“Faith, Race, Place” explores how Pittsburgh’s fragmented religious landscape came to be and how historical divides are being confronted in the present day.
In an old, dark brick apartment building in Swissvale is an ornate, gold-embellished shrine from Nepal. It’s the shrine of the Three Rivers Tibetan Cultural Center [TRTCC].
In the front and back corners of the center are statues of the Buddha — two standing and one reclining. Although the TRTCC is a Tibetan Buddhist dharma, or practice, the Buddha statues are in the Thai and Burmese styles.
How did these statues end up at the TRTCC?
That’s thanks to a famous murderer, said John Bogaard, one of the TRTCC’s founding members.
John du Pont, of the wealthy family that founded the DuPont chemistry company, famously shot and killed an Olympic wrestler in 1996. (If this sounds familiar, it was the subject of the 2014 film “Foxcatcher.”)
Du Pont was sent to prison in Somerset. While incarcerated, du Pont requested to talk with a Tibetan Buddhist clergyperson. His lawyer reached out to Bogaard, but, before Bogaard’s security clearance was approved, du Pont died.
“So I got a letter one day saying, ‘You’re an heir of this famously rich guy who did a horrendous crime,’” Bogaard recalled.
In his will, du Pont had left all of his Buddhist materials, including several statues and some books, to the Three Rivers Tibetan Cultural Center, then called the Three Rivers Dharma.
At that point, the dharma was meeting out of a basement apartment in Oakland — one they eventually vacated because, among other reasons, there was an intermittent sewage smell that the resident monk couldn’t stand any longer. Prior to that, they rotated between people’s homes, the Friends Meeting House, area churches and an Oakland bookstore — basically anywhere they could afford to meet on their shoestring budget.
Bogaard decided to accept the gift.
Next thing he knows, there’s a moving van outside, and he’s pulling 3- to 5-foot-tall Buddha statues out of crates. They’ve had a home at the TRTCC ever since.
The TRTCC started as an outgrowth of the Pittsburgh Friends of Tibet, a political advocacy group. It was 1993. At that point, there were a number of Zen Buddhists in Pittsburgh (Zen Buddhism became popular earlier than other branches in the United States) but that was about it.
Bogaard had been studying Tibetan Buddhism on his own, but he wanted to do so in community. He thought that, if he joined the Pittsburgh Friends of Tibet, he might find other people interested in starting a Buddhist community.
He was right. When they hosted their first event, 50 or 60 people showed up.
Most weren’t Tibetan. Although Pittsburgh had a small number of Tibetans and Sherpas in the 1990s (and still today), and they were quick to offer financial backing for the project, most weren’t seeking a regular spiritual practice. That was a holdover from Tibet, where a large monastic population sustains the country’s religious activity and lay people participate only occasionally.
Most of the participants were (and are) American converts or immigrants from other Asian cultures.
That blending of backgrounds is what attracted Eva Hui to the Three Rivers Dharma.
Hui is an unusual case among Pittsburgh Buddhists. She was raised in the tradition. Growing up, she attended a Buddhist boarding school in Hong Kong.
In Buddhism, she explained, people dedicate themselves to three things, called the Three Jewels: the teacher (the Buddha), the teaching (the dharma) and the community (the sangha). Community, in other words, sits at the heart of Buddhism.
Some Buddhist sanghas that formed in Pittsburgh in the 1990s catered to particular growing immigrant populations — Thai, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese and Indian, for example. These temples served a cultural as well as a spiritual purpose.
“It’s like a heritage gathering,” Hui said, describing her visit to a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Braddock. It gave people “a sense of being together again, even though they’re in a foreign country.”
A sangha like the TRTCC, on the other hand, didn’t have a specific cultural draw. Hui felt people were instead drawn to “the basic Buddhist teachings”: compassion and “true wisdom,” the wisdom that comes from letting go of attachments and recognizing the innate Buddha nature within each person.
“No matter where you’re born, what culture you’re from, we all have that nature,” she said.
Pittsburgh Buddhists also come together between communities, Bogaard said. In 1995, he helped found the Buddhist Society of Pittsburgh [BSP], an intra-Buddhist organization that’s still active.
What attracted Eva Hui to the Three Rivers Tibetan Cultural Center was the community’s diversity. She saw it resonating with the basic teachings of Buddhism, including letting go of attachments and recognizing the innate Buddha nature within each person. (Photos by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)
In big cities like New York, Bogaard said, Buddhists are likely to stay in their own corners. In small towns, there might not be a Buddhist scene. In Pittsburgh, Buddhists of different branches share spaces, coordinate special events and celebrate holidays together.
The BSP’s most monumental achievement was bringing the Dalai Lama to Pittsburgh for a visit in 1998, an effort that involved coordinating with the State Department and renting out a floor of the William Penn Hotel plus rooms above and below for security reasons.
When the BSP started, its purpose was pragmatic. There weren’t that many Buddhists in Pittsburgh, so it made sense for everyone to relate.
“Buddhism is a different practice, you know, it’s a different approach to life,” Bogaard said. “It’s good to have other people that are like-minded that you can kind of surround yourself with.”
Since then, it’s grown less out of necessity than a commitment to helping people access Buddhist teachings that resonate with them.
“It’s very unique to Pittsburgh,” he said.
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.
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