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Originally published Saturday, October 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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More Americans buying into Buddhism

Alotus grows in the mud, the Eastern spiritual saying goes. But if the proliferation of Buddhist images, icons and language means anything...

Religion News Service

Alotus grows in the mud, the Eastern spiritual saying goes. But if the proliferation of Buddhist images, icons and language means anything, then it's also thriving in boardrooms, shopping malls and cyberspace.

As an unprecedented number of Americans turn to Buddhism — there are now an estimated 6 million Buddhists nationwide — more and more Buddhist ideas and symbols are popping up in bookstores, gift shops and business retreats.

A shopper, for example, can find Buddha T-shirts, Buddha key chains, Buddha photo holders, books that coach readers to become a bodhisattva (person on the path to enlightenment), music for Buddhist meditation and a Buddha ball that shoots beams of light. And that's just from one mall, Washington Square Mall in Tigard, Ore.

"This is a really popular item. I think they like this because it's more unique," Sandy Berney of Spencer Gifts said of the Electrostorm Buddha Ball.

Shoppers will not, however, find in the mall's Victoria's Secret store the notorious Buddha tankini swimsuit with its strategically placed Buddhas. Victoria's Secret and the tankini's manufacturer, the Ondademar swimwear company, yanked it from the market last year after outraged Buddhists launched protests against it.

"It was crass. It was like having the Quran on toilet paper," said Robert Beatty, leader of the Portland Insight Meditation Community. Yet Buddhists like Beatty do see a logic in the way Buddhist images and icons are appearing all over the United States.

"Every time Buddhism enters a culture, it transforms the culture," he said. "What's happening now is there's this deep flowing into our culture of rather significant Buddhist practices, and along with that come the accouterments."

Some of those accouterments are sleazy and cheap, said Charles Prebish, Pennsylvania State University professor of religion studies and author of scores of books and articles about Buddhism.

"But some are making [and writing] good stuff, and are doing it to support Buddhist causes," Prebish said.

As the oft-cited source of the 6 million U.S. Buddhists figure, Prebish said he doesn't see any harm in people dabbling in Buddhism or becoming what some call "nightstand Buddhists" or "freelance Buddhists." But he said they should avoid "a lot of junk out there."

Some snatch up such books as "Your Buddha Nature" or "If the Buddha Dated" — not because they want to don crimson robes and take on the life of a monk but because they want to learn how to apply concepts of compassion, detachment and inner peace to their own lives.

Beth Bingham, national spokeswoman for the Borders Group, said that after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the sale of Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired material dropped. Now, she said, it's steadily rising.

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Assisting the climb are Hollywood stars Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, who have appeared with the Dalai Lama and raised large amounts of money for Tibetans living in exile.

And those who've read Oprah's interview with the Dalai Lama or listened to Gere read "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" can chat about it with just a few keystrokes. Internet chat rooms are full of talk about that, of sangha (Buddhist community) and The Noble Eightfold Path (right speech, right intention, right action, etc.).

Business people who've never even thought of Buddhism also are finding themselves booked for Zen retreats with colleagues. Seminars with titles such as "Executive Zen," "Zen at Work" and "Zen and Business" offer businesses a way to help their employees handle stress and excel.

"When we take a moment out of an overfilled day and incorporate a very basic Zen practice — for instance, the practice of mindfulness — it's amazing how your day can turn around," said Monique Muhlenkamp, publicity manager for California's New World Library. In her work, she promotes such books as Marc Lesser's "Z.B.A.: Zen of Business Administration: How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work and Your Life" (New World Library, $14.95 paperback, 256 pages).

"For many people, it's no longer just about a job; they want and need more. Applying Zen to the day-to-day helps on many levels."

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