NEWS STORY: Buddhists in Washington, Across Nation Mark `Change Your Mind Day’

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Hugh Byrne wasn’t sure what to do in the weeks that led up to the war in Iraq. He was concerned about what the government was saying, so he went to anti-war demonstrations in Washington. As a Buddhist, though, shouting and protesting about the war didn’t seem quite right.

“I began looking for a more Buddhist way to respond to the war,” said Byrne, a Buddhist minister at Georgetown University and meditation teacher at the Smithsonian Institution. “Buddhists don’t look for peace in the world, they look for peace in themselves.”

Byrne got together with some like-minded friends and created the Washington Buddhist Peace Fellowship in early 2003. The group’s first public event was a silent peace walk from the Washington National Cathedral to the White House last year. Its second and larger event took place Saturday (June 5) amid a steady drizzle in downtown Washington.

A diverse group of Buddhist teachers from around the country led meditation, gave talks and played music. The afternoon event, called “Change Your Mind Day,” was held in nearly 50 cities in North America, Ireland and Australia. Washington’s event marked the first time the 10-year-old event has been held in the nation’s capital.

Though some have called the event an anti-war protest, Byrne said “Change Your Mind Day” is instead a way to cultivate a change of mind that can lead to a change in the world.

“The central theme is peace in our hearts, peace in the world,” Byrne said.

The afternoon began with a gong-ringing shortly after noon. Though only a few dozen people braved the rain during the opening of the event, the crowd grew to about 300 by the middle of the afternoon.

One presenter reminded participants to have a Buddhist attitude about the rain. “We begin by bringing our minds and bodies into the present,” said George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation instructor for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. “The elements remind us that we have a body that is here and present.”

The teachers emphasized different aspects of Buddhism in their roughly 20-minute presentations.

Virginia psychologist Lorne Ladner spoke about the importance of compassion in realizing peace in the world.

“People think of compassion as being sweet, friendly, not hurting anyone’s feelings,” said Ladner, director of the Guhyasamaja Center, a Tibetan Buddhist teaching center near Washington. “But it takes real power and strength to be compassionate. It’s about having the courage to speak the truth.”

Another presenter, Ngawang Choephel, played two devotional songs on a traditional stringed instrument called a dramyen. Choephel, a filmmaker and native Tibetan, said he wanted to share the “great faith the Tibetans have in religion.” Choephel was released from a Chinese prison in 2002, where he had been held on charges of espionage for six years.

Other presenters led meditations, taught the group tai chi, read poetry or danced.

Judy Lief, former dean of Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., said one of the most remarkable things about “Change Your Mind Day” is that it joins such a diverse group of Buddhists.

“We call it `ri-me,”’ Lief said. “It’s about getting wisdom in various, unbiased and nonsectarian ways.”

While presenters came to Washington from as far away as San Francisco for the event, many were from the metropolitan area’s Buddhist community. Kathleen Finigan, organizer of “Change Your Mind Day,” estimated that there are about 80 Buddhist centers in the area, and many more people who practice Buddhist meditation on their own.

Participants who came to listen to the Buddhists’ messages of peace said standing in the rain for hours was worth it.

“I went to the anti-war march this morning,” said Jenna Foust, a northern Virginia Web developer. “There were people jumping out at you, saying you should be angry. I said, why? There are better ways to do things.”

This is exactly the message Byrne was hoping people would take home from “Change Your Mind Day.”

“It’s unproductive to bring anger and greed to our work for peace,” Byrne said. “Buddhism is not unique in acknowledging this idea. It’s just that Buddhism articulates it most clearly.”


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