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Arts and crafts and dharma: meet Minnesota’s only Buddhist youth group

50 members of GDPT Thiên Ân
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the 50 members of GDPT Thiên Ân, Minnesota’s only youth Buddhist group, sat perfectly still with legs and hands folded in the lotus position.

Gotta start ’em young.

Tucked off University Avenue in an otherwise nondescript industrial neighborhood of Blaine, the modest grounds of the Thiên Ân Buddhist temple come resplendent in various-sized Buddha statues and altars, springing forth from the suburban concrete like ancient miracles of wisdom, decorated as they are with flowers, photos, holy cards, stones, and other offerings. On a recent Saturday afternoon inside the two-story temple, the 50 members of GDPT Thiên Ân, Minnesota’s only youth Buddhist group, sat perfectly still with legs and hands folded in the lotus position.

Ding, someone rang a bell.

“Close your eyes,” said one of the Buddhist youth group leaders to the eight rows of boys and girls, who were clad in their Saturday school uniforms of gray shirts and blue pants. “Take a deep breath in, take a deep breath out. Just focus on your breathing. Now, sit.”

One little girl ignored the instructor and insisted on staring straight into the eyes of a visitor and giving him the heart sign with her fingers, holding it proudly and showing it like a beacon, a direct shot of universal love. The visitor nodded back to the girl, the instructor shushed her, her neighbor shushed her, and both made her sit down in the lotus position, which the girl took to without ever breaking the heart she was making with her fingers, and, while she calmed down slightly, the smile never left her face.

“She’s our wild one,” said youth group leader Han Dam, of the little girl. “She needs a lot of Buddha.” 

Don’t we all. Given the chaos of the world on this particular weekend, the stillness in the room, and the collective quiet energy put forth by the group of 7- to 14-year-olds praying and meditating was heartening, healing, and made for a singularly remarkable sight: young people at, and praying for, peace.

Buddhist youth group leader Han Dam
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh
Buddhist youth group leader Han Dam

“We try to teach the kids to control their mind,” said group leader Hgy Trinh, “because they’re always thinking about the future, like, ‘What am I going to eat for lunch tomorrow?’ Or, ‘What did I do yesterday? Did I have fun?’ In Buddhism, we think of meditation as a way to calm your mind a little so you can stay in the present. That’s our goal, but it doesn’t always work because at this age it’s hard for them to sit still.”

Trinh, Dam, and the other youth group leaders all attended Thiên Ân as little kids, and they now return every Saturday during the school year to help teach mediation, dharma, Vietnamese, and arts and crafts to the students, most of whom hail from Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Shakopee, and Blaine.

“The lotus comes out of dirt and blooms out.”
MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh
“The lotus comes out of dirt and blooms out.”

“The kids' uniform shirts are gray, and the reason we chose the color gray is because that’s what you get when you mix all the colors together,” said Dam. “Gray represents togetherness — you don’t discriminate against anybody, any color, nothing. All the GDPT family, if you go to Texas or California or anywhere, they’ll be wearing gray.

“Everything’s quite symbolic. We chose the lotus because the lotus comes out of dirt and blooms out, but it’s still white out of the dirt. So we’re saying that it represents the human population: There are so many bad things in the world, but you can still get some beauty out of it. That’s why they picked the lotus as the symbol for Buddhism — because it’s beautiful and growing from dirt and mud. And the green around it represents green, and youth. Gotta start ‘em young.”

In a room off the main entrance, a lone monk meditated silently in front of a large golden Buddha statue, as Dam prepared to teach a class in dharma. 

“Dharma is Buddhist teachings. It’s a way to live life, how to be peaceful, and how to live in the present moment,” said Dam, a 23-year-old nursing student at St. Catherine University. “I try to be present. If I did it correctly, I’d be what they call enlightened. But life has a lot of distractions, and the teachings show you how to try not to be selfish and how not to be greedy. 

“That gentleman there is a monk. He lives here, he doesn’t speak English, he doesn’t have a job. He practices Buddhism and just living in the moment. Monks and nuns are people who dedicate their lives to Buddhist teachings. 

“I’ve been a member since I was 7, I’ve been a leader for four or five years. As a kid, you’re here for friends and your parents force you to be here. I didn’t understand why I needed to be here — but now, growing up, as an adult I see the benefits of it. You’re connected to other Vietnamese members of the community, and you’re just building that social network. I’m bilingual, and that helps, and in America that’s good.”

MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh

The Buddhist youth group is like any bunch of kids — rowdy, curious, and tough to get to sit still for several hours every Saturday. How in Buddha’s name do the group leaders get the squirrels to settle down and get mindful?

“We start with the basics,” laughed Dam. “Like, ‘Don’t kill an ant if you see it crawling around. Even though ants are little, they are still living beings. We should not kill or stomp on them. Treat others how you want to be treated. You must be respectful to your parents, love your brothers and sisters.’ We eventually teach them morality and decision-making, and intentions. Once you get older, we go deeper into the chanting and what the chants represent. 

“We try to practice mindfulness. Instead of cussing and yelling at someone who has just cut you off on the road, take a deep breath and try to let that go.”

Along with meditation and Vietnamese language lessons, the group’s main curriculum is the teaching of the dharma, which in Buddhism translates to “cosmic law and order” and is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy

“The dharma is just simple,” said Dam. You treat people how you want to be treated, and I remember learning that as a kid and it just transfers to now. Those principles still apply.

“Buddhism is not big in America, but I think a lot of people are practicing Buddhism and they don’t even know it. A lot of people want to follow Buddha’s [teachings] of peace and anti-violence and nondiscrimination, and they do so without even knowing it. With Buddhism, there is no god. There are people who have set examples, who are enlightened, but there’s no dictator. 

“You just try to practice that way to reach nirvana. That’s the goal of Buddhism: eliminating materialism, not being greedy, and not being selfish, and just being present and living life how it should be lived. I think a lot of people want that, and a lot of people practice that, and that’s Buddhism.”

MinnPost file photo by Jim Walsh

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Comments (1)

State's Only Buddhist Youth Group

Jim,

There is another group of Zen Buddhist youth at Clouds in Water Zen Center on Farrington St in St. Paul. This group has been going for about a decade and although they are the children of convert, Western Buddhists, they are healthy and very active. Check them out.

Susan Nelson
Minneapolis Minnesota