Neon Dharma

A journey to Vegas enlightenment with a former pawnbroker, a South Central survivor and the wisest disciple of the Chairman of the Board

We all know Las Vegas is famous for its fertile ground. Bad old habits sprout from the desert like spring flowers; bad new ones take root easily in the hard-packed caliche. That’s why, when I moved here a year ago to pursue my master’s in creative writing, I was determined to settle into a straight-and-narrow groove from my apartment to UNLV’s Lied Library. But it wasn’t long before I found myself on hands and knees on a friend’s patio one bright Sunday morning, picking up shards of bottles I’d shattered the evening before and pondering whether it might be time to get off the suds and back on the Path.

But, I wondered, does the dharma, the path of the Buddha, even reach Las Vegas? How could it? This town makes its living by violating the core principles of stillness and tranquility, clarity of mind, and non-attachment to worldly desires—and doing so in spectacular fashion. The Strip seems like a veritable Buddhist obstacle course, custom made to wreck focus and poison karma. Come on, it beckons, lose yourself in glitzy distraction. Look for liberation in the spinning slot machine. Don’t just grasp after objects of desire, have them show up right to your door!

Feeling less than lucky, I set out to hunt the dharma in Las Vegas. Along the way I get a little help from an awakened ex-pawnbroker, a controversial lama kicking it at the Cosmo, a Native American kung fu expert, and our very own Rat Pack sax-player-cum-Zen master. They help me see that not only is the dharma alive in Las Vegas, we might need it now more than ever. This town lives in the future, survives in the future—always banking on the next mega casino, the next major attraction, the next wave of tourists, the next lucky break. But with tough times looking to get tougher, Las Vegas might have no choice but to find peace with the here and now.

Lucky for us, Las Vegas isn’t anathema to Buddhism at all. In fact, with the right kind of eyes, Sin City starts to look like the seat of enlightenment.

Pawning Karma

The fourth-largest religion in the world doesn’t proselytize, so it tends to get around in mysterious ways. On a Thursday evening in a small bare room of the Sahara West Library, I meet up with the Lotus in the Desert Sangha and hear the story of how it got to Las Vegas. It starts in a Catholic monastery, winds up in a pawnshop, and is told by a petite, spritely woman who might just be the first Buddhist this town ever saw.

We open in 1953 at St. Mary of the Wasatch Monastery in the hills above Salt Lake City, where mail-snooping nuns have foiled the scheme of a 14-year-old girl to meet her beau for a soda. It’s the final strike for Jacquie Phenix, the dramatic end to a year of not fitting in. The drive back to Las Vegas with her distraught mother is very long indeed, but the young girl can’t help smiling to herself. Not only did the nuns fail to make her a good Catholic girl, they inadvertently showed her the dharma, and she’s smuggling it down that old Mormon road like forbidden knowledge.

“It was an awakening,” Jacquie—now Jacquie Bundren and 72—tells me, recalling the moment an old world-religions primer the nuns gave her fell open to a picture of the sitting Buddha. The teachings were revolutionary, subversive: “We don’t worship a god. We try to live our lives now, today. We do not know about the afterlife, but we know the present is here. It never left my mind that that made sense to me.”

Could there have been other, earlier Buddhists in the small town of 25,000 that was Las Vegas in the early 1950s? It’s possible. But young Jacquie couldn’t find books on Buddhism, let alone real live Buddhists. A few decades went by before she saw so much as a flier about a Buddhist temple tacked to a telephone pole—when she called them up no one spoke English. She called every couple of months for years in the hopes that someone would understand her. No one ever did. She wandered nearly 40 years alone in the spiritual desert before she was able to take the precepts from a Buddhist nun visiting from China and formalize her commitment to follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. In Las Vegas, the path can seem like a tightrope.

Which brings us to the pawnshop: Fourth and Fremont, the early 1990s, a sketchy corner in the years before the Fremont Street Experience. A line of about 20 people wait hungrily outside Pawn Place: addicts, gamblers, prostitutes and others in need of cash on the quick and quiet. The door is opened by a woman who looks the last person you’d expect to see haggling at dawn with the downtown underbelly. Jacquie Bundren had no idea how dark this side of Vegas really was; she’d retired from a career as a school principal and just thought it would be fun to sell jewelry.

