On Sunday night at five o'clock, about fifty people fill the worn, brown pews at St. Paul's United Methodist Church on Ogden Street. They're surrounded by stained-glass windows colored with Christian images -- but the church altar bears a Buddhist shrine, not a cross. And at the beginning of the service, a woman signals the start of a twenty-minute meditation by ringing a Tibetan prayer bell.
This scene repeats late every Sunday afternoon, when St. Paul's opens its doors for a Buddhist/Christian contemplation service. Christian pastors, Zen priests and Tibetan nuns take turns exploring the intersections, and diversions, in Buddhist and Christian thought. At the end of the hour, East meets West in the lobby over herbal tea and cookies.
The influence of Eastern thought is increasing across Colorado, as Buddhism spreads from its decades-old base in Boulder to the state's spiritual nooks and crannies. Although considerably less dharma-cized than Boulder, today Denver is home to dozens of thriving communities of Buddhist practitioners, from Soka Gakkai International Buddhists -- who form chanting congregations in houses, back yards and community centers around town -- to Zen masters with their own temples and gardens. Over the past three years, the Shambhala Meditation Center of Denver has seen its membership more than double, to 100, with new people showing up every week for sitting meditations and Shambhala training courses.
"We moved into expanded facilities two years ago that we have already outgrown, with a full house of meditators sitting on all available cushions," says C.L. Harmer, a Denver Shambhalan who donates time to spreading the word about the center in south Denver. "It's rather remarkable, given that we are run entirely by volunteers."
Harmer says the spike in numbers at Denver's Shambhala center closely correlates to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Others tie the increased interest in Asian religions, especially Tibetan Buddhism, to the Hollywood-ization of the East. According to Shonen Dunley, a priest with the Denver Zen Center, attendance at his group's temple has held fairly steady over the past decade, while groups like Shambhala have blossomed. "Tibetan Buddhism has more of an exotic appeal," he says. "It's more colorful. You'll get monks coming to make sand mandalas. There's a lot of celebrity endorsement. Zen is more plain and down to earth, and a lot of it has been taken on by Western teachers, so it's become less exotic."
Mark Silk, a professor at the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, suggests that Buddhism is a natural fit for Colorado. In a study published by the Greenberg Center this spring, Silk's team reported that 23 percent of the adults in this state claim no religious affiliation, the highest unaffiliated percentage in the country outside of the Pacific Northwest. Buddhism's emphasis on non-religious practices like meditation appeal to those "Nones" who crave a spiritual life but don't dig the dogma of formal traditions.
Of those who do claim an affiliation, over 40 percent identify themselves as Catholic. But the percentages for Eastern religions rank above Lutherans and other once-dominant Christian denominations.
"There's a general libertarianism of the whole Western region, of live and let live," Silk says. "You can turn on the radio and hear people reading tarot cards on the air. You can find Evangelicals, Biosphere 2, all kind of stuff. That opens the field for things like Shambhala and Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to do well and entice a lot of people who are looking for a spiritual experience."
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That experience isn't hard to find. Meditation centers are nestled among the ski resorts and Boy Scout camps in Crestone, Aspen and Crested Butte; Buddhist practitioners in Westminster, Littleton and Colorado Springs have established their own sitting groups and practices. In Fort Lupton, the Medicine Buddha Healing Institute offers a contemplative approach to wellness. More and more, Buddha is found in suburban and rural areas as readily as in urban centers.
"Buddhism and meditation used to be considered kind of a fringe thing to pursue," says Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor of religious studies at Naropa University. "But now you've got all kinds of people practicing: attorneys, doctors, businesspeople, professional people. It's in the preschools. It's everywhere. People have begun to see it not so much as a religious pursuit, but as a way of life."
Om-ward and upward.