SARASOTA — Since moving from obscure digs to its more prominent locale off Washington Boulevard north of downtown Sarasota, the Kadampa Meditation Center has been getting a lot of attention, often from visitors without a clue.
"Someone walked in recently and wanted to know if we were a Chinese restaurant," said Buddhist monk and administrative director Dornyi, who goes by one name. "Fortunately we don't get a whole lot of that."
Inside, representations of Buddha — some so heavy they needed to be installed with forklifts — anchor the temple's showcase meditation room, where members and visitors attend lectures, prayer sessions and meditation classes. It also has 11 residential rooms that are all booked up. Boarders, from age 21 to 82, consume vegetarian meals prepared on site. There are no TV sets here; residents with personal computers confine them to their rooms and apply headphones to minimize noise.
Since its grand opening here in June, said Dornyi, walk-in traffic at the 10,000-square-foot temple has increased appreciably from its former incarnation on Lockwood Ridge Road, where a 2,500-square-foot house once accommodated meditation sessions in its living room. The new temple is a far cry from its roots in 1998, when a handful of Sarasotans began attending meditation classes at a Unitarian Church on Fruitville Road. "To me," said original member Sandy Tracey, "something of this size and splendor still seems like a dream."
Situated on a 1-acre spread, the Kadampa Meditation Center was erected with a million-dollar assist from the International Temples Project, guided by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Now living in Ulverston in the United Kingdom, the 80-year-old Tibetan monk and scholar founded the New Kadampa Tradition, which traces its lineage to a 14th century Buddhist teacher. More than 200 centers have sprung up internationally, and the Sarasota branch has seen its membership rise from a dozen to roughly 200 over the past few years.
Most were not born into Buddhism, but were drawn into it, often by life-altering events.
Monk Dornyi — whose legal name remains Andres Villalon — found answers in Buddhism after some profound soul-searching.
Dornyi, 29, had quit his job with an insurance company on the 29th floor of the World Trade Center in August 2001. His brother, who worked at the World Financial Center nearby, watched one of the hijacked airliners on Sept. 11. "Between the shock and the sudden realization of life's impermanence," the monk said, "I had to take a step back to reassess everything. What are our values? What are my values?"
Raised Catholic, Dornyi now wears the maroon and saffron robes of Kadampa. But he said, "We're not really interested in proselytizing, or making people converts. Meditation is universal and a complement to whatever faith you belong to. We have practicing Catholics come, Jewish, Muslims — we're open to everyone."