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World Buddhism

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Buddhism evolves as followers multiply
By Michelle J. Lee, Poughkeepsie Journal, Aptil 22, 2004

Religion teaches path to happiness lies in aiding others

Poughkeepsie, NY (USA) -- From the outside, the entrance to the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery in the Town of Poughkeepsie looks deceptively simple with two long paths, one made with dirt and the other made of asphalt.

Once travelers follow the paths to the monastery tucked away on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, they are greeted by prayer flags, which attract good luck and ward off evil, and the stupa, a dome and pyramid-shaped monument symbolizing the steps toward enlightenment and the four elements.

Inside the altar room, decorated with a large golden Buddha statue and hundreds of other deities, Buddhist nuns and monks -- called anis and lamas -- chant twice a day and light lamps while offering water and ceremonial cakes.

Despite the elaborate adornments and rituals, Buddhism is often viewed as more of a path or philosophy. Its core lies in the basic understanding that life, a cycle of death and rebirth, is full of suffering caused by craving.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate suffering and achieve nirvana, ultimate happiness, through virtuous acts.

Helping others is key

''Religious people want to make peace, better life, improve others,'' Lama Norlha Rinpoche, the monastery abbot, said with the aid of a translator. ''True religion means to help others.''

Buddhism began more than 2,500 years ago in a part of India that is now modern-day Nepal. The impact on the mid-Hudson Valley has only been felt since the 1970s with the founding of Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery, Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock and Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, Ulster County.

Other nearby communities include Chuang Yen Monastery in Kent, Putnam County, and groups in Hyde Park, New Paltz, Newburgh and Rhinebeck.

Buddhism became familiar in America during the 19th century through the transcendentalist and theosophy movement, which sought belief through intuition and the mystical, said Kristin Scheible, a Bard College religion professor. At the same time, Asian immigrants brought the religion as they entered the United States.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Zen Buddhism entered the American consciousness and influenced Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. After immigration quotas were lifted in 1964, more Buddhists arrived.

One immigrant who contributed to the development of Buddhism in the valley is Chia-Tsin Shen. The 90-year-old native of China emigrated with his wife, Woo-Ju Chu, and family during the 1950s and settled in Scarsdale, Westchester County.

Shen worked in the shipping business. During the 1970s, Shen and his wife donated the land for the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock.

Shen is part of the Buddhist Association of the United States. He donated 125 acres for the Chuang Yen Monastery in Kent and money for worship halls and a library housing more than 70,000 Buddhist books. He also donated a Bronx church to the Buddhist Association, gave land for a San Francisco Buddhist society and founded the Institute for the Advanced Studies of World Religions, based in the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He lives at Chuang Yen Monastery.

Statistics on American Buddhists are unreliable and range from 1 million to 6 million practitioners, according to ''Buddhism in America,'' by Richard Hughes Seeger. The U.S. Census Bureau does not track religion numbers. One 1997 survey estimated between 2.2 to 3.2 million Buddhists in immigrant communities and 800,000 converts in America.

The form of Buddhism prevalent in America today is strikingly different from the 19th-century version which focused more on religious theory, Scheible said.

''Buddhism is coming and it's not the Buddhism of ideas. It's practice,'' she said. ''A lot of Americans seek Buddhism out to correspond with. People who are seeking spirituality adopt Buddhist practices for their own purposes.''

Worshipping together

The landscape is becoming more complex, she said, because Asian and Asian-American Buddhists raised in the tradition are worshiping increasingly with converts, sometimes at the same temples.

When Kagyu Thubten Choling opened in Poughkeepsie, Norlha noted most worshippers came from New York City.

Gradually, local support for the monastery increased and they started offering weekly meditation and Tibetan-language classes. The monastery also developed a bond with nearby Sheafe Road Elementary School and opened its doors to classes from Dutchess Community College, Marist College, Vassar College and the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Ani Yeshi Palmo, formerly Peggy Turco, said she grew up in a Catholic household and was a naturalist before she took her vows eight years ago.

She admired the openness she found at the monastery and liked how the religion tied in with respecting the environment. ''I was quite young, but I had questions about the meaning of life and they were very open to help me with that curiosity, and I hadn't found that attitude anywhere else,'' she said.

Keith Luck, 35, a visitor from Portsmouth, Va., said the religion makes sense because it requires him to question his teachers and see if their ideas were valid. ''You don't just accept on faith,'' he said.

One notable change he experienced during his stay was the ability to be at peace. ''It will change your personality. I quit looking for things outside myself -- I quit trying to blame others for my problems,'' he said. ''Meditation helps control my anger.''

