tampabay.com

A salve for their souls

Thai Buddhists have built a retreat where a monk guides their spiritual quest.

By SHERRI DAY
Published February 3, 2007


PLANT CITY - After the chanting, the monk speaks: .

Relax your body, all of your body. Start from the forehead, all of your muscles, your face, your back, your abdomen.

Furrowed brows uncrease. Fidgeting ceases. The room falls silent. The aim here is to reach nirvana or enlightenment.

"When you stop thinking, you find true happiness, and you find the secrets in your mind," the monk said. "Everybody has the secrets, not just Buddhists."

The Venerable Chatchawan Sanintharachak, 33, hails from Thailand and makes his home at the Florida Meditation Center, which sits tucked between a row of tract homes and a canopy of stately trees that drip with moss, just off Interstate 4.

Since it opened in August, the center attracts about 40 attendees on Sundays for meditation sessions with three monks. Nearly 300 adherents show up for special ceremonies, center officials said.

Clothed in white to signify purity, the adherents provide a striking contrast to the monks in their saffron-colored robes and shaved heads. About 80 percent of those gathered are natives of Thailand, who practice the Theravada form of Buddhism, widely considered the religion's most conservative strain.

The Center is one of 10 around the country affiliated with the Dhammakaya Foundation, an international group that draws its roots to an abbot in 1916 who strove to reconnect Buddhists with the religion's roots. The group's goal is to promote the attainment of knowledge held by Buddhas, or those who have achieved enlightenment, through meditation. Unlike some strains of Buddhism that require only monks to meditate, lay people in Dhammakaya adhere to the practice as well.

In the bay area, Buddhists faithful to the Dhammakaya tradition have been practicing for more than 20 years. They started by meeting in private homes and dialing in by phone to live, guided meditations from Los Angeles and Thailand.

It was costly and connections often proved unreliable so they temporarily disbanded. They began meeting again in 2004 after Narit Siridhab, a Lutz hospice case manager, got satellite television in his home. The Foundation broadcasts meditation and teachings from its headquarters in Thailand.

Three years ago, they began petitioning the Foundation for monks.

"Anyone who meditates would like to have a good instructor," said Siridhab, 60. "You don't just try it by yourself. You need to practice with someone who is proficient and learn."

Before the Foundation agreed to send monks, Siridhab and other group leaders had to find a site for a meditation center. Monks are prohibited from living with lay people.

Last July, the Tampa group bought the 11-acre Plant City site, once a horse farm, for $430,000. The monks arrived in August, praising the property's tranquil setting, room for expansion and central location.

Before the center opened, Well Spence, a Sarasota clerk, used to travel to the Foundation's national headquarters in California once a year to practice communal meditation. Now, Spence and her husband are Plant City regulars.

"When I come here, I feel good about myself and release stress," Spence said. "It's been a good thing in my life."

Dr. Manus Praserthdam, a St. Petersburg nephrologist, agrees.

"We work hard six days a week, we should have one day to give to the spirit," said Praserthdam, 62, who helped buy the center. "I feel so happy to have this property."

Center officials say some people travel from as far as Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale to attend weekly services.

Meditation, they say, can benefit all. "We focus more on meditation than Buddhist teachings so any faith, any belief is welcome to meditate with us," said Nina Lovicha, a center staff member.

For now, the monks chant in Pali, the ancient Indian language in which the Theravada Buddhist scriptures are written. Guided meditations are done in Thai.

Center officials hope to build a 6,000-square-foot addition by spring to provide more room for English-language meditations and, eventually, dormitories on site to house up to 100 people.

So far, the monks say Plant City suits them. "Sometimes, I'm shopping in the Wal-Mart, people are surprised," Sanintharachak said. "They've never seen the Buddhist monk here. But people here are friendly."

- - -

When the meditation ends on this tranquil January Sunday afternoon, those who want to learn more about Buddhism gather around Sanintharachak.

The monk came to the United States from Thailand about a year ago. His first assignment was at the Foundation's meditation center in Arlington, Texas.

Sanintharachak lectures about the 38 Steps Toward Enlightened Living. He tells his pupils to shun unwholesome living by training to become a good person. His first tip: Don't associate with fools.

"I like the Gator team. I like President Bush. I like Elvis Presley. These are the heroes in your mind, and the heroes in your mind control the way of your life. Who is the hero in your mind? If bin Laden is the hero in your mind, what happens? You follow him to bomb ... Select the good person for the hero in your mind. The hero in your mind controls the way of your life."

Sanintharachak speaks first in Thai and then translates his lessons into English. The monk, who is prone to wide smiles, humor and pop culture references, completes the first 10 steps. His charges must learn quickly. Test day is coming.

The Plant City Buddhists will join fellow believers in more than 120 countries today as they take an exam on the basic tenets of their faith. The highest scorer will win $1,000 and a round-trip ticket to Thailand.

Those who are present endeavor to study hard. But they say they already have won a prize.

After the lecture, they shuffle toward the monk on their knees, bow and place white envelopes stuffed with money on a tray at Sanintharachak's feet.

The act ensures the monks and the center will remain another week.

Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.

About Buddhism

Origins: Grew from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in 563 B.C. and abandoned a life of luxury to find the meaning of life. Through meditation, he achieved nirvana, a state of consciousness beyond suffering and desire. He became a Buddha, or an Enlightened One.

Central Tenets for Lay People: Refrain from killing living creatures, stealing, sexual immorality, lying and alcohol and drug consumption.

Size: About 350 million adherents worldwide.

In bay area: Approximately 11 congregations. Foundation leaders say there are approximately 150 Dhammakaya followers around the state.

For more information: The Florida Meditation Center, 1303 N. Gordon St., Plant City, FL 33563, 813-719-8000.

Source: Adhrents.com; The Association of Religion Data Archives; Beliefnet.com