When did Tibetan Buddhism come to Pittsburgh?
“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came into existence and how historical divisions are confronted today.
In an old, dark brick building in Swissvale is an ornate shrine adorned with gold from Nepal. It is the sanctuary of the Tibetan Cultural Center of the Three Rivers [TRTCC].
In the front and back corners of the center are Buddha statues – two standing and one reclining. Although the TRTCC is a Tibetan Buddhist dharma, or practice, Buddha statues are in Thai and Burmese styles.
How did these statues end up at the TRTCC?
It’s thanks to a notorious murderer, said John Bogaard, one of the founding members of the TRTCC.
John du Pont, from the wealthy family that founded the chemical company DuPont, shot and killed an Olympic wrestler in 1996. (If that sounds familiar, it was the subject of the 2014 movie “Foxcatcher.”
Du Pont was sent to prison in Somerset. While incarcerated, du Pont asked to speak with a Tibetan Buddhist clergyman. His attorney contacted Bogaard, but, before Bogaard’s security clearance was approved, du Pont died.
“So I got a letter one day saying, ‘You’re an heir to this rich and famous guy who committed a horrible crime,'” Bogaard recalled.
In his will, du Pont had bequeathed all of his Buddhist material, including several statues and some books, to the Three Rivers Tibetan Cultural Center, then called the Three Rivers Dharma.
At the time, Dharma was meeting in a basement apartment in Oakland – an apartment they eventually left because, among other reasons, there was an intermittent sewer smell that the resident monk could not. bear more. Before that, they rotated between people’s homes, the Friends Meeting House, area churches, and an Oakland bookstore — basically anywhere they could afford to meet on their small budget.
Bogaard decided to accept the gift.
Next thing he knows, there’s a moving van outside, and he’s pulling out 3-5 foot tall Buddha statues from crates. They have had a home at the TRTCC ever since.
The TRTCC began as an outgrowth of Friends of Tibet of Pittsburgh, a political advocacy group. That was in 1993. At that time there were a number of Zen Buddhists in Pittsburgh (Zen Buddhism became popular earlier than other branches in the United States), but that was about all.
Bogaard had studied Tibetan Buddhism on his own, but he wanted to do it in community. He thought that if he joined the Friends of Tibet of Pittsburgh, he might find others interested in starting a Buddhist community.
He was right. When they held their first event, 50 or 60 people showed up.
Most were not Tibetans. Although Pittsburgh had a small number of Tibetans and Sherpas in the 1990s (and still today), and they were quick to offer financial support to the project, most were not seeking regular spiritual practice. It was a holdover from Tibet, where a large monastic population supports the country’s religious activity and lay people only occasionally participate.
Most of the participants were (and are) American converts or immigrants from other Asian cultures.
This mixture of backgrounds is what attracted Eva Hui to the Dharma of the Three Rivers.
Hui is an unusual case among Pittsburgh Buddhists. She was raised traditionally. Growing up, she attended a Buddhist boarding school in Hong Kong.
In Buddhism, she explained, people devote themselves to three things, called the Three Jewels: the teacher (the Buddha), the teaching (the dharma) and the community (the sangha). Community, in other words, is at the heart of Buddhism.
Some Buddhist sanghas that formed in Pittsburgh in the 1990s catered to growing immigrant populations—Thai, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, and Indian, for example. These temples had a cultural and spiritual purpose.
“It’s like a heritage gathering,” Hui said, describing her visit to a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Braddock. It gave people “the feeling of being together again, even though they are in a foreign country”.
A sangha like the TRTCC, on the other hand, had no specific cultural appeal. Hui felt that people were instead drawn to “basic Buddhist teachings”: compassion and “true wisdom,” the wisdom that comes from letting go of attachments and recognizing the innate Buddha nature in every person. .
“It doesn’t matter where you were born, what culture you come from, we all have that nature,” she said.
Pittsburgh Buddhists Also Gather between communities, Bogaard said. In 1995, he participated in the founding of the Buddhist Society of Pittsburgh [BSP]an intra-Buddhist organization still active.
What attracted Eva Hui to the Three Rivers Tibetan Cultural Center was the diversity of the community. She saw it resonate with the core teachings of Buddhism, including letting go of attachments and recognizing the innate Buddha nature in every person. (Photos by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)
In big cities like New York, Bogaard said, Buddhists are likely to stick to their own corners. In smaller towns, there may not be a Buddhist scene. In Pittsburgh, Buddhists of different branches share spaces, coordinate special events and celebrate festivals together.
BSP’s most monumental achievement was bringing the Dalai Lama to Pittsburgh for a visit in 1998, an effort that involved coordinating with the State Department and renting a floor of the William Penn Hotel as well as rooms above and below for security reasons.
When the BSP started, its objective was pragmatic. There weren’t many Buddhists in Pittsburgh, so it made sense that everyone would relate to it.
“Buddhism is a different practice, you know, it’s a different approach to life,” Bogaard said. “It’s nice to have other like-minded people you can surround yourself with.”
Since then, it has grown less out of necessity than a commitment to helping people access Buddhist teachings that resonate with them.
“It’s very unique to Pittsburgh,” he said.
This story has been verified by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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