Saturday Night: We all need a little Buddha

London Meditation Week starts today. Ah, the 'M' word again. Seems to be cropping up all over the place. And what with Bertolucci's The Little Buddha opening last night, it will become even more commonplace over the next few weeks. In fact, if Buddhists are not careful, meditation could soon rival mortgages as Most Boring Dinner Party Topic. You can hear them already:

'Dermot and Sophie are up to 50 minutes. Amazing. They only started in, what, March?'

'The cushions? Oh, Tom knows this little woman in Battersea.'

'We decided to go for Vajrayana. That's the 'Diamond Vehicle', you know. Gets you there in a single lifetime.'

Not that meditation is confined to the capital. All over the country, people are sitting, just breathing and gazing at the floor, their eyes unfocused and half-closed.

London Meditation Week has been organised by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which is giving free meditation instruction at its five London centres. The FWBO expects a surge of interest in the wake of Bertolucci's flawed epic, but has noted a steady growth in novice meditators for several years now.

According to Dhammarati, 'order member' (lay monk) of the FWBO and chairman of the Bethnal Green centre, increasing numbers are discovering that ancient Buddhist meditation techniques can play a crucial part in modern life. 'Initially, it allows you to become a bit more aware of yourself, and the world around you. And it simply builds from there.' At the same time, he says, a sense of calmness and acceptance develops towards oneself and others.

Dhammarati believes that increasing numbers of Christians are turning to Buddhism. With Christianity, he says, the emphasis is on faith, whereas meditation provides the practitioner with 'direct, first-hand experience of a spiritual nature'. He quotes the great Zen scholar D T Suzuki: 'Buddhism takes the mystery out of mysticism.'

The FWBO consciously makes Buddhism accessible to Western urbanites: its order members wear ordinary clothes, not the traditional saffron robes. And because of its proximity to the City, says Dhammarati, the centre attracts many office workers who need '20 minutes to check in with themselves'.

Meditation as a means of stress- management is undoubtedly spirituality's big growth area, says Keith Ryan, chairman of Shambhala London, a centre for both Buddhist and secular meditation training in Clapham, south London. 'Many people are looking to build some kind of spiritual life around a calm, contemplative meditation practice, though they might not wish to become card- carrying Buddhists.'

There are more than 130,000 British Buddhists, according to recent estimates. The number of non-Buddhists who have incorporated meditation into some form of private spiritual practice is thought to be several times that figure, and rising.

You don't have to meditate in order to harbour Buddhist beliefs, either, according to a recent article in the Catholic Herald entit-

led 'Italy Faces Threat of Buddhism'. The article quoted a survey commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church: 'Buddhism is likely to win hundreds of thousands of converts among European Catholics by the year 2000,' it said, adding that 'Rome fears one-quarter of all Italians share Buddhist beliefs, such as reincarnation and others incompatible with the Catholic faith.'

'One-quarter of all Italians' means roughly 15 million people. If Buddhist concepts can flourish in the heartland of Catholicism, what kind of resistance can Anglicanism muster?

The writing is on the wall, to use a biblical metaphor. Even the American fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar observed recently: 'In an age of agnosticism, one might venture that Buddhism, or at least the Buddhist outlook on man and the universe, is becoming more and more the widely accepted world view - even among people who have no formal knowledge of Buddhism.'

The whole ecological movement, it also ventured, shares the Buddhist notion that all life is interdependent.

Call your interior decorator now: the future is looking decidedly saffron.

The FWBO's London Buddhist Centre is at 51 Roman Road, London E2 (081-981 1225). Free meditation instruction is also provided at the Shambhala Centre, 27 Belmont Close, London SW4 (071-720 3207). Both have regional centres around Britain.

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