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I sat beside Carl, helping adjust the well-worn jacket he used as a blanket. He wore his terminal diagnosis with resigned bravado. I tried to make small talk, but it was going terribly. What solace can you offer someone who doesn't have long to live and knows it?

"So what kind of work do, er, did you do?"

Long silence. Slow drag on his cigarette. An eternity passed as we watched a white tuft of cloud break the blue monotony and move across the sky.

"I don't really talk about my past."

OK. Squirming to keep the conversation moving, I mentally scrolled through my list of questions. If I couldn't ask about the past and there was no sense in asking about the future, that left only the present. And in the present, I was learning, there are no questions; there is just being. This made me feel awkward at first: Stripped of his questions, the journalist has no identity.

But Carl seemed content to have me just sit there, my company alone helping ease some of his suffering. Once I accepted that I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, I relaxed. Carl looked sideways at me and smiled. We both understood I had just learned a small lesson. Together we watched another white cloud go by.

That week there were other lessons drawing on Buddhism—lessons about the impermanence of life, about our attachment to the way we want things to be, and our disappointment when those things don't come to pass. About physical and mental suffering and about the value of what Buddhists call sangha, which best translates as "community." But most of all I saw how the lessons one man learned in India 2,500 years ago have been adapted to the modern world.

Around the globe today there is a new Buddhism. Its philosophies are being applied to mental and physical health therapies and to political and environmental reforms. Athletes use it to sharpen their game. It helps corporate executives handle stress better. Police arm themselves with it to defuse volatile situations. Chronic pain sufferers apply it as a coping salve. This contemporary relevance is triggering a renaissance of Buddhism—even in countries like India, where it had nearly vanished, and in China, where it has been suppressed.

Buddhism is no longer just for monks or Westerners with disposable time and income to dabble in things Eastern. Christians and Jews practice it. African Americans meditate alongside Japanese Americans. In the U.S. alone, some experts estimate, there are roughly three million practicing Buddhists. And according to a 2004 study, more than 25 million Americans believe that Buddhist teachings have had an important influence on their spirituality.

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