By Clara Kobler
The Losel Shedrup Ling Tibetan Buddhist Center of Knoxville, Tennessee is easily missed by an unassuming driver heading down the busy road of Kingston Pike in the western part of the city. Nestled behind store fronts and a tiny barbeque joint, this center for the people of the Buddhist faith is much like the community it serves: small and hidden, but still welcoming and warm as ever. The front of the building gives nothing away as to what lies inside the one-room establishment; the only clue to its contents is the string of small, colorful prayer flags draped between the front door and a neighboring fence. Upon looking closer, a small sign indicating the center’s name can be made out underneath the flags, worn but unwavering.
The front door is a plain gray color, but the windows on either side hint at the color and comfort contained within. Inside, the floor is lined with carpets and cushions, with plenty of room for seated meditation whenever needed. Along the wall hang several depictions of Buddhist deities that teach traits important to the practice of this small but proud Buddhist center. In the center of the front wall hangs a portrait of the Buddha himself, seated in the traditional meditative position.
The Losel Shedrup Ling Center was founded twenty-three years ago on May 17, 1993 by a small group of Knoxville natives desiring a place to practice their faith together. For the over two decades of its life, the center has remained rather the same, remaining in its original location to this day. Despite the city’s position in the center of America’s famous Christian Bible Belt, the Losel Shedrup Ling Center has continued to thrive as a small, self-preserving community inside this small, welcoming space. Members who frequent the center come together in variations of their belief in Tibetan Buddhism; while the community might not hold exactly the same beliefs, the center is clear that all are welcome to explore their relationship with the Buddhist faith through this center. The center’s online introduction states:
“Membership is available to any individual who desires it regardless of race, age, gender, marital status, or national origin, provided, however, that the directors may decline to admit any person who is hostile to Buddhism as a religion, creed, or philosophy. The corporation does not require a member to renounce affiliation with or membership in other churches or religious orders. Tolerance is a leading ethical precept of Buddhism.”
Through various activities and exercises that occur on a weekly basis, the center’s promise on tolerance is cleanly executed through practices dealing in varying levels of secularism. Events occur four days out of each week, with two practices taking place on Sunday morning.
The first event on Sunday begins at ten o’clock in the morning, and is designed for people already familiar with Buddhist practices and texts. The exercise involves a deity practice, in which the focus of the meditation and activities are derived from a rotation of various Buddhist deities that exemplify important Buddhist traits. Typically, these deity figures involve a Tara, or a female embodiment of the Buddha that is associated with metaphors for Buddha virtues. In this center specifically the Green Tara, that of enlightened activity, is particularly important for the intense visualization practices that take place throughout this weekly exercise.
The concept of using Tara so often in the center’s Buddhist practice stems from Buddhism’s Mother Aspect: the belief that, at some point, all people in the world have been your mother. By involving this point of view in meditation, all anger and resentment towards others are refuted by the conscious acknowledgement of past love, care, and support of you carried out by the person at hand. This, in turn, provides a sense of compassion for all others – a fundamental element in Tibetan Buddhism.
At the conclusion of the ten o’clock practice, a form of the Gelugpa School is carried out at the eleven o’clock meeting. This time is designed for individuals less invested in intense visualization, and thus is easier for people new to Buddhism to attend. Gelugpa is the youngest form of Tibetan Buddhism, and means “School of the Virtuous.” It is also the largest branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and the branch to which the traditional Dalai Lamas are attached. Created in the fourteenth century by a monk named Tsongkhapa, this school enforces stricter monastic policy than past Tibetan Buddhist schools, and allows Tantric and magical rites only in moderation. The main goal of the Gelugpa School is to arouse your bodhisattva, or the inner Buddha-nature that lives inside each individual. Compassion, too, is key in the practice of Gelugpa Buddhism, and thus is a factor in accessing the bodhisattva through meditation and intense concentration.
The eleven o’clock service also includes some factors of traditional Mahayana Buddhism, or “The Great Vehicle” Buddhism. This Buddhist tradition believes in one, resolute path to achieving enlightenment, and thus features the attainment of bodhisattva in conquering this goal. Aside from the strictly Buddhist faith-based practice and meditation, the hour-long service also incorporates historical accounts of the Buddha’s life and steers clear of the intense visualization used in the earlier service.
