This holiday season, Sasha Bartunek wants you to do something most people find impossible: cherish others, even those you hate with every fiber of your being.
Sitting spine straight in the lotus position on a platform at the Parbawatiya Buddhist Center (also known as a gompa, Tibetan for meditation room), the senior student teacher urged her class to love because it "can completely purify our minds."
Plus, you never know if the clerk who is rude to you at the grocery store is really Buddha, come back to test you.
In other words, your worst enemy can be your greatest teacher.
Meditations on themes such as cherishing are taught at the Parbawatiya Center at 201 Sixth Ave. S, Safety Harbor, almost every day. The center is in a converted house members bought a year ago. It is guided spiritually by Kadam (lay teacher) Lucy James and Kadam Nick Gillespie, both of Sarasota, and both originally from Great Britain.
They teach Kadampa Buddhism of the New Kadampa Tradition, a Mahayana Buddhist denomination that uses the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, first told by the Indian Buddhist master Atisha, who lived from 982 to 1054.
This kind of Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to the West by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1977.
There are nine New Kadampa Tradition Buddhist centers in Florida that have sprouted from Gillespie's first temple in north Pinellas County. Each is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from members to survive.
Each class costs $7. But if you have no money, you still are welcome. There also is no sales pitch.
"It's not about becoming Buddhist," Gillespie, 40, said by phone from Sarasota. "When people take that first step through the door, they get scared and say, "These people are going to convert me.' Absolutely not."
He and Lucy James say that most of their students are not Buddhists but use meditation to complement their own faith or religion.
They also celebrate Christmas.
"For Buddhists, Jesus was a special holy being," Gillespie said. "He helped and inspired people. So we do celebrate the birth of someone like that."
Back at the Safety Harbor temple, Bartunek softly instructed the group of 12 to "breathe out all the negative thoughts in the form of thick, black smoke."
She closed her eyes.
"Breathe in positive energy in the form of blissful golden light," she said. "Let all your thoughts and fears fade away like a mist rising."
To Buddhists, meditation is the true solution to the three root delusions: anger, attachment and ignorance.
"Do not look for power externally, look for power within," she said. "If you can change your mind, you can change your world."
She said our current and future happiness depends on cherishing others.
"As a result of helping others in previous lives, we now enjoy this human form," Bartunek said.
Bartunek suggested they fill their minds with virtue, patience and compassion.
After the meditation, the group formed a circle and discussed the theme of the night's meditation.
"People have accused me of being too easy on people," said Dale Eccellente, 51, admitting she may cherish people too much. "I have a roommate who's not paying rent. I've been very patient, but where's the money?"
"Part of cherishing is cherishing yourself," said Jamie Moore, 33, a pharmaceutical rep who is new to the group. "Say, you have to pay your rent or go because I love you."
The group laughed, but said it was excellent advice.
But how exactly do you love someone who is treating you badly?
"If you want to cherish someone you don't like, and you can't find anything to like about them, you can say, "At least he's not a serial killer,' " said Gilda Bartunek.
What if he is a serial killer? the group wanted to know.
That might be one for a Buddha.
"A Buddha is an awakened one," said Gillespie, "one who woke from the sleep of delusions."
_ Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schultesptimes.com.