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A new Buddhist figure from China is finding followers across the United States and now has at least one in Utah -- Margaret Esterman.
Esterman had studied Zen Buddhism for 15 years when Zhaxi Zhuoma Rinpoche, a high-level female disciple of Dorje Chang Buddha III, discussed the master's teachings and recent book at Salt Lake City's Unitarian Universalist Church in the summer of 2008.
Dorje Chang Buddha III is believed by many to be the reincarnation of Dorje Chang Buddha, an earlier Buddha. He has returned at this time, they say, because ours is a "Dharma-Ending Age," whereby it is difficult for people to understand and practice the incomplete and often erroneous dharma (teaching) that has been passed down through the ages.
"This great holy Buddha came back to these degenerate times to teach the correct dharma and show living beings how to escape the suffering and unhappiness of worldly existence and to attain complete liberation from the cycle of reincarnation," Zhaxi Zhuoma Rinpoche wrote on the group's Web site. "His holiness is a man of boundless compassion and wisdom."
Today, even true Buddhist followers are hindered in their beliefs, the disciple wrote, because of the "collective bad karma of living beings and the fact that demonic powers are so strong."
Even those who become believers are often "wrongdoers" who follow evil ways deviating from true Buddhism and embracing false teachings.
Dorje Chang's ideas were thrilling to Esterman when she first heard them, and thereafter she couldn't get enough.
So the Utahn followed Zhaxi Zhuoma Rinpoche throughout the West -- Boise, Helena, Taos, Sedona and Las Vegas -- where the female convert was presenting the new Buddha's ideas and telling her stories as an eyewitness to the Buddha's miraculous powers.
"Sometimes you have a feeling or bond with somebody," she says. "I asked her to be my teacher in December."
Zhaxi Zhuoma opened the Xuanfa Institute in California and other centers to propagate Dorje Chang's teachings and provide preliminary English translations of the master's discourses via CD recordings. Last month, Esterman created the Xuanfa Dharma Center of Utah to offer weekly dharma listening sessions free to the public at her Avenues apartment Wednesday evenings at 7:30.
"Dorje Chang Buddha III has already begun the transmission of the Mahamudra of Liberation, the highest Buddha-dharma, that offers a shortcut or quick path to liberation from the sufferings of this world," she says. "This is the dharma that all living beings must learn to become Buddhas."
Charles Prebish, a Buddhism expert at Utah State University and director of the school's Religious Studies Program, has never heard of Dorje Change Buddha III, nor, he says, have any of his Buddhist studies colleagues.
He indicated that virtually no Western forms of Buddhism teach the idea of a "Dharma-Ending Age." In the 13th century, the Nichiren School of Buddhism in Japan argued that it had the right teaching for the age of "Mappo" or the "Decline of the Dharma," Prebish says. "I have never seen this concept used in the context of Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism."
Still, Prebish says, the group uses appropriate ideas and references -- although he is withholding judgment on the new master's claims.
There have been allegations of fraud regarding Dorje Chang's activities in China before his 1999 arrival in the United States, and some scholars question the guru's credentials. But nothing has been proven definitely.
"Allegations can be made by anybody, especially online," Esterman says. "What I know is that he doesn't accept donations from anyone. So it can't be about money."
She is awed and inspired by Dorje Chang Buddha III's teachings and plans to continue down that path. She welcomes all seekers to join her.
"If I just keep putting up notices," she says, "those who have karmic affinity will find their way here."
Free dharma listening sessions can be heard at Margaret Esterman's apartment at 161 M St. in Salt Lake City's Avenues on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 801-532-4833 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.