Richard Weissman delved into Buddhism by accident five years ago after his dog died. He randomly pulled one of many books off his bookshelf — the Tibetan Book of the Dead — and began reading it to his wife in an effort to find some comfort. At that moment, his mission was born.
"It clicked," said Weissman, 46, who was raised Jewish but spent his adulthood on a spiritual search. "I was like, 'Ah, this is it.' "
Now he oversees the Tampa Bay area's local Buddhist organization and leads classes in meditation. He runs Ratnashri Sangha of Tampa Bay, a Buddhist Dharma Center, from his home in Port Richey.
After his epiphany, he hopped on the Internet and searched for a local connection to the Buddhist practice he had just read about. Soon he began regularly driving nearly an hour to Largo to meet a group of people doing mediation and other Buddhist practices.
The group was looking to reorganize and he offered to act as president. Soon after, he and his wife "took refuge" — a ritualized process to become a Buddhist.
His soon-to-be spiritual leader, Drupon Thinley Ningpo Rinpoche, came down from Frederick, Md., and stayed at their house.
"In our tradition a lot of this stuff is based on the lama's assessment of the individual," he said.
Drupon — an honorific title meaning "retreat teacher" — cut Weissman's hair, asked some probing questions and gave him a refuge name: Konchok Thubten. The process took about 30 minutes, he said, but its meaning ran deep.
"If you're in a storm and you don't have shelter, you seek shelter," Weissman said. "If there's suffering, you find refuge from your suffering."
Afterward, he said, he felt noticeably different.
"I did feel this kind of connectedness, that I was connected to something bigger than myself," he said.
Weissman grew up going to a Reform temple, but said he didn't know much about Judaism.
"I feel it's my cultural background, my ethnicity," he said. "I also feel there are tremendous mystical teachers in that tradition."
He works for New York-based Energy Management Institute, traveling to New York and Houston to teach risk management and trading to people in the energy and banking industries. His wife, Pamela, is an herbalist.
She grew up in the Baptist faith. Originally from Great Neck, N.Y., they moved to Florida in 2002 because she wanted a house and he wanted to escape the Northern winters.
As part of his ongoing search, Weissman said he tried out various religious and spiritual practices before discovering Buddhism.
"I was interested in all forms of the Western esoteric tradition," he said, including Cabala, Christian gnosticism, Sufi mysticism. He was also very interested in Eastern mysticism and had studied the writings of Yogananda, as well as those of the Fourth Way school.
Now he spends an hour and a half a day in Tibetan Buddhist meditation, as well as an hour a day studying dharma teachings.
He said there are some common misconceptions about Buddhism. The Buddha, whose name was actually Siddhartha, is not meant to be considered a God or an idol. Buddha means "awakened one."
"We don't pray to him. We're not praying to the fat guy," Weissman said. "We're not thinking that he's God. We have the same potential as him. He awakened to his potential and we're still in the process of awakening."
Weissman likes that the teachings are accessible and passed down from teacher to student in an "unbroken fashion," from enlightened being to enlightened being.
Another aspect he finds appealing is that there's no "blind faith" in Buddhism. "Instead you need to use your power of reasoning and see if it makes sense," he said of the Buddhist tradition. "And if it doesn't then you don't believe in it."
Weissman runs one of six dharma centers in Florida and also serves as a facilitator for Drupon Thinley Ningpo Rinpoche. He's quick to add that he's not a lama, and only fields questions, sort of like a substitute teacher.
Paula and Ralph Testa, students of Weissman, often host lamas and monks at their home in Hudson. Ralph is retired from Pasco County Fire Rescue, and Paula was a Pasco schoolteacher.
"He's a very good teacher," Ralph Testa said of Weissman. "He's a real person, too. He's living on a path. He's a very sincere person."
Bobbie Taylor became Weissman's student about four years ago when her husband was dying of Alzheimer's disease and her own meditation practices weren't helping her.
"I think it really did help me in many ways," she said of the Buddhist meditation she learned.
Weissman's Jewish mother, who had other hopes for her son, told him, "I guess this is as close as it's going to get to you being a rabbi." But she accepts his decision.
"My big goal is to be enlightened," he said. To help get there, he plans to do 100,000 prostrations and recitations of mantras — a way of surrendering himself to something beyond himself.
"I think most people can't do it right away," Weissman said. "It takes tremendous amounts of energy. And perhaps over more than one lifetime."
"Faith in Motion" is a feature about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Story ideas are welcomed, via e-mail. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.