One of her unfortunate regulars, a woman who legally changed her name to “Nogoodnohownoway,” approaches the counter to put another payment down on some cheap trinket not worth half as much as the interest she’s paid on it. “This does not fit with my chosen way of life,” Bundren tells herself. “This is so not a nurturing place for the beliefs I hold.” Bundren considers quitting almost daily. But her Buddhism is more how-and-why than do-and-don’t. Isn’t this, she begins to think, just a visceral illustration of what the Buddha hoped to free us from, this life of pawning the same rings over and over in an endless cycle? And what better place to practice loving-kindness with some folks who could use it? Bundren looks the woman in the eye and smiles. “Maybe,” she tells her gently, “it’s time to let it go.”

In Bundren’s 13 years as a pawnbroker, that’s the piece of advice she gave most: Let go. It’s also the crux of Buddhism.

I’ve always been troubled by a suspicion that Buddhism can never quite escape a certain nihilism, but Bundren insists that letting go doesn’t mean giving up. The central teaching has long been translated in a way that miscasts Buddhism as pretty grim fare. It usually goes something like this: Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by desire. So, to end suffering, end desire. Sounds bleak: You’ll get nothing and like it.

Buddhists are trying to ditch the translation “suffering.” (“It sounds like you’re torturing people,” Bundren laments.) The real deal is that life is change, and change is tough. Or, better yet: Shit happens, and nothing lasts forever. While many religions are about getting around this unpleasantness (the promise of Christianity, for one, is precisely a heaven in which everything is good and permanent), Buddhism is about getting over it. The desire we need to let go of is the vain, compulsive yearning for life itself to be different. We all have something we pawn over and over, that we struggle to redeem—something on which we pay daily interest in a currency of envy, anger, fear or self-loathing. Buddhism teaches that, whatever that something is, we probably ought to let go of it.

It makes sense, and leaves me wondering if there’s any common ground between letting go and the cutting loose this town is so famous for.

The place with the most lights, where the most things happen

Lama Ole Nydahl doesn’t just enter the swank Chandelier Lounge at the Cosmopolitan, he commandeers it. Tourists and bartenders crane their necks to get a look at the curious celebrity, the center of a swirl of followers who swallow up the joint shortly after midnight. They’d never guess that the guy on the white couch enjoying a Heineken and more than a few laughs is one of the most prominent figures in Tibetan Buddhism.

“I just like to go up to the place with the most lights and the most people where I can observe the most things happen,” Nydahl explains. In his view of the dharma, “any kind of energy is useable and beneficial and can ultimately bring enlightenment.” This makes Las Vegas a place to visit, not avoid, for any Buddhist. “Vegas is a super-microcosm of the conditioned world: greed, attachment, hope, fear—everything,” he says. “But here is so much energy. There is a lot to work with.”

Lama Ole, as he’s called, is fresh off a three-hour lecture to a packed house at the Clark County Library, where his talk swerved from metaphysics to particle physics, ancient history to political conspiracy, the sensuality of mindfulness to the threat of fundamentalist Islam—in short, all the things that have made him a captivating and controversial figure. To many, Nydahl is the face of a new westward evolution of Buddhism, and I’m not just talking about the striking Nordic features of his native Denmark. The Diamond Way Buddhism he espouses touts a “synthesis of modern style and ancient wisdom.” And Nydahl certainly has style. His olive-drab clothes and bristling gray crewcut make him look more commando than guru. He’s energetic, charismatic and, at 70, still enjoys the top gear of his BMW motorcycle (although he gave up skydiving after a near-fatal accident on his 88th jump).

The Las Vegas Diamond Way group, which has gathered for 10 years in the Henderson home of a Pilates instructor and a performer in a major Strip production, is one of more than 600 that dot the globe, with concentrations in Europe and the United States. Nydahl spends a good chunk of his time shuttling between these centers, sometimes with a couple of busloads of followers in tow, and Las Vegas is a bright spot on the two-week tour for the largely chic, young crowd of Europeans who have joined him on this stretch. A woman from Vienna tells me over the din of the casino that “Vegas is something every Buddhist should check out—there’s no time for wishes to arise, because by the time they arise they’re already fulfilled!”

