“EVERY DAY I work like this takes five days off my life," grumbled the worker amid a cloud of fiberglass and marble dust as he scoured the bottom of a colossal head of Vairocana Buddha with a power sander. Later that day a large crane hoisted the enormous head onto the torso, completing the 45-foot sculpture. The monumental statue—the largest of its kind in Europe or North America—will form the centerpiece of a new five-million dollar Great Buddha Hall at Chuang Yen Monastery, a Chinese Pure Land Buddhist center located in a forested area of Putnam County in southern New York State. When completed, the Great Buddha Hall will reach an apex of over 70 feet, enclose nearly 24,000 square feet, and seat a capacity of 2,000 devotees. Eventually to be surrounded by a walkway and a moat with foot bridges, the temple must be built around the monumental sculpture of Vairocana. The statue itself will rest upon a platform replicating a lotus blossom in which will be carved 10,000 smaller statues of the Buddha.
With the Great Buddha Hall as its crown jewel, Chuang Yen is the vision of layman C.T. Shen, a retired Chinese businessman and founder of the Buddhist Association of the United States. In 1975 Shen donated 125 acres of his own property to start the monastery and he has funded much of its subsequent development. The center has grown to include Kuan-yin Hall, a temple housing a rare Chinese statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Woo Ju Memorial Library, which contains one of the largest collections of Asian religious materials in the country, a memorial burial terrace, refectory, and living quarters for resident monks—all built in traditional T'ang Dynasty architectural styles.
The center attracts busloads of Chinese Buddhists from New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and beyond. Like Shen himself, the Chinese sangha is comprised of mostly first generation, well-educated middle-class laypeople. With its traditional art and architecture, the monastery, along with a sister center called the Temple of Enlightenment in New York City, seeks to provide a refuge for Chinese Buddhist emigrants to congregate with other Pure Land practitioners throughout the Northeast.
At the same time, Chuang Yen is also home to a number of European-American students. In a certain sense the monastery is a "beginners' center," sponsoring programs designed to introduce students to the plurality of Buddhist traditions. Instructors from all of the various schools of Buddhism have taught at the center, including Philip Kapleau Roshi, Robert Thurman, and the Dalai Lama (who was the guest of honor at the dedication ceremony for the Great Buddha Hall in 1991). As program coordinator Richard Backsa notes, practitioners are exposed to both the differences as well as the universalities underlying Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada Buddhism so that they may choose a particular practice that matches their personal needs.
Basic cultural disparities seem to separate the Chinese and European-American groups at Chuang Yen, however, and there is little interaction between them. While a few Chinese members attend book discussion and morning meditational sessions with the European-Americans, Chuang Yen is ultimately a divided Buddhist community. Services, for example, are held in separate languages and often in different buildings on the monastery grounds. Shen attributes the split between East and West to a language barrier, for few members of the Chinese sangha speak English.
In an effort to break down the cultural barriers between the two groups it is not incidental that Shen chose Vairocana Buddha as the subject for the enormous statue in the Great Buddha Hall. As the Universal, or Cosmic Buddha, Vairocana is displayed in the mudra of peace and represents the unity underlying all Buddhist practices. Shen hopes that the Great Buddha Hall, when complete, will help to foster a certain sense of solidarity not only among all of the practitioners at Chuang Yen but also between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in the larger community. "I believe that for all Buddhists the basic teaching is identical," says Shen. "Everyone is the same, there should be no discrimination. You should be compassionate and friendly to everyone.'"
Images by Douglas Winiarski