By Marlena Hartz
Her slate blue eyes cast downward, Rhomylly Forbes evokes a rich, crisp sound from the concertina, a small instrument in the accordion family. This is how she meditates.
“My mind cannot wander when I play (the concertina),” Forbes said.
Every weekday after lunch, Forbes ascends by elevator to the top floor of an Eastern New Mexico University building. She passes through a narrow corridor and into a room about the size of a closet. Though designed as a practice space for university musicians, the room is ideal also, Forbes said, for Buddhist meditation.
Especially when the nearest Buddhist temple is situated more than 220 miles away in Albuquerque. Forbes hasn’t met another soul in the Bible Belt who practices the religion of her choice since she settled in the area more than 18 months ago.
Instead of letting the sense of the isolation weaken her dedication to Buddhism, Forbes improvises.
She uses the concertina to meditate, and converted a dusty, cramped room into a temple. She does breathing exercises while her dog eats dinner and her toddler tugs at her sleeves. She seeks out others with open minds. She hosted an hour-long Buddhism seminar earlier this week at Eastern New Mexico University, where she works as an admissions specialist, hoping to link up with other Buddhists.
But only five people enrolled in the seminar. And even in the enclave that is the university, some were wary of the response her seminar might elicit.
ENMU Special Programs Coordinator Geralyn Million, who assembles a litany of extended learning programs each semester for the surrounding community, was reticent to offer the seminar, especially being a Christian herself.
“Do I dare take someone from (Christianity)?” Million pondered after Forbes approached her and offered to share her knowledge of Buddhism at the university. In the end, she put her personal beliefs aside.
“Eastern (New Mexico University) promotes diversity,” Million said. “I guess you just you have to open your heart, and give others the chance to believe what they want to believe, too.”
It isn’t converts that Forbes seeks, but understanding, she said.
Buddhism, she said, is misinterpreted. When people learn she practices the 2,500-year-old philosophy, most assume she is a vegetarian and assault her with question about her diet, she said.
“I went to McDonald’s yesterday … Many Buddhists are vegetarians, by choice. I am not, by choice,” said Forbes, who was born in Kentucky and into the Episcopal Church where her parents, both musicians, were members.
In her early 30s, Forbes said she had a “spiritual crash.” Living in Washington, D.C., at the time, where she worked for a non-profit agency, Forbes sought a religion that fit.
“I found out that I didn’t know as much about the spiritual workings of the world as I thought I did,” she said. “I was kind of like a spiritual shopper.”
Then a friend invited her inside a Buddhist temple.
“I was blown away,” said Forbes of the temple, whose members where primarily Thailand immigrants.
Instead of pews, there were pillows. Instead of stained glass, there was a towering, gold statue of Buddha. And a peaceful silence prevailed, she said.
“The peacefulness grabbed me,” Forbes said.
She has since been a devotee of the Buddhist tradition called vipassana. The word translates roughly to “clear seeing” or “insight,” and belongs to a sect of Buddhists who stress the power of meditation.
“It is really a philosophy more than a religion,” Forbes said.
There are those, however, that believe her choice is her damnation.
“Buddhism is false doctrine that will lead all Buddhists to hell,” said Pastor Peter Aulson of the Potter’s House Christian Center in Clovis.
Forbes is undeterred.
“It is a personal decision,” Forbes said, “(The church) wasn’t enough for me.”