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Eastern Religions

This article, "Eastern Religions" was published in San Antonio Express-News, November 21, 1971, in San Antonio, Texas.

By John Dart 

LOS ANGELES - Jesus talk is "in" today in many youth circles, but that hasn't forced the gurus to unfold themselves from the lotus position, pack their chanting beads and head back to Asia. 

Eastern religions - whose practitioners demonstrated amid public attention in the 1960s that bored middle-class people could be engrossed by spiritual matters - still find adherents in America.

Three groups showing particular growth since their U.S. debut during the last decade are the chanting Buddhists of the well-organized Nichiren Shoshu sect, the yellow-robed devotees of the ascetic Hare Krishna movement and the transcendental meditation followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

THE LOS ANGELES area serves as U.S. headquarters for Nichiren Shoshu and the Maharishi's following, and is considered an important religious center for the Hare Krishna movement. 

Southern California has proved hospitable in the past, of course, for such Orient-oriented groups as Self-Realization Fellowship, Vedanta societies and Zen Buddhism, which continue in comparatively quiet ways. 

And Los Angeles is still a "must" stop for most touring gurus

A 13-year-old guru - Balyogeshwar Shri Sant Ji Maharaj of Dehra Dun, India - visited his band of a dozen Los Angeles devotees last summer at a house near the Hollywood Bowl. 

In publicity releases stamped "Top Sacred," the sponsoring Divine Light Mission described the young master as "empowered to impart the imperishable Word of God to all sincere aspirants who seek for perfect tranquility of mind through spiritual insight.

A larger group, the Ananda Marga Yoga Society, which has established an ashram (retreat house), also hopes to bring its spiritual leader from India to the United States. He is Shri Shri Anandamurtijii (known as Babajii). 

"But Babajii does not just go around zapping everyone with bliss," cautioned the society's local newsletter, displaying the same mixture of seriousness and humor shown by the Divine Light Mission. 

Teachers appointed by Babajii have toured the United States since 1969. One teacher known as Dadajii initiated 60 persons during a three-day stay here last August, bringing the number of Los Angeles area disciples to more than 200. 

Despite the Jesus Revolution,

the mystic religions from Asia

still find adherents in America.

TIBETAN BUDDHISM also began developing footholds in the United States in the late 1960s. The major impetus came from refugee lamas and sympathetic Westerners who wished to preserve the religion from extinction - a threat in Tibet where Communist Chinese dominate. 

Most of the lamas are in cooler parts of the country - such as the monasteries in Barnett, Vt., and Boulder, Colo., under the guidance of Chogyam Trung pa. 

The Oriental religion that has attracted the largest following since its U.S. introduction in the 1960s is based in Santa Monica, Calif., and is Japanese rather than Indian or Tibetan in origin. 

The Nichiren Shoshu sect of Buddhism, most commonly called the Sokagakkai in Japan, claimed about 25,000 U.S. followers in 1965. Now an estimated 200,000 persons are active members. 

In Nichiren Shoshu, the priests perform only traditional religious functions such as weddings, funerals and conversion ceremonies. Only two priests are assigned to the United States: one based at the four-year-old temple in Etiwenda, 45 miles east of Los Angeles, and another at a temple in Hawaii.

Active members are urged to do three things: 

- Chant "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" and read 1.5 chapters of the Lotus Sutra for one hour each morning and evening. 

- Attend discussion meetings at homes of members and strive to meet monthly quotas of converts. 

- Subscribe to the three-times weekly World Tribune, edited at the U.S. headquarters building fronting the beach in Santa Monica. 

"The first several years the membership was practically all teenagers and those in their 20s," said Joanne Murad, a headquarters staff worker. "In the last couple years, we have been getting more and more people in their late 20s and 30s as well as older persons - usually parents and grandparents of young members.

The object of worship is a paper scroll, the Gohonzon, which each new member receives to place in his home. 

The results of worship are greatly enriched lives, both spiritually and materially, according to testimonial after testimonial printed in the World Tribune

Aside from contacts made through proselytization efforts, Nichiren Shoshu seeks public visibility through its musical and marching groups, particularly its all-girl fife and drum corps. The sect had a winning entry last April in Washington's Cherry Blossom Parade. 

EVEN GREATER public recognition has been obtained by the Hare Krishna movement, though their style of life has kept their numbers smaller than the pragmatic Nichiren Shoshu sect. 