And why not? Nydahl’s teachings aren’t shy in their pursuit of “ultimate joyful nature” (this blissful meditation, he says in his talk, is like “100 orgasms at the same time”). He’s about embracing the right frame of mind, not eschewing a night on the town, especially here, where there’s so much to be learned. He tells me that Las Vegas is “mega samsara,” employing the Buddhist term for the impermanent, illusory world we see around us. That would make Vegas something like an illusion of an illusion, and that sounds about right. He breaks it down sort of like this: We should not be deluded by thinking the world around us is inherently “real.” Lucky for us, it’s simply our perceptions of the endless ripples of karma. But this is no reason to reject the world and retreat into nihilism. The key is to recognize the illusion and embrace it. And isn’t that what people do every night on the Las Vegas Strip? We all know it isn’t “real”—we see it for the illusion that it is, and it’s up to us to encounter it in a way that produces suffering or produces joy. “You see the strength of karma [here],” Nydahl says. “The people who get an enormous jackpot and are not generous, they will just lose it quite quickly again. If the motivation isn’t good when we get something, it will not make us happy. That’s clear.”

I learn another thing: Buddhists can hang. I tap out around 2 a.m. when they’re still going strong, joyously encountering the “mega samsara” of the Cosmo.

The real Shaolin

Dashi Steven Baugh’s body flows through the evolution of the ancient spiritual and martial arts—tai chi, chi kung, praying mantis. He is showing me a kung fu kick that originated in the wet climes of southern China. The idea was to sweep the ground so that mud would fly into the eyes of a foe. We are at Baugh’s bustling Lohan School of Shaolin in Las Vegas’ Chinatown. The school helps kids escape violent gangs, works with the Veterans Administration to help returning troops overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, and hosts a program to help people break the cycle of addiction.

Baugh knows the street value of this stuff. At 57 and with a knot of long, dark hair indicating his status as a yogi as well as his Cheyenne and Tarascan Indian heritage, Baugh would look good starring as the cagey sensei in one of the old kung fu flicks he watched as a kid—but he didn’t learn kung fu for fun. “I grew up in South Central,” he says. “Three of my brothers got killed on the street. I learned kung fu to survive.”

When Baugh came here in 1988, he began instructing, and learning, on porches and in garages. “I’ve found some of the best teachers in this town, a lot of underground teachers,” he says, including a reclusive woman said to be one of the first Americans ordained in the Chan school. Sometimes the teachers find him. When Baugh opened the Lohan School here in 2004, he worried that he didn’t know enough to guide students in Buddhism; he needed a teacher himself. The very next day a Chinese man in flowing golden robes and backed by an imposing entourage swept through the doors. He was Master Yu, claimant to the title of Dharma King of the Hanmi Lineage of Chinese Esoteric Buddhism and status as a Living Buddha. “He was looking for a student from a past life,” Baugh explains. “He said, ‘I knew you were in Vegas.’ He saw a purple cloud over the school.” Baugh stresses the spiritual side of martial arts, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the real thing. Quite the opposite. When the Masters of Shaolin were disarmed by customs agents en route to their performance at the MGM Grand, they came to restock from the school’s impressive (and very real) armory of the 18 classical weapons of kung fu. Baugh was happy to lend the monks sabers, lances and deadly spades, but in talking with the performers he realized something was missing: These guys didn’t know anything about the spiritual aspect of their craft. Conditions in communist China had completely severed their kung fu from its Buddhist and Taoist roots and tainted their practice.

“They don’t do the real style,” Baugh says. “They do a lot of circus tricks—I know them, but I refuse to do them. If I would have learned this current style that they teach, I would have gotten killed.”

Skeptics of Vegas dharma take note: The Shaolin being practiced by kids in a strip-mall temple off Valley View Boulevard is more authentic, this dashi says, than that being honed by monks in the legendary fourth-century Chinese monastery that gave the form its name.

Zen in the jaws of the lion

The MGM lion, that great golden idol of so many earthy desires, long dominated the view from the Zen Center’s old home in an industrial park on Dean Martin Drive. Not your typical ambiance. And yet, when Zen master Seung Sahn paid a visit, the renowned Korean founder of the Kwan Um school declared: “The jaws of the lion is a wonderful place to practice Zen!”

“What he was saying was that Vegas is wonderful because it’s not hiding anything,” says the Zen Center’s abbot, Thom Pastor. “‘Desire mind’—sex, drugs, gambling, alcohol—all of it is right here. There’s no pretense. No trying to hide it or veil it, it just is what it is. [Zen master Seung Sahn] told me, ‘If you can find your center here, then going anywhere is no problem.’”

