Zen and the art of law enforcement

A Buddhist seminar for Wisconsin police raises consciousness - and stirs an old debate

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If it had been a different day, just a few weeks earlier, Capt. Cheri Maples would have arrested the man without a second thought. He'd already threatened her and was refusing to hand his daughter over to his ex-wife after a weekend visitation.

But on this day, shortly after returning home from a retreat with a Vietnamese monk, the Madison, Wis., policewoman tried another tack.

"This guy was huge, a lot bigger than I am," she recalls. "I just talked to him about what was going on, and he started crying and sobbing and it was clear that he was in a tremendous amount of pain. And given that there hadn't been any physical violence, I decided not to arrest him."

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Three days later, Captain Maples ran into him again. "He recognized me, and picked me up and gave me this big bear hug and said, 'You saved my life that night.' "

Maples credits the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh for her approach that night 12 years ago. She remained so impressed she organized a week-long retreat with the Vietnamese monk this summer for officers and others working in the criminal justice system. Mr. Hanh's message: the futility of meeting anger with anger.

The retreat here in central Wisconsin represents not only the expanding influence of an antiwar Vietnamese monk thrown out of North - and South - Vietnam during the 1960s. It also epitomizes the spread of Eastern religious tradition into American public-service jobs.

The movement stirs anew the debate over whether the incorporation of such teachings violates the separation of church and state.

In the main lecture hall of the Green Lake Conference Center, on a bright-blue lake outside Green Lake, Wis., the audience is almost completely silent. On stage, Hanh, a slight man, is taking a long, thoughtful - or rather, "mindful" - pause in his speech.

There is surprisingly little fidgeting during the long silence.

When he begins talking again, it is about using violence to combat violence. Though geared toward the 55 police officers and others working in the criminal-justice system in Madison, his message seems to resonate with many of the 500 people in attendance.

"Working in the high schools, I see violence every day," says Gale Cyrkiel, a special-education teacher from Madison. "I see it in the hallways, I see it in the classrooms, I see it in meetings. And I think some of what I learned from Thich Hanh was the idea of being present, and that my reaction can either exacerbate the situation or help to calm it."

Hanh is famous for his nonviolent positions, which he began preaching abroad after he was exiled from Vietnam in 1966 for opposing the war. Since founding a meditation center in France in 1982, he has been in increasing demand as a speaker on Buddhism and the concept of "mindfulness." His message is documented in more than 75 books, and his growing appeal has tracked the popularity of what some consider the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

Figures are hard to pin down, according to Richard Seager, author of "Buddhism in America." Estimates put the number of self-described Buddhists in the US between 1 and 6 million. The majority of these are immigrant or "ethnic" Buddhists from Asia.

The number of Buddhist converts ranges anywhere from 100,000 to 800,000. Harvard University's Pluralism Project currently lists 1,856 Buddhist centers around the country, compared with 1,791 mosques.

In fact, most of the people who have come to this Wisconsin retreat are middle-aged professionals. There isn't a rope sandal in sight. And many attendees say the Buddhist teaching is useful for their own faiths.

"To me, the practice of Buddhism is helping me understand my Christianity," says Cindi Vian, who was trained as a Lutheran minister and works for a Catholic agency in Milwaukee.

This blending of traditions may well be part of the reason figures on Buddhist adherents are hard to track.

Mingling religions

Cesar Jump, who came to America in the 1980s from El Salvador, goes to the Deer Park Tibetan Monastery south of Madison on Sunday mornings and then to Catholic mass on Sunday evenings. "I see the connection between the teachings of Buddha and the teaching of Jesus," he says.

This mingling of ideas and religious traditions is everywhere at the Green Lake Conference Center. The center itself is owned by the American Baptist Assembly, though the retreat was billed as non-sectarian and nonreligious.

Which is not to say the retreat has seamlessly woven into the American fabric. Despite Maples' efforts to strip out religious overtones, a visit by the world's second most famous Buddhist monk (after the Dalai Lama) has raised hackles. Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a statement saying that the city's promotion of Buddhism was "problematic."

Church and state?

"I remain completely unconvinced of two things," says the group's executive director, Barry Lynn. "First, that there is no official promotion of this event; and second, that this is not a religious retreat."

On the other hand, the Wisconsin ACLU said it had received no complaints over the issue, and was not looking into it.

"This is not meant to be a religious event," says Maples. "You don't see any statues of the Buddha. You don't see any chanting or incense. [But] whatever helps people be ethical and moral and do the next right thing in front of them, I'm all for it, as long as it's inclusive and not exclusive."

In his speech, Hanh also emphasized the retreat's non-sectarian nature. "It is not necessary to become a Buddhist to profit from the teachings of the Buddha. You don't have to be Chinese to enjoy Chinese food."

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