The robed, shaven-head followers of the Hare Krishna movement can be seen on busy sidewalks of major U.S. cities - singing, dancing and passing out information about the movement. The chant - which uses the words Hare, Krishna and Rama - became familiar to many through the rock musical "Hair" and popular records. 

Founded in 1966 by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prahupada, the movement, formally called the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, has grown to more than 32 chapters in America. 

"Some people who see us on the streets think we are idlers," said Karunasindhu Dasa, 23, the name taken by the financial secretary of the Los Angeles temple. 

"But we sleep only six hours a day," he said. 

The devotees rise at 3:45 a.m. each day for the first worship of the Deities at 4 a.m. The doll-like figures avid painted Deities are offered foodstuffs, incense, flowers, a waving handkerchief, a fan and a lamp. 

"Not everyone who wants to join has to shave his head or wear robes," said a Hare Krishna spokesman, "but there are four prohibitions: no intoxicants, no illicit sex, no eating of flesh and no gambling.

THE THIRD major Eastern movement that has demonstrated staying power in America is the transcendental meditation teaching of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who has included the United States on his world tours since 1961. 

The Maharishi himself, with his long, wavy hair and beard presenting an unusual sight, was a newsmaker in the 1960s, including the time actress Mia Farrow and members of the Beatles were attracted briefly to his techniques. 

Two organizations devoted to teaching the Maharishi's technique have their headquarters in the West Los Angeles area. 

A practical, nonreligious approach is taken by the Students International Meditation Society, located near the University of California at Los Angeles. It claims chapters on 300 campuses. More than 65,000 persons have registered their names upon learning the technique, which is offered for the health and well-being of the student. 

The religious approach is used by the Spiritual Regeneration Movement in Los Angeles. Its president, Charles F. Lutes, who is also a vice president of the Maharishi's world movement, said about 75,000 persons have received training in 32 U.S. centers since SRM's founding it: 1959.

Jerry Jarvis, national director of the student movement, spends most of his time traveling with the Indian guru or raising funds for a training center to be built on land purchased 17 miles north of Santa Barbara, Calif. 

THE EASTERN religions predominantly attract non-Orientals. Nichiren Shoshu has a high percentage of Japanese who have been members for five or more years, but 90 per cent of the membership gained in the last four years has been non-Japanese. 

Why are Eastern religions continuing to interest numbers of young people? One reason may be the attention to environmental crises, says Mokusen Miyuki, assistant professor of religious studies at Southern California's San Fernando Valley State College. 

"A sense of totality - that everything is related to one another - exists in both Hinduism and Buddhism." Miyuki said. "This is very different from Christianity, which distinguishes between creator and created."

Concern for the ecology has made the Oriental concepts that an individual "is one with the entire environment" quite acceptable today to Americans, perhaps even desirable. 

Another attractive feature of the Eastern religions is the comparatively loose organizational structure (except for Nichiren Shoshu). 

Many guru-led groups are drawn together for the specific purposes of achieving a level of understanding or experiencing something of the transcendant, but otherwise are relatively unorganized, according to a researcher who has studied the Meher Baba. 

JAMES F. COTY of Heidelberg College, Tiffin, Ohio, said in a recent paper for the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion that the guru's authority is limited. 

"The individual follower ... is expected to choose and to follow a particular guru only to the extent that it helps him in his spiritual progress. There are other gurus available if he deems his progress unsatisfactory," Coty said. 

Coty indicates that the lack of formal organization will not necessarily lead to such groups fading from the U.S. scene. 

For one thing, the teastern teaching masters try to satisfy a widespread desire today for "authentic" mystic or spiritual experiences. 

Some sociologists and psychologists have said that new religious groups often tend to attract persons who have become alienated in some way - from family, friends, coworkers or society as a whole. Most religious groups would dispute that, however, naming followers who lead rather ordinary, content lives. 

The growth of Eastern religions in this country, however, is given an added dimension by a recent number of books about absorbing elements of Oriental religion into Christianity. 

Western man has become "impoverished" because "the contemplative life is fantastically underdeveloped in the developed and affluent nations," writes the Rev. William Johnston, a Roman Catholic priest who has worked in Japan for 20 years. 

In his book "Christian Zen," Rev. Johnston said Zen meditation could mean the recovery of the contemplative life without giving up Christian theology. "I can't help feeling That Western Christianity is badly in need of a blood transfusion," he said.

Photo: Sidewalk Chant. Santanandi (Mrs. Stephanie Andersen) tries to sell the Hare Krishna magazine as others in group sing, dance and chant.

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