In The News

Change Your Mind Day 1997

Longtime practitioners, meditators-for-a-day, dharma bums, and dog walkers turned out for Tricycle’s fourth annual Change Your Mind Day on May 31. The afternoon of free, informal, introductory instruction is organized each year to introduce people of all backgrounds to meditation practice. For five hours, the Great Hill, a secluded and grassy slope at the north end of New York City’s Central Park, was transformed into a sea of cross-legged sitters and bare-chested sun worshippers drawn by the stillness. Despite overcast skies and predictions of rain, more than 1,200 people participated in this year’s activities, which included guided meditations from a variety of Buddhist traditions, contemplative movement, music, and a traditional Tibetan geshe debate.

As in years past, Tibetan practitioner Michele Laporte launched the day with 108 strikes on a massive, bowl-shaped gong. Pat Enkyo O’Hara of the Village Zendo and Laporte cohosted the event along with Tricycle’s Editor-in-Chief, Helen Tworkov. O’Hara led the first guided meditation and was followed by Acharya Judy Lief, a student of the late Trungpa Rinpoche and a teacher in the Shambhala community who led a meditation on the meaning of taking refuge. The New York Buddhist Temple’s Reverend T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki overcame a sore throat to chant prayers. Insight Meditation Society cofounder Joseph Goldstein gave the first of his two guided vipassana (mindfulness) meditations.

Rick Fields, editor of Yoga Journal and author of How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism, marked the halfway point of the day by reading some poems by his old friend, the late Allen Ginsberg, who had participated in past Change Your Mind Days. Then came the Tibetan geshe debate, always a crowd-pleaser, conducted by Michael Roach, an ordained monk in the Gelugpa lineage, abbot of the New York–based Diamond Abbey, and head of the Asian Classics Institute. Two monks debated each other in Tibetan on the meaning of nirvana. The fast-paced exchange, the hand-clapping, and the crowd’s roaring of approval or disapproval made it, once again, the most raucous event of the day.

Maggie Newman, a longtime teacher of T’ai Chi and Japanese dance, led a series of contemplative movements, and composer Jon Gibson performed two pieces on an instrument he fashioned out of PVC tubing, normally used for drainage pipes. The deep drone of the instrument resonated remarkably like that of a Tibetan long-horn.

The day drew to a close with a trio of teachings on the Buddhist principle of metta or loving-kindness. Khenpo Tsewang Gyatso, a Nyingma lineage teacher, led the first meditation.The Venerable Kurunegoda Piyatissa, Sri Lankan abbot of the Theravada New York Buddhist Vihara, discussed the crucial role of discipline in meditation practice. Gelek Rinpoche of the Jewel Heart Tibetan Centers (Ann Arbor and New York) gave a lively talk on the inevitability of suffering and the importance of developing compassion for ourselves. And as Michele Laporte closed the day with 108 gongs, the participants arrayed across the Great Hill sat silently.

Highway Death

On May 19, seven Thai monks driving from San Francisco to a temple in North Hollywood were killed when their van flipped over on the highway. Six of the dead, including the driver, were monks who had traveled from Thailand to celebrate the opening of a temple in Fremont, California. In Theravadan practice, monastics are not supposed to drive. Sangha members are questioning why a monk had taken the wheel.

Not in Our Back Yard

Residents of Yorba Linda, California, objecting to Asian architectural style and potential crowds, have quashed the efforts of the Myanmar Buddhist Society of America to build a monastery there. Members of the Society said they believed the city council, which rejected the building proposal, had tried to discredit their sangha. Residents near the proposed site tried to link the group to other Buddhist temples in southern California that have used meditation centers to host political gatherings, and to one temple that neighbors call an “eyesore.”

One resident, Jack Majors, objected to the size of the building and its proposed design, saying, “You have before you a project that compares to the Taj Mahal.” Another resident, Georgina Campbell, maintained that the architecture would draw crowds and cause traffic. Local clergy, meanwhile, defended the project. John Dalton, president of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who lives next to the proposed site, said he welcomed the Burmese Buddhists as “gentle people our children can look up to and learn from.” The only other building project to have been barred in recent years was a pool hall.

