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The Many Faces of Buddhism: U Faculty and Staff Members Give Their Unique Perspectives

Like Christianity, Buddhism split into several sects that interpreted the original teachings differently. The following profiles show that in the Christian-Judeo society of the United States, followers of Buddhism have developed their own views of the religion.

Easing the Pain of the Pennant Race

After looking into Gus? eyes, he just can?t do it anymore.

Seeking the cause and treatment of heart failures, Matthew Movsesian used to rely on lab animals in his research. After adopting his dog Gus, whom he found in a pound, and after becoming a Buddhist, Movsesian had a hard time continuing the practice.

Cultured cells, recombinant proteins and human tissues have since replaced the mammals that he once sacrificed for his experiments, but Movsesian readily conceded that there are questions that can only be answered using animal models.

“It?s a choice I made for myself,” said Movsesian, who was reluctant to comment about the issue to risk sounding preachy and pretentious.

“It might be a hypocrisy on my part,” he explained, referring to the contradiction between his own restraint to kill and his reliance on data that results from the animal experiments of other researchers.

Nevertheless, it is a subject he feels strongly about, partly because of his philosophical beliefs in Buddhism.

Fourteen years ago, a colleague introduced Buddhism to Movsesian, now a professor in the department of internal medicine.

The rational moral code and insight into the cause of suffering attracted Movsesian, and he gradually became a practitioner.

“We feel we?re unhappy when we don?t get what we want,” Movsesian recalled a passage he read that has since resonated within him. “The deeper level is the problem of wanting things.”

Raised as a Presbyterian, Movsesian had problems accepting all of the church?s teachings literally.

“Christianity depends on the belief of a virgin birth and resurrection,” said Movsesian. “Without those beliefs, it doesn?t seem to me to work.”

Similarly, he doesn?t accept all aspects of Buddhism either. The molecular biologist doesn?t care for the ceremonial elements of the religion, but its pluralistic and tolerant nature allows individual interpretation, which is another feature that attracted him.

Movsesian is mainly interested in Buddhism?s philosophical teachings and therefore has chosen the Theravada school, which he believes to adhere more closely to the original teachings of the Buddha. However, he has trouble with certain aspects of it.

“I don?t know if I understand karma completely,” said Movsesian, who also disregards any consideration of rebirths.

“The subject of karma is very complex. One of the tenets is there is the absence of any independent self. It is hard to understand how there could be karmic rebirths if there is no self to accumulate karma. What can be reborn?”

But complete understanding may not be necessary, according to Movsesian. He employed a frequently-used vehicle metaphor.

“It?s like a raft you use to get to shore,” he explained. “Once you get to shore, the raft is unimportant. It?s a way to be liberated.”

Far from being a master, Movsesian admitted, “I?m still very dependent on the raft.”

Although Buddhism has tempered some of his desires, he confessed that his equanimity is beset by the temptations of buying more guitars, meeting women and thoughts of falling stock prices. Once a rabid sports fan, his allegiances sometimes get the best of him.

“I?m still disappointed when the Giants don?t make it to the series,” Movsesian said half jokingly.

Humbled by his own shortcomings, he is very conscious about the image of his faith in what people perceive as new-age ideas and avoids talking about it.

“I?m very reticent [about my beliefs],” said the New York City native who grew up in Queens. “People think that you?re better than you really are. I don?t think of myself as a great spiritual guy, and I don?t want people to think of me that way.”

Likewise, Movsesian is irked by the type of people who are attracted by the mystical qualities of Buddhism, but don?t really understand the teachings of Buddha.

“They believe that if they meditate,” Movsesian observed, “they would do everything in their lives more effectively, like making more money and meeting more attractive mates.”

Nevertheless, he would encourage others to try Buddhism. Even though he hasn?t reached Nirvana?where one eliminates desire completely?Movsesian is content with what Buddhism has done for him.

