Down Haywood Street from the Basilica of St. Lawrence, hanging a left on Walnut Street, and through the patio next to Zambra’s restaurant – one finds themself at Urban Dharma NC. Officially founded in 2011, Urban Dharma’s mission is “to foster a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Buddha, build meaningful community, and integrate contemplative teachings into everyday, ordinary life.”
Asheville, a city of around 89,000 people, is located in the Appalachian mountains of Western North Carolina. A regional hub of art, music and culture, Asheville is perhaps best encapsulated by holding the record for the most breweries per capita in the U.S. at 1 in every 23 people. As one travel blog noted, it is “an eclectic, colorful mixture of left-leaning progressives” and is “the Southeast’s answer to Portland”.
Urban Dharma is composed primarily of Asian and white Americans. Since there is nothing necessitating prior Buddhist practice, people of all backgrounds are welcome and encouraged to visit Urban Dharma. Demographically speaking, Asheville is 82 percent white and just over 2 percent Asian-American. It follows that a large majority of the Buddhist converts at Urban Dharma are white Americans, as is the case throughout North America. Furthermore, Asheville’s large proportion of progressive, college educated people make it associated with what Stanford professor Carl Bielefeldt calls: “American “secular spirituality” — a longing among many (especially the white middle and upper classes) who are still not satisfied with what they have and who want something more; … some “psycho-spice” of self-acceptance, perhaps, some rare “inner herb” of guilt-free self-satisfaction” This concept is similar to what Urban Dharma’s founder and spiritual leader, Dr. Hun Lye, referred to in a 2016 talk as “Abundance”. In the talk, Dr. Lye proposed that part of Urban Dharma’s goal was to help cure a dissatisfaction with material abundance and to help Bielefeldt’s dissatisfied American find self-acceptance. Dr. Lye and Urban Dharma acknowledge the secular aspect of Buddhism in America, but hope that they can also present it in a non-secular fashion.
While its interior has a distinct Tibetan Buddhist aesthetic, and many of it’s core members are of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, part of Urban Dharma’s mission is to offer a “non-sectarian, public Buddhist temple open to all seeking refuge and sanctuary.” Milarepa, a significant figure in the Kagyu lineage and whose Songs of Milarepa Dr. Lye held a 4-weekend-spanning lecture on, said this of Buddhism’s division:
“Clinging to one’s school and condemning others
Is the certain way to waste one’s learning.
Since all dharma teachings are good,
Those who cling to sectarianism
Degrade Buddhism and sever
Themselves from liberation.”
This non-divisional, inclusive thinking is pervasive in Urban Dharma’s goals and practices.
Urban Dharma evolved into what it is now under the guidance and supervision of Dr. Hun Lye. Born in Penang, Malaysia, Dr, Lye was familiarized with Buddhism and a variety of other world religions at a young age. Trips to a local nunnery with his grandmother helped Dr. Lye solidify his ties with Buddhism. Like many other Malaysian Buddhists, Dr. Lye began forming anti-sectarian views during his youth. This aspect of his earlier years in Malaysia is seen in a favorite remark of Dr. Lye’s, found on the Urban Dharma website: “Buddhism is Buddhism is Buddhism.”
Before Dr. Lye came to the U.S in 1989 as an undergraduate and became connected with Tibetan Buddhism, he venerated Master Hsuan Hua of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California as his Refuge and Lay-Precepts master. A major catalyst for Dr. Lye’s focus transferring from Chinese to Tibetan Buddhism was meeting Drupön Sonam Jorphel Rinpoché, a Drikung Kagyü teacher who was visiting the U.S from Nepal. Dr. Lye went on to pursue a doctorate in religion (specializing in Buddhism) at the University of Virginia, during which he studied and served under Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoché at the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Maryland.
After receiving his Doctorate in 2003, Dr. Lye began teaching in North Carolina. At around the same time he began supporting a nascent Buddhist community in Asheville, which would later become Urban Dharma. Around 10 years after receiving his doctorate, a time between which he spent teaching at universities, leading trips to places like Nepal, Tibet, and Ladakh, and supporting the Buddhist community in Asheville, Dr. Lye parted ways with scholastic, secular Buddhism in favor of true pursuit and teaching of the dharma. He sealed this transition in 2013, receiving an appointment as a dorjé lopön of the Drikung Kagyü Lineage by Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoché. Since receiving this honor, Dr. Lye has spent time serving the Drikung Kagyü Lineage, attending projects in various locations around the world while also overseeing the community at Urban Dharma.
Practices and Beliefs
The majority of Urban Dharma’s core members are affiliated with the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Sometimes known as the “Teaching Lineage” school, the Kagyu school traces its origin to roughly the 10th century with master Tilopa passing his teaching to Naropa. This master-disciple relationship, which forms the backbone of the Kagyu school, proceeded to branch into various lineages. The Drikung Kagyu lineage was later founded by Jigten Sumgön, whose lineage traces back through Phagmo Drupa and other famous Kagyu figures such as Gampopa, Milerapa, and Marpa.
