Go into any bookstore these days and you're likely to see the serene face of the Dalai Lama smiling back at you from several covers.
It seems that anything written by his holiness the spiritual and temporal Buddhist leader of Tibet is gold to book publishers.
"The Dalai Lama's books are very popular, especially if we're talking about the last year and a half," says Lisa Bakke, manager of Borders Books Music & Cafe, 700 N.H. "His most popular book is probably 'The Art of Happiness.' It came out in 1998. It went on the best-seller list and sparked a lot of people's interest."
Then there are his titles "The Good Heart" and "The Dalai Lama's Book of Transformation," which recently came out in paperback.
"Almost anything with his face or name on it does really well," Bakke says.
But interest in the Dalai Lama's spiritual writings is just the beginning.
Americans are eagerly soaking up information about Buddhism from a variety of sources the Internet, pop culture and the mainstream media.
And that trend has translated to more interest in Buddhism in Lawrence, as well.
Participation at the Kansas Zen Center, 1423 N.Y., has almost doubled in the last five years, according to Stan Lombardo, who co-founded the center in 1978 with his wife, Judy Roitman.
"Partly it's just the information anybody has access through various media to rather sophisticated and detailed information about Buddhism," says Lombardo, a Zen master and a professor of classics at Kansas University.
"Being interested in it and practicing it are two different things, but many people are willing to try."
Susan Warden has witnessed the surge in interest, too.
She's a senior dharma teacher at the Zen center, which has about 45 members.
"Dharma" is a Sanskrit word that is commonly translated as "the truth," ultimate reality or the whole of Buddhist teachings.
"We recently had one of our largest groups of people at our Sunday (meditation) practice," Warden says.
Thirty-six people showed up for the practice, which includes an orientation for beginners at 9 a.m.
"On Sundays, we do chanting and sitting (meditation). After that, one of the teachers will give a talk and answer questions," she says.
The reason behind Buddhism's appeal to Americans as seen, for example, in the sales of books on the subject is clear to Lombardo.
"The Dalai Lama's books are pretty much written on a popular level. He's a very wonderful man and his teaching is so simple: 'Only be kind to each other.' It's the practice of universal compassion," he says.
"How can anyone not respond to that? That's what people are sometimes amazed to encounter in Buddhism."
Warden, who was raised an Episcopalian, has a different theory.
"There's certainly a shopping mentality in American culture toward spirituality. At some point, Buddhism appears on the shopping list," she says.
"And with a higher level of media attention, less and less people are seeing it as something weird and cultish. They're perceiving it as an ancient tradition that doesn't threaten their own (religious) traditions."
Emphasis on kindness
But Dan Stevenson, a KU associate professor of religious studies, is concerned about the incomplete picture of Buddhism that many Westerners receive from the media and popular culture.
People are initially attracted by the Buddhist meditation practice, he says, equating it with personal discovery and freedom from the conventional constraints they associate with organized religion.
"Many people think that you don't need to believe in anything or buy into any particular program of religious values or beliefs," he says. "I do think a lot of Americans are drawn to it because it seems to offer a kind of unencumbered spiritual freedom. That is a peculiarly American thing."
The cafeteria-style approach to spirituality that's prevalent in this country is ill-suited to learning about a belief system like Buddhism in any depth, Stevenson says.
"If you're going to venture into this world, you're going to have to give the whole package a very thorough look. You really have to respect the structures of value and authority within which these religions have represented themselves in society," Stevenson says.
"It's not just a set of disembodied ideas."
Buddhism has been popularized in the West by the Dalai Lama's writing, as well as media coverage of his support of Tibet's independence from China.
People seem particularly attracted by the school of Tibetan Buddhism he practices, Warden says.
"I wonder if people are coming to our practice because of the Dalai Lama's emphasis on kindness. I think for many years the image people had of Buddhism was the Japanese style of Zen, which is very austere," she says.
"Now I think there's so much more exposure out there, people are getting familiar with the different styles of Buddhism."