Photograph courtesy of Atula Shah
Photograph courtesy of Atula Shah

Tricycle introduced its Community site in February 2009, and the response took everyone by surprise. No one expected the membership to grow so large so quickly. Less immediately obvious but no less significant in defying expectations was the demographic range of those joining up. All sorts of people were coming from all sorts of places: a college student from Ecuador, an engineer from Ghana, a schoolteacher from Iran. It turns out Buddhism in the West is more diverse and far-flung than many assume. Indeed, there is a lot of “Buddhism in the West” that is not in the West at all.

Since the beginning, Atula Shah has been a stalwart member of the Community, one for whom spiritual support is something to be given and received freely and openly. Atula lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where she works in her family business, attends regular Vipassana retreats, and sits at her local temple—the only permanent Buddhist temple in Kenya. I wanted to find out more about this woman whose background is so different from North American Buddhists like me yet who has been able to reach out from her part of the world and connect so deeply with those in other places.

—Linda Heuman

Your emails always evoke the natural world. You’ve mentioned the frogs and the heat, rain, and fog. I imagine you living in a jungle. It is a jungle in a sense. We just moved into a new house on one acre. It is surrounded by trees and a lot of different kinds of shrubs and flowers and plants. We have a four-story terraced garden, with a gazebo. And there is a pond with beautiful waterfalls, so the frogs are in there. If they stop croaking, we know something is wrong.

We grow our own fruits and vegetables. We brought some of our banana plants and sugarcane plants from our old house, so we’ve already started planting those. I am in one of the fastest-growing suburbs of Nairobi. It’s a very urban area. It’s difficult now to get a good plot in Nairobi to be able to grow your own food, because Nairobi is growing at such a fast pace. So we’re lucky.

What is the Buddhist community in Nairobi like?
There is a Buddhist temple here, built by a Sri Lankan family about ten years ago. At that time, there was a huge Sri Lankan community in Nairobi. There were a lot of garment factories that exported to America. Gradually that business went down, and so the population also started dwindling. Now the community has become smaller. But the temple was always meant for any Buddhist follower of any tradition. We have got Thai people coming in; we’ve got Japanese; we’ve got some Chinese. Non-Buddhists, too. And the temple is very beautiful.

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