by Sharon L. Schmeling
In a modern townhouse in a new subdivision of Macungie Township, a handful of people meet weekly to seek a better understanding of one of the world's oldest religions.
They are Buddhists journeying on the path to enlightenment.
While their modern setting may seem incongruous with Buddhism's ancient roots, members of the Buddhist Association of the Lehigh Valley say the religion is as relevant today as when it was founded nearly 2,500 years ago.
"The real problems of life never change. Those problems are the same whether you are the same whether you are living now or (at) the time of Christ or anytime. Buddhism is one method of approaching those issues," said association president Chien Hsiung Chang.
Although Buddhism is one of the world's major religions and is older than Christianity, many North American are unfamiliar with it because it is more commonly practiced in Indian, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. About 250,000 people practice Buddhism in North American.
Locally, there are between 30 to 40 members of the association. Weekly meetings at Chang's home in Macungie usually attract ten. Chang and his wife, Diana, have donated space in their house to store the group's 300 audio tapes and books on Buddhism.
"We act as a tutorial on Buddhism." says Chang, a native of Taiwan who came to the Lehigh Valley six years ago from Georgia Tech to work for a Bethlehem company.
He joined the association in May 1987 when it was formed by Dr. Gordon Chen, who has since moved from Allentown back to Taiwan.
Weekly meetings begin with the airing of a tape, which is followed by a group discussion. It ends with 15-minutes mediation.
Although the majority of the members are natives of Taiwan and China, many did not actively pursue Buddhism until they moved to the U.S.
"I sort of assumed because they were Chinese - many of them grew up either in China or Taiwan - that they would really know Buddhism very well," said Franks, who is one of the few Caucasians in the group. "But we're all very much beginners."
Franks said he first learned about Buddhism during a semester of college study in England.
"For a long time I just thought it was kind of a mysterious, semi-magical thing. I also sort of associated it with 1960's hippie interests."
He dispelled that notion after attending a meeting of Buddhists in Britain's premier city.
"The first people I met were these very proper, British older men and woman who were sitting around in an old wood-paneled library in London. It's not the image you would have thought. We weren't sitting around humming strange tunes and smoking pipes." he said.
Perhaps because of the hippie movement and the modern New Age religion movement - both of which incorporate elements of Buddhism - people have misconceptions about it.
"Buddhism has very little to do with magic... and sometimes people get that impression," said association vice president Margaret Tsao, who immigrated to U.S. in 1967 from Taiwan.
Buddhism was founded in India in about 500 B.C. by Gautama Siddhartha. He was named Buddha, which means Enlightened One, by his followers.
There are four major sects of Buddhism. Each stresses a different path to nirvana, which is a state of ultimate enlightenment and peace.
Instead of trying to avoid hell or strive for a place in heaven, Buddhists journey to nirvana. Until Nirvana is reached, believers cannot be freed from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Since Buddhism is more of a philosophy of living that helps develop spiritual purity and mental clarity, it is often difficult to explain the process of seeking nirvana.
"Language sometimes is too rough, too coarse, to explain something that (is) very fine, very deep. It 's not easy to explain that, but that's why we get together every week to discuss that," Chang said.
Understanding also comes from meditation. But when Buddhists bow before a statue of Buddha, they are not praying to an all-powerful deity, Franks said.
A lot of teachings are based on the premise that no body can help you but yourself. Buddha can't save you. Buddha's not like a savior. He can show you a way," Franks said.
"Buddhism has the reverence of religion but it doesn't have the worship to a powerful deity. That's not involved at all," he said.
Chang agreed, saying "when we mediate... We try to clear our mind so we can get rid of illusion and confusion. It's a tool."
Some of the guidelines for achieving nirvana include not killing, not stealing, not lying or slandering, not insulting, not coveting, not avoiding an unchaste life. Followers are urged to work toward right understanding, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Chang said he believes Buddhism offers him more than just a religious denomination in which to associate himself.
"I realized that I can see things clearly and that I have peace of mind... You don't worry so much. You can better handle stress."
Two tenets of Buddhism that give Chang strength are the teachings of compassion and wisdom.
"Compassion is the power that makes you do something. Wisdom is the knowledge to get the job done. Those two are the major factors of Buddhism. Compassion is to care for people around you. And it's not just human beings but all living beings."
Caring for others ties in with the Buddhist belief in the law of cause and effect, Chang said.
"Destiny is controlled by your hands, you take the sequences whatever you do," he said.
Franks said the idea of cause and effect is important because it underlines how individuals must take responsibilities for their everyday actions.
"At every moment, you are the result of other causes and ... things that you do will have other effects. It doesn't just vanish."
That philosophy has a ripple effect that could change the world if everyone took it to heart, said Tsao.
"When you are a good person, everybody around you will be better off, too. If everyone is like that in the whole world, you will not have suffering or war."
The Buddhist Association of the Lehigh Valley meets every Friday from 7:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, check out "How to contact us?" article.
Note: This article was published on Morning Call of Allentown Pennsylvania in March, 1990. Regular meetings of BALV are held in different member's house as of 8/30/97. Please contact us for most recent contact info of BALV if you are interested to attend weekly meeting.