On Monday evenings, the center holds a more secularized meditation group. Officially called “Insight Meditation,” this group of individuals from around Knoxville gathers for guided meditation lead by a different member each week. Unlike the practices on Sunday, this group contains individuals of strict Buddhist faith, people who are questioning, and people who merely enjoy the secular comfort of ritual meditation. Like all practices in Losel Shedrup Ling Center, this group is open to the public.
Tuesday nights feature a weekly book group, in which members read and discuss various Buddhist texts. Featuring both original Buddhist writings as well as more modern texts from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the group uses these readings as a guide for proper Buddhist practice in meditation and in life as a whole. Suggested readings from the group include Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying by H.H. the Dalai Lama; Tara, the Feminine Divine by Bokar Rinpoche; and Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, translated by Ruth Sonam Rinchen.
Thursday evenings are the second-most important ritual of the center’s traditional Tibetan practices where, for one hour each week, a Chenrezig practice is carried out. Chenrezig is a Tibetan Buddhist deity known as the “Buddha of Compassion.” Like in the center’s previous practices, this use of compassion in meditative practice and intense visualization highlights the complete importance this center places on the use of compassion in Buddhist faith and in everyday living. The interior of the Losel Shedrup Ling Center features a portrait of the deity on the wall across from the front door so that upon entering, this figure is one of the first to be seen. This Thursday night practice dedicated completely to Chenrezig incorporates loving-kindness meditation with that of basic compassion to further the uncovering of the inner-bodhisattva of each individual practitioner.
Because of Knoxville’s small Buddhist population as a whole, the Losel Shedrup Ling Center opens their temple on Friday evenings to be used by members of the Teravada Buddhist tradition, the oldest tradition of Buddhism in the world whose name means “Doctrine of the Elders.” While this sharing of space asserts a sense of camaraderie in the Buddhist community of Knoxville, members of Losel Shedrup Ling generally claim a sense of autonomy amongst the various sectors of the Buddhist faith in eastern Tennessee. Jay Meeks, a member of the center’s Board of Directors, states that the small size and vast cultural differences of the various traditions make it hard to establish one firm, solid Buddhist community. While the various centers constantly assert good relations between each other’s temples and practices, the diversity of Buddhism ultimately sustains the center’s Buddhist autonomy.
The congregation of Losel Shedrup Ling itself is quite diverse as a whole. While mostly comprised of Westerners searching for a religion more fitting for themselves outside of the norm, the ages, occupations, and reasons for joining vary greatly across the participants. People of all ages regularly attend weekly practices at the center but within the core membership, a large age gap emerges between those of retirement age and the millennial population. This age distinction, Jay Meeks says, is fairly recent and was a little disconcerting for the original members of the center. Over time, however, this age gap has settled into a “new normal,” and those practicing enjoy the inter-generational interaction that stems from their shared love of Buddhism. As for what brings them to the center in the first place, Jay Meeks speaks from a personal place. “I’ve been coming here for about three years now, after my wife gave me a book about Buddhism and I got very interested in it. I love the communal and social aspect of the center, and the emphasis we place on compassion, especially during the time we live in.”
The small, simple room of the Losel Shedrup Ling Center in Knoxville, Tennessee is successful in providing a safe haven for those practicing the Buddhist faith in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. Through their diverse weekly meetings, deeply asserted tolerance, and opportunities to learn and practice compassion, this small Tibetan Buddhist Center supplies fundamental support and resources for each individual’s Buddhist-faith journey.
Losel Shedrup Ling of Knoxville. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2016. <http://lslk.org/>.
“Tibetan Buddhism.” ReligionFacts.com. 20 Nov. 2016. Web. Accessed 24 Nov. 2016. <www.religionfacts.com/tibetan-buddhism>
“Who Is Chenrezig?” The Chenrezig Project: Infusing Western Life with Tibetan Buddhist Compassion. N.p., 11 Mar. 2008. Web. 25 Nov. 2016. <http://www.chenrezigproject.org/chenrezig.htm>.
Jay Meeks, personal communication, 21 November 2016