800,000 Hands Clapping

THE WAY OF THE BUDDHA IS HARD, the eight gates narrow, the 10 steps long and steep. Also there are practical problems, especially in America: nothing closes on your holidays, it can be hard to find a temple when you're out of town, and people get funny ideas, like the emergency-room doctor who was on duty when John Daido Loori, the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, showed up one night after slashing his palm while trying to open a coffee can with his camping knife.

""Why do you have your head shaved like that?'' asked the doctor.

""Because I'm a Buddhist monk,'' replied Daido, a big, stooped, bulbous-nosed man of 64, who was born in Jersey City, N.J.

""Oh,'' said the doctor, reaching for a suture, ""then you won't need any anesthetic when I sew you up.''

America, says Tracy Cochran, a consulting editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, is on the verge of a breakthrough in Buddhadharma, a flowering of the wisdom that has enlightened billions of souls on the other side of the world. Of course, the actual number of Buddhist practitioners in America remains small; CUNY professor Seymour Lachman, coauthor of ""One Nation Under God,'' counted only 800,000 last year, although some Buddhist scholars think there may be four or five times that number, considering recent immigrants from Southeast Asia. But that misses the point of Buddhism, which does not reckon its influence by the number of converts. Even in some Buddhist countries, it is not necessarily a religion of the masses but is kept alive by a monastic elite, who spread their influence by teaching and example. So, too, in America, with the difference that the equivalent class here consists of movie stars and rock musicians, who spread their message by going on TV. Richard Gere's admiration for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, is well known. Tricycle, a three-year-old quarterly that claims a circulation of almost 40,000, has explored the spiritual journeys of culture heroes including director Oliver Stone, the software pioneer Mitchell Kapor (of Lotus Development Corp.) and Phil Jackson, who brought Zen principles to bear in coaching the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships. The Beastie Boys, a group that ordinarily tries to live down to its name, have recorded ""The Bodhisattva Vow,'' a rap tribute to the austere virtues of the Buddha Way. Bernardo Bertolucci has just released ""Little Buddha,'' a movie whose premise is that a great Tibetan monk is reincarnated in a little boy in Seattle. Bertolucci has a reputation as a trend spotter (""He showed people having sex in "Last Tango in Paris' and before long everyone was doing it,'' his publicist boasted last week) and his new movie has the potential to do for American Buddhism what ""Going My Way'' did for Roman Catholicism.

Buddhism, though, may turn out to be a hard sell, especially compared with the religions Americans are more familiar with. Christianity is a faith whose first and in some cases only requirement is belief and acceptance of salvation through Christ; Buddhism is a lifelong process of seeking enlightenment. It is a religion without a God or (depending on the school) an afterlife or a concept of the soul. Buddhism, says Loori, is the search for the nature of the self, which ends in the realization that there is no self, that all the beings and objects of the world are manifestations of the same underlying reality. Getting 12 professional basketball players to understand that they're no different from anyone else surely was one of the more daunting challenges in the history of religion.

Buddhism demands discipline. Zen, which along with Tibetan is one of the two large branches found in America today, proceeds by a series of lessons built around the koan, the paradoxical quasi riddle of which the best-known example asks, ""What is the sound of one hand clapping?'' Students may study a koan for months or years before they resolve it to their teacher's satisfaction. Buddhism offers no miraculous cures but plenty of pain here on earth. Bonnie Myotai Treace, the senior monastic at Zen Mountain Monastery, has a set speech she gives to novices before they enter the Zendo, or prayer hall, for their first session of meditation. Squatting on a low cushion without moving for half an hour may be painful, she warns. (She doesn't add that the weeklong silent retreats the monastery runs once a month involve up to 10 hours of meditation a day.) One must not dwell on the pain. Buddhism seeks not to overcome pain but to become one with it so that the pain is no longer a stranger, an enemy. But she pointedly does not say, If it hurts too much, get up and walk around.

Still, people come; in America no spiritual quest need go unfilled very long. Eastern religions long ago lost their association with rebellious youth and now seem to attract, besides celebrities, mostly educated people in their 30s and 40s. Many of them are hyphenated Buddhists, clinging to the comfort of their original faiths while adapting elements of Buddhism they find attractive. And they find much to attract them: color, spectacle, incense and sonorous chants (especially in the Tibetan tradition); wisdom and serenity that can be applied in quotidian life, such as the ""telephone meditation'' practiced at Berkeley's Parallax Press, where employees take a few deep breaths and let the phone ring three times before picking it up. This makes it much less likely they will throw the phone across the room if it's a wrong number. Imagine driving in front of John Roothaan, 39, a Chicago building contractor who used to attend services in the Nichiren Shoshu sect and still practices the tenets, although he's given up the long sessions of chanting. You swerve and cut him off. Does Roothaan get angry? No, ""anger is a pretty useless thing,'' he says. ""If someone or something gets you angry, the anger existed inside of you all along. It's your fault you got angry.'' Don't you wish more people could be like that?

Not only do you not have to give up your religion to become a Buddhist, you don't even have to give up your atheism. Zen tradition says nothing about the origins or fate of the material world, so there is little that conflicts with modern science. Loori was reared as a Catholic and trained as a chemist. His job was analyzing natural flavors for the food industry so they could be synthesized, an endeavor that now appalls him. ""I was a scientific humanist,'' he says, ""never realizing that the questions that drove me to science were actually religious ones.'' An interest in photography led him to study under the great Minor White, who taught him to meditate; he studied Zen in New York and then at UCLA before his ordination in 1977. In 1980, with a few thousand dollars to his name, he bought the 200-acre property that became Zen Mountain Monastery.

Here, and at perhaps a dozen other Buddhist centers and monasteries around the country, a new and distinctly American Buddhism is taking shape: egalitarian (women, generally subservient in Asian traditions, are allowed to rise in the hierarchy in American temples), technologically advanced (Zen Mountain's publishing subsidiary, Dharma Communications, is preparing a CD-ROM disc on meditation) and sophisticated about the ways of power in American life (Loori is planning a wilderness Zen retreat for environmental lawyers). To see Loori happily tearing around his meadows on his beloved tractor, you wouldn't know you were looking at a holy man, especially if he had a hat on, especially if he happened to be smoking at the time. The ways of the Buddha are hard, but the rewards have always been great.