Heruka Buddhist Center: How do we de-stress in times of distress?

Renee Ziel

Trina Gunther is currently a resident teacher at Heruka Buddhist Center in Fort Collins. (Lennon Brooks | The Collegian)

In the harrowing era of COVID-19, a virus known for its accompanying breathing difficulties, it might be hard to stop and appreciate our ability to breathe at all.

California-born Trina Gunther said she stumbled into her Kadampa Buddhist practice as “one of those accidental Buddhists” almost 17 years ago. She worked in downtown Los Angeles as an urban designer in a bustling city office, struggling with illness in her family and personal challenges regarding the state of her world. In finding her first-ever meditation class, Gunther then realized her unhappiness, a not-so-simple problem, had a simple root: her mind.


Gunther is currently the resident teacher at Heruka Buddhist Center. Serving Northern Colorado and Wyoming, Heruka is a place rooted in Kadampa Buddhism, a branch of the compassion- and wisdom-focused school of Mahayana Buddhism. Kadampa was founded by Buddhist Master Atisha, and the modern branch, New Kadampa Tradition, was founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso with the intention of making Kadampa teachings more accessible.

The Heruka Center welcomes all people — they need not be a Kadampa practitioner to find peace through the organization’s meditations and retreats.” 

Breathing is a core practice of Buddhist mindfulness and the meditation that helps people achieve it, particularly in Mahayana. Gunther, based in the Fort Collins center, finds the focus on discovering peace and happiness through compassionate meditation exercises a particularly powerful one that made her mind more peaceful, therefore making her life more peaceful.

In her early practice, Gunther’s experience of life began to change, so she kept going to the meditation classes, where body and mind connect and find tranquility in breathing. Her first class was about transforming adverse conditions wherein the teaching was “something so practical” — not focusing on the faults of others. Found, like a lotus out of mud, in the early steps of her journey was a valuable Buddhist lesson: Everything depends on the mind.

Gunther said we have negative habits of mind in our natural state, but we create a better reality through changing our mind. Beaming, she succinctly points to the core of the latest years of her life: “I have never looked back.”

Despite having over 10 years of experience teaching Dharma, Gunther is in her fourth month as the resident teacher at Heruka Center and is therefore still shaping her experience and position in an environment she describes as full of dedicated, kind-hearted, humble meditators. Gunther noted she particularly loves hearing the experiences of meditators after sessions where they tell her they felt peace, inspiration or a difference in their life.

“We’re constantly focused outwards, and what we discover with meditation is that all those things are found inside the mind,” Gunther said. “Buddhist meditation is particularly important because it specifically … guides people to the inner peace in their mind and helps them to not get lost in an inner negativity.”

Indeed, a core thought of Eastern spirituality is yin and yang: a balance between happiness and suffering and the core idea that one cannot exist without the other. Gunther explained that Buddha taught meditation in a specific way to help connect to the true, positive nature of our mind, and it is important to recognize that one cannot force their mind into a happy space since happiness comes from inner peace.

While most Buddhism focuses on some form of the purity of mind in order to reach enlightenment, Mahayana is a school that does not emphasize nirvana as the goal and believes at its core that enlightenment is not reserved for monastic practitioners. Further, it values knowledge, wisdom and compassionate mindfulness practices that aim to relieve the suffering of other beings, which is sometimes achieved through becoming a bodhisattva. A term for the mind of one of these beings is bodhicitta, cited on kadampa.org.

The Heruka Center welcomes all people — they need not be a Kadampa practitioner to find peace through the organization’s meditations and retreats. Heruka has been around for about 20 years and consists of a small team where everyone is a volunteer doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, Gunther said.

Not only is Heruka thriving on the work of volunteers, but it is operating despite being online due to the pandemic. According to Gunther, they are appreciative they can still offer meditation during such a distressing time for the world, and they make prayers every week for everyone to be “safe and happy and free from their suffering.” However, these conditions are not without difficulty.


Trina Gunther has been teaching meditation for 12 years, and is now a resident teacher at Heruka Buddhist Center in Fort Collins. (Lennon Brooks | The Collegian)

“We are a tradition in which the oral transmission of the teachings is very important and blessed, so being in person just helps the blessings of those transmissions,” Gunther said. “I think it’s a bit harder online; people when they’re online, it’s easier to be distracted by things. When you’re sitting in a meditation room, there’s no distraction.”

It’s easy to imagine that. Behind Gunther, very little of the room can be discerned on the screen through which we speak, but it’s clear these practitioners value their space. Sitting tranquil, a towering golden statue of Buddha can be seen centered against the white back wall. Around this gilded meditation are various art installations and framed pictures depicting his poses.

In this meditation room, Heruka usually employs two types of meditation. The various practices of it are called “lamrim” in Tibetan, meaning “the stages of the path to enlightenment,” Gunther said, and lamrim is the heart of Kadampa Buddhism.

One meditation is preliminary and the one typically thought of when the custom is brought to mind. It is a formal breathing exercise designed to help people let go of distractions and connect to peace of mind, according to Gunther. The second type of meditation is often deeper — an analysis that takes people to a certain state of mind, recognition or motivation.

“One such meditation is compassion,” Gunther said. “Buddha gives ways of thinking that lead us to an experience of compassion in our heart, so we … think of other living beings in a certain way that recognizes that we’re connected to them, that we generate some affection and love for them.”

Through this, practitioners might try to feel this other being’s experience and then not only recognize that this suffering can end but wish to free them from that suffering.

“One of the things that takes a long time for us to recognize is that suffering can and does end,” Gunther said. “Suffering comes from the mind, from our disturbed ways of thinking — that are called delusions in Buddhism — and from negative karma. And both of these things can be eliminated from the mind.”

All of this is true to Heruka’s Kadampa practice, even if the people who go to Heruka are not Buddhists. The simplest lesson is that it is about happiness through peace of mind. Gunther’s job is to organize the teachings, the programs and help publicize the events, but the core of it for everyone is to help others find inner peace through meditation, she said.

Since Gunther is based in Fort Collins, a city full of often stressed college students from Colorado State University, she imparted last words of advice.

“Try to take a few moments to breathe every day,” Gunther said. “Just stop and breathe. … Inner peace is just so important, and I hope that everyone on campus is able to connect to inner peace at some point.”

Renee Ziel can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com and on Twitter @reneeziel.