There used to be a gambling house in North Philadelphia with a look-out guy named Shorty or Speedy. It was in a part of town once defined by vacant lots, pot-holed streets, and boarded up storefronts.
The Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia bought that one-story fixer-upper a year and a half ago for $225,000, one of the founding members, Ken Klein, told NBC News. At first, some were against the purchase, saying it would be too great a responsibility to take on, he said.
“It’s ridiculous,” Klein, 65, recalled some of the members saying. “We don’t need a place. We can just rent another place.”
Renting is precisely what this diverse group of men and women had been doing for nearly 25 years, Klein said. But in February, after completing renovations paid for in part through fundraising, the center finally opened the doors to its own permanent spiritual home.
“What my hope is, is that having the physical location we’ll be able to open and really attract people who didn’t know it was here but need that kind of centering space,” outgoing center president Sara Jacoby told NBC News.
The Tibetan center’s history begins with sand.
“In about , a bunch of us were watching Losang Samten, our teacher, build a sand mandala at the University of Pennsylvania Museum,” Klein said.
Samten, at the time a monk, had been sent by the Dalai Lama to showcase this ancient Tibetan art form to the West. Artists like Samten use colored sands to create the mandalas, which serve as symbolic diagrams that represent the universe and are used as meditation tools.
“We were so enthralled by his attitude and his presence that we asked him to become a [spiritual] teacher for us in Philadelphia,” Klein said.
Samten, who was the Dalai Lama’s personal attendant, said he arranged a meeting in Los Angeles between Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader and the Philadelphia center’s members. But unbeknownst to him, the group had brought along dozens of letters asking the Dalai Lama to let him stay, Samten said.
The Dalai Lama had but one question for the center’s members.
“I remember he said, ‘[Is] this your choice to have the center or Losang’s choice,” Samten, now 65, told NBC News.
The group responded it was theirs. A couple of months later their request was granted, Samten said.
“Ever since then Philadelphia [has] become my home,” Samten said.
It also marked the beginning of a journey that took the center all over the city. Klein said they rented in such spaces as the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the second-floor of a former firehouse, and a church. The group was on the move every three to five years, Klein said.
Their last digs, a building with artist lofts, was shuttered by the city after an electrical fire broke out, according to Klein.
“It just came to the point where we just had to decide with Losang, our teacher, it’s time to get our own space,” he said.
Samten liked the idea of having their own place, but he also said he liked moving around. He had escaped Tibet with his family in 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa amid fears of being kidnapped by Chinese occupying forces.
“Buddha never had a permanent address,” Samten explained. “Buddha never had a permanent place. Buddha never recommended to build the temples and the center.”
But he added, “Buddha recommended to build a center within.”
To that end, people from all walks of life — doctors and lawyers, Jews and Christians, whites and blacks, artists and the unemployed — have been coming to the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia every week.
Jacoby, 40, said she discovered it after an online search four or five years ago. Her dad had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and she was looking for space to find refuge.
Her first exposure to Tibetan Buddhism came as a kid living in Nepal, she said. Jacoby’s dad served there as a Peace Corps volunteer and later worked for the World Health Organization. Seeing the carpets and colorful Buddhist paintings called thangkas that hung on the walls reminded Jacoby of her earliest memories.
“At a time that I was struggling, it was very grounding and familiar in a way that I needed,” she said.
A typical Sunday session includes chanting, silent meditation, and a lesson taught by Samten. When NBC News visited in early April, Samten told a story about a child talking to his teacher about his grandmother who was dying. The message was about human rebirth and life, he said.
Some attendees sat in a meditative pose on beige mats in front of Samten, who was cloaked in a brown robe. Others occupied folding chairs that flanked either side. The silence in the pauses as Samten spoke were pierced only by the occasional bird chirping or siren wailing from an emergency vehicle. All were focused.
That day just happened to be the two-year anniversary of Jacoby’s father’s death. Before the service, she didn’t know the topic of Samten’s talk, she said.
“Every time I come, I find it meets a need that I couldn’t really articulate until I’m in it,” said Jacoby, an incoming faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.
Samten said the story also related to a man sitting up front whose father died a couple of days ago and another woman who had lost her mom.
“From the Buddhist point of view, thinking about death and dying is an important subject,” Samten said. “And that helps to make a meaningful life.”
For Klein, Tibetan Buddhism presented a happy medium for him and his wife, he said. He was raised Jewish, his wife Catholic. They discovered the religion together while traveling in India and Nepal during the late 1970s, Klein said.
In some ways, settling into their permanent home on North Marshall Street has brought Klein’s life full circle. That block, he said, used to be lined with stores owned by Jews in the early 1900s. Among them was a supermarket owned by his family. Klein is fourth-generation in the business.
He didn’t know about that store until he had spoken with his father who is 90.
“Meditation and the Buddhist path is a process, where you start and where you end,” he said. “And if you believe in reincarnation, it’s a process that’s part of your life.”
He added, “In order to be part of that process, I think it’s very important to have a place that we know is always going to be here.”