We talk cross-legged on the floor of the Zen Center’s new digs, pretty little whitewashed buildings with blue trim at Harmon and Eastern avenues. The center moved here in 2009, thanks in part to the collapse in housing prices (call it karma). It has 18 pine trees and a sculpted pool out back (although one of the new waterfalls is on the fritz). Inside, members of the 50-person congregation chant, bow and sit in silent meditation. The room is simple, though not austere, and is dominated by a large golden statue—not the MGM lion, but the Buddha in his serene pose.

Pastor, 65, has a wide grin and a shorn head. His presence is at once avuncular and intimidating. He has a tendency to whack interlocutors on the thigh with a short stick, especially when they’re trying to take accurate notes.

This is Las Vegas’ very own Zen master—and his path to the Buddha goes straight through the heart of Sin City.

In a previous incarnation, Pastor was a master sax player (among 10 other woodwinds). He toured the world with the likes of Humperdinck, Anka and Tom Jones before settling down in 1973 to spend 15 years on the Strip playing behind Frank Sinatra and other headliners as part of the Caesars Palace house orchestra.

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a being who attains enlightenment but decides to stick around here for a while to help out the rest of us bums. Now, I’m not saying Sinatra was one of these guys, but he did help Pastor down the path, in a manner of speaking. Pastor started to explore Zen as an antidote to those swingin’ nights on the Strip, when he was seeking an alternative to the musician’s traditional stress-reliever, the between-show cocktail. And he found that high-stakes musicianship can be good training for Zen.

Case in point: his first rehearsal with Sinatra at the old Circus Maximus. The famously temperamental Chairman of the Board only played with musicians he trusted, so when he noticed a new face in the woodwinds, Sinatra suddenly announced that he’d be conducting the first set of tunes himself. “Frank came and put one foot up on the riser right in front of me and said, ‘OK, fellas, here it is,’ and started conducting,” Pastor says. Sinatra stayed there, looming over him and reading along with his music while he played. After getting through the tricky intro to “I’ve Got the World on a String,” Sinatra passed the baton back to the conductor; the lead alto leaned over to Pastor and said, “Congratulations, you just passed the audition.”

That audition, a one-on-one gut-check with the big guy, is not too unlike the Zen tradition of “dharma combat,” in which the student must respond intuitively, with moment-mind, to challenges posed by the master. In 2002, Pastor survived dharma combat with five Zen masters, the last step in a 20-year process of study, retreats and training to become only one of 40 master dharma teachers worldwide in the Kwan Um School of Zen.

Pastor doesn’t view his new life as a break with his old one—he still finds time to perform in addition to abbot duties here and in centers in Madison, Wis., and Fairbanks, Alaska, and he just cut an album, Sleeping Lions, at the Straight Up Martini Lounge with his jazz outfit, B3 Conspiracy. Besides, Buddhism is about the oneness of all things, and that includes Las Vegans and all its denizens, too. And with times tough and looking to get tougher, a lot of us could do with a dose of the dharma. In a delightfully ironic metaphor, Pastor calls Buddhism the “Rolls-Royce teaching” about how to be happier with less. All you need is “moment-mind—not getting lost in your thinking, but being present in this moment.”

That is the “bone of the teaching” that runs through all forms of Buddhism, and it fits the Vegas experience perfectly. From my new, more enlightened perspective, the Strip looks less like a Buddhist obstacle course and more like a training course. Anyone here can see that nothing is permanent, not a hot streak, nor the city itself. And we are bombarded by reminders that grasping is endless—the promise of this place is that there will always be more to desire. If you are convinced that a jackpot will end your suffering, you will likely depart burdened with bad karma and calls from collection agents. Instead, just open your eyes and take it all in: You’ll probably have a decent time whether you hit blackjack or go bust.

“Gain and loss are just opposites,” Pastor says. “Winning the lottery or losing all your money at the craps table—both have no meaning. The fan above you is whirring. The floor is brown. The Buddha is gold. That’s my teaching to you. No more, no less. If you get caught in gain and loss, then you are a slave to your mind and to all things. If you attain pure mind, then complete freedom is available to you.”

The Zen master falls silent, then chuckles. “Doesn’t help the economy here, though!”

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