Hun Lye is the founder and president of Urban Dharma, a Buddhist center in the heart of downtown Asheville. Hun and I met several years ago when we were both professors at Warren Wilson College. He taught courses in the Religious Studies department, and I taught in psychology. After a brief stint at Davidson College, Hun returned to our fair city where he is helping Asheville become ever-more grounded in Buddhist ways. Hun and I finally had a chance to sit down and chat about his vision for Urban Dharma and how he’s making that happen.
Q: So what does your title, “Dorjé Lopön,” mean?
A: “Dorjé Lopön” essentially means that I am officially part of a Buddhist lineage. In my case, I grew up in a Buddhist home in Penang, Malaysia; as an adult, I studied Buddhism with teachers from various traditions; and I received a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the Univ. of Virginia. I was given the title of Dorjé Lopön during an empowerment ritual at the Drikung Kagyü center in my home city. The title acknowledges that I have been trained in Tibetan Buddhism, and it signifies my capacity to transmit the knowledge and rituals of the Drikung Kagyü tradition to others.
Q: Urban Dharma consists of a sanctuary and a store-front. What is the relationship between those two physical spaces?
A: The sanctuary space is used for the various rituals and teachings that we offer. The store-front represents Tibetan Spirit, our company that sells Dharma supplies.
Q: So what sorts of rituals and teachings do you offer?
A: First, I would like to make the point that I am not the only one offering programs. When I first started Urban Dharma, people routinely asked if I would be the resident teacher. This is a common practice at Buddhist centers, but I am trying hard to avoid that mindset. A single person that everyone turns to and relies on can become problematic for any group. I also travel a lot. I recently offered a series of teachings in Peru and Argentina. And I’m leaving again in a few days — first to NY to help create a sand mandala and then to Asia for several weeks. I want Urban Dharma to be a community of people, all of whom are dedicated to integrating Buddhist principles into their everyday lives. Having said that, when I am in town, I do enjoy teaching!
We offer three regular events each week. Folks are welcome to attend, and we operate on the practice of dana.
(“Dana” refers to the generosity shown by lay-people toward those who share and disseminate the teachings of the Buddha. From a practical standpoint, it means, “by donation.”)
On Tuesday evenings, we offer a one-hour mindfulness meditation that is led by someone else. It is secular and geared to beginners. No chanting. No praying. No candles. The first 5-10 minutes the leader discusses how to use the breath during meditation. Then, there is a 20 minute guided meditation, followed by a short walking meditation, and then another 20-minute session of quiet meditation. Some folks even leave before the walking meditation if the first 30 minutes is enough for them.
On Thursday evenings, we offer a Tibetan ritual using the liturgy of Jambhala, a deity who represents the embodiment of both wealth/abundance and compassion/generosity. During this time, we chant and pray in both Tibetan and English. Prayer beads are used, the candles on the altar space are lit, and incense is burned. When I am in town, I offer a teaching afterwards. For example, in January I talked about the principles and practices of deity yoga.
On Saturdays, we offer a weekly service. This is the closest thing we have to a “church” service, which people tend to expect from a religious community in America. I chose the time slot, 3:00-4:30 in the afternoon, to avoid conflicts with other activities families might have scheduled on the weekends. The service consists of traditional deity meditation, ritual, and a short teaching that is similar to the sermon given during church services.
(I attended a Thursday evening event at Urban Dharma a few weeks ago. If you have any interest in Tibetan Buddhist practice, I highly recommend it. The space is meditative, everyone is welcoming, and the ritual is relatively easy to follow.)
Q: Wow – you’re busy! Do you have anything that looks like “membership”? Most churches and synagogues have a process for joining and contributing. What does that look like in a Buddhist center such as Urban Dharma?
A: This group meets on Wednesday evenings. Each of them has made a commitment to three aspects of Buddhist life: outer, inner, and secret. “Outer” practice refers to a commitment of service. In this case, they all serve the Urban Dharma community in some way, usually by volunteering when the need arises. “Inner” practice refers to a commitment to Buddhist study, practice, and training. That means dedicating at least one hour a day, but this hour does not look the same for everyone. Practitioners might read, hike, meditate, or engage in some other activity. The important point is to find some way to focus on Dharma each day. And “secret” practice in this context refers to the essence of the practice. It does not mean that I am handing down esoteric secrets to a small group of followers. When talking about the essence of the practice, we are saying that each person should try to live the teachings of the Buddha throughout the day, regardless of what one is doing or the situation one is in.
So these are the basic teachings we present at Urban Dharma to those who have made a membership-type commitment. However, we maintain an attitude of deep respect for all Buddhist lineages, and we regularly host teachers from a variety of other traditions.
Q: Tell me a bit more about Tibetan Spirit, the store. What do you sell?
A: We sell all sorts of things related to Buddhist practice – prayer flags, sacred statues, prayer beads, thangka paintings, incense, and prayer wheels for example. We buy our goods from traditional, often family-based, artisans in Tibet and India, and we are committed to that part of our mission. Here in Asheville, you can buy Buddhist objects in nearly every store, regardless of what else they are selling! But many Buddhist practitioners and communities in the U.S. have limited access to such objects. As a result, much of our business is on-line, and I spend a certain part of my day packing and shipping merchandise.
Q: How does the packing/shipping aspect of your job suit you?
A: Actually, I don’t like paperwork, and I’ve recently hired someone to serve as Director of Operations. However, the packing part doesn’t really bother me. I see this as part of my Buddhist practice. It’s a way to share the ways of the Buddha with others, especially those who do not have any sort of Buddhist center nearby.
Q: So what happens with the money you make through Tibetan Spirit?
A: The money we make supports monastic communities in the Himalayas, our own community here in Asheville, and other projects that reflect a desire to show compassion to all sentient beings.
Q: Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
A: Let’s see…right now we have an interesting program on the practice of Phowa which was developed through the Drikung lineage that I am a part of. During training, practitioners are taught to direct their consciousness toward the limitless light (Amitabha) at the moment of their death. In Tibet, people do this on their own or a teacher performs it on behalf of someone. Here in the U.S., however, the practice is not well-known or understood, so we are offering a six-week training program. The sessions are several weeks apart which provides time for participants to practice what they are learning before going deeper. The final session in May will involve an oral transmission of Phowa practice by a monk trained at a world-renowned Drikung monastery in Tibet.
Finally, I would like to remind people to check us out on line! We regularly post our Urban Dharma programs on that web site, and all of our merchandise can be purchased through the Tibetan Spirit site.
Many thanks to Hun Lye who is already in New York working on the sand mandala. He regularly posts about his adventures and upcoming programs on his Facebook page.
You can also listen to Hun Lye’s teachings via podcast or on You Tube. These links will get you started.