Stalking the Hungry Ghosts

Sick of chaos and insatiable craving, more and more St. Louisans are seeking out the quiet subversions of Buddhism

Scrunching back the sleeves of his white lab coat, Jon Burrows reaches into a cage, isolates a mouse and picks him up by the scruff of his neck, drawing up the skin as gently as possible. In the other hand, Burrows holds a gavage needle, its point blunted in a tiny ball so it doesn't perforate the rodent's delicate throat tissue. He tilts the mouse's head back, aligning throat and stomach, and inserts the needle, slowly expelling the contents of the syringe into the mouse's swelling stomach. Then he bends closer and whispers a mantra, pleading with enlightened beings to purify the animal's negative karma.

A postdoctoral fellow at Washington University School of Medicine, Burrows is sufficiently brilliant to forestall mockery. He's also consummately Anglo, tall and fair-skinned, with a strong jaw and a softened British accent. You'd figure him as a mild Protestant secretly fond of the old hymns, not a Tibetan Buddhist worried about sacrificing mice.

If you were talking about his childhood, you'd be right: Burrows loved playacting Bible stories in a Methodist Sunday School outside London. "I drifted away at the point where we had to start memorizing things," he shrugs. "There wasn't a lot of room to think for yourself after that." Through grad school, he diverted all inquiry to science. Then he came to St. Louis, signed up for an aikido class to burn stress and found himself at a classmate's Tibetan Buddhist gathering, listening to people talk about "compassion, tolerance, the idea that people walk a fine line between happiness and suffering in this life, and a lot of it depends on your perspective."

Jon Burrows, whose medical research on mice contradicts his Tibetan Buddhist ethos: "I don't think you can take it lightly, taking the life of another being."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jon Burrows, whose medical research on mice contradicts his Tibetan Buddhist ethos: "I don't think you can take it lightly, taking the life of another being."
Lama Lodru Rinpoche, who "sends no vibe."
Lama Lodru Rinpoche, who "sends no vibe."

Burrows had reached the same conclusions on his own, watching friends' moods soar and plummet, noticing how they all craved love, raced after approval, attached themselves to things. Now he'd found a tradition that had been evolving for thousands of years to address this very problem. Best of all, it was scientific, urging practitioners not to memorize answers to unanswerable questions but to experiment for themselves.

Learning to meditate helped him solve scientific problems. It also made him sharply aware of scientific consequences. "Buddhists don't make a distinction between the life of a human, the life of a dog, the life of a bug," he explains. "It's all what we call 'sentient being.' I routinely, when I go over to my in-laws, pull the ants off the surface of their pool and set them on the ground."

Just as routinely, he force-feeds drugs to mice.

"We're looking at a disease which affects the liver in young children," he explains, the scientific enthusiasm as carefully hidden and obvious as a high-school crush. "There's a protein that's made in the liver, and it's supposed to leave the liver and be transported to the lungs, where it protects against the breakdown of elastin. But with this defect, the protein doesn't fold properly, so it doesn't get out of the liver to protect the lungs; instead, it builds up and causes liver disease." The standard treatment is a liver transplant. But if Burrows and his colleagues can find a chemical compound that folds the protein more correctly, they can save kids without the transplant.

They're making progress.

But he almost quit.

"I was ready to go and tell my boss I just couldn't do these experiments," he admits. "Then I had a conversation with my lama. He said, 'Well, you could find another type of work. But is there any benefit to human society in what you're doing now?'"

"If we can prove the drug works, definitely."

"Is there any benefit to you doing these experiments and not someone else?"

Burrows shrugged. "At least I'm gentle."

"And is there any benefit to the animal?" prompted the lama.

"Well, it gets fed as much as it wants -- but it's never seen the light of day, and it gets done to it whatever you damn well please," replied Burrows crisply.

The lama nodded and kept silent for a moment, eyelids lowered. Then he said softly, "That animal is alive because of its karma."

One of the most misunderstood tenets in Buddhism, karma is not fate but the law of cause-and-effect. Karma says we get away with nothing; every thought, every action, carries consequences. Because human beings can choose their actions, they can purify their karma, but for a mouse, it's harder to break the cycle -- unless, of course, something is done to that mouse that will greatly benefit others.

Burrows left relieved. But his relentlessly thoughtful Buddhist mind keeps returning to the problem. "I don't think it puts it to rest," he says. "I don't think you can take it lightly, taking the life of another being."

This country's reluctant, resistant infatuation with Buddhism began in the '60s, long before Al Gore started fundraising at Buddhist monasteries. Today the love affair's full-blown and complicated, with more than 2 million Americans practicing one of Buddhism's many forms. The Mid America Buddhist Association built its spacious new monastery in the heart of the heartland, in nearby Augusta, Mo., and St. Louis hosts three groups of Tibetan Buddhists, a Thai Buddhist Temple, a Vietnamese Buddhist Association, a Sri Lankan Buddhist Group, the Missouri Zen Center, the St. Louis Insight Meditation Group and a chapter of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhists, a global sect that focuses on Buddha's Lotus Sutra.

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