Om is where the heart is

In a pursuit of enlightenment, the Journal’s Emily Davies seeks to understand Buddhism’s ancient culture of tranquility

Journal Features Editor Emily Davies at the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on Wellington St.
Journal Features Editor Emily Davies at the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on Wellington St.

I’m usually still in bed at 10 a.m. on Sunday mornings. This week, with the help of a Tim Hortons double-double coffee, I decided to explore a place I had passed many times but never entered: the Kuluta Buddhist Centre on Wellington St.

I was on an assignment unlike any other—discovering the path to enlightenment. Maybe.

As I stepped into the centre to attend their weekly “Prayers for World Peace” class, I was overcome with an instant sense of calm. Rows of floor pillows were set up, with a wooden podium at the front for the monk. Not surprisingly, statues of Buddha were ever-present throughout the small, tranquil space.

I arrived early and was greeted by centre volunteer Josh Ford as he finished setting up for the class.

Ford said curiosity and the teachings of Buddha initially drew him to Buddhism.

“I admired it. I started reading the Dharma and thought, ‘This guy agrees with me.’”

Ford, who’s practiced Buddhism for six and a half years, said he was drawn to its focus on happiness and developing perfect minds.

With that, he took me to the back kitchen to introduce me the centre’s resident monk, Kalsang Donsang.

I confessed to him that my knowledge of Buddhist teachings was limited.

“As long as you have an open mind,” he said.

Over a cup of green tea, Donsang gave me a brief overview of Buddhism.

“The main part of Buddhism is to make a man peaceful and elevate others,” he said. “If I cherish you than I cherish myself. It’s a cause and effect.”

I quickly realized a full understanding of Buddhism would take much longer than a 10-minute conversation.

“In Buddhism, different teachers gave different presentations of the Buddha’s teachings,” he said. “The beliefs are essentially the same, but the presentation and the practices are different.”

Donsang said the Buddhist traditions exist on a spectrum, just as varied as Protestant denominations in the Christian faith.

According to Buddhist belief, each teacher can trace his lineage to Buddha and it’s their job to preserve his over two and half thousand year-old teachings for future generations.

Kaluta Buddhism is a member of the New Kadampa Tradition founded by the Buddhist teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

“We’re more modern,” Donsang said. “Our practioners can come and go as they please. For example, they don’t have to live in a monastery.”

Originally from Quebec, Donsang has been a practicing Buddhist for 11 years and a monk for 10. He’s been in Kingston for three years, after previously teaching in Ottawa, Gatineau and Montreal.

“Tibetan Buddhism has only been in the West for 40 or 50 years. There are now 1,200 centres around the world. It’s quite amazing in terms of how fast it spread,” he said. “In the Kingston area, we have about 150 come to the centre, but there are many more who are interested.”

Donsang said in addition to the classes he teaches at Kuluta on Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings, he also teaches classes in Kingston prisons four to five days per week. He also conducts a weekly class in Belleville.

After finishing our tea, it was time to start the session.

The four of us in attendance each found a floor cushion—which were much comfier than the wooden pews I used to sit in on Sunday mornings growing up.

My Christian upbringing has made me no stranger to the concept of prayer, but the “Prayers for Meditation” were to be unlike any I had uttered before.

“Buddha says before trying to dye a piece of cloth, we must bleach the cloth. We need to bleach our minds of all distraction,” Donsang said. “We must stop conceptual thinking to prevent our minds from wandering.”

With that Donsang spoke of Bodichitta. Derived from the ancient Sanskrit words “bodhi,” meaning “enlightenment” and “chitta,” meaning consciousness, together they mean “mind of enlightenment,” According to Buddhist belief, Bodichitta must be attained in order to become the embodiment of this state of enlightenment, known as Bodhisattva.

“Once you develop the mind, you will become a Buddha,” Donsang informed the class. “The aspiring Bodhisattva eventually becomes spontaneous Bodhisattva.

“Focus your mind on one object,” he further encouraged us before beginning the prayers, while also warning us not to let our mind wander.

I listened to Donsang and for a couple of minutes; I put down my notebook, dropped my pen and attempted to meditate. I closed my eyes, breathed in and out and began to concentrate on nothing, reaching the point where I didn’t even notice the new age music playing in the background.

Then I suddenly opened my eyes and stared at the pen and notebook in front of me. I picked up them up and switched from meditation to observation.

Although my path down the road to enlightenment had hit an early roadblock, I paid close attention to the words of prayer being chanted in unison to a CD, such as this prayer, “Generating the four immeasurables.”

“May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery. May no one ever be separated from their happiness. May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment,” the voice chanted.

Donsang went on to address the Buddhist belief in reincarnation in that morning’s teaching.

“Buddha said the mind has no beginning,” he said. “We have had many mothers … our mother has changed her appearance many times. Between our life and the next her appearance changes, but she’s still our mother.”

Donsang then touched on the well-known Buddhist belief in karma, the action that is believed to trigger the entire cycle of cause and effect.

“According to Buddhism, what is correct leads to happiness,” he said.

After noticing the look of slight confusion on my face, Donsang explained.

“If we understand reincarnation, then it is just logical reasoning.” Donsang continued to explain the positive effects of achieving enlightenment and explained a systemic system known as the “seven-fold quintessential instructions of cause and effect.”

“We need to start saying ‘I’m going to do something’… I need to become a Buddha, otherwise, we are utterly powerless,” he said. “Imagine your own mother drowning. I need to do something now … I will become a Buddha to liberate human beings.”

With that, it was back to praying in unison, as we completed the remainder of the “Prayers for Meditation” and completed our inner reconditioning exercise.

Afterwards, the group was invited to the kitchen for further spiritual conversation.

When I asked Donsang about Buddhism’s place within the realm of traditional religion, he said Buddha wasn’t a God, but rather a man who attained great enlightenment. “He was a teacher who attained permanent inner peace,” he said. “We want to know the truth, we don’t want to win the debate,” he said.

After being offered another cup of tea—this time of the sweetened, condensed variety, I asked Donsang to help me understand the importance of reincarnation within Buddhism.

“You need to believe in reincarnation. Otherwise you don’t have the whole perspective of human beings suffering.”

Donsang transitioned into the subject of karma—a concept which he said is the most fundamental to Buddhism.

“It’s a cause and effect. If you believe in karma, you have to believe in a past, present and future,” he said. “Buddha—he attained enlightenment from a previous life.”

Donsang said Buddhism is really an exercise in the “conditioning of the mind.”

“All these negative states of mind are the causes of suffering. The problem is not the different situations itself, it’s the negative reaction to these situations,” he said. “Happiness is a peace of mind.”

After finishing my cup of tea, I thanked Donsang for his time and made my leave feeling incredibly calm and relaxed. I hadn’t attained enlightenment—or even a full understanding of Buddhism—but I may have acquired a bit of perspective along the way.

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