An important practice of the Drikung Kagyu lineage is of the Five Paths of Mahamudra, a process that involves: arousing bodhichitta, deity visualization, guru yoga, Mahamudra meditation, and dedication of merit. Another practice is of the Six Dharmas of Naropa, also called the Six Yogas of Naropa, which includes a three-part generation stage that involves: inner heat, the illusory body, and clear light or luminosity. The generation stage calls for breaking down the corporeal world and visualizing deities. It is followed by a three-part completion stage that involves: the dream state, bardo or the intermediate state, and finally, phowa or the transference of consciousness. The completion stage calls for the dissolution of visualization into the concept of emptiness.
According to Urban Dharma’s website, the variety of secular and religious Buddhist practices “emphasize integrating rather than compartmentalizing, engaging rather than retreating, and communing rather than isolating.” In a video from 2016 titled Transforming Cities Part 5: Celebration, Dr. Lye remarks that “We basically have two types of groups: what I call the regular dharma groups that meet here, and there are several groups; and also the regular wellness groups that meet here. We have the opportunity to offer Qiqong, yoga, and several other types of wellness programs on weekday mornings.”
Both Urban Dharma’s website and Facebook page offer weekly schedules for dharma groups and wellness groups. The wellness activities are listed as yoga sessions on Tuesday mornings and Qigong on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. The Dharma schedule is more varied, including events such as Open Sangha Night (a guided meditation and open discussion on Buddhist teachings) on Thursday nights, Refuge Recovery (a Buddhist-based addiction recovery group) on Friday and Sunday Evenings, and formal Buddhist practice and service on Saturday afternoons. The Dharma schedule also has secular events listed, one called Guided Calm-abiding Meditation on Tuesday evenings, and another called Meditation for the Young on the last Sunday of every month.
Special events are generally held on weekends, and often involve talks and teaching by Dr. Lye about certain Vajrayana ideas, traditions, or practices. For example, once a month since August, Dr. Lye has held teachings on the “The Four Buddha Qualities”. Ranging from compassion, clarity, generosity, and protection, Dr. Lye uses a Vajrayana ritual-form of blessing for these four Buddha forms, whose figures are enshrined in Urban Dharma’s temple. The first blessing from August 6th was for the Buddha of compassion, Avalokitesvara, and focused on limitless compassion as a means to escape from suffering, leading to an end of a freed state that also includes unlimited compassion. Next came a lesson on clarity with the blessing of Manjushri, where Dr. Lye talked about how confusion was a source of suffering and like clouds, it can be dispersed to show the true nature of our minds. The most recent lesson was on generosity with the blessing of Jambhala, where Dr. Lye talked of the reciprocal nature of generosity, and how a clenched fist cannot receive.
In an article from pathos.com titled “Is Tibetan Buddhism the most popular in America?”, author Justin Whitaker discusses how this may be the case. Referencing a separate study on the matter, Whitaker gives a list of factors for Tibetan Buddhism’s popularity with points such as: a large proportion of Vajrayāna masters speak English; many masters were expelled from Tibet and looked to settle in the U.S; a large volume of Vajrayana texts are translated into English, and Tibetan Buddhism is easier to practice than many other schools. Asheville has often been noted for its presence of hippie culture or influence, which is connected to the psychedelic counter culture that James Coleman writes of in The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition: “seemed to have an affinity for the almost hallucinatory gods of Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist pantheons”. Even though the Tibetan community of Urban Dharma was said to start forming around when Dr. Lye arrived in the early 2000s – after the glory days of the psychedelic movement and hippies- it doesn’t seem too outlandish that remnants of these groups in Asheville find Tibetan Buddhism enticing for reasons that Coleman put forth.
Bielefeldt, Carl. “July 6, 2001 ~ Comments on Tensions in American Buddhism.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 20 Aug. 2015, www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2001/07/06/july-6-2001-comments-on-tensions-in-american-buddhism/15941/.
Readings on The Six Yogas of Naropa. Translated, edited and introduced by Glenn H. Mullin. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca (USA), 1997. 175p./ p.14.
“Drikung Kagyu Lineage”. www.drikung.org. Retrieved 2018-12-04
Urban Dharma NC – Buddhist community in Asheville, North Carolina. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://udharmanc.com/
Asheville, North Carolina Population 2018. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/asheville-population/
AuthorGreen Global Travel. (2016, September 16). Downtown Asheville: The South’s Green, Progressive Mecca. Retrieved from https://greenglobaltravel.com/downtown-asheville-souths-green-progressive-mecca/
Bryant, T. (n.d.). Urban Dharma NC. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/urbandharma/
Coleman, J. W. (2001). The New Buddhism. Retrieved December 6, 2018, from https://books.google.com/books?id=9-Q6bCGIPhkC&pg=PA65&lpg=PA65&dq=hippies+and+buddhism&source=bl&ots=qvhttEm2qk&sig=dSP6QaSFKMJBfWZTXFyX7iK8KSM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi6jviwx__eAhVMrVkKHSQnDhAQ6AEwEHoECAIQAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
Whitaker, J. (2012, October 24). Is Tibetan Buddhism the most popular in America? Retrieved December 6, 2018, from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/2012/10/is-tibetan-buddhism-the-most-popular-in-america.html