In Woodstock, Tom Schmidt, director of operations of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery, said he became interested in meditation and eastern philosophy while studying engineering and jazz during the 1960s.

Schmidt was raised as a Roman Catholic, but he found Buddhism appealing because it allowed him to keep his prior beliefs. ''Being a Buddhist, one doesn't have to throw one's past away. That doesn't mean we have any disrespect or disbelief in the religions we believed in,'' he said.

He met his wife at the monastery and visited Beijing and Tibet with the lamas in 1999. He intends to return to Tibet this summer.

Small groups attract followers

Some worshippers, like Patricia Hunt-Perry, prefer worshipping in small religious communities, or sanghas. Some groups, such as Hunt-Perry's sangha, gather in less-formal settings such as homes and offices.

Hunt-Perry, leader of the Budding Flower Sangha in Newburgh, said the organization meets twice a week in a farmhouse and draws 40 to 50 members, many of whom are new or converted.

A former college professor, Hunt-Perry was introduced to the religion when she interviewed Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a peace activist and poet who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King. Hunt-Perry founded her sangha in 1991 and she became a dharma teacher in 2002.

Much more formal than the sanghas is the Buddhist Association-run Chuang Yen Monastery, a 225-acre cluster in Putnam County with worshipping halls, dining facilities and monastic and lay residencies.

The Great Buddha Hall was designed by architect I.M. Pei. The hall can accommodate 2,000 people and contains the largest Buddha statue in the western hemisphere surrounded by 10,000 smaller statues.

Henry Chang, Buddhist Association secretary, said the monastery primarily attracts Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans from the metropolitan area and has more than 100 visitors on weekends.

The membership list has 700 names, a majority of them senior citizens. The monastery is trying to expand the congregation to include more Americans and second-generation Asian Americans.

The library contains books from all three Buddhist schools of thought and monks and nuns from the different schools live there.

While the spiritual ideals are the same for everyone, Chang, an IBM research manager who came from Shanghai, fears some non-Asian people who visit the monastery view Buddhism as part of a New Age phenomenon. ''They want to experience it, learn about it. They feel there is a lot of mystery they can explore,'' the Westchester County resident said.

Many Chinese and other Asian immigrants from Buddhist countries have a deeper understanding and pride in the religion as part of a cultural institution, Chang said.

The current struggle, he said, is grappling with the second and third generations and convincing them to stay the course and keep the faith.


525 B.C.: Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince born in a part of India that is now modern-day Nepal, gives up a life of privilege, attains knowledge and becomes the Buddha, or Enlightened One. He teaches others until his death.

260 B.C.: Mauryan King Ashoka, ruler of parts of southern India and Persia, converts to Buddhism and sends missionaries throughout the country and overseas to Syria, Egypt, Macedonia and Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka converts to Buddhism.

200s B.C.-1800s A.D.: Buddhism spreads across Asia in countries such as Burma, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Tibet, Thailand and Vietnam.

1844: Buddhism gains interest in America when writer David Henry Thoreau publishes a ''Lotus Sutra'' excerpt in a New England transcendentalist journal. Other writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman also are influenced by the religion.

1853: First Buddhist temple in San Francisco founded by Sze Yap Company. Other temples follow.

1875: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott form Theosophical Society in New York City, an important link between East and West.

1882: Chinese Exclusion Act limits immigration. More acts come in the following decades to restrict other Asian immigrants.

1899: Buddhist Mission to North America, forerunner of Buddhist Churches of America, the oldest institutional form of Buddhism in America, is founded in California.

1932: Dwight Goddard, former Protestant missionary, publishes ''The Buddhist Bible,'' an anthology of Theravada and Mahayana materials that influences Beat writers.

1950-60s: Zen Buddhism spreads in America. D.T. Suzuki teaches Buddhism at Columbia University, influencing academic and literary figures. Alan Watts, a former Episcopal priest, publishes ''Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen.'' Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg publish Buddhist-influenced works.

1964: The Buddhist Association of the United States, the largest Chinese Buddhist association in metropolitan New York, establishes headquarters in Bronx.

1965: The Immigration and Nationality Act removes immigration quotas. The number of immigrants from Buddhist counties rises.

1978-1980: Several Buddhist monasteries are founded in the mid-Hudson Valley, beginning with the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery, founded in the Town of Poughkeepsie, followed by Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock and Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper.

1981: Construction on Chuang Yen Monastery in Kent, Putnam County, begins. Chuang Yen, which is run by the national Buddhist Association, is formally dedicated by the Dalai Lama in May 1997.

Source: ''Buddhism in America'' by Richard Hughes Seager, The Buddha Dharma Education Association Web site,

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