the old windows makes the outside world appear to be dissolving.
I hear a repetitive mechanical churning, and am drawn to the long, thin sun porch beyond the dining room from which the noise originates. Inside, a series of over-sized spools spin. These are shiny gold Tibetan prayer wheels with small script along their facades. They look like the drums of a printing press designed to emboss words on a surface—only the paper is missing and the writing goes around endlessly, adhering to nothing. The turning is meant to help disseminate the sentiments contained in the text. The movement is key (before electricity, Tibetans rotated their prayer wheels mechanically and many still do). The same principle applies to the squares of fabric that dangle and the numerous flags hanging from poles around the property; printed on these are important words from Buddha’s teachings. The wind animates the ideas, more effectively sending them out into the atmosphere.
From a newcomer’s perspective, these are the biggest differences you notice: saturated colors everywhere you look, the constant, creaky hum of prayer wheels turning, the dance of fabric. If much of Buddhism as practiced in the United States is conceived as something that subdues with its neutral tones and natural materials, here is a brand of Buddhism that goes the opposite direction. Buddhism like Zen is considered cool and calm, but this kind is fiery. Though the road may be hotter, the destination is the same.