Ohen Venerable Sanathavihari was ordained a Buddhist monk eight years ago, it was a lonely experience. As a young Mexican American who grew up a Catholic in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, he didn’t know many other monks he could relate to.

But since then he has helped build a thriving Latino Buddhist community at the Sarathchandra Buddhist Center in North Hollywood, a temple founded by Sri Lankan Americans. The temple now has two Latino monks and one in training—considered the most of any temple in Los Angeles—along with a growing number of Latino lay people who help sustain temple life.

Sanathavihari said the changes could represent a real turning point for a community that often faces language and cultural barriers when trying to learn more about this ancient religion.

“That potential and openness for Buddhism to be fully integrated into the Latino culture in Southern California is starting to happen,” said Sanathavihari, 37, “so that it doesn’t become something alien, or else, or fetishized – it’s just like, “Oh yeah, that’s just something Latinos do, they can be Christian, Catholic, Buddhist or whatever.”

Sanathavihari, who spent nine years in the air force before being ordained at 29 in the Theravada tradition – one of the main branches of Buddhism generally practiced in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia – has said he aspired to make religion more accessible. Before the pandemic moved everything online, he created Casa de Bhavana, a global virtual community of Latino Buddhists with resources – including meditation videos, translations and explanations of Buddhist practices and teachings – in Spanish. . He has even held several retreats in Mexico and recently helped open a Buddhist center in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Left: Sarathchandra Buddhist Center in North Hollywood, where many new members are young Latinos. Right: Venerable Sanathavihari depicts a portrait in the temple courtyard.

Offline at the temple, he said, he speaks to practitioners in Spanish and counsels Latinos who may relate to him more than Sri Lankan monks. He also tries to spark curiosity by walking around the neighborhood and taking the bus and train in his robes. Newcomers to the temple usually find it by word of mouth.

“I don’t preach. I’m not trying to convert people,” he said. “But I want to increase visibility to let people know that we are here, that Buddhism in Spanish is here.”

It is not known how many Latino Buddhists there are in the United States. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2014, 12% of Buddhists in the United States were Latino, based on a survey of just 262 people. Even less clear is whether – or by how much – the number of Latino Buddhists has increased in recent years. But anecdotal evidence suggests a wave of new interest.

Sanathavihari said most of the temple’s new members were young Latinos and they were more engaged in the community and ritual aspects of temple life. “Before, when Latinos came, they stayed to learn meditation and that’s it,” he said. “But now they want to be part of it, contribute to it, and take on the roles of traditional Asian Buddhists in the community.”

Diana Herrera, 31, said she became interested in Buddhism years ago but avoided temples because she felt out of place and couldn’t communicate with other monks . She hadn’t experienced this in Sarathchandra, however, and had started going there regularly about three years ago. She now attends weekly meditation and study sessions, recently organized a mindfulness hike, and helps the monks by bringing them everything they need and cleaning the temple.

Light reflecting off a stone Buddha statue
Sanathavihari said most of the temple’s new members were young Latinos.

“I like helping monks because it also helps others,” she said.

This year Michael McPherson, 67, began his training as a novice monk at the temple, a three-month period before ordination that includes meditation, chanting, study of the Buddha’s teachings, ritual prayers and blessings for community and temple duties.

McPherson, a former investment banker and father of two adult sons, said becoming a monk would allow him to eliminate life’s distractions so he could focus on his studies and service. “It’s amazing how we overwhelm ourselves with responsibilities – and for what?” he said. “All of this is cut off, abandoned when a person enters monastic life. Just that inner feeling of happiness, calm, serenity – it’s amazing.

Sanathavihari said several factors have contributed to Latinos’ growing interest in Buddhism, including the country’s continued abandonment of Christianity, and how the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have caused people to reevaluate their lives. and to open up to new spiritual practices and ways of thinking.

At Sarathchandra, representation has also been key. “When they see another Latino there, it’s like, ‘OK, this can be for me. I can step out of my culture and embrace another culture without feeling like I’m betraying my culture.

Venerable Dhammasudassi, 44, another Mexican American monk at the temple, agreed.

Four monks in red hoods meditate
Sanathavihari in meditation session with other monks and lay people.

“As human beings, if we see someone who is from our culture or who looks like us, and they follow this teaching, or they do this kind of practice, we are automatically more interested in it”, said the Los Angeles native. . “And as monks, we feel we can relate to the experiences of other people in the community because we come from that community.”

Sarathchandra isn’t the only Buddhist temple with a growing number of Latino practitioners. Sanathavihari said that when he visited other temples across the city, he often encountered other Latino Buddhists. And outside of temples, many others are turning to Buddhist practices such as mindfulness and meditation in a more secular context.

Rosamaría Segura first discovered meditation while working at a Los Angeles nonprofit serving refugees from Central America. Many of them suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and, to help them cope, she started translating guided meditation tapes into Spanish.

“At some point I realized, wow, this is so beneficial, I wonder why no one teaches it in Spanish,” said Segura, now a teacher at the InsightLA meditation community.

She has made it her mission to bring mindfulness—which she has called “a tool for self-care and understanding”—to underserved Spanish-speaking communities that are not typically exposed to it. Before the pandemic, she said, she taught a meditation class at a flower shop in a busy east Los Angeles market. Although not a traditional meditation space, he met people where they were.

“We were just sitting there in the middle where you could hear all the restaurant workers doing the drinking, they were listening to the football games, and people were still coming to sit and practice,” she said. More recent in-person meditation sessions have taken place at a salsa dance hall, alongside a food distribution program in South Central Los Angeles, and at a school where students’ mothers can join.

Left: White Buddha statue adorned with flowers.  Right: Portrait of a monk wearing a red hood
Left: A Buddha statue inside the Sarathchandra meditation hall. Right: Through her work at the Buddhist Center, Sanathavihari hopes to inspire young Latinos to pursue their dreams. Photograph: Carlos Jaramillo/The Guardian

Sanathavihari, who is also pursuing a master’s degree in bilingual counseling, said finally having other Mexican American monks and a thriving lay community was a “relief” as it lightened her pastoral workload for the Latino community. American. and gave him a new sense of companionship. He credited the work done by Sri Lankan monks at Sarathchandra, who had reached out to Latinos in the neighborhood decades before he arrived, he said. “I’m just helping these flowers bloom.”

He hopes his presence will inspire young Latinos to think outside of perceived cultural norms and expectations — not just to become Buddhists.

“They might see me and not want to be a monk, but it might open their minds to, like, ‘Wait a minute, if this guy can do this, maybe this other dream I have, I can do this. also.’ ”