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Out of the mud, a temple grows

BuddhismAlternative Medicine2010 CensusDalai Lama

The five gilded figures of Buddha sat cross-legged under sheets of plastic, lips curved in half-smiles of silent joy.

The room around them, however, was anything but silent. A nail gun rattled, a hydraulic lift groaned and a half-dozen Buddhist nuns and monks bustled through in paint-splattered jeans.

The Temple for World Peace, Baltimore's first Buddhist temple, opened with a Friday evening blessing ceremony after more than a year of construction and a week of flurried — and damp — preparations.

"It's been a real practice of keeping a peaceful mind," monk Kelsang Menla said this week, as he stepped across puddles behind the temple, a former Swedenborgian church. "But the whole purpose is to bring peace and happiness, so it doesn't help to get angry or upset."

The opening celebration will continue Saturday with an open house and talk on mindfulness. A workshop on compassion in the modern world will be held Sunday. Meditations, prayers and classes will be held throughout the week, with sessions offered before work, at lunchtime and in the evening.

The nearly 2-acre property, east of Belvedere Square on Northern Parkway, includes an orchard, playground, cafe and bookstore, as well as a central prayer and meditation space.

"Anybody and everybody is welcome," said Kelsang Menla, who serves as the temple's administrative director. "You don't have to give up any of your religious traditions. It's more important that someone derive benefit from Buddhist practices and ideas than call themselves Buddhist.

"We firmly believe everyone needs peace of mind, and from peace of mind comes happiness," he said.

Buddhist traditions, which emphasize quiet contemplation and humility, stand in sharp contrast to the distracted, self-conscious era of the selfie. The concepts of "compassion" and "bliss" are closely intertwined in Buddhist thought, Kelsang Menla said.

"The more you develop a good heart, an open heart, the happier you are," he said. "The whole emphasis of Buddhist teaching is to help us develop and maintain a positive and peaceful state of mind."

The roots of Buddhism stretch back more than 7,000 years. A young prince roamed from his father's compound in northeastern India and was confronted with suffering for the first time. He began a spiritual quest, experimenting with harsh fasting, among other practices, before coming to the realization that he could transcend his own desires and, therefore, suffering.

Buddha means "enlightened one," and Buddhists believe that all people can reach enlightenment by letting go of anger, negativity and selfishness, although it may take many cycles of reincarnation to reach this higher state. Buddhism differs from Christianity, Judaism and Islam in that belief in an omnipotent deity is not a central tenet.

The New Kadampa Tradition was founded in England in 1991. It is an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism, one of the three main branches of the religion, although adherents do not follow the Dalai Lama, the leader of a prominent sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Baltimore's temple is one of 1,100 New Kadampa Tradition centers and groups in over 40 countries, Kelsang Menla said.

There are about 14,600 Buddhists in Maryland, according to a 2010 census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious bodies. Of those, about 6,700 are Mahayana Buddhists, which includes members of the New Kadampa Tradition.

Gussener Augustus, director of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods and Constituent Services, praised the temple, which he believes is the first of its kind in the city.

"It's a beacon of light to show that in our differences, we can all grow toward each other," he said. "What unites us is the human spirit, and the foundation of the human spirit is love."

The monks and nuns, who keep their hair closely cropped and usually wear long robes, are familiar sights in Charles Village, where the group has maintained a center and residence on Charles Street for about 15 years. Kadampa Buddhist classes are also offered in Towson, Columbia, Churchville and Annapolis. Several monks and nuns also live near the new temple in North Baltimore, according to Kelsang Menla.

Monks and nuns traveled to Baltimore from across the country to help with the final preparations of the temple. In accordance with tradition, they use the surname "Kelsang" meaning "fortunate one." They also follow the Asian custom of listing their surname first and given name last.

Kelsang Gewang, a nun, said she had traveled from her home in New York to assist with gilding statues deer, which represent compassion; and dharma wheels, which, she explained, were symbols of the Buddhism "rolling from Tibet" — the historical center of the faith.

"It's really world Buddhism now," she said.

Five statues that represented various incarnations of the Buddha had been placed in the temple earlier this week.

One known as "Tara" represents a woman who achieved enlightenment despite being told that females need to be reincarnated as men before they can reach the awakened state, Kelsang Menla explained. Although she sits cross-legged like other representations of the Buddha, her foot points outward as if she is able to leap up, symbolizing that she moves "quick as the wind," he said.

All of the Buddhas sit on stylized lotus flowers, a potent symbol in Buddhism. The plant muscles up from muddy swamps, then unfolds rings of bright petals. The lotus symbolizes that growth can stem from adversity, Kelsang Menla said.

"Out of the chaos, the difficulties and challenges of everyday life come the peaceful state of meditation," he said. "It's not separate from our daily life."

He spoke above a clamor of machinery, as workers on a hydraulic lift made adjustments to a window above the main doors. Other workers, their boots splattered with mud from the week's heavy rains, hurried in the doors.

Scott Maulder swirled spirals of carpet glue, thick as cake batter, onto the floor. The flooring installer from southern Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood said he had never been in a Buddhist temple before, but it didn't seem much different from any other church to him.

"To me, what makes a place peaceful are the people who are in it," he said. "People here have been very welcoming."

Kelsang Menla said that he hoped that the peace would filter out from the temple into the city.

"When you go into a Buddhist temple, you feel peace," he said. "When you leave, the next person you encounter benefits. That can go throughout the entire city. We feel that's our public service."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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