CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Oct. 16--Nearly 20 years ago, a handful of former SanFrancisco residents gathered in homes here to meditate in the ZenBuddhist tradition they had learned out West.

The gatherings were informal, and after the sitting cushions hadbeen set aside, there was lots of time for food and conversation.

But last week, when the founding members of the Chapel Hill ZenCenter gathered to install an abbot in the temple they had built, theevent was neither small nor informal.

For members of this flourishing center, it was a kind of "coming ofage"--an acknowledgement that they were no longer a tiny collectionof Zen enthusiasts but a serious and deeply committed group ofpractitioners who wanted a formal Buddhist temple and a resident abbotto transmit the Zen heritage to its members and the wider community.

Pat Phelan, the center's priest for the past nine years, was thefocus of the ceremony, which promoted her to one of the loftiestpositions in Zen Buddhism.

In keeping with tradition, Phelan shaved her head for the ceremonyand was presented a gold silk robe. Eleven Zen priests, includingseveral abbots, from across the United States attended the event, knownas a "Mountain Seat" ceremony, in which the newly installed abbessliterally ascends to stand on a platform above the community.

"It's a mark of maturity on the part of the Zen Center that we'rerequesting she become our abbess," said Howard Smither, the president ofthe Chapel Hill Zen Center, referring to Phelan. "We want her to beelevated to a higher status."

From the somber procession into the temple, to the offering ofincense to Shakyamuni Buddha, the ceremony, attended by about 100people, followed an ancient Japanese form.

The ceremony was also a milestone for American Buddhism. Althoughimmigrant Buddhists have been in the United States since 1850, the ranksof converts has grown dramatically over the past 30 years. Many of thenew leaders are American-born, very often women, and just as likely topractice their tradition in small towns, such as Chapel Hill, as in bigcities such as San Francisco.

There are an estimated 3 million to 4 million Buddhists in theUnited States, and of that figure, about 800,000 are American converts.In the past 20 years, about 1,500 Buddhist centers or temples haveopened across the country, said Tom Tweed, a professor of religion atthe University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A study undertaken byTweed's students identified 32 Buddhist centers in North Carolina alone.

But the numbers don't tell the entire story. Buddhist practices,especially meditation, have infiltrated mainstream culture. Hospitalsacross the nation offer meditation classes to reduce stress and helpmanage pain. Teen-agers wear "juzu" or mala beads. And the Dalai Lamahas become a media celebrity and a best-selling author.

But American culture has also changed Buddhist practice. In theUnited States, different Buddhist traditions -- whether Zen, Tibetan orvipassana -- co-exist harmoniously. The hierarchical model of Buddhisttemples in Asia has been replaced by a democratic one in which membersvote to invite an abbot to take residence in their temple, for example.And in one of the most dramatic changes, women have transformed apreviously patriarchial tradition.

Phelan is a case in point. Born in Independence, Mo., she grew upa typical Midwesterner attending public schools and Girl Scouts. Shefirst read about Zen in a book by J.D. Salinger. As an English major atthe University of Oregon, she saw a note on a bulletin board about aZen meditation group and decided to try it.

"I didn't see anything ultimately meaningful in the society I livedin, and I wanted some peace of mind," said Phelan, who is 52. "I wantedsomething deeper."

A year later, she moved into the San Francisco Zen Center, where shestudied and was ordained a priest. In 1991, Phelan was invited by theex-San Franciscans of Durham and Chapel Hill to be their teacher. Zenpriests are allowed to marry, and Phelan brought her husband anddaughter with her.

Her modesty and compassion have impressed the community. "I immediately felt Pat was the teacher I wanted to have," saidDavid Guy, a writer who lives in Chapel Hill. "She didn't make herself astar. The focus was on the practice, not on her."

Meditation, which involves sitting upright and focusing onthe breath, sensations in the body, a mantra or koan, or some other object of concentration, is an ancient practice. Its practioners say it allows a personto live more fully in the present moment. But many people say it takes alifetime to turn the experience into a meaningful awareness of dailylife, one that breaks down the separation between the self and theworld.

"It isn't something that's easy to do," said Joyce Brown of ChapelHill, one of the founding members. "For me, the beauty of it is thestruggle."

But to members of the community, known in Buddhist terms as the"sangha," the abbess installation ceremony is a symbol of thecommunity's commitment to studying in the Soto Zen tradition.

To that end, Phelan launched into a question-and-answer session atthe end of the ceremony, sometimes known as "dharma combat." In typicalZen fashion, the answers were short and seemingly enimagtic.

"What is this new robe?" asked one.
"It covers the world," Phelan replied.
"What do you ask of us?" asked another.
"To practice," she answered.
And finally, from her 17-year-old daughter, Dhyana Cabarga, "What isthe meaning of life?"
"Keep growing," she replied.