“I?d be happy just to achieve a reduction in [desire],” Movsesian said. “I wouldn?t consider that a failure.”

Taking the Vow of the Bodhisattva

Arlene Samen, a nurse practitioner at the University Hospital, is a follower of Tibetan Buddhism?a branch of the religion that is filled with rituals and deities.

Samen?s research projects, such as a study on cultural and spiritual beliefs in Tibetan women, have led her to the region several times in the past few years.

Buddhism?s emphasis on cause and effect has helped Samen find inner peace and happiness. It has helped her cope with her anger in poignant events ranging from the recent terrorist attacks to the end of her marriage to an unfaithful husband.

Instead of concentrating on how angry she felt, Samen tried to trace back and find the cause of her husband?s actions.

“You look at the circumstances?how that particular person was raised?and learn not to hate that person and [be] glad that person came into your life,? Samen said.

“[Christianity] doesn’t go as deep as Buddhism on what to do with your anger,” she explained. “It transforms your thoughts. There are proven methods [in Buddhism] to change your mind.”

Like Movsesian, Samen was raised as a Presbyterian. The climate of the ?60s and a liberal mother allowed Samen to experiment with Eastern philosophy as early as 12 years old.

However, Samen?s adoption of Buddhism was gradual, and she didn?t become a practitioner until after meeting “a great master” of Tibetan Buddhism in ?96.

At that point, she took the vow of the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: ?May I be the doctor and the medicine and may I be the nurse

For all sick beings in the world until everyone is healed.

May a rain of food and drink descend to clear away the pain of thirst and hunger.

And during the eon of famine may I myself change into food and drink.

May I become an inexhaustible treasure for those who are poor and destitute;

May I turn into all things they could need and may these be placed close beside them.?

Even after all these years, Samen still has a hard time grasping some of the more difficult concepts of Buddhism.

“They don?t believe that emptiness and form are different,” Samen said. “It?s a very difficult concept for even me to grasp.”

An Ordained Lama

Growing up with his aunt and mother in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jerry Gardner was exposed to a variety of religions early in his life. By junior high school, Gardner was familiar with the Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal and Baptist churches.

“My aunt was very religious,” Gardner said. “She was a sampler.”

Studying martial arts, Gardner learned about Buddhism at the age of 12. After learning about the various schools within Buddhism and other religions, Gardner gravitated toward Tibetan Buddhism because it made the most sense to him and suited his lifestyle.

“I wasn?t looking to be a monk or live in a monastery,” said Gardner, who is an assistant professor in the theatre department. “I had to work. Other schools required the monastic life.”

Gardner has been studying Buddhism formally for 30 years and is an ordained lama?a teacher in the Tibetan school. He translates his title, Lama Thupten Dorje, as “one who aspires to uphold the highest teachings of the Buddha.”

Although being a lama entitles him to teach others, Gardner has not reached enlightenment himself.

According to Gardner, reaching Nirvana allows one to become Buddha, or “a physical manifestation of the Buddha compassion.” His goals are to reach Nirvana someday and help others attain it.

“I want to be a Buddha,? Gardner said. “Our aspiration to be fully enlightened is not just for our [own] benefit, but [for] the benefit of others.”

“All sentient beings have the potential to realize their compassion,” Gardner continued, “but only Buddhas realize this quality and act from it.”

Gardner believes that ignorance, desire and anger are interlinked and cyclical?giving rise to other vices such as jealousy, greed, lust and stupidity.

He also thinks that our perceptions often fool us and that we need to learn to “not see everything as permanent but transitory.”

“It makes life that much more precious,” he said. “It is fragile. You need to enjoy it while you can, because it?s not permanent.”

“I strive to integrate [Buddhist teachings] into my life everyday,” said the devout follower, teacher and lifelong student. “I?m still a quite ignorant, stupid human. Most of what I do is born out of ignorance. I must make an attempt to have a higher view of the truth of a given situation. More often than not, I fall short.”

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