If you Google the words ‘celebrity Buddhists’, an almost shockingly long list of names will appear on your screen, from Brad Pitt to Sharon Stone to Sting and Jeff Bridges.
Yet the practise of this increasingly popular religion, which is 2,500 years old, and has 376 million followers worldwide, over 150,000 of which are in Britain, is not simply a ‘philosophy’ or ‘way of life’ adhered to by the rich and famous.
Thirty-four-year-old Kelsang Chitta hails from the small village of Sixmilecross in Co Tyrone, but after learning more about Buddhism during her student years at Trinity College in Dublin, where she studied Philosophy, she was so enthralled by it that she went on to become ordained as a Buddhist Nun (a Buddhist Monk is the male equivalent).
“I was ordained in 2009 under an internationally renowned teacher called Geshe Kelsang Gyatso,” she says.
“He set up a huge network of Buddhist centres throughout the world.”
Today, Chitta lives in Belfast and is based at the Potala Kadampa Buddhist Centre on the Ormeau Road, where she is the resident teacher, taking classes in meditation - one of the ‘hallmarks’ of Buddhism - and giving talks.
The centre first opened in 1997, and many of the people who pass through its doors are not even Buddhists - individuals from all walks of life are welcome.
Chitta herself was an atheist before she developed an interest in Buddhism.
“I came across it through my studies, and then after university decided to look into it in more depth,” she explains.
There are many layers to Buddhism, Chitta explains, and this soon becomes clear as we chat. Buddha himself, contrary to popular belief, is not a god - he was a man named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born into a royal family in Nepal and lived a life of luxury and privilege.
However one day he left the home he had been brought up in and he encountered an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. He was so disturbed by the sufferings of ageing, sickness and death that he became a monk, living the life of an ascetic in a quest to find a solution. However through asceticism he failed to find a way to bring an end to suffering, so he decided to pursue the ‘Middle Way’ - which was a path in between the two extremes, avoiding both poverty and luxury simultaneously.
Buddhists believe that one day, seated beneath the Bodhi tree (the tree of awakening), Siddhartha became deeply absorbed in meditation and reflected on his experience of life and the ultimate nature of reality until he became enlightened.
Chitta continues: “He thus became free from the cycle of pain and suffering which humans go through as they are reincarnated. Buddhists believe that our lives are endless and subject to suffering and uncertainty. They believe that people are reincarnated over and over again, until we become enlightened.”
So how can followers of the Buddha - like Chitta - also become enlightened?
The answer is through the practise and development of morality, meditation and wisdom.
“One of the main things we do is try to develop inner peace and maintain a peaceful mind,” she says.
“Learning how to meditate is learning how to get rid of any negativity. Our end goal is a permanently positive and peaceful mind. We believe that the mind is the creator of our reality. Buddhism is not a religion in which a god creates the world, it is your mind that creates it.”
Chitta explains that Buddhists believe they will be reincarnated over again, and “with each rebirth we suffer as animals and humans”.
She adds: “Until we find enlightenment, we are continually having experience of different lives.”
Chitta, naturally, spends time every day meditating.
She says that she enjoys many aspects of life as a Buddhist. “The methods of meditation we use help you deal with all the stresses of daily life. And it gives me a purpose in life and a much more positive outlook.
“What we teach is compassion, and in terms of how to relate to others, it’s all about love and kindness and seeing beyond differences and trying to understand people.”
She also welcomes the fact more people from Northern Ireland are curious about Buddhism as a religion and way of life, and agrees that it is positive to see them open their minds and search beyond the usual expectation of following either Protestant or Roman Catholic faiths.
“I think it’s amazing that people have an interest and come along here to learn about it. It does take a long time for people to adjust and change their ways of thinking.
“Most of the people who come to the centre here aren’t Buddhist. It’s an environment where you can learn to try and think a bit differently about other people, and not put them in boxes.”
She adds: “For me it’s incredibly meaningful to be here and do whatever little bit I can to help people improve their state of mind.”
**You can get more information about the Potala Kadampa Buddhist Centre in Belfast by logging on to meditateni.org