Doody’s Conviction Upheld

Jonathan Doody, who was convicted of killing nine people at a Buddhist temple near Phoenix in 1991, lost a Supreme Court appeal this June. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who filed the appeal, argued that Doody, a Thai immigrant, did not understand his “Miranda rights” (the right tto remain silent or to have a lawyer’s help) when they were read to him. Doody was convicted in 1993 of murdering six monks and three other people at the temple. All the dead had been shot in the back of the head with a rifle. Doody’s own brother had studied at the temple.

The appeal said police had “downplayed the importance of the Miranda warnings” before beginning a twelve-hour investigation of the suspect. Noting Doody’s age (he was seventeen at the time) and the fact that English was not his first language, the appeal urged the court to use his case to determine whether the justice system “must use a higher standard in assessing the adequacy of Miranda warnings than might be the case where adults are involved.” But an Arizona appeals court upheld Doody’s conviction after ruling that an audiotape of the police warnings to him “supports the trial’s finding that Doody knowingly and intelligently waived his rights.”

Death Row Redux

On August 8, 1996, Frankie Parker, an Arkansas death row inmate and Buddhist, was executed for the murder of his parents-in-law (Tricycle, Fall 1996). Several years before his execution, while living on death row, Parker encountered a copy of the Dhammapada and began to study Buddhism. He ultimately accepted responsibility for his crimes and took refuge vows with Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and jukai, formal Zen refuge vows, with Eido Shimano Roshi.

Now, Parker’s best friend and fellow death row Buddhist, Gene Perry, has had his execution date set for August 6—nearly a year to the day after Parker was electrocuted. In 1980, Parker was involved in a jewelry store heist that left two people dead. Perry maintains his innocence in the murders, but admits to reselling some of the stolen jewelry. On May 28, he took refuge vows over the telephone with Tharchin Rinpoche. At press time, Perry was awaiting the outcome of a clemency hearing that could commute his sentence to life in prison.

Harrer Horror

On the eve of the premiere of Seven Years in Tibet, the film about Austrian Hans Harrer’s life in Tibet, the former tutor of the Dalai Lama is being dogged by his past as a member of the Nazi Party. The film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Brad Pitt, is based on Harrer’s best-selling book, which he wrote in the 1950s after fleeing Lhasa during the Chinese invasion.

According to documents obtained by the German magazine Stern, Harrer, who was a prominent mountaineer, joined the Nazi party in 1938 when Germany took control of Austria. He also joined the SS, the party’s police wing notoriously associated with the atrocities of the Holocaust. Harrer maintains that he joined the party in order to be able to further his teaching and mountaineering careers, and was interned in India by the British at the start of World War II. But the Stern documents also reveal that Harrer joined Hitler’s SA or storm troops in 1933, at a time when Nazi activities were banned in Austria.

French director Annaud said in a statement quoted in the New York Times that he suspected Harrer had some Nazi connection prior to the war, but that after the war “he devoted his life to nonviolence, human rights and racial equality.” Harrer, who is 85 and lives in Austria and Liechtenstein, told the Austria Press Agency that he never carried out SS activities and admitted that “from today’s view, the former party and SS membership is an unpleasant thing.” He added that he lives with a “clear conscience.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said there is no evidence linking Harrer to Holocaust activity.

In 1938, Harrer made the first ascent of Switzerland’s precarious Eiger North Face—and earned a handshake from Hitler. He later became a sports instructor and joined the Nazi party in order, he claims, to partake in a government-financed Himalayan expedition. Without the membership, he insists, he would have had no chance of exploring the Himalayas—his life’s dream.

At the end of the expedition in September 1939, just as war broke out, Harrer and a companion were arrested by British troops in India. The two escaped an internment camp in 1944 and trekked through Tibet to Lhasa, a place few Westerners had ever laid eyes on. They soon became known to the country’s religious leadership, including the young Dalai Lama. Harrer became His Holiness’s tutor in math, English, and sports, as well as an advisor and friend. Seven Years In Tibet was ultimately translated into forty-eight languages.

Bedrock Buddhas

Officials of Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership threatened this spring to destroy two 2,000-year-old Buddhist statues they regard as an insult to Islam. One of the fourth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan, carved from sandstone cliffs, is the tallest standing Buddha in the world. The threat prompted United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to appeal to political commanders in Afghanistan that the statues be left alone. So far, they have been unharmed.

Other parts of Afghanistan’s Buddhist past, including 1,700-year-old shrines at Hadda in the eastern part of the country, are being destroyed for more mundane reasons. According to a report by the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, trucks are hauling off stones from the Hadda shrines for use as building materials.

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